In the video, you watch yourself dance. Your eyes are fixated on the screen as you whirl your arms and stomp your feet, transfixed by the flurry of motion on the TV, your own boundless joy mirrored back at you.
I play the video over and over, freezing each frame the way you used to start and stop Curious George on your iPad. Pause. You make a silly face at the screen, tongue out, eyes screwed up, fingers wiggling on your head. Play. “Michael, lift up your hand,” our cousin urges behind the camera, “I want to show you something!” Mom gently raises your hand, and you gasp in delight as bright red hearts spill from your upturned palm.
Pause. My index finger dips low enough to trace the familiar lines of your face: your thin, graceful eyebrows, your round nose, the swell of your lower lip. I draw back an inch from the computer screen. I don’t want to feel the hard, flat surface against my skin, don’t want to admit that this person who looks and laughs and moves like you is nothing more than pixels flashing on a screen.
Play. As you twist your shoulders to Pharrell’s “Happy,” I drift into the background, mumbling that this song is so overplayed. But a moment later my head is bobbing, and now we’re all dancing together, you, me, and Mom mirroring each other’s moves like we’re competing for the title of dorkiest family. You grab my hand and spin me so hard I go pitching backwards onto the couch, whooping with laughter.
When the song ends, I wander back out of view, headed for the stairs. “Kate!” you holler. “Come dance! Dance with me!” I can’t hear you. I’m already gone.
Pause. There’s no basement anymore, no 16-year-old boy with thin shoulders and a crooked grin. Just a wet blur of color and the sound of something in my throat breaking.
Our cousin spent most of that Thanksgiving behind his camera, following the grown-ups around. You were an endless source of inspiration. “Michael, do silly face! Here, Michael, look over here!”
“Relax, Colin,” I said. We sat snuggled up on the couch, one of my arms wrapped around your shoulders. “He’s trying to read.”
Your love for reading had taken off in the past months. When I think of last autumn, I think of words, spinning down out of your mouth like falling leaves. T-R-E-E, that spells tree, you said as we wandered the path behind our house, and your finger swept the air as if you could see the letters suspended before you. S-K-Y, that spells sky.
Now you leaned over the picture book open in your lap, your forehead scrunched up in concentration as you sounded out each word. All around us, turkey sizzled, the dog barked, Colin chased his screeching sister across the room, but you kept turning the pages, swept up in the tale of pilgrims and Wampanoag sitting down together for the first Thanksgiving. You loved stories in the same simple, whole-hearted way you loved your family, and your friends, and the fluffy-coated dog next door, and the pinecones we found on our walks. Some people called it obsession, but I knew your love for what it was – boundless, swelling wider and deeper each time you shared it. That was always the difference between us. Loving exhausted me. I only had so much to give, so I saved it all for you.
That night, over turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, you sang every verse of “Let It Go,” to enthusiastic applause. Then you wolfed down all the food on your plate, burped, and asked shamelessly for seconds. The memory is a blur of heat and laughter, but when I close my eyes I can still see you across the table, a pile of crumbs in your laps, sighing as you leaned back in your chair. Full and sleepy, surrounded by love on all sides. Safe.
When I left for school that Sunday, you hugged me tight enough to creak my ribs, and your hair smelled like strawberry shampoo. The next time I saw you there was a white sheet covering your body and I had died a thousand times in half an hour.
You’ll see him again, they tell me, the people who come with tears in their eyes, grasping my shoulders and rocking me and murmuring in my ears. And when you do, think of the conversations you’ll be able to have, finally. He understands everything now. No disabilities. He’s perfect, perfect, just the way he was meant to be.
I nod. I force a smile. But in my mind you are sprawled back on the sand, arms crossed behind your head, as the tide comes surging up around you in a hiss of salt and foam. You lean your head back in the water, and the look on your face is perfect contentment – a moment without past or future – the sum of every conversation we have never needed to have. “Ah,” you sigh. “This life.”
If Heaven changes a single thing about you, I’m turning around and leaving.
Now it’s fall again, the cusp of another Thanksgiving, but I have trouble finding things to be thankful for. Your bed is still too empty, your razor rusting in the shower too painful to touch. I am not yet ready to thank fate for letting me know and love you, rather than curse it for taking you away. But today, sweeping my feet through piles of red and golden leaves, breathing dust and wood-smoke into my lungs, I saw the world for a moment as you saw it – strange, delightful, and in its own mundane way, miraculous. I can hate that world for killing you, or I can love it, because you did.
It’s a hard choice. But I know what you would have wanted.