My brother will always be my hero for the way he lived his life.
My brother was an unlikely hero. He never fought in a war or ran into a burning building to save someone’s life. In fact, he could be a regular pain in the ass on most days. But now, when I recall his courage as he faced death, I know he is my hero, and he always will be. He didn’t allow his illness to define who he was and he kept fighting until the very end.
Kelly was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 14 years old. On a class trip to an amusement park he developed an excruciating pain in his lower back. He told me later that it hurt a little bit in the morning, but he didn’t want to miss the trip. The chaperones thought he had injured himself so they called my parents to pick him up. At the emergency room they did routine blood tests and discovered that his white blood cell counts were off the charts.
He was transferred to a larger hospital in the city and my sister and I ended up staying with my grandma while our parents stayed at the hospital. They told us he had leukemia, a form of bone cancer, and that he would need to stay in the hospital for at least four months, possibly longer.
Our lives were never the same after the diagnosis. My mom took a leave from her job so she could stay at the hospital. My dad would relieve her on weekends and she would come home and catch up on laundry and housework. Her face was different. She didn’t smile and her eyes were always red. My sister and I would visit Kelly twice a week. Usually our grandma or an aunt would take us up to the hospital and one of our parents would drive us home or to our grandma’s house.
When we visited, we had to wear masks so he wasn’t exposed to germs. There was a recreation area where we played Monopoly. The entire floor of the hospital was reserved for children and we got to know many of them well. Kelly became good friends with some.
On one visit, he wouldn’t talk to us. When I asked my mom why, she told me one of his friends had died. I remember I started crying; it wasn’t until that moment that I realized Kelly might die too.
My parents had confidence in his doctors. They had explained that Kelly’s type of leukemia, ALL, was one of the most curable type of childhood cancers. That seemed reassuring, and when his first round of chemotherapy was finished he was allowed to come home in September for a few weeks.
He was home for his fifteenth birthday and we couldn’t invite people over because he was still susceptible to germs, but it was almost like old times. He blew out his candles and closed his eyes and made a wish. I knew what his wish was. It was the same one we were all praying for every night.
Kelly was a lovable kid, and popular, thanks to his outgoing personality. In our small town, everyone knows everyone else. He always had a sheep in the 4H club at the county fair. That year, I took it for him, and it was bid up to $20,000, breaking the previous record of $1,400. The town had a fund-raiser for our medical expenses, which raised $32,000.
Kelly had a lot of friends, and they called and talked to him all the time and they visited him in the hospital too. He was just like my dad, a really happy guy, who liked to joke around and tease. That’s what I miss the most: his playfulness. My sister and I are cut from a different mold. We are like my mom, who is a quiet person. With Kelly gone, the house is very still. Even the dogs don’t bark as much as they used to. He was always taking them outside and throwing the Frisbee to them. Zoee and I don’t do that.
Kelly didn’t complain. I asked him once if the needles they put in his spine and the port they put into his chest hurt, and he looked at me scornfully. “Of course they hurt,” he said. “But what am I going to do? I have to have the drugs and tests so I have to deal with it. If I let on how much it hurts that would make Mom and Dad feel even worse.” He was right, of course. Our parents loved us all so much. They always told us so, and we loved them right back. Kelly kept his pain hidden so they wouldn’t see it and feel more helpless than they already did.
Kelly went into remission in March and the Make A Wish Foundation gifted our family with a trip to Disney World. Even though Kelly had to go in a wheel chair we enjoyed the family time. When April came he felt well enough to return to school, and they bent the rules for him, allowing him to attend prom as a sophomore. He looked very handsome in his black tux. His hair had grown in a bit and he showed up in style, with four juniors as his dates. We were counting our blessings.
Then Kelly caught a cold he couldn’t shake. He was admitted to the hospital and we moved back in with our grandma. This time they told us he needed a bone marrow transplant, but before he could have the bone marrow transplant, his platelet counts would need to be raised.
In August, the doctors told my parents the drugs weren’t working. When they told Kelly he just nodded like he already knew. Maybe he did. We stayed at the hospital as a family for five days in his room. On the fifth day my parents told him it was OK to go, and he died about an hour later.