Vibrantly Colored - chapter 1 excerpt
Please enjoy this excerpt from my color-filled, poetic memoir.
THE SKIES ARE CRYING
The skies are crying.
‘Twas sunshine every day,
No hint of ominous gray;
Blue in the glorious sky
Traces of clouds drifting by.
Grass was turning again green
Though yellow-green was only seen;
Ground was hard, going dry
Stare around with a glassy eye.
The skies are crying.
Birds were coming from down south,
No echoes from Winter’s gaping mouth.
‘Twas becoming again deadly hot,
Air was dry – no, indeed, was not.
Sweat was wiped off many a brow -
Strange that it is not hot now;
Chirping and singing of numerous birds,
Endless rounds of the same old words.
The skies are crying.
The Blue must end:
It’s Gray again.
The skies are crying…
A cacophony of silence
The skies are crying…
Shock in faces all around
The skies are crying…
Thunderstruck in disbelief
The skies are crying…
Bowing down in wrenching grief
The skies are crying…
Not a whisper of any sound.
The skies are crying:
The day is dying:
Night comes flying:
The skies -
THE RED BATTLES
The hallways wind like tunnels, only they are made of stern, uncompromising angles that glare in the harsh shine of the fluorescent lights. They are windowless, their single defining feature square white tiles spotted and waxy. I stare at the floor, convinced it is another yellow brick road, leading me to a certain ending, though I don’t know yet whether it is good or bad. I simply place my feet one after the other and continue to walk.
When I look up, I see two doors, light grey with windows. A single red warning is written in bold letters. The color jars me, so strange and out of place. It stops me, as it is meant to do, and I consider what lies ahead. Through those doors, I know there is movement and sound, but for a moment, I exist in a vacuum, falsely lit and sterile, alone, facing long hours of waiting. Will tragedy end my day?
For a moment, fear washes through me, bringing an insane desire to scream or wail. My arms remain outstretched, just short of pushing open the waiting doors. Am I strong enough?
Reason returns, beating back my fulvous grief. Dark claret blood rushes through my racing heart, and I take a deep breath, trying to slow it down. Yes, I must find the will within to be strong. If not for me, then for them. My mother and father, who’ve waited with full knowledge the entire time. For them, I will hold my head up, and smile, and eat raspberry-filled donuts. I will wait with patience, though that, too, is my enemy. I will hold their hands and straighten my spine when the doctor comes out. I will not cry. Not just yet.
My brother still lives.
It began six months earlier. He’d been complaining of a back pain, which grew as weeks passed. A strained muscle, perhaps, or a pulled tendon. Something that rest would take care of. He was young, only twenty. He would recover.
But the pain only grew, a stained-damask haze that began to take over, that refused him even the relief of sleep. It turned into a constant, moaning ache, one he could no longer pretend to ignore.
My brother finally told my mom the truth – he had a lump, and had been too ashamed to admit it. Immediately, she made a doctor’s appointment. They went.
I remember so clearly coming home that day, the bus pulling up to my house after school, seeing both of my parent’s cars already parked. They never came home early. Something was wrong. I could feel the knowledge coiling in my gut, crimson denial suppressed by what I somehow already knew.
When I walked into my house, it was as if my body was controlled by someone else, unassisted by any thoughts of mine. To the left my mom and dad sat in the living room, waiting to tell me, waiting to curb my grief, but I could see it running rampant in their eyes.
“Your brother… has cancer,” my mom choked out.
My dad nodded solemnly, giving me a moment to process those four simple words. Tears threatened, but I beat them back. My brother still lived. I would not cry.
“How… how bad is it?”
They glanced at each other, and I could see them weighing how much to tell me. Inside, I yelled at them. I’m strong enough for the truth! But I kept my face calm, my body still.
“He has an operation scheduled for next week, to remove the tumor. We’ll know more after that.”
My mom stood up to leave.
“I’m going to check on your brother. He’s lying down in his room.”
After she left, I turned to face my father.
“What kind of cancer is it?”
“Testicular. So the operation should be able to take care of that.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
He sighed again.
“They think it might have spread. We need to pray, mija, really hard.”
I thought back to the previous six months, to the growing discomfort inside my brother’s body. I understood in that moment that our family’s journey was just beginning.
A week and a half later, results came in. The operation was successful. But the cancer had metastasized. He needed to begin treatments immediately.
When he went in the hospital for the first of his four-day stays, three of which he spent on a constant infusion of chemotherapy, I learned the rest of the ugly, incarnadine truth. His cancer had turned into germ-cell cancer, one of the most aggressive types of cancer. He had tumors in his liver, kidneys, lungs, and along his ventricular tubes. The largest, of course, was in his back, bigger than a grapefruit and pressing against his spine. It was the source of the pain he’d been battling for six months. His body was close to a complete breakdown.
The truth stared at me in the face, a cardinal list of unwavering facts: my brother was dying.
We turned to chemotherapy to help.
Chemotherapy is a peculiar form of treatment, a poison for the entire body that eats away… everything. The only hope was that it killed all the bad cells before killing all the good ones.
But the side effects…
I remember coming home one day to my mother crying. My brother was, as had become the norm, resting in his room. Fear shot through me at the sight of her florid face, her bloodshot eyes.
She tried to be strong, but it was so hard to see her baby boy suffer.
“He’s… he’s losing his hair. It started falling out in clumps today.”
Grief again closed my throat, choking me. But I looked at my mom, swallowed the ache, and took her hand.
“Mom, he’s still... fighting, still hanging in there. So... there’s still hope. I wanna cry, but I won't. That's like mourning him already. But, you know everything happens for a reason. At least I hope. And you're the one who told me God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.”
She smiled at me, understanding what I tried to say with my faltering words.
“I know, mija. I know.”
But I came close to breaking my own promise to myself when they put in my brother’s central line.
His veins were shot, his body dehydrated from his inability to eat and the poison snaking its way through the scarlet network tracing itself across the deepest contours of his physical form. After three stays in the hospital, the doctor decided they needed to put in a permanent I.V., not just for the chemo, but for the saline that was keeping him alive. He’d lost one hundred pounds in four months. He was out of reserves.
My dad stayed with my brother for the procedure, trading off with my mother who would work that day. Throughout the entire time, my brother, who refused to smile, still steadfastly endured every poke and prod and fiery burn of unknown chemicals.
But when I asked my dad how it went later that night, he put his head down and pressed his hand to his forehead. I knew he was fighting tears.
“It was… very painful. They couldn’t numb him. I… I had to help hold him down. He screamed.”
Tears flooded my eyes. At long last, my brother screamed, lost to his crimson agony.
My brother’s treatment stretched out over four months, which coincided with my summer break. I was there with him during those four-day stays, alternating with cancer treatment center visits once a week during the three weeks he was away from the hospital. During those long months, I learned a lot about myself and my relationship to that big older guy who shared my blood. As the minute yet life-threatening battles took place inside each cerise cell, I watched my brother lose his appetite, shave his head, and become despondent. Before he lost his ability to eat completely, he became obsessed with a blue sports drink. But he also always had a tub nearby, in case his stomach rebelled and refused the proffered sustenance, no matter how flimsy a compromise. Instead, the vats filled up with his spit, great big gobs that began to threaten my own stomach’s strength of will. I began to yearn for the days when I cleaned his vomit, because that was something I understood.
There were lots of late nights, and eating out with my parents as they came after work to visit my brother. Lots of prayer, and suppressed tears, and occasional bursts of laughter.
Perhaps the most vivid memories I have are of the days we spent together in the hospital. Those are moments of peace, sitting with him watching TV, checking out all the gorgeous male nurses and doctors, playing my vihuela, asking endless questions.
“You know, I only think you come visit me to flirt with the nurses and doctors.”
He said it with almost a smile, so I knew he was joking.
“Well, you gotta admit, there are a lot of good-looking guys around here.”
He grunted, which was his abbreviated version of a chuckle, and turned back to look at the TV. I watched him in silence for a moment, wishing he would say more. But the chemo took all of his focus. He was filled with anger, resentment, and fear, and no words I had could even begin to ease him, especially because there was a line of comprehension beyond which I couldn’t follow, because it wasn’t my body dying, rubicund bit by bit.
So I let the silence sink back in, a companionable silence. We were there, living, thinking, watching. It was enough for him.
But my mind often wondered, as I dreamed and sang songs in my head, as I wrote wispy poems. As I let some of my excitement build inside me for my coming trip. Because I also had my life, still going on. And I continued to refuse, as I had since the beginning, to live my days in total mourning. Since my brother still fought, because it appeared as if he was beating the cancer – if not the chemo – I felt freed to experience joy in living my life.
That summer was the first time I not only stepped on a plane, it was the first time I visited another country. I spent those three weeks abroad performing, but that was only the first part. I also met as many people as I could, went to every event to which I was invited, stayed up endless sunlit nights. Because I wanted to honor my brother, I did not let myself grieve. Instead, I let myself grow as I undertook as many new experiences as I could – wandering in foreign villages, riding boats down rivers, exploring open markets, and talking to people from nearly two dozen different countries. There was no room for mourning, only pulsating exploration and utter satisfaction in the moment. Of my brother’s struggle and his pain, I refused to dwell on. We both lived, and that was enough.
Soon enough, however, I had to return home, to the scarlet-drenched battles taking place all throughout my brother’s body. The pain that had been the signal from his malformed cells, that had finally called him to action, that morphine could not dent, was gone. As aggressive a cancer as it was, it was also equally responsive to intensive chemotherapy. The only real fight left was killing the rest of the tumors before the chemo killed the rest of my brother.
That was perhaps the strangest aspect of the treatment process for me. Chemotherapy was always a race between the healthy and unhealthy cells of the body. But only to buy a little more time. Because the cancer might come back. Or the long-term effects of the chemo, which might show up fifteen or sixteen years later and begin breaking down the body yet again. In the end, chemo was a costly lifesaver, one my brother has said he will never let himself undergo again.
My brother’s chemo treatments had been incredibly successful – if we didn’t count his spent veins, his suffering, and the breakdown of the rest of his body.
On my brother’s final visit to the cancer treatment center, where he never laughed and rarely spoke, his nurse arrived and set about giving him his final dose of chemo. When she was done, my brother looked up at her and gave her the biggest, if briefest, smile. She smiled back, surprised. She knew just what it cost him to do that.
But when the chemo had finished its damaging run, the cancer wasn’t completely gone. Several tiny tumors still remained, resistant and defiant, ready to return and spread again through the vermillion canals that coursed through my brother’s body.
So the doctors called for an operation. A very risky operation, one that involved cutting my brother open from sternum to pubic bone, which is a long cut on a young man 6’2” tall. But on top of that, the tumors themselves lived on my brother’s ventricular tubes, the veins leading to his heart. Added to that, it was only the sixth operation of its kind that the doctor had ever performed, expected to last well over eight hours. One slight deviation, one wrong slice of the scalpel, one wrong cut, and my brother could die.
But the other option was to let the tumors remain and begin to grow again. Which was truly no option at all.
The first day of high school I ever missed was Halloween day of my senior year. It was the day of my brother’s big operation. My parents said I could go to school, but how could I sit there those long hours waiting to hear how my brother’s operation went? I might be needed to give blood to him, might be needed to… I didn’t know, really. Maybe I wasn’t needed, but I knew I needed to be there. How could I sit in a class and pretend to focus? Could I simply be another person in a costume pretending to be other than I was? Could I profane the unalterable truth of my brother’s fight by submerging myself into a fantasy of life and happy ever after?
After more than three years of perfect attendance, I missed my first day of high school that year without regret, without regard to the interruption of a suddenly meaningless record. Life was record enough, and I wanted to be there for my brother. Even if I was helpless to do anything else.
As I passed through those doors, those cold and unforgiving, uncaring portals that glared a carmine warning at me about what lay beyond, I knew that my brother’s struggle was nearing completion, one way or another. The greatest titian battle had yet to take place, and it was one between people, steady hands, and a beating heart.
For a moment, unexpected dread washes through my body, followed by an urge to action - scream, wail, cry, spin in place. Anything, really, to relieve the overwhelming powerlessness pinning me in place. I remain frozen, sitting in the waiting room, wondering, praying. Am I strong enough?
Reason returns, beating back my ruby-tinged grief. Burgundy blood rushes through my racing heart, dizzying me. I take a deep breath, trying to slow each beat. I cannot give in, not now. Not after believing in my brother’s will to survive for so long. I try to find my will within to be strong. For myself. And for them. My mother and father, who’ve waited with full knowledge of the possibilities of how my brother’s ravaging illness might end. They are, as I am, completely unable to do anything for my brother except hope and pray. And accept.
For them, I will hold my head up, and smile, and eat raspberry-filled donuts. I will wait with patience, though that, too, is my enemy. I will hold their hands and straighten my spine when the doctor comes out. I will not cry. Not just yet.
My brother still lives.
The hours spent in the waiting room were not nearly as long or agonizing as I feared. We broke the monotony by going to the hospital cafeteria and buying donuts, none of us wanting to stay away too long in case something happened. In case we might be needed. I longed for the doctors to ask to open my own veins and share my blood with my brother.
Maybe then I might feel useful.
Instead, I grew to hate the taste of donuts.
To our surprise, scarcely six hours passed before the doctor emerged. He looked tired, but otherwise his expression gave nothing away. I had no idea what that might mean.
How is my brother? I begged internally. But I said nothing, waiting, accepting.
The doctor came and sat down on one of the chairs near us. I spent a moment thinking how odd it was to see a surgeon in full uniform sitting so naturally on a chair. He looked just like us, though we had no training or ability to save a person’s life with a set of precision tools and extreme deliberation.
But then he spoke, distracting me from my musings.
“The operation was an incredible success. We were able to remove all of the remaining tumors. As of now, no cancer remains in his body.”
Relief washed through me – the cleanest, most invigorating feeling I thought perhaps I had ever known. Tears came to my eyes, as they did to my mom’s, and I struggled to swallow mine back and pay attention to the doctor.
“The incision still needs to be closed, and then he will be taken to the ICU. After he is settled there, you will be able to see him.”
My father spoke up.
“How long until he regains consciousness?
“Well, he may in fact be awake when you see him, but he will be extremely groggy and likely not remember much of what you may talk to him about. But I have to tell you, that guy is a survivor. He came through this operation more successfully than any other I’ve done thus far. Truly, your prayers were answered.”
The doctor’s words surprised me. I hadn’t been aware that he’d noticed, much less appreciated, our bowed heads and whispered words. That made the hope surging through me become real. The doctor hadn’t known exactly how it might go, either, but in the end, he’d simply tried his best. Hoped his best. Just as we had.
That night, we were able to visit my brother in the ICU. When I walked in, I forced myself to move forward as my mind tried to take in the mass of wires and cords and machines pulsing and beeping and keeping my brother alive. He was completely dependent on the electricity powering those mechanisms to keep him alive. Never had life felt so fragile.
When I finally tore my eyes away from the spectacle, I found my mother crying. I remembered the first time I’d found her sobbing, clutching tufts of my brother’s newly fallen hair. And my promise to myself. My tears receded.
“Mom, I’m not gonna cry. Not yet. How can I? He’s still here, still fighting. He’s still alive. I can’t cry, not when he’s trying so hard to stay here.”
She swallowed and wiped her eyes.
“You’re right, you’re right. It’s just so hard to see him there with… with all those machines.”
“Then maybe we should learn what each one does.”
Just then, my brother stirred. We went to greet him. But like my burning curiosity about the machines attached throughout his body, I had one question for him I couldn’t resist.
“Hey, can I see your cut?”
My dad and mom looked at me in exasperation, but the ploy worked. Not only did I distract them from their growing helplessness, but I got to see the bright red line running from the bottom of his sternum all the way down past his belly button.
When the nurse came in, I asked question after question, trying to understand all the machines in front of me, why he needed so many, what they all did. The nurse patiently answered my interrogation.
“Why is he wearing socks?”
“Those are support hose, or TEDS. Those are used to keep the blood circulating through his body by maintaining pressure on his feet and legs since he’s going to be laying down for a while.”
“What is that tube down his throat?”
“That’s the tracheostomy tube. It goes down his trachea and helps him keep breathing.”
“What’s the line in his nose?”
“We call that an NG tube. That stands for nasogastric. It goes down his nose and throat and ends up in his stomach. It’s another way to feed him, since we’re using his central line for medications.”
When my questions finally ran down, I gave my brother – who had been mostly unconscious – a gentle pat on the shoulder and left his room. I waited for my mother and father to join me. Late that night when we left the hospital, it was, for the first time in many months, with sincere joyful exhaustion.
My brother was going to be okay. He still lived.
Months after his final operation, after he was pronounced in remission, my brother sat on the couch at home watching TV. I came in and sat on the couch opposite of him, my eyes turned to watch whatever show was on, respecting his quiet.
But in my hand, I clutched a single photo.
After a while, I turned to my brother.
“Hey, check this out.”
He took the photo from my outstretched hand, his face solemn. He stared at it for a long moment, his expression betraying nothing. Serious, still, the humor not yet fully returned to his eyes and the new creases around his mouth. He remained silent, as did I.
He finally grunted, almost too softly for me to hear, then offered the picture back. I quietly took the picture and turned back to face the TV.
Of the gaunt, hollow-cheeked, starved figure in the photo, we said nothing. That wasn’t him. Not anymore.
When that program ended, my brother switched channels.
“Hey, bro, I was watching that.”
“Aw, come on!”
“No, I wanna watch this.”
Underneath our bickering, however, was relief. We still argued, and laughed, and fought, and smiled. More than anything else, we still lived.
He still lived.