As I survey my to-do list, the sun inches itself over the line of scraggly trees between the houses to the east of mine. Day has not fully committed to my neighborhood. The dog sleeps on the back porch, disinterested in the stuffy house, content to doze in the gentle morning air.
Inexplicably I find myself thinking about a seven-year-old boy named Brian who died in 1974.
On a warm September day in my first semester of college, my mother threw me out of the house. Oh, I’m sure if she were here to defend herself, she’d cast it in a weaker light. “If you’re not home by 5:00, don’t come home at all,” she growled into the phone.
So I didn’t.
I crashed that night in the apartment from which Young World Development planned its fundraisers. The next day I missed my 8:00 lecture but got to my work-study job in the Office of Financial Aid close to my scheduled shift.
I found my boss and cried on her shoulder for a half an hour. By noon she had adjusted my aid package to give me a dorm room and talked the Student Housing Office into cooperating. My wailing painted my parents as heartless. I cringed only a little and in secret, so Terri couldn’t see. I shamelessly marginalized the truth in favor of the pity factor.
Terri and I became closer after that. A plump clever woman, maybe a decade older than I, Terri had a gorgeous husband, deep dimples, and a Masters in educational administration. She ran the office in the frequent absence of her boss who had great political aspirations and very little practical experience. Terri rarely complained that he had the better parking place and higher salary. Women still accepted such realities back then. The feminist movement had not yet impacted Jesuit education.
Terri also had a little brother named Brian.
Terri never called Brian her “half-brother” though he had been born of a second marriage after her parents’ divorce. Brian had the same dimples as his big sister, under straight light-brown hair cut in that classic little-boy style. You could picture his bright red cheeks above a baseball jersey, the bill of his hat shading the gleaming eyes and the broad smile. Brian had an indefinable quality about him that rendered anyone nearby hopelessly cheerful. He showed nonstop enthusiasm for Cardinal baseball, trucks, frogs, and his beloved sister.
When they found bruising on Brian’s legs, the entire family went into a tailspin. The doctors at Cardinal Glennon Hospital broke the news to the family and Terri missed work for a week straight. Leukemia.
A few months into the ordeal, Brian had to have a spinal tap. Terri came to work with red-rimmed eyes the next day. They missed. Those bastards missed, she whispered. That goddamn needle hit something vital. Now he has to spend the rest of his life paralyzed. She put her head down on the desk. The rest of his life, she repeated. All four or five months of it.
A week or so before Brian died, some famous person came around the hospital with toys for the patients. He sat on the edge of Brian’s bed while Brian unwrapped the gift allocated to him. Brian’s eyes glowed. Though he couldn’t move his legs, he could still tear at the paper, and it fell in shreds around him as the visitor lifted the toy to given Brian a better look.
Oh thank you so much! Brian exclaimed, as quoted the next day by his sister to her gathered staff. He ran a finger around the contours of the helicopter, with its glistening silver blades. He touched the remote control, watching the blades whirl, laughing at the sound of the tiny motor.
Then his eyes grew soft. His hands fell back to the cover. He looked again at the visitor and said, There’s a lot of sick kids here, sir. I think you should give this to one of them. It will make them so happy. And I won’t need this where I’m going.
We fell silent as Terri reached the end of her account. Someone hugged her. The rest of us stood helplessly around her desk while Terri cried. He’s so brave, she told us. So so brave. We nodded but no one spoke. Nothing remained to be said.
Brian died a few weeks later and we all went to his service. The church groaned under the weight of thousands of yellow flowers, reputedly Brian’s favorite color. The family clustered at the front, arms around each other, listening to the priest talk about letting little children come unto Jesus. I saw Terri close her eyes and shake her head a little. I’m not sure she bought that line but it seemed to give Brian’s parents a little comfort.
Four decades later I pad around the house in my robe, with a bottle of Augmentin, a handful of Vitaman C, a package of Ricola, and my Northwestern mug full of hot coffee. I try to shake the weariness from my shoulders. It seems as though I’ve been tired for my entire life. I start to complain, but then for some reason, I remember Brian. I smile, and I carry on.