My mom tells me to meet her on the art museum steps at nine this morning for my brother’s race, but she neglects to tell me how hard it is to find her and the rest of my family. The cab pulls up a block away from the Philadelphia Art Museum, with the steps waiting in front of me in the distance. I have a block to take in the beauty of this situation and the bittersweet emotions filling the air, but still a block won’t be long enough—not for two years worth of painfully bottled up feelings, anyway. It’s almost a summery morning for the beginning of November. The sun is glimmering gently in the sky, delicately laying its rays on the sea of people blanketing the steps and bouncing the light off their backs like a glowing horizon. The crisp breeze brushes warmly through my long, brown hair and against my right cheek and sends a slight chill down my back. I pull my sweater tighter around my shoulders and continue to walk, faster now. I’ve been waiting a while for this day, and I’m so happy it has finally come.
I clench my cell phone tighter in my hand as I near the edge of the steps, waiting for my mom to return my missed call. People rush by me hurriedly, mingling and chattering and changing into their team shirts colored accordingly as they disappear amongst more people into the thick crowd in front of me. I’m standing by the registration booth at the bottom left-hand corner of the steps, watching as lines of people form around the park in front of the art museum. Usually waiting in lines is a miserable affair, but not today. These people are indeed quite anxious—but more so anxiously excited, their faces beaming as they hug and embrace loved ones when they spot them out of the crowd and finally reconnect with them. We’re all here for the same reason—the same cause—the same race for hope. We know what it’s like to wait, but we all know that waiting isn’t the worst part. Maybe that’s why we don’t mind it. As the line grows and builds further and further down the park, the people begin to blend in with the slowly moving cars passing by in the distance, as Philadelphia’s skyscrapers line the exterior of the park in the background and shield it from the rest of the world.
My phone buzzes, and I slowly part ways through the mob as my mom tells me to meet her at the top of the stairs. Look for the B Team sign, she says. A siren sounds in the distance, and swarms of green tee shirts flock to the black asphalt at the bottom of the steps—the first heat. I’m late. I make my way past the table filled with fresh bananas and apples and pears, even though I haven’t had breakfast. I smell the freshly brewed coffee, the mouthwatering chestnut aroma that I so desperately long to taste trickling down the back of my throat. But I couldn’t stop now—not with the race already beginning. The stairs are becoming harder and harder to climb as people nudge and shove and try to pass through. I can’t see anything in front of me anymore, so I decide to look up. Then I see it.
The blue sign waves proudly in the air, standing out amongst the signs created by other teams. The words “The B Team” are stenciled in black, heavy marker. I feel a shocking spark ignite and disperse throughout my body. Even after all this time, I can still break down into tears at any minute. The words—the meaning of the words combined—still have so much power behind them…so much power over me, still.
I slide my way past a young couple hugging, a smile spread over my face as I jump into my mom’s arms.
“I missed you so much,” I say.
“We missed you, too, Natty,” she says. “How was your flight?”
I pause for a second and look at my mom for the first time since August, when I left to go back to college in North Carolina. She’s still as strikingly beautiful as ever, exotic even, with black hair and olive skin, dark brown eyes and a piercing smile. As I look at her, I only hope to take after her when I reach that age and can guess I would, for I’m told I resembled my mother now, only in my twenties. I notice her hair has grown down to her shoulders, and her eyes no longer leave traces of redness and swollenness, their corners wrinkling when she smiles, as they do now when she smiles at me and runs her fingers through my hair. I see a part of her that I had been knocked out of her like a strong gust of wind when we got the bad news, but now returns in full force since receiving the good news—her happiness.
“My flight was okay,” I say. “I couldn’t sit still, though. I was so excited to be here with everybody…to be apart of this.” I look past my mother at the rest of my family behind her. My dad, my other three brothers, my brother’s fiancé, my aunts, uncles and cousins are all gathering around me, waiting to give me hugs and kisses.
“I’m so happy you guys are all here,” I say.
“We wouldn’t miss this for the world,” my aunt Nina says, giving me a hug. “We’ve been through this with you all every step of the way.”
“We’re here to support you guys and your brother on this big day,” my aunt Barb chimes in, kissing my cheek.
“This is a good day,” my mom says, looking on at the people dispersed before us. “The bad days are over.”
I look out among the people too, watching as the second heat gathers on the asphalt under the National Brain Tumor Society banner mounted like an awning at the starting line. The racers stretch and warm up for their turns to take part in the fundraising and awareness run—the run held every year just to celebrate those who have died from brain tumors, those who have survived, and those who are still fighting from brain tumors.
“Where’s Billy?” I say to my mom.
“He’s already running,” she says.
“But, why? Did you guys not run because of me? I’m only ten minutes late.”
“No, you’re fine,” my mom says. “He’s already running…” She stops and closes her eyes, slowly reopening them and clearing her throat before she continues on. “He’s already running because he’s in the survivor category.” She whispers now, “He’s a survivor.”
My brother Billy is the optimistic one in the family. He is the oldest of five kids—the one who is strong and independent, and the leader and parent of my three brothers and me. He is extremely intelligent, attending the University of Richmond for undergraduate school and then later Villanova University to continue his masters in chemistry. Billy likes to analyze things, combine things together for possible fixes, discoveries, outcomes. That’s why he is so good at chemistry, I suppose. He’s always searching for the answer to a question when it seems it doesn’t have one, weighing in all possible sides and options and variables. He finds joy in being meticulous. He likes things done the right, proper way. He doesn’t have time to mess around in his field when he’s trying to create new drugs that could possibly save people’s lives. He takes his profession seriously. There isn’t time for any mistakes—especially in chemistry. So naturally, when he was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor during his last year of graduate school two years ago, Billy didn’t have time to mess around, the doctors said.
With another blast from the siren, the second heat takes off. I take one final look at the park from the top of the steps and follow my family as they start to make their way down them. My dad comes up next to me as we reach the bottom step and walk towards the starting line, placing his arm around my shoulders.
“Are you excited to see your big brother?” he asks me.
“I’m beyond excited, Dad,” I say. “You have no idea. I don’t think I’ve seen him since I left for school in August.”
“He’ll be happy to see ya, Nat,” my dad says, squeezing me tighter and looking around, taking in the situation. “I can’t believe it’s been so long already since all of this happened.”
“I know,” I say silently. “I can’t believe it even happened.”
I still remember the night my parents broke the news to the rest of the family, even though they, themselves, and of course Billy, were still in shock, only finding out hours before. I was a junior in high school, and I wanted to spend the night at my friend’s house, but my aunt who was watching us for the night said no. She said my parents had important news to tell us when she gathered my brothers and me in the living room. It was cold outside, and the trees in our front yard scratched against the windows, making the most awful screeching noises. But the inside of the room was unbearably hot, like it knew the gravity of the situation, the itching, combustive anticipation we all had and the fiery, smothering bomb that was about to be dropped on us.
I sat on the step of the unlit fireplace by myself, while my two little brothers took a seat on both sides of my aunt on the red couch to my left. They were little—they had no idea what was going on. My other older brother Brandon sat on the loveseat to my right, tapping his foot rapidly against the hardwood floor, head nestled in his arms as he bent over. I could only see the blackness of his hair and how it reflected faintly off the overhead lights. The room was dim and had heaviness about it.
When my parents and brother walked in the door, I noticed my dad had to help Billy sit down. And when they were all finally settled, standing in the middle of the room now, my mom began:
“We all know why we went up to New York University Medical Center today. We all know that Billy has been having a hard time walking and moving his arm. So, I’m just gonna tell you what the doctors told us. Nothing is set in stone yet, so I don’t want anyone to get upset. They still have a lot of tests to run, and chances are there might be a positive outcome after all of this.”
I looked at my brother who was sitting on the couch in front of me. His cheeks were red, his eyes red as he looked down aimlessly and emptily. He had gotten really skinny, and he was now not able to move his right arm. He walked with a limp in his right leg. He thought it was nothing—a swollen vertebrae in his back that caused the immobility of his limbs. While my mom talked, I remember staring at his shirt and thinking how well the brown matched with his skin tone and dark, curly hair. But then I snapped back.
“He has a brain tumor,” she said. She continued:
“Billy has a tumor in that’s taking up over fifty percent of his brain stem. There are two cysts growing off it, causing them to put pressure on his nerves and blood vessels surrounding the brain stem. Now they said the only way for them to get rid of it is to operate, but they don’t want to do that because Billy’s chances of dying are very high. It’s inoperable.”
I remember immediately bursting into fits of tears and uncontrollable sobs. I didn’t want to make the situation about me, but I couldn’t swallow what I had just heard. My mom’s voice grew further away, and all I could hear was the pounding of my heart as it pumped blood through my body and up to my head, which was now in my lap and covered by my hands.
“Bill, go give your sister a hug,” my dad said.
Billy struggled to get off the couch, but slowly made his way over to me, putting his arms around me and letting me put my head on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Nat,” he said, managing a smile. His voice quivered. “We’re gonna find a way to get through this. I’m not gonna lie to you and say it’s all going to be fine, but we are going to find a way to deal with this and make sense of this. I promise you.”
My brother Billy and I have always been really close, despite being six years apart. My mom used to say that when I was a baby, Billy would stand over me to try and keep me from anything he saw as a potential threat. He was always wanting to hold me. He was always wanting to kiss the side of my head. He was very protective, as he should be with his baby sister.
As I got older and entered middle school, Billy went off to college five hours away, so it was always special when he came home for holidays. I always anticipated his arrival, waiting at the front door and jumping when I’d see his red blazer pull up in the drive. He’d walk in with his arms full of bags, and I’d snatch his hat off his head—he always had a hat on—and run around the house with it until he would put his bags down and chased me. He hated when I stole his hats because he never wanted them to get ruined, but he played along with it anyway because it was me, and he knew that I just missed him and wanted his attention. And that’s all I always really wanted from him—attention. And he gave it to me. He always made me feel special.
“How long has he been running for?” I say to my mom when we reach the asphalt and join the others on the sidelines screaming and cheering as runners from the first heat pass the finish line. “Is he gonna be done soon?”
“He started running right before you got here, so he shouldn’t be that much longer,” my mom says. She raises her arms and points her elbows to make it easier to work her way through the bystanders to make it to the front of the cluster. “But if he’s not back soon, we’re gonna have to start our heat without him.”
“We can’t do that,” I say. “He has to run with us.” I shudder. I still think it’s weird to think that Billy could run, when he couldn’t for so long.
“We might have to,” she says. “We don’t have a choice.”
Billy knows what it’s like not to have choices, and I still remember the day his choice was made for him. It was a crisp September morning in New York City, and the streets of downtown Manhattan were bustling and crammed with cars and people walking to and fro in swift strides. The sun peaked in between the skyscrapers, shining down on the people as they moved. I could hear the honking all the way from the 24th floor of NYU Medical Center, where Billy had just been wheeled in for brain surgery. We spent the gorgeous day in a waiting room anxiously worrying if he would make it out alive or not.
The cysts coming off the tumor had kept growing, despite constant chemo and radiation. They grew so much, they gave him a brain hemorrhage. When the doctors told him he had to have it removed for any chance of survival, Billy had to do it. They told him it was his only hope. They told him they were doing him a favor by even trying to perform surgery. They told him he probably wouldn’t wake up.
I don’t remember much about that day, mainly because I think a part of me blocked it out. I don’t remember how long the surgery was, even though I watched the sun set behind the Empire State Building. I don’t remember the other families in the waiting room, even though they were there, feeling their own worries and doubts. I don’t remember what the walls looked like, the smell of the coffee, or what was on TV. But I do remember the last few moments we had with him before he was wheeled into the operating room.
The male nurse came and gathered my family and took us to the 6th floor. We crammed into a staff elevator instead of the two main ones because families weren’t usually allowed to do this—to say good-bye outside the actual OR. As the elevator door opened, we saw him lying in a rolling bed out in the narrow hallway. He looked terrible and terrified. White bandages wrapped around his head, covering his ears. His left eye drooped from the cysts pressing against his nerves, and his cheeks were puffy because of the steroids he had been on. He no longer looked like himself. But beyond the physical appearance, he no longer looked confident and sure. He no longer tried to make sense of the situation, or weigh all possible sides, outcomes, variables, or tried to piece things together, or come up with answers when it seemed like there was none. He was afraid. He looked at each of us like he would never see us again, studying our faces while his mind ran rapidly. But even though we all knew he was afraid, he wouldn’t show it. He didn’t want to scare us—for us to be afraid. So he tried to pull it together, and I love him for that.
And although I remember the moment, I don’t remember what was said. I remember we prayed. I remember we all hugged together around him and we cried. I remember my little brother passing out from the stress as he watched the nurse start to wheel Billy away. I remember Brandon making one final joke as the last of Billy’s head went in the door. I remember Billy laughed and smiled before he was completely gone. I remember there were no good-byes said. We told him we would be here when he woke up. And maybe that’s what got him through, because he did wake up—completely fine.
“Look, I think that’s him coming up ahead,” Brandon says, pointing towards the right of the finish line. “There! Right there with the white Phillies hat on.”
The backs of peoples’ heads shield my view of the strip, and I decide to follow my mom’s lead and put my arms in the air and push my way to the front of the crowd to catch a glimpse of my brother coming in at the finish line. I butt in front of a man and trip over his foot, flying me forward an extra step to make me the first in the line along the asphalt. Then I see him.
I see him in his blue B Team tee shirt and black pants, his racing number sticking to his stomach. I see his eyes light up and his smile when he finally notices me. I see him wave at me sturdily with his right arm raised high in the air, his right leg in a smooth stride as it forcefully and strongly hits the ground below him. But beyond the physical appearance, I see my brother—a brave, optimistic, intelligent man. I watch as he takes one long, last lunge across the finish line and walks in my direction.
“Nice race, bro,” I say to him as he nears me. I instantly reach for his hat and lift it off his head.
“Give it back, you little brat,” he says with a smile.