My brother, 15. Me, 10. Me, asking, “Can’t I play baseball with you?”
“No. I’d have to call an ambulance in 5 minutes.”
“Can’t I come watch?”
“No.” He pounds his fist into his glove. Thud. Thud. Thud. “I can’t have any fun when you’re around.”
The door slams. He’s left me behind. Like always.
My brother 16. Me, 11. Really, all the photos of us. Tom poses as far from me as he can. His resentment clear in his slouched shoulders and scowl. Never hugging me. As if he could catch cystic fibrosis.
My brother, 18. Me, 13. My brother’s graduation party last year. Tom and his friends play badminton and basketball, laugh at life, and talk about their futures. The afternoon warm and not humid. Perfect.
But my mucus-laden lungs refuse to pull in the light air. I smile at people as I force my lungs to work, like a blacksmith pumping a bellows harder and harder. But it’s hard to pretend you can breathe when you can’t.
The ambulance comes. Tom’s friends stare. My brother crunches ice so fiercely I can hear it from the stretcher. I’ve ruined yet another day for him—a special day, his day. The party goes on, but I have spoiled it.
My brother, 18. Me, 13. At the airport, the day Tom leaves for Afghanistan. He hugs Mom, who cries. He hugs Dad, whose tight smile tries to hide his fear. He hugs me so hard my already weak lungs almost stop altogether. The first time he’s ever hugged me.
He walks away with a jaunty wave.
“He’s so brave,” says my mother.
“He’s so strong,” says my father.
He’s so scared, I think.
The memories fade away; reality throbs into my brain. I open my leaden eyelids and stare at the sterile white ceiling. How many hospital ceilings have I seen in my 15 years? Too many to remember.
I remember some of them, though, like the one with the water stain shaped like an eye. And the one with the cracks shaped like a horse head. I’d always wanted a room with rabbit-shaped ceiling cracks, like in Madeline, but I never got one like that. The one where the ceiling tile fell down and hit Tom in the head was memorable, though.
Tubes invade my nose and throat. My chest hurts with every ventilator-assisted breath. The machine wheezes with heavy metallic sighs—like a rude prank phone call from Darth Vader. I fight the urge to try to breathe on my own, to breathe against the rhythm of the machine. I know better. The machine is life.
Life. A future. A future I have always dreamed of—but never at this price.
The shooting chest pain has nothing to do with the surgery. I close my eyes and escape into sleep.
My brother, 19. Me, 14. Tom changes in Afghanistan. He starts talking. To me. His letters to Mom and Dad tell cheerful stories of his adventures or the funny things his pals did.
At first his emails to me mirror my parents’ letters. But then one day I email him, “I know you’re scared. And it’s okay.”
Tom doesn’t email back for a long time, and I figure I’ve gotten him so mad he’ll never talk to me again. But when he responds, his emails sound different. He stops protecting me so much. Fear colors his words, but he no longer tries to hide it. Maybe because he knows I understand war in a way my parents don’t. Every day of my life I wage a war against an invisible enemy.
“How do you do it?” he asks one day. “How do you live without going insane, knowing every breath could be your last?”
I think long and hard before I answer. “I try not to think about death. I try to focus on life. As weird as it sounds, you get used to it. It just becomes…normal.”
“How can living with death on your shoulder be normal?”
“Everyone dies, Tom. Death’s just closer for some of us than others. So you’ve got to live like today’s your last day. Because it might be.”
Reality improves slowly. The ventilator disappears, although the oxygen tube in my nose remains. My parents come to visit me but say very little. I don’t talk at all. My chest hurts too much. A double lung transplant will do that to you.
Plus, I don’t know what to say. I have too much to say, and no words to say it.
My brother, 20. Me, 15. The Call comes at dinner.
My dad’s face grays as he listens. I stop chewing and my mom spills her water glass. No one moves to clean it up.
IED attack. My fork clangs onto the plate, and mashed potato splatters on my shirt. The chicken in my mouth tastes like fireplace soot. Tom will be sent home as soon as he’s stable enough. Without his legs.
My mother shrieks. My father holds her tight. My food chokes me on its way down. My breath wisps and I concentrate on breathing.
The rest of the dinner ends up in the trash can.
We visit Tom in the hospital a few weeks later. I force myself into the car. My legs drag as we walk into the barren lobby, where I sink into a chair. For all the times Tom has seen me in the hospital, I can’t go up to see him.
My parents get angry, but I can’t do it. I don’t want to see Tom, the star athlete, with flat sheets where his legs should be, with tubes in him, with scars on his face and body—and soul.
The brother I love, the brother I have just been getting to know, has died before I ever met him. This Tom, the Tom in the bed upstairs, is a stranger, and he terrifies me.
My parents come back down. They say Tom understands why I can’t come up. He’s said he knows I am scared, and it’s okay. They say he’s weak, fighting an infection. That when we come tomorrow, I have to make myself see him. That he needs us.
I say I will.
And I’ll tell him I love him.
I promise myself I will.
But the next day I am rushed to the hospital for a double lung transplant.
After three long weeks I can go home. The house lays silent. Like every room holds its breath, waiting for something—or someone. Dust coats everything. Dirty dishes pile in the sink. The closed blinds let in only a minimum of light. The ramps and handrails we’d put in after we got The Call have vanished.
My parents and I perfect the dance of avoidance. If one of us comes into a room, the other leaves. If we pass in the hallway, we sidle along the walls so we won’t touch. We speak only of necessary things, but never about the obvious. Never about how they can’t look at me without remembering what they’d lost. Never about how every breath I take reminds me of the cost of my health. The price has been too high, and we all know it.
I sneak into his room when my parents are out. Tom’s guitar, which he had played better than any professional in the bands on his wall posters, stands in one corner. Medals, plaques, and trophies from his years of sports overflow the shelves. Photos of him and all his friends and ex-girlfriends dot the walls. His sports equipment lays piled in a corner. Like he’ll be back any minute.
I pick up his baseball glove and slip it on. Too big, of course. But comforting somehow—almost like holding his hand.
Tom’s hopes, dreams, and future surround me.
I pound my fist into the glove. Thwack.
Dammit, I had been the one facing death all my life. Thwack.
I had been waiting for it. Thwack.
But it hadn’t come for me. Thwack, thwack.
Death had come for Tom in the depths of the night. With his last breath he’d told the nurses to donate his organs. To give his lungs to me.
He was a soldier. He’d given his legs and then his life for his country’s freedom. He’d given his body to free others at war with enemies within. He’d given me the freedom to breathe, to live a full life. A life I’d never expected to have. A life I don’t want at the price of his.
My fist throbs, and I drop the glove onto the pile.
Tom had given up everything—given me everything—and I’d never even told him I loved him.
I go to his grave as soon as I can go alone. I stand and stare at the headstone. Thomas Brennan, Beloved Son and Brother.
I had missed his funeral, of course. A lung transplant isn’t exactly outpatient surgery.
I breathe the air with my new lungs. Lungs that will not betray me the way my own had. I take a deep breath. The exhale tastes of Afghan sand and gun oil. I take a deeper breath and expel the scent of chocolate chip cookies and baseball glove leather.
I inhale deeply, so deeply that my still-healing chest hurts, more deeply than I have ever breathed before in my life. The graveyard air rushes into my lungs, filling, filling, filling me with energy, with promise—with life. When I finally can hold no more, the breath whooshes out, and I hear my brother’s voice whisper, “I love you, Callie.”
“I love you, too, Tom.”
I wipe the tears from my face.
My brother, forever 20. Me, 15 and counting.
BIO: Kerry Gans is a write-from-home mom who squeezes in writing around a rambunctious preschooler. (Have you ever tried to write with a child climbing on you and shouting, “Mommy is a jungle gym!”?) Hard work and luck make all the juggling manageable—as long as she guards against accidentally tossing her laptop into the bathtub or trying to delete her daughter. She loves to write and will not stop until Death makes her. And after that…she may haunt a computer and keep writing anyway.
She writes mostly middle grade and YA novels, but branched into short stories on the urging of friend and mentor Jonathan Maberry. Although writing is usually a solitary endeavor, she is grateful for all the camaraderie of all her writing buddies, especially those in Jonathan’s Advanced Novel Workshop and her co-bloggers at The Author Chronicles. She has been published in Bewildering Stories and the World Healing, World Peace 2014 Poetry Anthology. Her middle grade novel, Ozcillation, will be released in 2015 by Evil Jester Press. And she couldn’t do any of this without her family’s and non-writing friends’ unwavering belief in her!
For more info or to contact her, check out her website, personal blog, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Goodreads.