“Mom, why did you tell Granny we’d be there so early in the morning. Please let me sleep in on my birthday weekend.” Chris, the other brother, is trying to hold back the tears of disappointment that he regards as babyish.
Tomorrow is Christopher’s birthday. He turns fourteen and although logically he knows I am lying he is halfway persuaded that Friday - the whole of Friday, not just his birthday - has been cancelled. I’ve also informed him we will be getting up at 5am to assist at a function at his Granny’s church. We will be getting up at 5am but to do something really rather better.
I can’t wait. I can’t wait for purely selfish reasons: I won’t go down as having been the best mother to Chris this year.
2017 should really have been his year. He started high school in January. It was a big enough school that perhaps he’d be able to build an identity beyond being the quieter, shyer younger brother.
“I get the chance to be whoever I want to be.” He said, the day before term started. He chose to be the kid that jumped in; that walked up and introduced himself to the huddled, silent clusters of teenagers finding their way in a new school. “I won’t care if I’m embarrassed. I’ll just try everything anyway.” He said.
Then, barely two weeks in, Josh – his older brother – was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. For Chris, banter about new friends was replaced with tear-drenched conversations of sibling death. Without warning, the timetable of our lives was determined by ICU visiting hours. Family meals, homework, sometimes even a lift to school got forgotten in our rush to get back to the hospital each day. Often, after spending all day discussing and explaining Joshua's condition, we forgot to tell Chris what was happening. He had to find out from other people. In a tearful moment he said he felt like the third wheel. The other brother.
My sister picked up the slack where I didn’t. She taught him to drive, filling the anxious hours with lessons in the lonely basement of a local shopping centre. Powerless and mostly excluded they reheated meals for two around what had been our busy family table. She drove him to hospital to see his brother, where he joined the queue of visitors. I, seeing a family member to greet people, used the time to go home, get some sleep, shower or just take a break. But never, to my eternal regret, to connect with my healthy son.
Over time we developed new routine. Josh came home. Chris caught up the missed school lessons. We were less rushed. But cancer had already stolen my child’s youthful exuberance. The opened hearted kid of January has become the reserved, self-sufficient young man of September. I am immensely proud of this man. I know beyond any doubt that he is resilient and resourceful and clever. He will handle whatever challenges life places before him.
But I miss my little boy.
I know that a single weekend filled with birthday treats can’t bring back the lost eight months. We can’t close the Pandora’s box that cancer opened. I can’t go back and make the choice to spend more time with Chris in the time he needed me most. But I hope, I long, I ache that we can find a little of the light-hearted innocence of the time before he became the other brother.