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A Different Kind Of Free
“I’m not sure I want to go mom.” Said my five year old brother, Michael.
“Babe, we’re already at Max’s house. You’re going to have lots of fun with Max today, okay? Trust me.” Said Mom reassuringly. “Kate, you stay in the car.”
We had just pulled up to the house of Michael’s friend Max. They haven’t seen each other in months. Max was diagnosed with DIPG; a type of brain cancer, so Max had to be pulled out of school. It was now summer, and both best friends hadn’t seen each other in a long time.
Michael didn’t like to talk about how his best friend had brain cancer. He was happy when we found out that the tumor had shrunken, but he didn’t like to talk about it. He was a little nervous about having this play date though. He didn’t want to see how cancer had changed his best friend.
Lets just hurry and go. I thought. I was the one who wanted to stay home while my mom dropped off Michael at Max’s house, go on the computer or something, but I had to come along anyway. I looked at the window of Max’s house and I could see the curtains moving, almost as if some little boy were waiting there for hours until his best friend came over.
Michael looked at me and gave me a small kiss on the cheek, something that I always look forward to since affection from my little brother is very rare. My mom, followed by my brother, got out of the car and made their way to Max’s house. Michael seemed uneasy, maybe even a little nervous. He looked at the ground as he walked instead of looking straight ahead. Max’s mom had called a week before the play date saying that Max looked very different because of the treatment. Michael wasn’t sure about going at first, being an indecisive five year old. We made him go though. We didn’t know how much long Max had left…
We tried not to think about that though. That thought hardly ever crossed our minds. It was a topic that we tried hard not to discuss, especially around Michael.
The door of Max’s house swung open. Standing there in the doorway was a little boy wearing a Spongebob t-shirt and a huge smile. He was so happy, and by so happy I mean extremely happy. His eyes lit up bright and his grin was the cutest darn thing…but I didn’t take much attention to him; I was too busy looking at two small sparrows in the sky, playing. It was interesting to watch at how fast they moved. Then the two sparrows split up. I wonder why one left the other…I though, but my thoughts were interrupted when my mom got back in the car.
“Max is so excited to see Michael.” Said my mom. I looked over towards the door of Max’s house. I could see Max, with his little brown head, jumping up and down at the sight of his best friend. His smile stretched from one cheek to the other. He ran excitingly in the house. Michael followed.
I could tell just how the sun shone that day, that that day would be the best ever for those two.
When Michael came home that day, he told me all about his amazing day with his best friend. They had Star Wars sword fights, played Wii bowling, and drew pictures of Spongebob Squarepants for each other. Not the kind of day I would have with my best friend, but it was still pretty cute. I was happy for him, happy that he had a great time with his best friend…while it lasted.
That was a week ago. It was now the 4th of July, 2009, and our family was just packing up to go to the spot that we would normally go to watch the fireworks.
The night was dark, the pond glistened and reflected the moonlight and street lights, and the grass was glowing with lighting bugs. Our five chairs were set up, pointed to the direction where the fireworks would be.
Families of young and old were gathered around us, standing or sitting on their chairs. Everyone looked at the sky, which was lit up in bright reds, blues, greens, purples, and whites.
My dad said to my two brothers and I, “Hey guys. What happened on the 4th of July which makes us celebrate this day?”
My ten year old brother Nick, the one who always answers questions like this, said, “A long time ago, the USA became free of Britain. So, like, now, we are like, free from Britain and stuff.” He held his head high, like he was proud of giving the right answer.
Smart alec…I thought.
“That’s right Nick. Do you get it Michael?” My dad said, noticing Michael’s confused expression.
“Ummm. Kinda. The USA became a country right?” Michael asked.
“Yes, something like that.”
“Oh.” Michael was trying to put the pieces together. “Okay.” He said and returned his gaze back to the sky. “That one! Right there! You see it Nick? You see it Kate?” he said pointing towards the sky with a small finger. “It looks like a lego! Max loves legos! At his house, at um Max’s house, we we we uh… played with legos! A lot of legos! It was really fun! I want to have another play date with Max soon!”
Now, of course the firework didn’t look like a lego, but it was still cute to see how Michael had such a great time with Max that he was still bringing it up. Looking back at the sky there was a small black dot in the middle of a huge red firework. I realized it was a small sparrow. It flew down, skimming across the water, and landed on a small tree. I realized that that bird was just as free as the USA was. I looked back at the sky. Enjoying the fireworks, thinking of nothing but fireworks, fireworks, and that sparrow. Not knowing that there was a new type of free that I would have to face tomorrow.
I woke up around 8 o’clock the next morning. I came downstairs in my pajamas, surprised that no one was downstairs. I was usually the last one up on Sundays while everyone else was making breakfast. I plopped myself on the couch, still not very awake. I probably should’ve got breakfast ready, or at least got some food for my dog, but at the moment I really just wanted to sit down.
I should go back to bed. I thought. I’m really really REALLY tired. Its just another day in the life of me…
My mom walked in from the computer room. She was still in her pajamas, which was unusual because since she was usually dressed and ready for church. Her face was splotchy, and her eyes were red as if she had been crying.
“Mom what’s wrong?” I said sitting up from the couch, instantly concerned about why my mom was crying.
My mom took a deep breath in, as if she was getting ready for a terrible truth she was about to announce to make it true. “Kate…” she struggled to say.
“What? Mom what?” I was starting to panic now. I had no idea what so ever what was going on…or what happened. I took a step forward towards my mom.
“I have some bad news…”
“Bad news? Like bad bad news? What’s the bad news?”
“What Mom? What happened?”
“Sometimes…bad things happen.”
“I know that.”
“Max died last night Kate.”
There was a long silent pause. I stood there, shocked at what had occurred last night. Last night, somewhere between all the happiness and celebration of 4th of July, somewhere between a sparrow flying in the night sky, the USA lost the soul of a sweet innocent boy to cancer.
“What?” I said. I waited for a reply, a reply that said Max isn’t dead. But I didn’t hear that. Instead I heard, “Check the computer.”
I walked into the room where we had the computer, anxious. My heart beat at an incredible speed. On the screen of our computer was an article from Max’s mom on July 4th, 2009. I became sad, angry, and heartbroken all at the same time as my eyes read the screen. The article read how July 4th is a day to celebrate freedom, and now on July 4th, 2009, Max L., age five, was free of his DIPG cancer.
I leaned back in my chair. Instantly, automatically, tears welled up in my eyes. Memories all came back to me all at once. I remembered crying in my closet, talking to my best friend on the phone when I first learned of Max’s cancer. I remember my mom telling Michael that his best friend had cancer, but at the time Michael didn’t truly understand what that meant. The tears rolled down my face, slowly, taking their time.
But how? He wasn’t supposed to die. He wasn’t supposed to die. Only 5. Only 5.
“I’m going to go tell Michael.” My mom said from the doorway, breaking the silence that went with my quiet cry. She could see that I was crying, so she came up to me and embraced me in a comforting hug.
I let her go to tell Michael about the tragedy. I didn’t know how she was going to do it. How do you do it? How do you tell an innocent five year old that his best friend is dead and that he won’t be returning ever again?
Nick came in the room, and I hid my face.
“I’m gonna check my email okay Kate?” he said.
“Okay. Check what’s on the computer first.” I said through my tears. I walked quickly away, not wanting to see his look when he found out the same tragedy I did.
Walking upstairs, I heard small rapid breaths, followed by long moans. Looking in my mom’s room, I could see Michael lying on the bed, crying intensely. I could see my dad, hands on his head like he does when he’s stressed. I could see my mom, her eyes closed and hands stroking Michael’s hair.
I couldn’t bear it anymore. My heart tugged so much it hurt. There was a piercing sharp pain in my heart that wouldn’t go away. I walked into my room and shut the door. Locking the door, I went straight to my closet, trying not to think of Max. Trying not to think of the fact that Max, who we were praying and hoping to get better, never did get better. Trying not to think of the fact that Max is dead.
But I knew that as much as I tried to ignore these facts, soon I’d have to face the fact that they are true.
Weeks passed. Max’s wake came and I was offered to go. I couldn’t though. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t see Max’s emotionless face that used to be filled with life and laughter in that casket, surrounded by other five year olds who had lost their friend. I wanted to go, to be there for Michael, but I knew that if I were to go I would break down.
So I didn’t go. I stayed home. Waiting on my couch for who knows what. A few hours passed and Michael and my mom came home. Michael, surprisingly, had a huge smile on his face.
“What did you do at the…I mean…the wake?”
“It was really fun! There were uh….clone troopers there! And, and, they had this table where you can make stuff outta legos! And, they had sushi but I don’t like sushi so I didn’t have any but Mom did and she said it was really good but I said it was gross so I didn’t have any.”
“Oh.” I said. I looked at my mom. Sounded like a pretty fun wake if you ask me.
“The preacher gave a very moving sermon.” She said as Michael went out of the room to share the great time he had with Nick.
“About what?” I said. What can you possibly say at a five year olds wake?
“They talked about how Max was a great kid.” She said. “How he loved to his fullest capacity. How he took every moment with every person and made it the best. He knew he wasn’t going to live long, so he just kept on loving.”
It was true. Max was always like that. He was one of those boys that you see on cheesy tv specials that’s always good and loves everyone.
Am I like that? How can I, who am probably going to live for a while now, not see what a five year old had discovered all on his own? He discovered the true power of love, not that mushy stuff that you see on soap operas and in People magazines, but the love that you show to everyone around you. How come it took my brothers best friend to die of cancer for me to realize something that he was trying to teach all of us?
That lesson; to love. Not hate, not hold grudges, not stay sour. To love. From that point on, I promised myself I would be more like Max. His freedom taught us to love beyond capacity, just like he did.
I looked out the window. I started crying. I was still sad, still heartbroken, but my eyes had been open. I have been aware at what I can do to be more like Max. I promised myself to be more like Max. To live a life in his footsteps. At that moment, a small sparrow flew past our window, and I knew Max, free Max, will always be with us to remind us of just that.