“Can I refill your coffee, Dad?”
“Sure sweetheart. Thanks”
Dad and I are drinking coffee this morning in my kitchen. Mom was up before either of us, did her morning yoga and meditation, and is now taking a walk to the neighborhood park.
“How’s Mom doing, you think?”
“Well, the news you were held hostage at gunpoint in the hospital shocked both of us. Neither of us could handle losing another child. Thank God, it didn’t happen.” Dad pauses, and looks at the ceiling, but not before I see he’s blinking back tears.
“I think she’s going to be okay, Niki. Just give her time to process. You know how she gets.”
Yeah, I know how Mom gets.
Later, Mom is busy cleaning the kitchen, and Dad has gone to a gym. I sit down with my journal. The therapist suggested I write down my thoughts. This morning, my thoughts are about my parents, and Joel:
Like I said, I was six when Joel was born, and I adored being his big sister. He was named after my grandpa. Joel was cherubic, with pale skin, and blue eyes that lightened and darkened with his mood, like the sea. He laughed easily, and was almost always smiling.
When he cried, I would race to get to his crib before my mom. I wanted him to know I would always be there for him. I loved pretending he was my child.
Joel was walking, just after his first birthday. He grew and thrived until the middle of his second year. Gradually, he became fussy, and less easy to console. He was a picky eater, and lost weight. Mom took him to the pediatrician, who assured her his behaviors were part of The Terrible Twos.
A few weeks before second birthday, Joel fell while standing in front of the TV. When he stood back up, he wobbled when he walked. Joel fell again, and then he threw up. I was scared. I called for Mom, who was in the kitchen, doing dishes.
Mom called Dad at work, and told him she was taking Joel to the emergency room. He met her there. Then she called our neighbor, who came over to watch me.
I was scared. I prayed that God would make Joel better.
When they came home, my parents told me Joel had a cancer in his brain, and he was going to need surgery. They said they needed to stay with him at the hospital when he had the surgery, and I was going to have to be a brave girl while they were away. My grandparents came to stay with me.
When my parents came home from the hospital with Joel after his surgery, I thought everything was going to be okay. I was extra careful to be gentle with him.
But Joel wasn’t okay. There were more doctor appointments. He had chemotherapy and radiation appointments. At home, Mom held him almost all of the time, even while he slept. Dad took over cooking dinner when he came home from work. On the days Joel and Mom stayed in the hospital, Dad went there after work, and sometimes stayed the night too.
Grandma and Grandpa stayed with us a lot. They drove me to school, and back. Grandma made me bagged lunches in sacks decorated with cute stickers. They listened to me practice reading, and spelling. They bought me presents, even though it wasn’t my birthday.
I waited for Joel to get better, but he didn’t. Dad started taking me to the hospital with him in the evenings to visit Joel at the hospital. Sometimes I had to wear a mask to see him. He was puffy, and didn’t look or act Iike Joel. I closed my eyes when I was prompted by my parents to kiss him on the forehead.
One day, Grandpa picked me up from school. I chattered away in the car, and Grandpa would smile, but his eyes looked sad.
At our house, the living room curtains were drawn closed. The room was dark. Dad, who was usually at work, was sitting in his chair. Mom sat on the sofa. Grandma sat next to her, her arms around Mom. All of them were crying.
“Come here, sweetheart,” Dad said.
I was afraid, but I didn’t know of what. I knew something really bad had happened. I couldn’t move.
“Niki, come here,”
I walked across the room to my Dad. He put me in his lap.
“Niki, sweetheart, your baby brother, Joel, died at the hospital today. He’s in Heaven now, and he’s not suffering anymore.”
I burst into tears.
“But why did he die?” I was furious. “How did he die?”
“Niki, Joel was very sick. Sweetheart, you knew he was sick. You knew he was going to the doctor’s all the time. We took you to visit him. He had a brain tumor.”
“But I didn’t know he was going to die. I didn’t know babies could die. I thought only old people died. I didn’t know I was never going to see him again. Am I going to die?”
My father held me tightly, and cried into my hair.