Monday, August 2, 2010

Saying Manny's name

Yesterday was Manny's birthday. He would have been 30. Thirty. I can't even imagine it. I can't picture Manny at any other age than 14. I'm always 11. He's always 14. My brain can't wrap itself around 30. At. All. I'm not sure it ever will.

Every time Manny's birthday rolls around, I always want to do something to honor him. Something special to mark his day. In years past I've made banana milkshakes (he taught me) or baked his favorite cake (chocolate with vanilla frosting). This year, I could think of only one way to best celebrate him-- I spent the afternoon stringing the sky onto lanyards. I think he approved. He was, after all, the artist in the family. I pictured him up in Heaven stringing the sky blue and white and pink and gold with Erin. It was comforting to imagine us engaged in the same activity, even if we were so far apart.

I mentioned my lanyard afternoon to Vickie, and she responded with a question that has left me thinking all day. "When did it get easier to talk to my friends about Manny?"

The truth is I struggle with talking about Manny (out loud or in my head). As I said to a friend late last night (as I lay in bed unable to sleep, my mind still busy trying to wrap itself around 30) if I have to be really honest, I don't let myself think about Manny too much. Most of the time, I just can't, I just don't, let him become too real. I can write about things he did, or talk about his illness, I can picture his smile in my mind but only for a short while. And then, I have to make myself stop. Because when I don't stop, when I keep remembering, he becomes more than just the words I am saying or the moments I am recalling. He becomes my Manny. He is then so real that it's almost like I can see his face directly in front of mine, and I can hear his laughter in my ear, and I can feel the way he used to hug me all soft from his baggy clothes and strong from the bear hugs we'd share. And then the moment is gone and I feel like I've lost him all over again. And my heart breaks just the littlest bit.

And saying out loud: "I have a brother. His name is Manny and he died when he was 14 of AML" leaves me feeling so much more vulnerable. Saying the words out loud makes the loss more real. The words hang in the air and I wait for whomever I am speaking them to to catch them and do something with all of their weight. To be honest, conversations about my brother never go much beyond that sentence. After the awkward pause where my brain is screaming to fill the silence whomever I am speaking to will say they are so sorry and we'll move onto more "acceptable" topics like the weather or last night's episode of Glee. No one likes to linger on death. Especially the death of a child.

I am however, blessed with friends who don't mind the silence. Who take the time to ask me about Manny. They ask me what he was like and what I miss most. I appreciate those questions. When it's not about how he died, but how he lived.

I am most comfortable sharing Manny out loud with friends who have experienced the pediatric cancer world and who have lost loved ones too. Maybe it's just because we're all (against our will) part of the same very crappy club, but I feel less vulnerable (and alone) when I say: "I have a brother. His name is Manny and he died when he was 14 of AML" because I know they have their own version of the same sentence to share.

And I am more certain that when I tell them that he died 15 years ago they'll understand that I don't mean I've spent most of my life without a brother, but rather that I've spent most of my life missing my brother and trying endlessly to carry him with me into the world.

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