I am rail thin, days shy of one decade. Daughter of an almond-eyed beauty of raven hair. Sister of younger brothers—four in all are we. During afternoon walks to Edgewood Park, Terrence gifts me small leaves plucked from the shrubbery which surrounds the Victorian homes of Elm City New Haven. He whispers his five-year-old lisp, “Take this leaf, so you won’t die.” Peculiar words. A subtle haunting on my soul.
In his energy, he jumps the curve without looking, angering our mother, “Stop running into the street!” She places his hand under hers, a white-knuckle grip of frustration. She pushes my baby brother onward. Terrence offers me a side-glance, rolling his eyes at my freedom, at my ability to walk lockstep with our mother. He hates being bound.
Bubble-gum blowing becomes our favorite summer pastime. Terrence becomes the gum-wad expert, chewing out the sugar until firm enough for his determined sweet breath. We marvel at the translucent pink orbs growing before our eager eyes.
Weeks later, I sit in the living room, enraptured by the soulful voices of Hall & Oates while Terrence and his best friend play outside. I leave the cool shade of our first-floor apartment, making my way to the front porch. From around the block, his friend staggers towards me. His eyes carry sheer terror as he declares the unfathomable. A hot coil of panic radiates within as I struggle to process his terrible words.
I transform myself into a gazelle, miraculously transported to the Serengeti, hitting the uneven sidewalk in rhythmic speed, beckoning the standstill of time. I find my brother under a lone tree, where Orchard and Edgewood intersect. A discarded victim struck by a hungry iron lion. He becomes a tribal Jean-Michel Basquiat mural, one which radiates jagged red lines splashed with silver-metal angst; a heckling picture before me.
I try to absorb his pain all the while decrying the uninhibited spirit which rouses boys to adventure and dare. Gone are the pink orbs of his candied breath. I descend into confusion and fear; a cloak of heavy gray envelops me as vestiges of golden hope evaporate into the July sky.
Later, my mother arrives home to collect the baby and me, tunnel-eyed from shock. With a raspy voice from earlier screams, she tells us how she traced the flesh-shell of her bruised boy. She whispers of the pipe-burn that singed his tanned calf. I embrace her, confusion and all. The next day, I muster up the courage to enter his bedroom, searching for the memory of his skin, finding it in the clothing scattered across his twin-sized bed.
A raw olfactory awakening.
We offer the hungry earth the little of his years. Terrence’s titles follow him: son, brother, grandson, nephew and friend. We return from the cemetery to a crowd of relatives and neighbors. I escape these tight spaces to grandmother’s cement stoop, exhausted from grief. The playground before me lays uninhabited due to coming rain. I glance upwards, gazing at the log pole with its wrap-around tires. Better days meant I’d loop to the top and observe the expansive yellow-green fields across the street, but not on this day.
I gaze at charcoal-colored clouds swelling above. Monsoon winds arrive, crackling thunder follows and Heaven decides to mourn.
“Llegó la lluvia por Terrencio,” I hear my grandma whisper as Terrence’s rain pelts the concrete
walkways. Tufts of crabgrass are choked in mud as August air becomes infused with earthen dust. I wonder about my brother’s cold skin, no longer surrounded by those who love him.
For weeks, I wrestle with sleep, awakening in the middle of the night to bone-dry sorrow, as unfamiliar groaning hollows me out. The knife of grief sculpts a heart-cavern within.
Not a month gone, I find his dried-out mementos, brown and brittle in the pockets of my discarded blue jeans. Their verdant shelf-life expired just the same.
His gentle command revisits me in the quiet day, “Take this leaf so you won’t die.”
Where had his strange foreboding come from? These haunting words are meant for withered and wrinkled sages—not a five-year-old boy of curious verve. Never had I offered tiny, shrub leaves in return, whispered my guilt. I despised his exchange of eager copper pennies for one-cent gum.
My brother’s passing was a raw invitation; a holy summoning from an unseen God who beckoned me to look beyond the earthly habitat of my youth.
We struggle to understand beauty born from heartache or cavern-deep wounds, that it can lead to faith-awakenings. Faith born from Christ’s raw sacrifice frees me from guilt which comes when I miss the mark. His obedience ransoms my disobedience. These are the seeds from which my fragile faith erupted—and I wouldn’t want my faith-awakening to be any different from what it was, what it is, or where it’s going.