The accounts described in this article are based on my recollection of events and does not include every detail. Any incorrect depictions or inaccuracies can be attributed to defects in memory and/or the time between the occurrences and writing of this article.
Ten years ago, on August 16, 2009, I was woken by a pounding on my door.
“Zachary! Zach-ar-y!!!” yelled my mother. “You have to get up!! It’s your brother!! An ambulance is on its way. He’s not doin’ well.” Seconds later, I heard more pounding followed by a repeat of the same message but into the doors of my brother’s and sister’s rooms.
Before I sat up, still stuck in that state between sleep and wakefulness, I fumed quietly into my pillow. It was still early and I hated being woken up, especially since I had nothing to do that day. I slowly turned to plant my feet on the carpet and sat there for a moment, wondering what the problem was this time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first scare we’d been through with my brother and me being naive, a bit arrogant and in denial, figured it wasn’t going to be the last.
I gradually shook myself awake, moved from the bed and put my pants on before walking out the door.
The first stop, one of the many decisions I regret of that day, was to the bathroom. I relieved myself without rushing then wandered into the master bedroom where my youngest brother, Nicholas, laid motionless. Suddenly, my anger was gone and replaced by an emotion I had never felt before. Something I still can’t describe.
Fear is the only word that comes close to defining what I felt in that instant. It was as though reality and I were meeting for the first time and it brought along uncertainty, desperation, and perhaps worst of all, truth. For the first time ever, I felt mortality. The gravity of which weighed heavily on me; left me numb.
I’d seen death before, but only the end result. This time, reality forced me to face it head-on.
Time kept moving but not me, and not Nicholas. I was stuck. Something seemed to have risen from the ground and melded my feet with the carpet—they became part of it. My brain was empty, my resolve low, and if anyone said anything to me I didn’t hear it.
Tubes ran along the side of the bed and several bottles of medication covered an old nightstand. That long rod that pumps fluid into an IV was by his side but I don’t remember if it was being used. Little brown spots of blood stained the mattress and sheets.
His face and body were swollen, weak, and sunken as if someone glued saggy brown skin to a skeleton.
The blood being pumped from my heart felt like fire and it was racing right into my brain, clouding everything. Awareness of time was returning but my legs continued to buckle. I don’t why. I wanted to move closer, to tell him something or let him know I was there, but couldn’t. I’m ashamed to say that I just stared at him.
Mom and dad were running around barking demands at each other, and me, but nothing registered. Not to sound like a cliche’ but my ears rang and my grip on reality slipped as if I stepped in-between time and space.
I try to remember more about Nicholas’ appearance during that moment but my mind blocks it. I don’t see many details anymore, just faded shadows or a smeared image where his face and body should be. It’s almost as though I’m trying to look at him from the bottom of a dirty swimming pool without my glasses and the water keeps swirling.
It wasn’t until my brother and sister exited their rooms I finally snapped out of the stupor I was in.
I remember saying something to my siblings when they walked in but can’t recall what it was. The ambulance arrived shortly after and we followed it to the first hospital as soon as we finished getting dressed and grabbing our things.
Nurses and doctors entered and exited his room constantly. They hooked him up to what seemed like every machine in the hospital, prodded him with giant needles I’d only seen in my nightmares, and exhausted every resource they could spare. The nurses wisped by without giving us a second glance. It was strange. I was used to them being lighthearted and reassuring, but I saw nothing on their faces except desperation.
Even the doctor calling the shots looked defeated.
It was in those moments I came to understand there was no avoiding reality. There was no running from a truth I had feared for years:
My brother, who was only five years old, was going to die.
I turned to my siblings and said honestly, “Prepare yourselves…this is it.” They looked back at me and said nothing (at least, I don’t remember if they did).
I was strangely composed given the circumstances. Perhaps a part of me was still in denial or sub-consciously staying strong for the ones counting on me. Either way, our parents were pre-occupied with what was going on so someone needed to step up.
After a while, we were allowed to go in and visit with him but not for long as they planned on transferring him to another hospital via helicopter. It was quiet then. The immediate threat to his life had been subdued, for the moment, and we had a chance to take a breath. Everything slowed down as the machines hummed and beeped. Cautious optimism, or dare I say some semblance of hope, returned as my family discussed who planned to go with who. Some of us, myself included, were to ride with our uncle, Jerry.
We told Nicholas we’d see him later and it was on to the next hospital.
None of us had eaten and it was already the early afternoon so we quickly made a stop through Arbys’ drive-through. Food helped raise my spirits, and the thought that Nicholas just might make it out alive started to gain traction. I think I was even able to crack a smile or two on the way.
The trip took about an hour, maybe more, by car. When we arrived, we took the elevator to the pediatric ward and when we made our way down the hall, I was feeling pretty good. I pushed reality away again and nothing was going to allow it to win.
But when I turned the corner around the drape to Nicholas’ room, reality sat there, waiting for me.
I once again found myself between time. And chaos was there with me.
This memory is clear as day but it all feels like one moment. The events that follow took a bit of time but it’s as if every word, movement, and action happened all at once.
Do you know that feeling when you think you’re about to puke and your mouth gets watery and it feels like liquid chunks are going to burst from your throat? Imagine that but instead, someone squeezes your windpipe just as it’s about to reach the point between your tongue and throat. Nothing comes up so the vomit sits there, warm and chunky. You try to push but it won’t go anywhere. You try to breathe but no air goes in or out. You’re left to just heave and gag but you’re body forgot how to do both. All you can do is stand there, wishing for air as your eyes swell with tears and your consciousness fades.
That’s what happened when I first saw him.
I don’t know what occurred in the time they lifted him in the helicopter to the time we arrived, but I didn’t recognize my brother. It looked like someone had taken a sack of bricks and beat every inch of his body until he was barely clinging to life. His eyes were swollen shut, his skin was black, blue, and puffy and his entire body was inflated (I’m not trying to be funny but he looked like a lumpy popcorn bag that was about to burst).
He did not look that way when we left, and for many years, the image of that scene replayed itself when I closed my eyes.
It only took a second for me to register what was happening to him but it felt like an eternity.
My dad, who was either seated or on his knees next to the bed, turned to us. He said something but once again, I heard nothing. His face was red, his eyes were even redder, but the worst part was the look of defeat behind it all. It wasn’t just defeat…I saw failure, or what he likely considered to be failure. It may not be true, but I could feel that he believed he let Nicholas down. As if the leukemia that ate him was somehow his fault. I could feel the same emotions radiating from my mother when she arrived shortly after us.
They both felt helpless. We all did.
I was on the other side of the bed, holding Nicholas’ hand when she came into the room. I’ll never forget the sound of agony coming from her voice when she exclaimed, “Oh my God, Joe…what happened to him?!?!”
It was the sound of a broken heart—of bitterness and remorse. The sound of a soul in torment from facing a mountainous loss.
The next few moments felt chaotic to me.
Other members of our family trickled in as my mother wailed, asking God for help. My father begged Nicholas not to go, not to leave him, us, and everyone else wept quietly behind us. Eventually, the doctor pumping air into Nicholas’ lungs started hinting that our time was running out. Softly he’d say, “It’s okay. It’s time to let him go. He’s ready to go.”
No one wanted to hear him. No one was ready for it to be true.
I rubbed Nicholas’s tiny swollen hand with my thumb and whispered, “Don’t be scared, buddy. You can let go. It’s okay.” I don’t know if he heard me in all the commotion but I held his hand for as long as I could before I broke down.
When I did finally let go, I turned to my Auntie Donna and buried my head into her chest. Sweet tears poured from my eyes and I heaved and sobbed harder than I ever had in my life.
It was in those seconds when the doctor announced he was gone.
There was nothing but emptiness afterward. My heart drowned itself in grief and hid from all other emotions as a defense mechanism. It sunk itself to protect me from feeling that way ever again. Sometimes, I feel it’s still buried beneath the ocean floor, keeping what’s left of it away from harm.
It has taken years, and countless failed attempts, to recover from this loss. But the pain never goes away.
It only changes slightly as the severity of it can never match that of the day, the second, he left this world. No high can reach it, no low can burrow beneath. It doesn’t dissipate. It only shifts and nothing has felt the same since.
The hollowness is often ignored because all other pain is not pain. It’s weaker or diluted. It’s almost like it isn’t felt but it’s still there, poking at you from a distance. Like a shadow, it can’t be shaken and is bound to you forever. It’s not always out or visible but it is there, lingering, stalking you.
Happiness didn’t, and still doesn’t, feel like happiness anymore. I hardly remember what it was really like before, but I know it felt better than it does now. It existed, I know that much, and I still sense it in waves but like my pain, it’s diluted.
It wasn’t until after the funeral I started feeling like someone changed a tint setting in my eyes by increasing the amount of grey. Everything within my vision was covered by a veil or the greyscale was amplified by ten. The colors have gradually returned but the grey is stilI prominent. All things and all experiences are filtered through this new lens as if its only purpose is to stop me from experiencing too much joy—like a strainer. The strainer leaves guilt, pain, and sorrow intact but only a few flakes of other emotions remain.
Time became an enemy and it made me angry.
Despite efforts to hit the pause button, time forced me to move forward. With each passing day, I asked myself how am I going to be able to keep going. The more days that came and went, the more it felt like an impossibility of me getting through the next.
Somehow, the pain felt worse months later because that’s all there was…time to think about it. Nothing matches that fateful day but I became fixated on it, like a drug or addiction. The world (time) moves on, indifferent, as though nothing happened. But my world ended. At least, the world I knew ended.
And it doesn’t care. It just keeps turning; unfazed, unmoved, and uncaring by a loss that is of no significance to it. Being part of this new world grief and time put me in, the loss felt more like theft and the item taken is irreplaceable. The thief took him from me, never to be seen again. The greed our world exudes is unmatched, taking back the very gift it gives to us, greedily using our bodies and pain to feed its never tiring hunger for nourishment.
Nicholas’ life was not defined by his death.
There was so much more to his story, his life, than the loss of it. I’ll write more about him someday but just know that he had a light about him, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Here was this kid, who spent most of his days in a hospital bed, who smiled, laughed, and loved like nothing was wrong. Unfortunately, his light dimmed and faded, and any light my family had left shattered and was buried with him. But as the years pass, we’ve been able to catch glimpses of it and put some of the light back together.
The memory of the warmth in his smile has been the glue.
His passing impacted me greatly but not as much as his life did. It taught me how to find hope even when odds, statistics, and god seem to be working against you. It taught me the importance of smiling and how it can lift the spirits of others. His pain and suffering were tremendous and he was dealt a shitty hand, but he too found ways to keep smiling.
Most importantly, he showed me and everyone who ever came into contact with him, love. Amidst all the darkness around us and the suffering we experienced, external and internal, no one needed to say it…he loved us and we loved him indefinitely—it was only in death I truly understood how much.
Lessons to be learned.
Life keeps going but the sorrow is not forgotten. It’s processed and eventually, it’s understood. Time forces you forward, to keep living in spite of your entire will telling you to give in, to give up. But you wake up each day a bit stronger and with a bit more urgency to love and be loved as you know that pain is waiting; it will return.
You’ll sometimes question if it’s even worth the pain but it is…it’s evident in our desire and our longing for the only thing that fights against the pain: love. It takes some of us longer to realize it but eventually, that becomes the truth.
The night before Nicholas passed, my dad and I fought. We were selfish; trying to process, grieve, and cope without knowing how to. We all knew what was happening to my brother, his son, but none of us would’ve admitted it verbally. We were so angry…so full of pain. No one wrote any guidelines that could’ve prepared us for how to deal with something like that.
We apologized to each other moments after Nicholas passed. Our dispute seemed so trivial, so stupid and insignificant after what we’d just witnessed. I realized how much of my time was (and still is) spent on senseless matters that mean nothing compared to the fragility of life. Each moment is significant and I have squandered too many of them focusing on inconsequential things—materials, self-indulgence, and petty, narrow-minded matters.
A life lesson was learned when we hugged.
Which brings me to the point I’m trying to make in this article.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought I’d share this story because even though he’s gone, I am so very thankful for the time I had with him. Of course, I wish I had more, but we cannot spend our lives wishing for things that may never, and will never come. Being thankful for this moment, right now, is what matters most in this life.
I am still broken over his loss but am thankful for the lessons it has taught me.
No matter how tragic or painful or lost you may feel in this life, it is still yours to make the best of. Someday, we’ll wake up and the things we cared for most or took for granted will be gone. We must recognize our impermanence and appreciate them while we’ve got em.’
Keep moving forward, appreciate the love you have while you have it!
Before you go!
I’m interested to read your thoughts on the matter and will be diligent in responding so please be sure to voice them in the ‘Comments’ section!
Lastly, Awesome news! My book, Through the Devil’s Eyes, is now available on Amazon! If you enjoy my writing or are interested in a story about God and the Devil fighting over our souls then you should check it out (both ebook and paper copies are available!)!