He died in the winter of 2004 on Christmas Day. It was the first time it snowed in South Texas since February of 1895. It was the first known “White Christmas,” and the last happy Christmas I can remember. I remember my dad’s black beanie with bright orange flames on top of my baby brother’s tiny head hanging loosely, and a black snow jacket bigger than his body keeping him warm. The sight of him made me laugh and smile. We lived in a place where cold was defined as 90 degrees. The mere thought of a good breeze was wishful thinking. But here we stood in inches and inches of snow and watched as the flakes fell gracefully into our hair. I had on layers and layers of clothes and the heaviest jacket I had to keep the biting chill at an acceptable ache. I remember grabbing an old science project tri-fold board and using it as a sleigh over the steep ditches and mounds that surrounded our land. I remember grabbing his small hand and pulling him into a hug, a gesture I didn’t often do. I was reserved, sometimes cold, and usually treated him as annoyance, but on this day I didn’t. He laughed in my hair, curling his body into mine to absorb some of the body heat I had. Mom and dad were beaming at us as they recorded with the old-school video camera. The memory of the cold snow is still as vivid as the feel of tiny arms wrapped around me. He looked up at me as if to say,
“Isn’t it beautiful sissy?”
Our laughs and smiles lit up the Christmas Eve sky. I remember pulling him towards me and kissing his nose and laughed when his nose wrinkled but he smiled anyways.
“I love you sissy,” he giggled, but his voice sounded broken like it hadn’t been used in awhile. My little brother wasn’t much of a talker.
I still responded as I rolled my eyes appearing unaffected but I couldn’t hold back the smile when I said, “I love you too idiot.”
He punched my arm but his little body seemed depleted of strength, but as usual I dramatically grabbed my arm and said, “Damn have you been working out or what? You have the strength of the hulk inside you,” I teased.
He gave me that adorable grin and flexed his five year old arms for effect.
I fell to the ground laughing until my stomach hurt and my eyes watered. It was a good laugh.
I haven’t laughed like that since that day.
“Are you up yet,” My mother yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
“If you want breakfast you better come down.”
I could hear her sigh from downstairs as she headed back into her room to get ready for work. I hadn’t said any words since he died, and it had been ten years. The silence was killing her. I walked out of my room and waited by the door. I breathed deeply and closed my eyes as I passed by his room. Even though my eyes were squeezed shut I could still see the Star Wars action figures decorating his walls, the t-ball baseball trophies surrounding his shelves, the Harry Potter comforter that still covers his twin bed, and the purple lightsaber that if you open has dents and scratches from hours and hours of playing Jedi duels. But my eyes didn’t have to be open to see those things. They were forever imprinted in my mind but I didn’t open my eyes until I reached the stairs. And I didn’t dare look back to his room. I didn’t feel like crying that day. I hated crying. It was all I ever did.
As I entered the kitchen, I noticed it was empty. Mom and dad were still in their rooms discussing the day’s schedule and who would pick me up from swim practice. I dropped my backpack on a nearby chair and grabbed the box of CAP’N CRUNCH cereal and milk from the fridge and placed them on the table. I then opened the cabinet to get a bowl when I saw it. His Star Wars cup staring at me. I should’ve noticed how it was odd that it was placed in the front of the cabinet, but I didn’t. It was an ordinary cup. Plastic. Nothing rare or special about it except that it was his. I don’t know how long I stayed there and stared, but eventually my mom whispered,
“Baby?” knocking me out of my daze.
I shook my head to tell her everything was fine and tried to smile back but I couldn’t.
She gave me a sad smile and a nod before she stepped toward me arms stretched for a hug. I quickly cleared the food off the table and grabbed my backpack. I was trying to create distance.
I stood by the chair and tried to appear normal.
“It’s okay if you miss-
I shook my head violently. I hated when people mentioned him because then it just made me remember he wasn’t here anymore. I wanted her to know the truth, that I lived in pain every day, but I also wanted her to think everything was fine, so she’d drop it.
She sighed and shook her head as my dad walked into the kitchen and grinned at me.
“Morning baby girl.”
I remember forcing a smile that I knew definitely didn’t reach my eyes, but hey I tried.
He could tell something was off by the tilt of his head but he didn’t pursue it. He knew nothing would come out of that.
“Have a good day at school. Love you baby girl.”
He stepped forward slightly for a hug but knew his mistake and quickly stepped back. He paused clearly thinking of something to say to ease my uneasiness, but just smiled. I nodded slightly as a response and headed outside where it was safe and I could wait for mom without company or questions. I heard them talking but I could only catch a few words and phrases: “give her space…., it’s been 10 years…. I don’t think…., she doesn’t talk…., she won’t even let me…., we lost her too.” But I understood it was better if I didn’t listen so I walked further away from the house until mom walked out with a fake smile and motioned for me to get in the car. I remember opening the passenger door to the Tahoe stepping in and then slumping in my seat.
Just another day.
As I entered school it was the same thing. A place I have to pretend that life is great, and I am beyond happy. Everyone knows the story of my little brother. We live in a small town of 1,000 people. Everybody knows everybody’s business. When my little brother died many fellow students, teachers, and school administrators came to the house and funeral to pay respects, people I didn’t even know, people he didn’t even know. But I guess death makes people feel weird and uncomfortable so they pay respects and hope it makes the family feel better.
He was only five years old when he died. All of my classmates know the common story of how one day he just collapsed and died. But I remember it rather differently.
We had just gotten home from my grandma’s house. She had passed away three years after my brother so it was one of the last Christmases we had with her too. We always spent Christmas Eve there and that year was no different. We lived in the same house. A house that was two stories high, with yellow fading paint, brown trim, and four bedrooms. We had just got home and opened the front door while laughing about something I can’t recall, and then suddenly my brother couldn’t breathe. He was having an “episode,” or that’s what the pediatrician told us. My little brother commonly passed out whenever he laughed too hard or cried too much. He would pass out from anywhere between 30 seconds to a minute but always woke up. My mom and dad were worried after the first couple times he did this and we continuously went to the doctor, but we always got the same response, “He’s just throwing a tantrum. He’s trying to get your attention. You can’t give in because then he’ll continue to do it once he notices it works.” So we just left well enough alone, because a doctor who nationally known and went to medical school told us to. But unlike usual he didn’t wake up. My dad who was a nurse and never faltered during emergencies was frantically giving CPR to my brother’s limp body. I didn’t know then but my mother and father were shattering to pieces at the sight of him. He finally awoke but his eyes had become glossy, his skin suddenly looked pale and tight, his hair seemed thin and dying. My brother had been sick a long time and we didn’t know.
We got to the hospital and they took him in. The doctor on call there just looked at my brother and then turned to us with wide eyes and asked:
“How long has he looked like this?”
We didn’t understand the question. He had always looked the same to us, but we saw him every day. Though looking back now it’s crazy to think we didn’t notice how my brother’s eyes were sunken in, his skin looked so pale, his hair and nails wouldn’t grow, and he didn’t talk much besides a couple phrases a day. They told us his body would use the tiny energy he had at minimal levels. It was why he hadn’t grown much and why his hair was short and his skin had an unusual look. His body was conserving the little energy it had left. My mother immediately started to cry mentally kicking herself for not seeing that her baby boy was sick, but it wasn’t just her. None of us noticed. We didn’t know there was anything to be worried about. His doctor had never given any indication that anything could be wrong. A few hours later my mother and father were called over by the doctor. He talked and then suddenly grabbed my father’s shoulder as if to emit empathy and console my father briefly. A body racking sob broke through the hospital. It was an ugly, sad, broken cry. It was me. Because I knew from the shocked and inconsolable looks on my parents faces.
My little brother had died.
We were told my brother had died due to a rare blood disease. It was connected to the parvo virus that commonly killed dogs, but this type affected only 1,600 people every year. The doctors called it the Parvovirus B19. It was usually mild in most cases and the symptoms were similar to that of a chest cold, but my brother luckily had the severe and deadly strand. He had just been lucky I guess. The doctors mentioned that he probably had it his whole life or maybe not; they weren’t really sure. All they knew was that it killed my baby brother. The pediatrician who had told us, “he’s just throwing a tantrum,” apologized profusely and tried to explain that it was a rare blood disease and not really his fault as if an, “I’m sorry,” could fix death. I was angry, pissed, lost, and part of me had died.
For the next ten years I had to go to therapy. It was weird being eight and going to therapy to talk about how everything made me feel. The sad thing was I went to the session every day and never said a word. The psychiatrist would sit there, a notepad propped on her lap, smiling at me, hoping one day I’d have enough nerve to open my mouth and speak. But I never did. I stopped going eventually. It had surprised me that the therapist continued to see me all those years even though I had never uttered a word. She seemed to understand I was damaged but despite her knowledge of the mind she couldn’t help me. I just didn’t want to talk. For me talking meant opening up. I had loved my brother and let him in because he was the closest person I had. We had the same blood rushing in our veins, and I knew the secrets I told him would only be between us. I had opened up, and I would never make that mistake again.
“Hey!” Someone yelled as I sat on the high school gym floor waiting for Coach Geo to get there and start swimming practice.
I tilted my head in response and realized the person who had yelled was my best friend Marie. I had known her almost my entire life. She was the only real friend who knew about the personal recollection of my brother’s death. She had known him, and hung out with us so much she had started calling him brother and it just stuck. She was almost family, but still I distanced myself from her. I couldn’t lose another person, but I admired her kindness and how she understood the thoughts that rolled around in my head.
“You ready for practice today?” she asked as she pulled her long brown hair into a bun on the top of her head.
I nodded and gave her a genuine smile. It was the first real one in days.
She simply laughed. She understood my reason for silence and never pushed for me to speak unlike many of our classmates. Shortly after my brother died my classmates and teachers realized I wouldn’t speak. The teachers never pushed me to speak, only giving me small encouraging and sad smiles empathizing with my loss of words. But my jackass classmates couldn’t comprehend my loss. They first started to tease me by saying, “Why can’t you talk? Dead brother got your tongue?” I broke two boys’ noses for that comment, and shortly after they stopped verbally teasing me and just snickered and laughed whenever I walked by.
Marie tapped my arm and pointed at the door just as Coach Geo entered the gymnasium.
“All right girls go get changed,” he yelled.
He smiled at me before we left. He was my favorite coach. He had lived next door to my grandma’s house before she passed away and was there that Christmas my brother died. He had worked alongside my mom for 20 years as a teacher and even was my father’s football coach back in the day. I liked how he knew I was damaged but still saw potential somewhere. I was hopeless but I liked that he hadn’t given up on me yet. My little brother would have liked him.
“Go!” We were down to our last 50 meters of 400m freestyle, my specialty.
“Come on girl. She’s right next to you,” Marie yelled at me from the side of the pool.
My goggles were strapped tightly against my eyes almost cutting of the circulation. The warm water constantly splashed into my mouth as I stretched for each nearing meter. I gasped with each breathe willing my body to keep going. The air smelled of chlorine, sweat, and upcoming victory. I smiled into the water as I neared the finish line knowing I would win when I heard him.
My heart stopped but my body kept moving and suddenly all I saw was darkness.
I awoke on grass. It was freshly mowed and the smell of ripe pomegranates and sunflowers filled the air. I was at home. I was on our property beside the house. But that didn’t really matter; all that did was the young boy who stood before me. He was stocky like my father but taller than him too standing at about 5’10, way taller than me. He had short hair with beautiful curls that were slicked back neatly. He wore a Star Wars shirt with some cargo pants and vans. His brown eyes reminded me of milk chocolate and he looked to be about fifteen years old about the same age my brother should have been. His face was hidden in the sunlight at first but as he walked towards me my whole body froze. His eyes and nose were my mother’s, it was a face I saw every day, and his smile was my father’s, big and welcoming. He tilted his head and smiled as if he knew what I was thinking.
“Hey sissy,” he said. His voice was deep as if puberty had just hit, and his stance was awkward and hesitant as if he were worried he would scare me.
I couldn’t respond at first but after a few moments my voice broke through,
It felt weird to actually talk after years of silence. My voice sounded raspy and broken like it needed water. It felt weird to move my mouth it was like my body had forgotten the process of talking all together. But he was the only person I wanted to talk to.
He smiled and slightly blushed before replying, “Yeah it’s me.”
“How? What? Am I dreaming? Is this real?”
He laughed and it was adorable and dorky all at once. This was definitely my brother.
“Okay Sissy calm down. I know you haven’t talked in a while but one question at a time, and don’t freak out on me,” he chuckled.
“How…how is this possible?”
He paused a moment before answering.
“I needed to see you. I needed to talk to you.”
“I miss you,” I whisper.
“I know. I can see that,” he sadly smiled.
“What do you mean?”
He laughed, “I see you every day.”
Before I could ask him to elaborate he continued, “Sis right now we really are at home. If you reach down and touch the grass you’ll actually feel it in your hands, and the air will really blow in your hair, and the chirping you hear is from real live birds in the trees. This is real.” He stops for a second and looks up to the sky and closed his eyes, but then spoke again,
“In about 5 seconds mom will race down the driveway and get out of the car,” he said and then winked.
As if on cue mom’s Tahoe sped down the road and into the driveway at her usual scary pace. She opened the door, blonde hair flowing in the wind. And as she walked towards the house I screamed,
“Mom, he’s really here! Can you believe it?” As I screamed the pomegranate tree next to me shook rattling the branches and leaves. Mom stared at it, but her eyes didn’t fall in my direction. I looked at my brother for a reaction or explanation and I found him staring at the ground.
“She can’t see us,” he said flatly without looking up.
I went towards mom and touched her shoulder and watched as she shivered but continued to grab her purse from the car without even looking up.
“MOM!” I yelled even though I’m right next to her but my frustration took over.
She looked up at the sky and stared at the birds that chirped loudly above us.
“What’s going on?”
He shrugged and replied,
“She’s not supposed to see us. She’s not with us sis. She’s on a different level of consciousness. She only sees what she’s allowed to see. That’s the tragic part about being dead. The ones you love can’t see you, but you can see them. It’s a beautiful bittersweet gift. And it pains me to know that you can’t see me. You think you’re alone but I walk by your side every day. You just can’t register it the same way. Living people see it as a door being opened by the wind or the breeze in your hair or a chill in the house or even a bird in the sky. Or even an old cup placed in a different spot,” he says and glances up at me looking sheepish but continues, “These everyday things are our way of communicating with you. But you have to pay attention.”
“Why can I see you, but mom can’t? Am…….Am I dead? ” I asked terrified he would say yes and afraid he would say no.
“No sissy you’re not dead. Just unconscious right now.”
“So you can see us all the time?” I asked arms crossed angry that I never thought he was here, but deep down I understood there was no way I could’ve known.
“Well not all the time,” he laughed, “Just cause I’m dead doesn’t mean I don’t have a life.”
I rolled my eyes but couldn’t help the smile that escaped me.
“Well there’s so much I want to tell you and ask,” I elated.
“I know sissy, and I want to talk to you too, but we don’t have all day. I have to get you back in a few minutes actually,” he sighed.
My eyes widened with the realization that he would have to leave me again.
“I don’t want to leave you,” I whispered.
I looked up and his eyes were watering, but he shakes it off.
“I know sissy, but you have too. You can’t stay. Mom and dad couldn’t bear that. If you stay you won’t get to live your life. And I know what your life looks like, and trust me you want to live it,” he smiled and stepped forward. And unlike usual I didn’t step back.
“So you know what my whole life looks like?”
“Yes I know every variation of what your life could be based on choices you will make. And their good lives sissy. Beautiful lives actually,” he smiled as he put his arms around me hugging me. I fell into his embrace happy I could finally touch him and know that he was real. I had missed him so much. Growing up without him was pure agony and I know he understood by the way he laughed as I squeezed him tight.
“You have to let people in Sissy. I know my death was extremely hard on you. You lost your little brother; the person you would have confessed all your secrets and dreams to and played games with, but you shut people out after I died. You haven’t even talked in ten years!” He was exasperated, but I knew he wasn’t mad just worried.
“You went to therapy which didn’t seem to help and you don’t let mom and dad even touch you, and you keep Marie at bay, and she’s your best friend. You can’t keep this wall up forever cause I don’t want that for you sissy. I need you to live a beautiful life and be open and happy and vulnerable. I want life to hurt you and reward you. I know you miss me, and I miss you, but you can’t let that consume you. I will see you again and we will all be together. We will even get to spend time with Grandma and Nana.”
Tears fell at the mention of my beloved grandma and godmother, but he slightly pulled away from me and wiped them away.
“You get to see them every day?”
He smiles and kisses my forehead.
“Every day sissy. And one day we will all get to spend so much time together you might actually grow tired of it,” he laughs, but I can see the water forming in his eyes as he looks down at me.
“So I will see you again?”
He smirks, “Yes sissy.”
He tenses and lets me out of his embrace and slowly breaks into a chuckle while shaking his head,
“Not if I have anything to do about it. We will see each other soon enough sissy. I love you and mom and dad, but I need you all to live the lives you were made for. Yes at first I hated that I didn’t get a chance to even live or fall in love or do anything. When someone you love dies it seems cruel that they are taken away from you, but if you knew the truth you’d understand that it’s not cruel at all. But for right now you’re just going to have to trust me when I say it was all supposed to happen this way. I’ll always be watching you. Seeing you and mom and dad is like watching my favorite reality TV show,” he teases.
I lean forward and kiss his cheek because I know it’s almost time to go. He reaches for my hand and squeezes.
“Mind telling me who I marry, and how many kids I will have or if like there really is a heaven or hell? And if Rey is actually Luke Skywalker’s daughter?” I laugh but genuinely wait for his answer.
He breaks out laughing bending at the waist until he can catch his breath,
“You’re still a dork sissy,” He shakes his head still grinning goofily at my questions.
“Just follow your destiny. I promise it will work,” he winks. “I’ll always be next to you laughing when you fall,” he teases but continues, “and I’ll take care of everyone up here. I love you sissy. Your destiny will be good,” he winks again and gives me a smile that implies he knows something I don’t.
“I love you too,” I smile and then choking water consumes me.
I awake with ten standing girls surrounding me and Coach Geo kneeling next to me. He smiles a relieved smile.
“You scared me for a sec Claire.”
I cough a couple more times, sputtering water until I can finally talk, “Sorry coach I guess I didn’t see the wall.”
His eyes widen and the girls all gasp even Marie’s jaw turns agape at the sound of my voice. But Coach Geo quickly wipes the shock off his face and replaces it with relief and protective concern.
“It’s alright as long as you’re okay,”
“I am now,” I smile and look towards the door and how it mysteriously opens.
It’s only been a day since my “accident,” in the pool. Mom and dad are at the table. Dad is drinking diet coke and eating eggs with bacon as mom reads her kindle.
“Morning,” I beam as I enter the kitchen.
Mom drops her kindle on the counter and dad slightly chokes on his eggs. They glance at each other, eyes wide, and then tentatively smile.
“Good morning baby,” they say in unison, making me laugh in response.
“I actually have to go before I’m late for school again,” I realize.
I quickly kiss them both on the cheek yell, “I love you,” from the door and head to Marie’s waiting car but not before I hear my mom sniffling,
“She’s gonna be okay. She needed time. She’s always been so strong.”
And I smile as I close the front door.
The bell rings seconds after I sit down in my Shakespeare class. Roll call quickly begins, but just as the new teacher says my name, the door opens and a cute boy walks in. He’s wearing a grey Vans shirt, faded blue jeans, a Chicago Cubs baseball hat fitting backwards on his head, black converse and a University of Texas lanyard flowing out of his pocket.
“Sorry I’m late. I just got enrolled,” he says shyly to the teacher.
She smiles and nods’ understanding it’s the first day of class.
“What’s your name?” she asks as she looks to the roll call paper so she can add him.
“Kyle Destiny,” he responds respectably.
My head picks up at his last name and I smile as I think of my brother’s advice, “Just follow your destiny. I promise it will work.”
As Kyle scans the room for a seat, his eyes lock onto mine, and he gives me a small smile before walking towards me and taking the seat behind me. I take a deep breath gathering my courage to talk to the new boy.
I close my eyes and let my brothers words wash over me.
“I need you to live a beautiful life.”
I promise brother I will.