Tuesday, October 20, 2015
A Remembered Event: Bonded by Blood by Noelia Lopez
One February 3, 2013, my mother called us to let us know our older brother was dying, and that we needed to get to Boston Medical Center right so that we could say goodbye. It was a long time coming; my older brother had been slowly dying from lupus for the past ten years. His body had been destroying itself cell by cell every day for an entire decade. Even so, the news came as a sucker punch. Perhaps I simply thought he’d suffer for ever, selfishly expecting things to stay the same. My mother and younger sister went to visit my older brother on a regular basis, but my younger brother and I never went. We had our reasons. And on our way to Maverick station, walking through a light powdery coating of snow, Jose and I talked about those reasons. Through sporadic bouts of tears and regret, we tried to justify those reasons to ourselves and each other.
For Jose, my younger brother, it was a matter of independence. Our older brother would scold him severely when he returned home late, or pick fights with him for dropping out of school, calling him a loser. Jose didn’t respond well to this; he was our brother, not our father. Lectures turned into screaming matches. They both went for the throat, aiming to cause the most damage to each other’s egos. What were they arguing about? Rules? Jose’s future? More and more it seemed like a bloodthirsty battle for dominance. Once, in the heat of battle, my younger brother said, as he had so many times before, “I can’t wait for you to die.” He said it through clenched teeth, fighting back angry tears. As he stomped away, slamming his bedroom door behind him, our older brother picked up a chair and smashed it into the door. It was only a matter of time before they killed each other.
In retrospect, it was petty; it was all petty and childish, and if someone on either side ever had the sense to be mature about any of it, things wouldn’t have turned out this way. But you can’t expect
a thirty-four year old man who has been slowly rotting away from the inside out to behave rationally. And you can’t expect a teenage boy to be the bigger man.
He was my older brother, but we were twelve years apart in age and thousands of miles away in mindset. He was my older brother, but we were more like roommates. By the time I was in elementary school, he had already left home. He was my brother in name only. He only returned home because his illness had made it impossible for him to live alone. For me, it was all avoidance. When he tried to speak to me, I turned away. I tried not to look the face of suffering in the eye. Every time he tried to reach out to me, I withdrew. Every time I walked past his room, I could smell the festering stench of sickness. I simply couldn’t bear with it.
When Jose and I arrived at the hospital, he was unconscious and barely breathing. There was no question; he was absolutely dying. If it weren’t for the medical equipment, we wouldn’t have been able to see him in time. Our mother told us to say our goodbyes. She was insistent about it. “It would be awful to spurn him at his deathbed,” she said. “I know you didn’t get along,” she pleaded in Spanish, “but just forgive him.” Our little sister was right next to her, silently dealing with the loss of the closest person she had to a father figure. They left us alone with the eldest son to cry in another room.
Sometimes his body would become engorged with fluid, his skin turn purple and bruised. I would ask myself, is this swollen sack of flesh really related to me? I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. But our older brother didn’t look like that this time. Instead, he was the classic image of a sick, dying man. He was thin and bony, hooked up to machines several different ways. There were tubes in his mouth, in his chest, in his abdomen, and who knows where else. The displays and beeps of his lifelines were slightly out of sync, but diligently working in a steady rhythm. They sounded quietly in the back of my mind as I tried to form my parting words.
Nurses would occasionally come in to check tubing and readings, interrupting as I started to speak. I quietly waited for them to leave. I didn’t want any of them to hear what I was going to say because I knew it would sound awful. I didn’t intend on apologizing or saying anything sentimental. I just wanted to explicitly say something that was always implied. I took a deep breath to steady my voice, but the words came out weak and shaky: “I just want you to know that, despite everything I said and did, I never really hated you.” Then I left, feeling much better about leaving him behind.
There was nothing I could do about it. That’s what I constantly told myself because that’s what I wanted to believe. I just wanted to let it happen, to have it have nothing to do with me. In truth, had I been able to muster up any sense of courage, I might have been able to provide him with a sense of support or comfort. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.
All I could see was a human being rotting from the inside out-- a literal manifestation of self-hatred. My older brother always had some sort of complaint about how privileged we were, how easy we had it. I suppose it would seem that way to someone who had a life as rough as his. But that had nothing to do with us. All he did was create a barrier between himself and his younger siblings. I couldn’t bring myself to love him, but I never truly hated him. We were simply too different. It was so frustrating.
It was decided to take him off life support. He was already on borrowed time and he wouldn’t want to live like that anyway. We had ten years to steel ourselves for this moment. When the nurses called our family back into his room, he was already cleaned up. They had removed the unsightly tubes and wires; only a single machine remained. Now we just had to watch him die.
All four of us stood there, watching and tearing up. He made motions as if he was taking in breaths, struggling to breathe. The nurses had already explained to us that whatever he did, it was all reflexes and did not indicate revival. Our mother poured some water into her palm and started brushing some water on his lips and tongue with her fingers, quietly cooing and shushing him. Then he finally stopped moving. “He was thirsty,” she spoke softly, “he just wanted some water before he left.” His skin started to fade in color, becoming an ashen, washed out yellow. You see the warmth of life leave his body and turn cold. The steady, soothing beeping rang out as we silently organized our feelings.
I don’t remember what Jose said, or if he even said anything at all. It’s the same with my little sister and mother. But none of that really matters anyway. What matters most in these circumstances is whether you can settle your spirit and walk away with your head held high. And that’s exactly what we did. Despite everything that was said, we managed to do this right.
Once a would-be editor, now an aspiring preschool teacher, Noelia Lopez is a first generation American living in East Boston and experiencing the realities of the American dream. Nevertheless, she hopes to somehow enrich the lives of the people around her by nurturing young minds to embrace education and learning through picture books and nursery rhymes.