An Ode to Every Third Thought
For my brother,
As I sit on my top bunk in South Kensington, I can see the Natural History Museum from my window, full of bones. I hold Robert McCrum’s Every Third Thought in my hand and I scan the pages with tempo. I will interview McCrum tomorrow in class.
This book is all about the brain. Rather, the disintegration of the brain throughout a human lifetime. I rip tiny yellow post it notes from a pad and scribble notes to myself in pink ink. I try not to think of him, but that is nearly impossible.
I chose to interview McCrum on the second day of class. My professor said she needed someone confident and curious for this interview. I raised my hand instantly. I love interviews and have a journalist background of my own. We would have some common ground.
Only upon reading this book did I realize how much common ground we would have.
The study of the brain is in many ways personal to me. Brain science and medicine, memory loss, cancer, all of which are talked about within the first 100 pages, are all very personal to me. This interview will be hard for me. Not because I will struggle to be confident and curious. Not because I will have trouble coming up with questions. But rather because he will be in the front of my mind the whole time.
I began to cry on page 95. He references doctor Andre Lees, who calls comatose patients “extinct volcanoes”. He mentions a drug with incredible awakening powers. All I can see is him. Waking up confused and angry with wires attached to every square inch of his precious, fragile head. Once at 2 years old, and again at 20.
It was Mothers Day, March 22nd 2020. I had just finished packing up my dorm room in Boston. I remember being deathly ill and alone. One of my boxes exploded upon lifting it into a moving van. A kind worker helped me repack it, but I was in a haste. I had to catch a plane. I was so sweaty and sickly and losing my patience. The day could not get any worse.
I landed in California and remember turning on my phone to a stream of texts and missed calls. “Jack is in the hospital”. Okay, this is fine. My brother has had seizure-like episodes since the summer going into my freshman year of high school. It freaked out my parents, but he always ended up fine.
He would sometimes fall in the shower. I would hear my dad call out to me, hurriedly throwing on a towel and propping up his head. Another time, my mom was brushing his teeth and he collapsed to the floor. I remember hearing her shrill voice, not knowing what to do or how to react. I ran in to see him immoble on the floor. I was thirteen. I ran to the house phone and called an ambulance. I was articulate and to the point. I was an avid Greys Anatomy fan at the time. I felt scared, but capable. I could do this. I could be calm for my mom. I could help save him.
Throughout high school, he would occasionally have these episodes. We never got any real answers, only that he was cancer free, which was my parents biggest concern.
Looking back now, after Mothers Day of 2020, I can't imagine what it must have been like for my parents. I can't recall his cancer diagnosis. I was 16 months old and left with family friends, Nana, and Papa.
Medulloblastoma. A cancerous brain tumor. My mom recalls running out of the room, down the hospital halls, and collapsing on the stairs outside under the night sky. How can a two year old develop a brain tumor? What went wrong? Was it her fault? How could this be happening? It’s my baby.
Jack had been cancer free for 18 years when he had the brain bleed on Mothers Day 2020. I was in an airplane. Hundreds of feet in the air unaware that once I landed, my life would be changed forever. I would be alone for the summer. My mom would never leave his side. She barely showered.
I had only seen my dad cry once before the summer after my freshman year of college. It was at my fifth grade parent teacher conference. The teacher said I talked too much. I didn’t get it at the time. He wanted me to succeed so badly. He wanted me to be good in school so that I could be successful and live a life of freedom and independence. A life that my brother never got the chance to have. In some ways, I am his legacy. At the time I was embarrassed, but now I understand. Now I want to make him proud. Both my dad and Jack.
My Mom and Dad were in a state of disarray and depression like I have never seen. I could not visit my Nana without her breaking down into tears and recalling when he had cancer. My Papa stayed quiet, he had to be strong. I had to be strong. I was alone in my house all summer. The sun would come up every morning and I would wake up in an animated coloring book of a house. My mom hangs Jack's artwork up everywhere. The house is painted after a sunflower. It resembles a small cottage in a fairytale. But I woke up in a nightmare. Alone.
I would not allow myself to cry everyday. I would find my mom’s special flower and numb myself. I would cook colorful meals, work out a lot, journal, and meditate. At the time, I thought I was coping well.
My mom took to social media and documented everything. She has always been good about leaning on others for support. The synagogue that we would rarely attend unless Jack was ill, facebook friends whom she had not seen in years, it didn't matter. I am more like my dad, I grieve in isolation. I do not like when others can see slivers of sorrow in my optimistic facade.
I would take out photo albums. I would search for pictures of Jack before he had cancer. He looked just like my dad. His smile was so radiant and bright. Looking at his little teeth and soft face brought tears to my eyes. The baby in the pictures had been struck with a malignant tumor and pumped with poison until he turned gray and blind.
My grief comes in waves. I suppress negative emotions to be strong and escape them. To be happy for the people around me. But when I allow my mind to wander it inevitably finds what I try to forget. I often cry over how much has changed.
My mom would post updates to social media before she would tell me what was happening with Jack. One morning, I woke up to a text from my best friend's mom, saying that if we needed anything to let her know. I remember opening up facebook to my mom’s most recent post. Jack’s lungs were filling with water. He had been in a coma for 33 days and now he was beginning to drown from inside of his own body. My mom ended it with “I can feel him slipping away”.
I am not religious, but I ran to retrieve my brother's yellow scrap of a baby blanket, I held it tight to my chest, and I fell on the floor sobbing madly. I remember asking God to please please please save him. Please let him wake up. Please do not let him die. I will never do anything bad again. I will pray to you everyday. I can not lose him. He has been the good in my life forever. The light of this family. The person that unites us through all of the darkness and fighting.
He woke up. But not the same. He can walk and talk, but not the same as before. His eyes are different. His hugs and kisses and speech are all different. He doesn’t sing or dance or smile as much. He is not the person I grew up beside. He is different.
My sophomore year of college I moved in with Maya. She is someone that I can cry in front of and not feel embarrassed. She is a soft and strong soul and much like Jack, reminds me that pure hearts always win.
Much like Jack, I have changed since Mother’s Day 2020. I have become a lot softer. Growing up, I was raised to see crying and emotion as a sign of weakness, so I grew up numb and strong.
Now, I cry often. Sophomore year with Maya was a learning curve. When I would cry about Jack she would open her arms and ask to hug me. At first, I was genuinely uncomfortable. I was used to crying in silence, and felt vulnerable. However, I grew to love hugs.
On August 18th I met Tarik, my current boyfriend. We met in the gym. I went up to him, we talked briefly, and we have seen each other pretty much everyday after that. Tarik and I could not be more different. He earned a Bachelors in Mathematics at Harvard and just finished his Masters in Quantitative Finance from Boston University. He enjoys playing violin, chess, and powerlifting. He is left brained to the max, and I am right. I remember one night he walked me through his thesis paper, trying to break down and teach the concepts in a way that would make sense to me. He pulled out a pen and paper and started frantically writing down graphs and variables. His passion was permeating the room, the way he gripped the pen and the excitement in his voice. Even though he might as well have been speaking another language, I fell right then. His passion, patience, and thoughtfulness are some of the reasons why I love him.
Before Tarik, I would have never felt comfortable talking about things like Jack with a romantic partner. I hate crying in front of people I love, but I hate it less now because of Tarik. I no longer feel like I always have to be strong. I have found unconditional love and support within our relationship, and to have found our harmony, I am eternally grateful.
Despite the time passed, and the relationships that have helped me heal, I still find it hard to wrap my head around. Why am I here in London, and Jack over there? Why was I given this opportunity to live independently that he won’t get? The survivor's guilt is sometimes consuming.
However, I know the fragility of life, and I do not intend on wasting it.
As I said, I am not religious, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason. There is a reason why Jack is my brother, why I am interviewing Robert McCrum tomorrow on his book about “life, death and the end game”. People, experiences, goodness, badness. It all happens for a reason. I choose to find lightness in this. I choose to be optimistic because we only have so much time here to see what we can, meet who we can, and create what we were meant to.
McCrum’s book reinforces the idea that life is fleeting and death is inevitable. He quotes John Donne who says, “in a minute a Canon batters all, overthrows all, demolishes all”.
Despite his health struggles since two years old, Jack has repeatedly chosen to fight for his life. He is a resilient angel on earth who overcame cancer, blindness, and a brain bleed. He has beaten the odds contrary to what medical professionals thought possible. He continues to bring lightness to this world. He is my muse.
Jack was born on January 11, 2000. On the eleventh day of the first month at the turn of a century. Angel numbers 111.
Souls do not meet by accident.