In the summer of 1986 my brother got cancer. We found out after coming home from summer camp. He didn’t feel very well and he slept a lot so my Stepmom took him to see a doctor. My Dad said it was a growth spurt but I knew something was wrong. My brother and I loved summers and we’d spend every moment of the day outside shooting hoops, fishing, or riding dirt bikes. That summer he spent most of his time going to doctors to have tests taken, and I spent my days in front of the TV.
By the time school started that fall he was living at the hospital. I still had to go to school. Just about every evening we would finish our dinner and go and see him. At first it seemed like he would be home soon, like he may just get up out of the hospital bed and come home. But by Thanksgiving I knew better. He looked small in his bed, shriveled and pale and curled up in a tangle of sheets. He was shrinking. He reminded me of a baby bird, newly hatched.
His room was on the third floor of the hospital with a window by his bed. The window looked out over a sitting area for patients who were well enough to sit there. He used to watch the people, wearing hospital gowns and wheeled out for a few minutes to smoke. He watched the birds too. They filled the trees that fall, hundreds of them landing on the barren branches and then suddenly flying off in a giant swirl. My brother told me that he tried to count them but they never stayed long enough.
For Christmas my Stepmom decorated my brother’s hospital room. She bought a small tree and some tinsel at the grocery store on our way to see him. The decorations looked out of place among the wires and machines hooked up to his frail body. We tried singing a couple Christmas songs but my heart wasn’t in it. My brother just stared out the window as the birds lined up neatly on a nearby power wire.
The last time I saw him alive was the day after New Years. My Dad and my Stepmom dropped me off at the hospital because they had something to do. I sat in Denny’s room for a long time and never said anything. We both just looked out the window. There were no birds that day and the sky was grey and empty and cold.
“No birds today,” I said finally. He looked at me.
“They are waiting for me.” His face softened and he closed his eyes. “They are waiting…”
My brother was 16 years old when he flew away.