My wristwatch bleeped at me because it understood that when I. hit the button on the side I was letting it know that I wanted the stopwatch to live up to its name. I greeted the sight of the stone emblazoned with my brother’s name with the casual familiarity that develops with frequent visits.
As usual, I had arranged for the mid-point of my six-mile run to be the civil-war memorial in the Pilgrim Home cemetery. Since my brother was a history buff, my parents decided to bury his remains in the only available plot remaining among the Holland, MI men who died in the Civil and Spanish American Wars. His heather-gray tombstone looks shiny and new next to the white, weathered slabs. It looks a little like he is the prop master for The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston — unfinished versions of the crescent-topped stone tablets littering the ground around him.
It’s summer, and there isn’t a cloud in the perfect sky to distract the bright warm sunshine that’s creeping through the branches and leaving silhouettes of the maple leaves across the ground and the back of my neck, their shadows shifting in the carefree breeze. I stand with my hands on my hips, breathing hard. I wipe the sweat from my eyes with the back of my hand and examine the salty taste that greets me as I lick my lips. Normally I’d sit and tell Zach all about the goings-on in my life, but today I just breath heavily, lean on his gravestone for a moment, comment on how perfect the weather is — he hated being cold — kiss my hand and pass him that affection with a pat of the smooth, cool stone. I make the sign of the cross — forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder — restart my watch’s chronograph, and head out for the last three miles of my early-evening run. Three more miles of sweat, deep, steady breaths and a hard-working heart.
“Bye, bud. Be back later.”
My parents had spent the week walking around the apartment in wet socks.
I was a little younger than two and busily navigated the curious world of knees and ankles constantly presented to creatures that size. We were living in a small apartment I no longer remember, but to which I became so attached that when we moved shortly after I turned two, a drive past the building was enough to get me crying.
People have asked me many times what it was like to grow up with a sibling with a terminal disease. I’ve never really had a good answer for them. I only have deep knowledge of the events through which I’ve lived, and so I have no point of reference from which to describe how life might have been different. We had a great time growing up, so I guess my answer should be “It was great growing up with a terminally ill brother.” That, however, sounds as peculiar to me as it probably does to you, so I don’t say it.
Cystic Fibrosis affects mainly the mucus glands of the lungs, liver, pancreas, and intestines, which means that not only are digestion and nutrient absorption less effective, but breathing is made more difficult and lung infections more likely. Because of this, Zach was prone to productive coughing fits that might startle someone unaccustomed to such an incident. Since there is no good reason not to spit out the mucus produced by a coughing fit and a few good reasons in favor of its removal, my brother always discreetly spat following any such episode. Being as behaviorally absorbent as any child that age, I desired to be just like my loved ones. This is why my parents had wet socks. They had, for some time, been finding random areas in the carpet that were inexplicably soggy. The ceiling wasn’t leaking, the appliances were all in working order, and they had long ago rid themselves of the cat. They stumbled upon me coughing the small, slightly pathetic cough of Tiny Tim from any of a number of film renditions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and then promptly spitting into the carpet. I had grasped the big picture while observing Zach — cough-cough, spit, cough-cough, spit — but my year-and-a-half year-old powers of observation had failed to grasp the idea of a proper receptacle for such an endeavor.
My parents weaned me from this habit as soon as they could.
Nobody likes wet socks.