The young boys smile looked frozen and awkward as he slept. In-between his folded hands was a dark red rosary. His face was white as milk, and his hair jet black, combed backwards. Under the powdered make-up on his face you could still see freckles, they were dark brown and looked as though they were gently sprinkled on his cheeks.
He wore a white shirt and white jacket. I think it may have been the one he wore for his Confirmation at IHM on Fort Hamilton Parkway.
Above him were two freestanding lamps, with bright yellow lights shinning on his face, his eyes stayed closed. As an eleven year old I still clung to some miracle that Joseph would open them, just a crack is all I wished for. But my mother’s tears told me something else.
I got up from the folding metal chair and walked to the back of the room and sat next to my cousin Pete and Denise. With tears streaming down both of their faces, I knew this wasn’t a dream
It was a warm June night at Pitta’s on McDonald Avenue in Kensington, Brooklyn. My brother Joseph was laying in a dark brown casket and was never ever going to wake up from his eternal sleep.
No, my bother was dead.
“Hey Ronnie just stop for a minute, my knees really hurt”.
I remember looking at my brother that day and seeing the pain in his face. We were fishing with my grandfather Paco down by the stream alongside the Hollow that lead to our house in the Catskills.
My brother Joseph stopped behind me, in his left hand he held a fishing pole, in his right hand a white plastic bucket with two small brook trout swimming inside. The water was brown because we just scooped it up from the brook minutes before. I remember it just finished raining that day and the grass was quite wet too.
I took my brothers fishing pole and bucket and helped him walk to our Rambler station wagon parked alongside the road. He just cried all the way to the house while rubbing his knees with his hands.
My mother’s solution for many of life’s woes was a warm compress with Bengay. As my brother lyed in bed that night the relief of a warm washcloth on his knees would only be temporary. Because when we got back to Kensington there would be doctor visits, new shoes, knee braces, questions about tendons and then finally blood tests.
Apparently the knees are where a lot of bone marrow is produced, and when you have “acute childhood leukemia” at 13, they are bound to hurt.
“Who are you here to see young man?” “You know its way past visiting hours and you don’t belong on the floor”
The doctor spoke to me with authority while I was washing my hands in the men’s room at Mamodonies Hospital that night.
“Oh, I’m here visiting my brother Joseph Lopez in room 523”
The doctor’s face just melted before my eyes and he looked almost apologetic now. He rubbed the top of my head and just said; “Oh that’s ok, you just spend some time with your brother young man.”
You have to remember that although I knew my brother was sick, no one really told me how serious it was. But that few moments with the doctor in the men’s room told me something very different. I knew my brother was going to die, no matter what my mom said.
My brother just lyed in that bed at Maimonides Hospital. It was the wing that looked like a gigantic coffee can. We called it the “round building”. From his window you could see Kensington, 310 Beverley and PS 179. On the wall of his room was a card from his seventh grade class at Ditmas JHS.
Joey also had a collection of hospital toys, toys that my mom and my family brought for him to play with while he was sick. There were little cars, trucks, comic books, and a model of the Mayflower. But there was one toy in particular that I will never forget. It was a small plastic white Jeep with a silver chain underneath that powered the four wheels. I would sit next to him and with his hospital bed on an incline we would just run the Jeep up and down the linen hill. My brother never really smiled in Maimonides you know, but that Jeep was the only toy that brought a little glimmer in his eyes.
The nights at 399 East 4th were really awful too. When you always have an older brother either sleeping above you in a bunk bed or next to you in a twin bed, the thought of going to sleep without anyone there with you really hurt. And all you wished for every night was to wake up in the morning and see your brother beside you.
Sometimes late at night I would hear my mother talking to her sister Beatrice who lived in Queens Village. My mom actually spoke fluent Polish, and most of the time that’s how the conversations started. But somewhere along the line they both broke down and it turned to English. When my mother described the bone marrow tests my brother had to take, and his screams that even made the nurses cry, that’s when I shut the door and tried not to think about it anymore.
I was in the 6th grade class at PS 179 on June 11th 1969. Mister Bernstein was my teacher and everyone was just so kind to me that day. From the sixth floor window you could see all of South Brooklyn, including Coney Island. I couldn’t concentrate on my work that day, and I kept repeating “Hail Mary” and “Our Father” over and over in my head as I looked at the Parachute Jump in the distance.
Some of the kids walked over to me and just said “I hope your brother gets better”, even Michael Mc Call who used to break my pencils all the time. I never told anyone in class that my brother was even sick, so I was somewhat surprised that everyone knew about it, especially today.
As the bell rang at three and I left school, I was surprised to see Clair Mc Nally, my friend Paul’s mom waiting for me outside of the school on East third street.
“Hi Ronnie. I just wanted to make sure you got home ok”
I was kind of surprised because I was eleven and have been walking home alone for a while now. But Clair was very kind, so I don’t question her. As we walked up Avenue C towards East 4th, I started to feel a little sick, something just wasn’t right and Clair really didn’t talk to me either.
As we made the left on East 4th and started getting closer to our house I started to feel real anxious and my heart beat faster. There were strange cars in my driveway and the whole thing didn’t feel right. Clair held my hand and walked me up the red brick stairs. Instead of opening up the left hand side door that lead up the stairway to our apartment, she opened up the heavy wooden door to the right that was my cousin Pete’s apartment.
Clair made me sit down on the couch by the front window.
As I looked up I saw my entire family sitting at the dinner table in the next room. They all just sat there quietly with looks of loss and sadness in their faces.
My mom was there too.
Why wasn’t anyone with my brother at the hospital?
Why is everyone here?
Why? Why? Why?
As my mother got up from the table and started walking towards me, she started crying. She sat on the couch next to me and wrapped her arms around me. She just hugged me as hard as she could and then softly whispered in my ear; “Joey died”
Suddenly it felt as though the floor fell through. Like I was floating through the air. Falling, falling, falling. I was hoping to hit the ground and just die so I could be with my brother Joseph.
Then all of a sudden I heard the front door open. It was my cousin Pete coming home from Ditmas. My uncle Pete pulled him aside and also whispered in his ear. Pete just ran into his room in the back of the apartment. He was crying as he closed his door.
Then a few minutes later my little cousin Denise walked in, and it was the same whispering and the same crying.
And before you knew it the door just kept opening, more of our family had arrived. More crying, more whispers, more sad faces.
No it wasn’t a dream, my brother really died that day.
June 11th 1969 was a bright sunny day. A day I will always remember. A day that I can play over and over in my mind, from
start to finish as though it was yesterday.
June 11th 1969 remains forever etched in my soul.
My mother passed away in October 2001, some 32 years after my brother Joseph died. The thought of cleaning my mom’s apartment was daunting. She saved everything. From my kindergarten drawings to my hockey trophies. Yes, the closets were just full of 50 years worth of memories.
All compressed into a small two by six foot space.
As I was digging through a closet in the back of the apartment, I came apon a small green suitcase. It was tucked way in the corner and looked as though it was buried on purpose.
I pulled it out and laid it on the bed. I then un-snapped the straps and slowly opened it. There inside the suitcase were all of my brother’s hospital toys, including the white jeep.
I sat there in shock. It was June 11th 1969 all over again.
For years I was convinced that my mom threw away all of my brother’s toys that he played with at Maimonides.
Thinking that it was just her way of dealing with another tragedy after my dad’s death four years earlier.
And finding them after all those years just buried in darkness was certainly a shock to me.
I sat there in the bedroom and looked through everything in that suitcase. A horrible memory of my past was now in front of me again some 32 years later. I gently closed the suitcase and took it with me that evening.
Time has finally healed this wound, the death of my brother Joseph.
And its very important for things to "heal" you know,
its just a part of life.
Because I now live in my aunt’s apartment on the first floor of 399 East 4th. The same apartment that Clair walked me into the day my brother died. We have dinner in the same room that my family sat in with looks of loss on their faces. The couch sits against the same wall where my mother whispered in my ear that my brother died, along with the same door that my cousin Pete closed behind him to cry in his bedroom.
So you see, I never really moved far from the fire that once hurt so much. You just move along with your life, and hope it never comes back to burn you again.
And the white Jeep that my brother used to play with at Maimonides? Well, I now keep it on a shelf in the living room,
to remind me that one time long ago I had an older brother.
A brother I used to go fishing with.
A brother that protected me when I needed help.
A brother that used to boss me around.
A brother that slept above me in our bunkbed.
A brother that died in Brooklyn on a warm sunny day in June of 1969.
A brother that I still miss after almost 40 years.
And his name was Joseph Lopez.