Letter from Brett

by Kay Lynn Mangum

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I resented this brother whose illness had cheated me of my childhood. Then, long after his death, I received his gift.

I must have stared at his picture a thousand times—sometimes in anger and jealousy, other times with curiosity and wishful wondering. There it sat in the same place, year after year, on the top shelf of the bookcase in our living room. Once again I was looking at it, studying every detail, and searching my memory for any recollection of the laughing face in the picture before me.

I lifted it from the shelf, then curled up on the couch to study it. The boy in the picture was 15 years old at the time it was taken. He had black hair like my father and soft blue eyes like my mother. He had the wide grin that definitely belonged to my grandfather and the perfect, straight family nose that we all have. He had always been big for his age, but in this picture, he was quite thin. I knew that this was taken when he first became sick and at the same time his little sister was born, his little sister who was me.

At times I nearly hated him. Because of him and his sickness, I had a neglected babyhood. There are hardly any pictures of me as a baby in our family photo albums, and my family remembers few “cute” things I did while growing up. No one is sure when I started to walk, talk, or cut my first tooth. You see, at this time, the boy in the picture—my brother Brett—got leukemia. According to my family, he put up a huge fight for two years; but the disease eventually won, and at the age of 17, he died.

Whenever our family gets together for anything, the conversation always works its way back to memories of times with Brett, and then, of course, about his heroic struggle with his illness. But to me, he is a stranger, an envied, wondered about, sometimes resented stranger.

I suppose it’s self-centered of me to feel I was neglected as a small child, but being the youngest, you’d think I would have received a lot of attention. Brett must have demanded everyone’s time, love, and attention. I was sure I always had to take the back seat during my early childhood. My accomplishments—like pronouncing my first words—just weren’t as important as Brett’s accomplishments—like going into remission for a while.

Sometimes I’d feel angry and a little sad when my family would talk about times with Brett before I was born. Last weekend, when my brother and sister and their families came for Mother’s Day, it didn’t take long before I’d had enough of the memories I couldn’t share, so I escaped to the kitchen to scrub the countertops and dishes. Mom followed me into the kitchen.

“Honey, what’s wrong? Don’t you want to …”

I turned from the sink to face her with my arms folded. “Mom, since we always talk about stuff that happened when Brett was alive, I guess no one in this family thinks we’ve done anything interesting since Brett died, right?”

“Honey, you know that’s not true. We’ve had some wonderful times together since Brett died. We’ve had some great times. I know it’s hard for you to have to listen about times that you weren’t part of …”

Suddenly, from the other room, voices became even louder.

“Oh, that reminds me. Remember when Brett started high school?” Chuckling and laughter followed this remark of my sister, Tara.

“He wasn’t anything like the rest of you. He had to be the class clown and make everyone laugh.” That was Dad. “And yet he always managed to get wonderful grades.”

“And don’t forget what he did for the school itself. I remember how the principal and some of his teachers would tell him what a disappointment he was because of the stunts he’d pull. And look what he did—he won the debating awards and helped the football team go to state one year and region the next.” My brother Alex was only a year older than Brett. He remembers a lot of things about Brett that the rest of us never knew.

“I can’t believe how easily he could weasel into and out of all kinds of situations, like sneaking out his window at night and down the tree, and yet always making it back home just in time.” Tara’s voice again.

The conversation had pulled Mom back into the room. “Just exactly where he would sneak off to is something I’d like to know!” Mom laughed.

“Stop—I don’t want to know!” Dad laughed back.

I stood in the kitchen listening. I smiled to myself as I thought about some of the things he’d done that I’d heard stories about. But I couldn’t help the familiar, hollow feeling that grew inside of me. Sometimes I could laugh along with everyone else, but I’d always feel as if I’d missed out on something—and I hated feeling that way.

My family didn’t constantly talk about Brett. In fact, I could go for days, even weeks, without even thinking about him. But then I’d go into the living room and see his picture, and I’d start wondering again.

Today I turned 16. I had a pretty good birthday. My parents gave me lots of nice things, and Alex and Tara and their families came over to help me celebrate.

This evening Mom came into my room and dropped a long, faded white envelope into my lap with only the name “Kitty” printed on it in an unfamiliar handwriting.

“What’s this?” I questioned. Kitty. That had been an old family nickname for me when I’d been really little, but no one had called me that for years.

“Open it and find out.” Mom smiled at me in a funny kind of way, then left me, closing the door quietly behind her.

I frowned at the envelope in my hands. I couldn’t stop looking at the name “Kitty” suspiciously. Who would call me that? I finally ripped it open. Inside was a single sheet of lined paper filled with handwriting that matched the name “Kitty” on the envelope.

Dear Kitty,

If Mom has done what she promised she’d do, then right now, today, you must be turning 16 years old, and I’m probably not around anymore. But at this very second, as I write this letter to you, you’re barely two.

Ever since you were just a little baby, you’ve saved your biggest smile for me. It’s impossible for me to believe that you’ll never remember me. You see, I’m very sick, and I know I’m not going to be here for much longer, so I won’t see my beautiful baby sister grow up. I won’t be there to help you along in your life. It doesn’t seem fair, and as I’ve watched you these past two years, I feel like I’m going to be cheated out of something incredible.

Two years ago, right before you were born, I found out I have leukemia. The fact that from then on, I would never lead a “normal” life made me want to give up and die. And then Mom came home from the hospital with you. The first time I held you and looked into those blue eyes of yours, I knew that now I had a reason to live. I couldn’t give up now—you needed me. And I knew I needed you. I wanted to see you grow up and help you, be there for you, and, hopefully, be your friend. We had a great start. I’ve spent more time with you these past two years than practically anyone else.

I have to thank you for these past two years you’ve given me. I know I wouldn’t have had them if it weren’t for you. Now I can honestly say that they’ve been two of the best. I’ve fought hard, but I know my time is short. The doctors say it’s amazing that I’ve lasted as long as I have, because I’m in bad shape. But don’t think I’m giving up or that I’m just going to leave you now. Not a chance! You helped me through the roughest two years of my life, so I have something for you that I hope will help you as much as you’ve helped me. It’s in the bottom of my gray strong box. Your name’s on it.

I love you,

After retrieving the key for Brett’s strong box from Mom, I found a package covered with faded wrapping paper covered with lots of once-colorful balloons. The package was addressed to “Kitty—for her 16th birthday. With love, Brett.” With trembling hands, I ripped off the paper and carefully lifted the lid of the white box inside. A scarlet-colored book lay nestled in white tissue paper. Not just any book. It was a journal done by Brett, as if he were talking to me, of the last two years of his life, starting with the day I was born and ending on the day he died. He recorded everything we ever did together, including all of my babyhood milestones, along with his own milestones, as well as his feelings as he struggled with his illness. He also added in a lot of advice for me for when I was older, since he knew he wouldn’t be able to tell me in person. And on every page, no matter what happened during the day, he never forgot to write, “I love you.”

I was staring at a picture again today, studying it for the hundredth time. In the picture was the image of a dark-haired boy, sitting under a tree, smiling down at a tiny little girl sitting on his lap, laughing up at him. I smiled myself just looking at it. I placed it back on its spot on my dresser, right by the mirror. I had found it in Brett’s journal on my 16th birthday, so I’d framed it and filled an empty space on my dresser with it. I opened one of the drawers and took out the journal, my special journal from Brett, and hugged it. It too had filled an empty space—an empty space in my heart.

Mother poked her head around my opened bedroom door. “Well, your visitors are here. Are you ready?”

I nodded. “I’ll be right there.”

I quickly returned the journal to its drawer and turned to pick up the book I’d been reading a lot lately off of my bed. My mind raced back a few months to my eventful 16th birthday.

Under the tissue paper in that white box had been yet another book. This one had a midnight blue cover and one of the most peculiar titles I’d ever read. Brett had scrawled a message on the inside cover in his now strangely familiar handwriting:

This book was given to me by two amazing guys one day at the hospital during a particularly bad stay. It brought me a lot of comfort during my darkest hours, and now I’m not so scared to die anymore. If this book brought comfort to me to face death, then surely it should give you strength to face life.

According to what these two guys teach and what is found in this book, I will see you and all my family again someday. So, although our time together on earth was short, we’ll always have forever.

My heart was pounding after reading those words for about the millionth time. It had taken a lot of pleading and persuasion, but I’d finally convinced my parents to let me invite two special “visitors” to our house so that I could learn more about this book. My hands were shaking as I closed the cover, took a deep breath, and walked, clutching the book in my hands, down the hall to the living room.

The two young men in suits and ties stood up when I walked into the room. With huge smiles, they introduced themselves and shook my hand. My heart was still pounding as I nervously smiled back.

We all sat down, and then one of the young men asked if he could offer a prayer. I nodded, and as I did, my eyes found the laughing, smiling face in a picture standing where it always had been, on the top shelf of the bookcase in our living room. Only this time, I could swear the smile was bigger and happier than ever before.

Illustrated by Steve Kropp