Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hitting the Rewind

I went to a training for work today. At one point we were discussing youth development and one of our activities was to close our eyes and "hit the rewind", go back in time and remember what it felt like when we were a certain age. When the facilitator walked over to my table, she said "you'll be the 10-12 group". Meaning? I had to close my eyes and remember what it was like to be 10-12. What was happening in our lives? What was our relationship like with our parents? With our siblings? What did we do for fun? What were we afraid of?

What was I doing when I was 10-12? I closed my eyes and all I saw was Manny. What was I afraid of? I was afraid he would die.

I'm not saying I didn't get together with friends or worry about getting good grades or fight with my sisters or disagree with my parents. I am sure I did all of these things. But. I. Can't. Remember. Them. And, when you ask me what it was like to be 10 or 11 or 12, all I can think of is my brother.

I was 10 when he was diagnosed. We visited him in the hospital a lot. We bought in trays of food on holidays and birthdays. We laughed at the "time channel" (a channel that was literally just a clock showing the time). There were always more people in the room than the hospital was supposed to allow-- no one ever bothered enforcing the rule. He tried to surprise us when he would come home unexpectedly from the hospital. He introduced the now famous banana milkshake. We played basketball outside. The hoop was nailed to the side of the house and the wall would shake when the ball hit it. We almost set the basketball on fire once when it landed on the BBQ grill. We watched wrestling with him. Not because we liked it really but because we wanted to be with him. What we were doing was largely irrelevant. It's the being with that we wanted. That's what I remember at 10.

When I was 11, he was fighting a losing battle to AML. One of my last memories of him was New Years Day 1995. We had just come back from my aunt's house in NJ. He sat down at the dining room table and I did what I always did; I followed him. We sat. And then, he started to cry. To sob. Because he was afraid of dying. I stared at my hands. My mom came in and sat next to him and told him that we were doing the transplant to save his life. He cried. I stared at my hands. If there's a moment in my life I could take back, it would be that one. In the do-over I would get up and hug him and tell him he was my hero. I would hold his hand instead of staring at my own. But we don't get do overs in real life. Two months later, Manny died. I remember my mom telling me. I remember screaming. I remember crying. I remember my aunt coming to hug me as I fell out of my chair. I remember my heart and how it hurt. How it felt like someone was literally tearing it apart. It was the first time I realized that a heart could actually break, could shatter, when part of it is taken away. I remember all of this from when I was 11.

At 12, I was trying to pick up the pieces. To move on without leaving him behind. I was sneaking up to his room to see if his clothes still had his scent. I was snuggling on his bed holding his stuffed monkey, James. I was trying to figure out how he could get his toothpaste so foamy when he brushed his teeth, and attempting endlessly to get mine to do the same. I was going down to the basement to the closet door where my mom had penciled in all of our measurements to see if he was still taller than me. I started writing. Words helped. Pencil to paper. Memories, what I had of them, were put into words. My brother became words. It's how I tried to save him from being forgotten. And myself from missing him so much. So I could remember the Olivia I had been and the life I had had when my Manny was living it with me. That was me at 12.

When they asked us to open our eyes again, I was still stuck in 10-12 year old Olivia's head. Has that ever happened to you? It happens to me every time I think of my brother. I'm always 11. He's always 14. And, the longer I sit and think of him, the longer I close my eyes and remember his face or how it felt to hold his hand or how he laughed when I hugged him hard-- the more real he becomes in my mind-- the harder it is to come back to 26 year old me and the longer I get stuck in that place in my memory where my brother now lives. He becomes more than just the words I put together. I'm usually pretty good at stopping myself before it starts to hurt too much. I can remember a moment, a gesture, a feeling and then stop before the memories become too painful. Usually. But on other days, like this one, I sit and remember and I forget to be careful. I remember so much and he becomes so clear that when I open my eyes, it's like I've lost him all over again. And it'll take me a few minutes or even hours to "snap out of it", whatever "it" is. That's how it was for 20 minutes this afternoon. Hard.

And, when the group came to sharing their experiences as 10-12 year olds, it took everything I had to not say: "Actually, I was 11 when my brother died. I don't remember how it felt to be in school or what I talked about with my friends or if I cared about boys. I just remember that I went to the hospital a lot and everyone was trying to save my brother's life. And then on a crappy day in March, he died. I hate March." I can't put into words what that felt like. And it wasn't the time or the place to share my brother. (That's what I do here) So, I shrugged, said the trip down memory lane had been a difficult one, that there were some family problems, and that I had dealt with them by writing. None of this entirely untrue. And the facilitator smiled and said that it made sense. When you're in that age group you're just starting to learn how to process and internalize thoughts. It made sense that I would think and write about my problems. And when the others in the group shared, I simply smiled and nodded. 20 minutes later I was 26 again.


Anonymous said...

I think every time you remember Manny, talk about him, do advocacy work for the cause of cancer research - every step you take on that treadmill preparing for fundraising efforts - every one of these moments rewrites that do-again moment where you didn't give the hug - you have given it over and over again, and more.

I just hope you have someone around to give a hug to 26-year old Olivia! Sending you one,


Kristen said...

Olivia, I am sitting here with tears (and mascara) streaming down my face... you express yourself so clearly and beautifully. My heart breaks for your 10-12 year old self, and for you now, even though you are so obviously strong. I'm so glad that you discovered that writing helped to ease your pain a bit when you were 12, and I hope that it still does. And Irene had the same thought as me - every time you do advocacy work, or make Ylaria smile, or write about Manny, or are thankful for the sky, or verb your life Erin-style, you are re-doing that moment, and I would bet a million dollars that Manny somehow, somewhere, feels it. :-)

Sending you so much love today-