When we were kids, you once grabbed my hand and jumped us both off the roof and onto the trampoline in our backyard. I sprained my ankle after landing badly, but you ricocheted upwards from the tight black rubber and looked like you were flying. You blotted out the sun for one graceful moment, and I could almost see waxen wings extending from your small back.
My ankle hurt, sure, but all I wanted to do was breathe in the smell of summer grass and watch as you, my little brother, soared through the air like you weighed nothing at all.
Sometimes I wondered if you had never abandoned the sky, if any time you interacted with us on Earth it was only make-believe and your head was still in the clouds. You moved through life with such fluidity, as if what was happening on Earth hardly concerned you. Like you belonged somewhere else. When you got older, you made money, but weren’t allied to your work. You made friends easily, but couldn’t keep them. I am the only one you wanted to talk to, to be close to, and I had to leave. I had to get out of our hometown, had to chase whatever dreams I thought I had when I was younger. It didn’t matter that I was your only brother; it didn’t matter that I was the only family you had left.
Now it is years later, and we are old, and I am sorry I left you, and I wish I could help you fly again because I’ve seen that you’ve been stranded on the ground. I roll your wheelchair out of your home, stealthily, so the aide doesn’t notice, though I’m not sure why I choose secrecy. Perhaps it’s because it feels more private, more personal. Maybe it’s because I never liked your aide, anyway.
Against the threshold, your wheels send small squeaking noises reverberating through the air, a mechanical tinnitus ringing in my ears.
Snow on the boardwalk is a beautiful thing, silver and bright. I am glad you live by the beach. Colors refract off of one another, the shine of the freezing waves ping-ponging against the glass-like frost. I tug the collar of your sweater more highly on your collarbone since you can’t do it yourself. “I hope you aren’t too cold,” I say to you, my voice husky and low. I suddenly feel deflated.
Your wheels start making a new sound, a crunch of the icy snow being packed down under your weight as I wheel you across the boardwalk. It’s difficult and slow going—your wheelchair isn’t designed for this terrain, its large hind wheels seeming more decorative than functional. It’s good that I’m strong, and I’m able to keep pushing.
I notice a small icicle melting on the awning of a nearby shop. The winter is holding on with its last bits of strength before it fades into a tepid springtime. I check if you’re shivering, and you aren’t. It’s a good sign, and so I continue.
I navigate your chair down the boardwalk, the wind from the ocean whipping my face with sprays of sea salt, and when I lick it from my lips, I remember that saltwater cures wounds. Maybe it will help you, too.
So I bring you down off the boardwalk and onto the sand. I take my time meandering across the frosted dunes, relishing the time we are having together, alone, for the first time in a long time. I feel like I can tell you anything and you would understand.
Can you even hear me? I don’t say this aloud, but rather I think it with all my energy, hoping somehow my broadcast will reach you telepathically. Of course it doesn’t, so I have to speak aloud, embarrassed and hesitant.
“I miss you.”
You don’t say anything, and I start to tire from the effort of pushing your wheelchair. Sweat drips from beneath the sleeves of my anorak onto my palms. I stop rolling the chair for a moment, wondering if I should shake you by the shoulders and scream your name until you answer me—Simon, I know you’re in there! Simon!
I decide against it and resume my course. ALS is a relentless disease. You aren’t coming back. Not really, anyway. You can’t respond to anything I say, though I think you can understand me.
“I’m sorry for leaving, Simon,” I whisper. I want to tell you it was a mistake for me to move away for a job I didn’t even like, that my marriage ended badly, that I have no children, that I miss you more than anyone. Instead, I say, “I feel like I’ve lost so much, and now I’m losing you, too.”
I could swear I see you twitch, a nearly imperceptible movement in your fingers.
We are close to the water now. Your wheels start making a different sound, because whatever snow that may have landed here has been washed away by the sea. The thought calms me. I look out at the ocean, its vastness like a great beast of constant movement. I wonder where the water gets the energy to form so many waves.
I turn you to face the ocean, too. We stay there for a moment, wrapped in the slight spray of saltwater cascading out from the waves, which are calm near the shore but strong further out. I get a chill—it’s colder here.
“Remember when we used to swim,” I remark, “at this very beach, with Mom and Dad? One summer you rented a board and ordered me to surf. You were a better swimmer than me, so I said you should do it instead, but you insisted that I be the one to take to the waves. You only won me over when you said you’d dive in and save me if you had to.
“A nearby lifeguard gave me a few tips on how to ride it, and off I went into the waves. I was terrified, but I felt so powerful pushing myself out into the water. It took me a few tries, but when I rode my first wave, I felt unstoppable.” I pause, blink back a stinging feeling in my eyes. Again, that scene on the trampoline flashes in my memory. “You taught me that, Simon. I finally knew how it must have felt for you to soar so highly but to have to come back down from the sky. I never wanted to leave the water. But look at us now—both trapped on the ground.”
I grip your wheelchair’s handles tightly. I know where I want to take you next, but I’m afraid to do it. I wish I could have come to see you during a warmer season, but I’m thinking the cold might help, too.
I take you slowly down closer to the water. It isn’t long before the waves are lapping at your toes. You have boots on, but I’m still aware of how cold the water must feel. I dip a hand in, just to see, and it’s so cold that my fingers are numbed in just a moment’s time. Maybe that’s for the best. Maybe your pain will be numbed, even if only for a few moments.
“I have extra clothes in my pack. I’ll warm you up right after, I promise,” I say. “Just trust me.”
I wheel the chair into the ocean a little bit farther, then halt. My ankles are soaked. I unbuckle you from the seat and cradle you in my arms. You’re so light. I walk you out a little farther, until I’m up to my knees in the water. I slide you carefully into the sea, my arms under you like a father teaching his young son to swim. I am keeping you from sinking. The chair sits abandoned nearer to the shore. I tip you so that you’re floating on your back. I look at your face as you see the vast expanse of the sky for the first time since your illness stopped your neck from being able to bend. Though I can’t be certain, I think you’re crying, but the water is lapping your cheeks and washing it away.
Amber Cherichetti is a recent graduate of Binghamton University, where she received a BA of English and creative writing. She spends her mornings reading and writing in the sunlight of her Brooklyn apartment.