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The smell of medicine and sick people welcomed me as I entered the Hospital. “It’s bitter and salty and sprinkled with lots and lots of sourness on top,” was how my brother would describe it. Well, that’s how I thought life was in here too – lonely and awful, nothing but torture. I’ve witnessed it a hundred times, and most of them from my brother’s eyes.
Ryan wasn’t your typical teenager four years ago, and he certainly isn’t even now. He’s something I couldn’t describe other than unpredictable. No one really knows what he’s got under his sleeves and why he does them.
He was a male ballerina or a “Danseur” as he would call himself, and the only one at our school at that. It became a laughing matter when everybody knew he signed up for ballet. I felt horrible as I became the center of attention for having a ballerina for a brother but it was all nothing to him. “Why play basketball or soccer when you can dance?” he once told his friends.
“Hip hop is a dance for dudes. Ballet? Not so much. So why?”
“Why don’t you come with me during rehearsals and find out?”
And they did, just because they wanted a good laugh. But they didn’t. Because seeing him dance with the ballerinas, their eyes were left wide open, following his movements in awe as he spins, jumps, and dance. It was certainly different than hip hop, but his gracefulness, sudden snaps, and flexibility had left his friends wondering just how in the world he could do that. Just like how I wondered the same thing.
Even with his “uniqueness,” people found him easy to get along with. He had a strong personality. He was friendly, funny, kind and smart. He was a brother, a friend, and a confidant to everyone. He was happy despite what others thought of him, and it was contagious. But it faded little by little when he found himself with a very painful right leg during one of his rehearsals. We all thought it was just some muscle strain from too much dancing and ignored it, but as days went on, the pain got worse and his leg began to swell, we had to take him to the hospital.
He was then diagnosed with Osteosarcoma – a cancer of the bone.
He had to stop dancing and start with chemotherapy. He had kept it a secret to everyone in school, only the teachers were informed. When I asked him why it was necessary, all he told me was, “Having cancer is like being gay, it’s hard once you realize it, and it becomes harder when you have to come out and tell other people and hope that no one gives you funny looks or leaves you.” I thought maybe he was right and maybe he was wrong, because whoever Ryan was – a danseur or someone with cancer – people will still love him.
For two months, he dealt with resisting the urge to dance but failed. I once found him in his room, howling in pain while the music was playing and then I found him in the school’s ballet room holding on to the bars and trying his best to remain standing but he kept on falling.
“We’ll have to amputate your son’s leg,” the doctor said when we all went with Ryan to chemotherapy one day.
The atmosphere in the hallway went tense. “Amputate, sir?” Ryan asked.
“We have to cut it.”
Ryan went pale. He pursed his lips as if thinking of what to say or what to do. It was actually the first time I’ve seen him like that – lost and confused.
“Are there any other alternatives? Like some medication or treatments or -,” Mom said.
“I’m sorry Ma’am. We’ve done everything we can but this is the only hope we have. The cancer cells have started to eat up his leg. If we don’t cut it right away, the cancer will spread to the other parts of his body. His chance of survival is still unknown. But if we cut his leg, he will probably live.”
When we got home that night, we all went our separate ways. I could hear Mom and Dad in the kitchen, arguing in whispers. It was a horrible night for us, especially for Ryan. And the sound of breaking and shouting from upstairs proved it. We all went up running, and found my brother hitting his table with his lamp shouting, “Probably? Probably?”
Dad ran towards him and stopped him, hugging and cradling him like a child. Ryan kept repeating “probably” like it was the only word he could hold on to. And that was the night we all cried, thinking that even if he survives, we’ve already lost the Ryan we knew and loved, and nothing will ever be the same again.
I sighed and reminded myself that everything will be okay. I managed to smile as I knocked on the door.
“Sweetie, you look beautiful in that dress!”
“Hi Mom,” I said as I hugged her. “How’s Ryan?”
“He’s sleeping now,” she said, “He was really excited to see you. Every time he wakes up from his sleep he kept asking if you’re here already.”
I made my way to the end of the room where Ryan was sleeping peacefully on the hospital bed. He was facing the window and his eyelids were fluttering as if he was having a dream. As I patted his head, his eyes fluttered open.
“Angel, is that you?” He groaned, still facing the window.
“Would you please help me out?”
I tried to help him sit. It took a few Ouches and Gahs to straighten him up.
“I am so glad you’re here.”
“I need to talk to you,” he said and looked at Mom as if to ask for privacy. As soon as she was out of the room, he gave me a long dark look and said, “I don’t have much long.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Look, I’m just giving you a heads-up. The doctor said I have months, but I know I have less than a week. If I’ll be unlucky, maybe even a day. It doesn’t matter. I’m still going to die.”
I stood up and hugged him. Tight.
Three years later, word got out the school. The Principal had to tell everyone why Ryan couldn’t attend the Graduation practices, or maybe even Graduation.
“Ryan?” I called out to his still figure on the floor. “Dinner’s ready.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
I felt a sudden rush of rage course through me. The sight of him staring blankly into space and looking miserable felt like an icicle was stabbing me over and over. He became so thin and had grown dark circles under his eyes from lack of sleep and endless pain during the night.
“Why didn’t you come to chemo the other day?”
“I already lost a leg. You want me to lose another one?”
I sighed. “Look, if you don’t come, you won’t only lose your legs, you’ll even lose your arms,” I glared at him, “If that’s not enough, it’ll be your head. And I’ll make sure I’ll be the one to chop it off.”
“I imagined my death with a complete body, not just a torso. But hey, I’ve already lost a leg, so why not?”
“Don’t make a joke out of death, will you?”
He rolled his eyes. “Nag all you want. What good would surviving do to me anyway? Bragging rights? I’m going to die a teenager. You know that five years with an inactive body won’t keep me going. I can’t dance with one leg! Not even with this artificial leg! It’s heavier than me it might put holes on the floor. I can’t even stand without holding on to something. I’m as good as a puppet.”
Ryan had lost all hope since that day, but I hadn’t. He had thought about death more often than anyone could ever have. He wanted to get his life over with fast and not do anything about it, but what he didn’t know was that there’s something that he still had to do. Something that he deserves to experience and remember before he says goodbye. And I knew just what it was.
I grinned. “It’s time for our graduation, bro.”
The doctor allowed us to have Ryan attend Graduation on his wheelchair. He may not have been dressed for the occasion with his polo shirt and jeans, but he still looked decent enough to go onstage. As he received his diploma, he shook every single teachers’ hands and said his thanks. After the Valedictorian’s speech, the students wouldn’t let Ryan get away without his.
“You all have been amazing people,” he began, “I know I don’t have much long so I want to thank you for making my high school life memorable, especially today. I never even thought that I’d be able to graduate with you guys or at least, see everyone of you again. But I did. And I’d want to thank my sister for making this happen. Seeing all you guys, it takes back memories. I’ve lost hope because I thought I was alone, but I could now die happy because I’ve got to see all the people who I’ve shared happy and sad memories with at the last point of my life.” He mentioned groups and people, and shared his memorable times with them. All throughout his speech, everyone could see how happy he was, how for just a moment right there onstage he was back to the old Ryan.
And he was right. He didn’t have long. He didn’t have months or even a week - he died three days after Graduation.
High school had been tough on us. It had affected us in ways we didn’t expect, especially Ryan. There were times where our struggles in life felt pointless, where we felt alone, but in the end we’ll realize that the people we love had been with us every step of the way, we were just too miserable to see them.
As I sat by the perfect spot under the shade of a big tree, I touched his name -carved into the surface of the marble and took in the beautiful scenery behind it. Music played through the vast neighborhood as Ryan gracefully danced on the lake, sending the gentlest and softest ripples with every step.