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Sunny Blond Curls
I sat cross-legged in our place by the tall tree; the tree with the drooping, seemingly fatigued leaves that hang right above the sun and shade our little hiding spot; the tree with the deep crevices in its trunk which tell of the tale where our parents met and innocently carved out their names so long ago. Colorful hues of bright spring blooms lit up the elegant countenance of Mother Nature with irrefutable splendor. The subtle coolness of the morning dew mingled with my sweltering calves and formed little beads of perspiration as I stretched out in our little nest. A river nearby hummed its soft melody, a gentle harmony to the rustling wind that tousled my hair and whispered sweet secrets into my ear like an old friend. I listened and watched as the systems of nature bantered back and forth. I loved everything about this place. Nothing could reach me here. In the tree’s tender arms, I existed one with the air, a fixture as sure as water and light.
His eight year old eyes watched me expectantly. I glanced down at my hands. Slowly I had been shredding a blade of grass, peeling back the layers one by one, until one tiny strand of green remained. His eyes swiftly flickered to the football sitting on the other side of me. I stood and picked up my beloved football autographed by Peyton Manning. In all of my eleven years of living, nothing had ever meant so much to me. No way was I going to let his sticky, prying hands anywhere near this work of art. My fingers traced the smooth leather of the football and the fine bumps in the skin; caressed the abrupt stitching that coincided with the otherwise illustrious texture.
“I’ll race ya home,” I challenged, hoping to avert his attention with a dare he could never resist. Before he could reply we both took off with full force. Away from the tree. Away from innocence.
“Ouch! Hey, Jake! Wait up!” Aiden hobbled along behind me trying to catch up to my elongated strides.
“C’mon, slowpoke!” I yelled back as I reluctantly came to a stop. “Have the doctors found out what’s wrong yet? You’d think after this many tests they’d be able to tell you’re a sissy,” I teased and gave him a nudge. It was true; Aiden’s right leg had been bothering him, and it seemed that no doctor had a satisfying answer because he had seen practically every doctor known to man. Aiden sneered and stuck his tongue out at me then raced back to the house.
When I finally made my way back to the house after wandering arbitrarily the next two blocks home, Aiden was already upstairs packing. I almost forgot we were going to Mammaw’s house! My mom stomped in with my six year old sister, Madison, and wore a stern look on her face that warned me to escape quickly. Yikes! Haphazardly, I scrambled upstairs and threw a bundle of clothes into a backpack.
In Mammaw’s car, I sat in the front seat, chomping on a bag of hot Cheetos, while Aiden, like always, sat in the back with Madison attempting to bother her in any way possible. Madison was screaming at Aiden to stop messing with her, and Mammaw was singing (I use that term pretty loosely) to her favorite Michael Buble song on the radio. I must say, it was a fairly quiet car ride.
Then it all stopped. Mammaw’s phone vibrated and without thinking my hands reached into the cup holder and picked it up knowing it was probably a text from my mom making sure we remember to brush our teeth. But instead the text read:
Doctor just confirmed… It’s cancer.
Five words. Five words made my world disappear. Mammaw seized the phone and read the reality she already knew. I turned my face away to hide the burning tears. My vision blurred and life continued in slow motion. Cancer. Aiden had cancer. My brother had cancer.
Mammaw pulled into a frozen yogurt bar, Aiden’s favorite. Aiden and Madison scrambled out of the car, and Mammaw called after them that we would catch up in a bit. Then she turned to me and took my hand.
“I’m sorry, Jake. You weren’t supposed to read that.” As if the fact that it was an accident made the cancer go away.
“I’m fine,” I murmured under a cold disguise. My legs led me into the frozen yogurt bar, and I plopped down on a chair in the corner. I watched as Aiden and Madison frenzied about, sampling every flavor and mixing fruity bubbles into their – interesting – concoctions. Mammaw walked in with a smile pasted upon her otherwise morose face. For the rest of the night, Mammaw and I hid behind hastily applied masks while Madison and Aiden lived happily in their world of oblivion.
Morning presented itself, perhaps a shade darker than its usual radiance. I felt as if everything around me had transformed. It was all vaguely familiar but with a darker undertone I’d never seen before. A translucent sheet had been set over my eyes – or perhaps one had been removed. We returned home, and I safely retreated to my room. Downstairs I could hear my mom and dad trying to explain the word cancer to Aiden and Madison whose ears were too young to decipher the meaning beyond the term “sickness”.
That Monday Aiden had a port inserted into his chest and started his first session of chemotherapy. He came home with a shimmering needle stuck in his chest attached to a bag intertwined with wires. Madison stared. I couldn’t look at it. On Friday, we held a party where we all shaved our heads. Everyone exclaimed how free they felt from all of their hair. I felt confined now more than ever. So vulnerable. Twice more I shaved it though. Aiden remained bald, so I did too.
I leaned back, nestled in our tree’s loving embrace, squinting up into the sun at my brother who had thrust away his crutches in an attempt to walk again on his previously inflamed leg. He was now ten, and his hair had begun to grow back from the poisons of chemo. His smiles had never vacated, and they presented themselves in his ever youthful visage even then when he lay deep in the smothering hands of frustration. Pain crept into his face as a grim reminder of the past he was trying to overcome. He had wriggled free from cancer’s devastating grips about a month ago after a little over a year and a half of dozens of surgeries, infections, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments. His body had been put through the ringer, but at last the nightmare could be laid to rest. A distant memory of the past. His leg was scarred from hip to toe from all of the surgeries it endured. Faint blisters still remained visible on his freckled face, but every day they grew fainter as his wounds began to heal. His hair slightly curled around the tops of his forehead, now softer and brighter in color. Innocence still lingered in his heart, displaying its youthful radiance through his sunny blond curls.
“Come here, Aiden. It’s your turn!” I beckoned him to the checkerboard laid out before me where his two checkers lay in the shadow of my commanding nine pieces. I loved the taste of winning! Aiden half-heartedly picked up his crutches and limped back to our haven. He then proceeded to “accidentally” drop his crutch directly on top of the checkerboard causing a horde of checkers to take flight.
“Oops!” he said with his best attempt at sincerity. “I guess we have to start over,” he ventured with the most innocent look he could muster. I had almost forgotten how much Aiden hated to lose! I punched him in the arm, and we giggled together, two figures everlasting in the deep confinements of our world and our tree.
Relapse. Wholesome reality had feverishly transformed itself into the menacing figure of our greatest fear. The cancer had come back; this time with a vengeance. His shin. His thigh. His groin. His hip. His lymph nodes. All had succumbed to the monster. Not even chemo was on his side, for he had already maxed out on the aggressive treatments. Seven percent. There was a seven percent chance my brother would see longer than five years. Seven percent chance he would live to be fifteen. Seven percent chance he would be able to drive. To get married. Have kids. Live.
I hadn’t seen my parents in a while. But I was used to being juggled between family members. My parents did all they could for Aiden while uncles and grandmas took Madison and me to ballet and football practices. I never unpacked my bags anymore because I rarely stayed home for a whole day. Day after day we were shuffled to different relatives. They treated us with kindness and polite cordiality, scared to make any sudden movements. They thought I didn’t see. The lingering stare. The concerned look. The hushed whispering and crying when they thought I was sleeping. They walked on eggshells. We walked on eggshells. Our sole concentration was to think lightly. Think lightly, step lightly, talk lightly. What they didn’t know was the path we all traveled on had long since become hard-boiled and robust.
Aiden was scheduled to get his leg amputated. His biggest concern was missing the Texans game.
His leg was removed, a prosthetic applied. Chemo carried on. Steadily the cancer spread. First his liver, then his lungs. Aiden’s light, lustrous hair slowly turned unruly and dark brown. Almost gray.
I stumbled across the path I’d walked a thousand times, not knowing which way was up. I loosened my suffocating tie and threw off my oppressing jacket. The tears made it impossible to concentrate, to think. Flashbacks of the funeral blinded me from the world. The contours of his face in the casket. He wasn’t smiling. That wasn’t my Aiden. No, my Aiden was always smiling. Somehow the feet beneath me carried my sunken body to our tree. The afternoon light cast a strange shadow upon the tree’s familiar silhouettes. The light distorted the gentle, tender limbs turning them into menacing claws. Leaves no longer sprawled out leisurely, but thrust from the branches with looming tenacity. My fingers traced the carving in the rough bark made by my parents so long ago. My fingers had traced the smooth linings of my football signed by Peyton Manning, too. Right before I placed it next to Aiden a couple of hours ago. Why was it him?! Why did it have to be my brother!!? A scream erupted from deep within my stomach. My fist hit the bark. Once. Twice. I lost count. My legs gave out. My head grew too heavy for my neck; my heart too heavy for my chest. It was all wrong. It should have been me. Aiden never did anything wrong. Blood dripped from my knuckles onto my suit pants. My ears rang. All around me lay silent. Nonexistent. The river no longer sang. The wind no longer whistled. Never had I felt so alone. I stared at the tree that now towered over me, no longer a friend. A hollow cavity bore deep in my chest, collecting my tears, drowning my heart. A wave of nausea hit me with a start. Reluctantly my hands caught my dizzy head. My lungs begged to breathe through the tornado surrounding me. I cried. Aiden was gone. I never said goodbye.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
Crooks, South Dakota
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