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With a quick good bye to my bosses at the local dairy bar, I hurried through the crisp, fall night air out to my bright blue hardtop Mustang and checked my phone for messages. Only two, down from the seven I’d had the night before. Being a Wednesday, though, I knew most people would be busy at church. I unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition and flipped the radio on, which was preset to my favorite station, 88.5 Yes FM. Right away, the corners of my mouth turned upwards at the sound of Switchfoot’s latest song.
I checked the first message and saw that it was from Dal. I always got messages from him after work, and I looked forward to them. This time, it read, “Have a great time at work tonight, I’ll see you when you’re done. Fried food smell and all! I love you!”
I smiled as I put the car in drive, looking up from the screen to navigate the small parking lot to the road. After I had safely pulled out onto the country road, I looked at the other message. It was from my best friend, Emily: “So I was at church tonight and we were singing praise and worship and I just had this feeling the whole time… like Tanner was there! He wants you to know he is okay, and to keep looking for him every year on vacation at the lake! It was so awesome, Mart, the feeling was just so strong…”
My mind went back to the day Mom sat me down and told me about the older brother I never had, who had gone to be with God before I was born. My breath caught. My hands gripped the wheel as my phone dropped down between the pedals of my car. The words froze my mind as I drove the few minutes it took to reach my house. When I pulled into the driveway, I stopped in front of my garage and ran inside, shivering in the cold. I tried to forget the message, forget what she had said. It was too crazy to believe.
After taking a quick three-minute shower, throwing on some wrinkled sweatpants and a big baggy sweatshirt, I went back out to my car. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I switched the radio on to my station and backed out. The skies were clear, and the big dipper was very visible, as was Cassiopeia. I looked out the window with a sigh as the first song ended and I thought back to all those times stargazing with Gramma out in our wide-open country yard.
When the next song began, I stopped the car.
“Hey, Lucy, I remember your name. I left a dozen roses on your grave today. I’m in the grass on my knees wipe the leaves away… I just came to talk for awhile, got some things I need to say…”
I had never heard the song, but I felt like I knew it. I turned my car around and drove. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know anything. Tears flowed relentlessly down my face. My nose was getting stuffy, and my throat was dry. My knuckles were white, and I swore the steering wheel would soon snap under my steel grip. I was speeding, I realized—about twenty miles over as I got a glimpse of the speedometer through my tears. But I didn’t care, I just kept going.
“Now that it’s over, I just wanna hold her. I’d give up all the world to see, that little piece of heaven lookin’ back at me.”
The tears were pouring out now. Creeks, no… rivers, no… waterfalls. Niagra Falls, to be exact. As the song continued to play, they came harder. My mind was clouded over with thoughts of “what if,” and “why?”
I wondered what I did to not deserve to get to know my brother. Why did he have to die two weeks before his second birthday, back in 1991? He had just gone through his third heart surgery when the doctor sewed him up incorrectly and he contracted an infection. Why weren’t those six months or so that he was a normal infant boy, between surgeries, six months that I got to share with him? Why didn’t I get to experience him as he sang Garth Brook songs, clapped his hands, played with the dog, ran around unsteadily and tripped over his own feet? Why did a boy with such a big heart have to endure an ironic illness? Why didn’t he last just a year or so later so that I could have met him when I was born in 1993? Just once? We didn’t get the chance to make our own memories as brother and sister—all I had were the moments my parents got to share with him.
I banged my hand on the wheel.
“Now that it’s over, I just wanna hold her, I’ve gotta live with the choices I made, and I can’t live with myself today.”
When the wheels of my car finally stopped turning, and the wind had begun to pick up slightly outside of my window, I unbuckled my seatbelt. I opened the door and stood up, looking at where I was.
“Hey Lucy, I remembered your birthday. They said it’d bring some closure to say your name. I know I’d do it all different if I had the chance, but all I got are these roses to give… and they can’t help me make amends.”
I was in the cemetery. It was the cemetery that the whole family went to annually a few days before his birthday, July 26th. We were always at Lake Michigan on the actual day, so letting off the correct amount of balloons for his age was done then. Only, the last few years, when the balloons were really getting up there in numbers—near the twenties—we stopped taking them. We just went by ourselves, cleaned up his grave, and reminisced a bit about the short time my family had with him. Then we just stopped going all together. It had probably been three or four years since I had been there; and now it was dark and starting to rain.
I could still hear the song from my car through the door I had left open.
“Now that it’s over, I just wanna hold her, I’d give up all the world to see, that little piece of heaven lookin’ back at me. Now that it’s over, I just wanna hold her… “
I walked around the hood of my car, keeping one hand on the cool metal to steady myself. I took my other hand and brushed away the tears, took a deep breath, and then, I was there.
I saw the rough outline of the stone, about 3 feet tall at its tallest point. I saw the engraved letters spelled out on the front, TANNER MICHAEL. I saw the little oval picture of my brother in his hunter green jacket, smiling innocently at the camera. I saw the little toys that my parents had left out over the years. Little toy cars, tractors, and marbles were all around the bottom, the ones that the wind had trifled with barely touching the tops of the uncut grass.
“Here we are, now you’re in my arms. I never wanted anything so bad. Here we are for a brand new start, living the life that we could’ve had. Me and Lucy walking hand in hand, me and Lucy never wanna end. Just another moment in your eyes I’ll see you, in another life in Heaven, where we never say goodbye.”
My knees sunk into the wet grass, and I could feel the wet earth soaking into my sweatpants. I held my head in my hands as I wept what little tears I had left. I picked up the little toys and imagined what it would have been like to play with my brother in the room we would have shared. I focused on the little green tractor and the contrasting warm feeling I had when I held it in the cold air. Turning it over in my hand, looking at it from every angle, I pictured us both with our own tractors, mine orange, his traditionally John Deere green and yellow, and we would race each other, flinging them across the hardwood floors. As I sat there helplessly wondering what it was that brought me to that spot almost ten miles from my home and completely in the opposite direction that I was going to begin with, it came to me.
It was that book. Heaven Is For Real. That book was the one Emily inspired me read the week before about the little boy that died on the operating table and was in heaven for 3 minutes before he was revived. It was that book that brought all of these feelings into my subconscious and they were just waiting for a chance to be released. The little boy spent just 3 minutes in heaven, but he recognized and met his grandpa that the never knew, saw the color of the Jesus’ robe, and sat on Jesus’ lap. He did so many things in those three minutes—but the most important part of that book was the part where he met his sister in heaven. He had a younger earthly sister, but he had an older sister, too, that died before she was born. Her parents never brought it up to him, but when he saw her, he knew that she was his sister.
Emily knew of my brother, of course, being my best friend. So when she read the part about the boy’s sister in the book, she immediately referred the book to me. I finished it in 3 hours. Those three hours were the most insightful, inspiring hours of my life.
Thinking about all of this, and realizing the truth of my circumstances, I looked up to the sky, still hugging the little toy tractor to my chest. As my eyes traced the stars, I saw the brightest one twinkle just a little bit brighter. It could have been the trick of my eye, but I believe it was my brother up there, telling me it was going to be okay. That what Emily had said in her message was true… he couldn’t wait to meet me so we really could sing Garth Brooks at the top of our lungs and play with the little green tractors in the streets of gold.
“Me and Lucy walking hand in hand, me and Lucy never wanna end…”
I stood up. I put the little toy tractor back in its place near the bowl of marbles, and I turned towards my car. Halfway there, I turned back. I went up to the grave, and pocketed the white marble in my sweatpants. I could feel its cool smooth surface through the material as I went back again to my car.
As I sank down in my car and drove away, finally, towards the house I was going to to begin with, the song ended.
“Hey Lucy, I remember your name.”