Growing up the only girl and also the middle child stuck between two older and two younger brothers, I always felt a sense of responsibility for my siblings—not so much the older ones because their jobs were to look out for me. But for Joey and Trevor, it was my job to look out for them.
Life was good for a while. We all made it through the first decade of our childhoods completely unscathed and innocent aside from the normal hiccups all kids face. But as life has a way of doing so often, it threw our family a curveball, and tragedy struck when my oldest brother was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor overtaking more than 50 percent of his brain stem. The storm was coming, and for the first time in my life, I was powerless to protect them.
The sun was full and changed shape from when we first arrived early that morning. I watched it peak in between the skyscrapers, its rays flooding the waiting room of the NYU Medical building where I sat with my family for the past eight hours. His scheduled 9-hour surgery was already running an hour longer than expected, and none of us had heard of progress, if any, from behind the doors of the operating room.
“It’s just a little longer,” I heard my dad whisper to my mom. “They want to be careful and precise.”
She nodded her head slowly to show she understood, but her face told another story. She was haggard. Dark circles filled the lining of her eyes to where her smile once reached. The stress from the past two years aged her, and she was worried, on the verge of tears, but trying to hold it together for the rest of her kids. And somehow among the hurt, the pain, the sheer terror of the situation, she still looked breathtakingly beautiful.
My second oldest brother Brandon slouched in the corner with his back to us all. Having our cousin pass away from Leukemia five months before our brother was diagnosed with brain cancer was taking its toll on him emotionally, and he struggled with the situation, wanting to be left alone most of the time. I couldn’t blame him.
Joey was 14 years old when my brother Billy went in for his third and final surgery. Trevor was only 12. They sat together in a row of chairs across from my parents, each playing on their handheld Playstations. They were as good as any teenage boys could possibly be aside from the occasional teasing and horsing around, when Joey snatched Trev’s Playstation, Trevor squealed, and my mom corrected Joey and told them both to knock it off. I smiled every time it happened. It gave me the sense of normalcy we all watched slowly slip away from our lives.
My mind kept drifting back to only hours earlier when we had to say good-bye. I knew it was time when the doors swung open and Billy’s surgeon emerged. He called us back, walking my parents to the employee elevator as my brothers and I filed in behind them. His face was kind and gentle and reminded me of the grandfathers I never knew. It was the first time I met him face-to-face, eye-to-eye, but I somehow trusted him with my brother’s life.
The six of us slowly stepped onto the elevator. My legs felt like anchors. We were directed to go to the fourth floor, and i quietly screamed internally as we waited for the floors to drop—nine, then eight, then seven. When the elevator doors opened after what seemed like a lifetime, I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move. Panic set in, electrical shocks igniting my body from my head down to my feet, my chest gasping for air. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. I wasn’t ready. But then I looked back at my two younger brothers, their faces two of shocking bewilderment.
When we saw Billy, he was laying in a transport bed outside of the operating room doors. The air was cold, and he was chilled to the bone. He was wrapped in a blue blanket. He had gauze circling his head to where his eyes met the folding. He was strangely calm, but I noticed the corner of his brown eyes were wet.
Like my mother instructed us beforehand, we each stepped up, one-by-one, to give him a final hug. We had some small talk. We even laughed. But never did we once say good-bye. Instead, we gathered around my brother’s bed and formed a circle. We joined hands, and we prayed the Our Father with our heads bowed.
It happened when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer. I saw Joey raise his head, his cheeks a ghostly white, the color from his face vanishing. I saw his eyes roll back and his body go limp as my father fell back to catch him. He passed out cold, as Trevor looked on in horror. Two children having to face the painful reality that they may never see their brother again, their innocence, if any left, completely stripped away from them at such impressionable ages.
This past weekend, as my husband and the Cubs flew to Oakland for a three-game series, I made a quick trip home. My parents were having their annual crab fest out back of our house, where all our family, friends and neighbors gather and drink and eat abundantly. But this year’s festivities were a little different. This year, the party had more meaning.
Joey is now 25 years old. His birthday was August 5th. Trevor is now 22 and a recent graduate from Delaware University. The party was to celebrate Joey’s recent birthday and to give Trevor one final send-off before he leaves at the end of August to start graduate school. Although they are both grown men now, I still see those two kids in their faces, especially when they laugh, or bicker, or tease each other, and especially if they are struggling with something.
It’s easy for me to get emotional, but I think that’s what happens when a person has been through so much. No matter how many years go by, the pain of that reality never seems to go away. Sure, it gets easier to deal with. But there’s always that little ping bubbling underneath, waiting to rise to the surface. Because reality is, I never know when the next tragedy can happen. I’ve grown used to expecting it. That’s just the way it is. When a family goes through an ordeal such as cancer, I don’t think the family is ever the same. That period in your life has forever impacted us, whether we choose for it to or not. But it’s how we choose to deal with moving forward that’s the most important and the determining factor of our characters and strengths.
On Sunday night, we gathered around my two youngest brothers with their ice cream cakes. We looked on as they blew out candles, took swigs of beers, smiled for photographs, and most importantly, laughed and enjoyed life with their loved ones. There were no hospital gowns, no good-byes. Nobody fainted from terror. Just pure, happy bliss.
To my younger brothers, I am so proud of the men you have become. You are two of the most caring, considerate, compassionate people I know, and I am so proud of both of you and everything you’ve accomplished thus far in your lives. You’ve seen some of the worst life has to offer but refused to let it define you. And that is the beauty of your journeys.