There was only one place where my brother Rodger and I could go and bare our breasts to the sunshine and run free. We did not know in the beginning that we had been freed from the pressures of life in our childhood dwelling. We only knew that when we went there we felt as if the world rested on its axis and that life apart from our special place was a white foggy existence.
One day, when Rodger was 6 and I was 8, we decided to go into the woodlands behind our house and search for bears. We set out into the gray moss hung woods with adventure in our hearts and fear in our eyes at what we might discover. Until that day, we had never talked of entering into the silhouette of the trees. I do not know what made us go there that day.
We entered the wooded area armed with select rifle shaped sticks for our protection. We clung so closely together that we appeared to blend into oneness. As we ventured deeper into the eclipse, we began to notice a whole new world. One that after that day we only left to go to school, church, eat, and sleep. There were many days and nights, especially in the summers, that we even ate and slept there.
As we broke into the shadows, the first thing we noticed was the bright rays of sunshine that poured through the top of the massive trees like a soft summer rain shower. This sight was so awe-inspiring that we dropped to our knees and stared into the rays. For the first time in our lives, we truly believed in the existence of God. After a few moments of inspiration, we recovered our thoughts and ventured deeper into the trees. We felt like we were being pulled by a path of sunrays. We followed the path without fear. It was as if we were destined to be there walking in that light. The light was not the same light that fills the blue skies of summer; it was more a white light of innocence. There were vines reaching around tree branches, stretching the length of the tree to the ground welcoming us. There were specks of dust fluttering in the light. They looked like tiny winged dust fairies or angels. We were walking as one. It was as though our hearts beat the same beat. The beauty we discovered inside those shadows formed a bond between us that was never broken. We had no idea how far we were from home.
In our adventure, we found ourselves separating and running freely through the trees. We yelled and whooped and hollered. We began swinging from the vines and jumping onto and over fallen trees, still following the path that was the light. With no knowledge of distance or time, we found that our path was beginning to end. At the end, there appeared to be a wall of moss, vines, and thorns. We looked at each other knowing we had to see what was behind the wall. We had come too far to turn back now. My heart skipped a beat as Rodger’s hand reached up to separate the thorn filled wall. Rodger’s face glowed white in the sunrays. Looking at him in that light, I felt like I was looking at an Angel of God. Our interest was further peaked as the thorns and vines began to separate and a yellow light as bright as the wings of a golden parakeet began to peek through them. I reached into the light; it was so warm and inviting. Together we broke an opening in the wall that was just large enough so that we could fit. The thorns did not even seem to scratch us. We were too excited to notice them anyway. Rodger had gone into the warm golden light first. When he crossed the threshold of the door we made, he stopped and stared. His mouth fell open. He looked as if he did not know what to do. I whispered,
“Go ahead Rodger; let me see.”
When I entered into the light, I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen before. The area behind the wall looked like a huge bird’s nest. It was made of long flowing soft gray moss and vines of purple flowers (that we later learned to be called wisteria). The leaves of the surrounding thorny bushes were covered with tiny, pink, wild wood roses. All of this stood right in the middle of massive pine trees. Butterflies and bees were busy fluttering and buzzing in and out of the blossoms on the ropes of wisteria vines. The sweet lavender smell of summer filled our faces with excitement and made our taste buds swell and burst from the essence of sweet heavenly honey. One side of the nest opened into a soft white finely ground sand blanket that was tucked under the bed of a natural pond. We ran and jumped into the warm white sand. It was so soft. It felt almost like powder when our feet sank into it. We just knew we were in Heaven. The moss swung from the trees inviting us over to the water. There were soft, pearly pebbles and some flat shelf like rocks along the edges of the pond. Rodger and I went over to one of these rocks and looked into the clear water. We saw tiny silver fish and brown tadpoles swimming blissfully in this wet world. I jumped up and began to laugh. I reached over pulled him into the water and hugged him shouting,
“Welcome to heaven little brother.”
We, as if of one mind again, began to tear off our clothes bearing our bodies to the sun. We ran through the sand and splashed each other with the cool clear water of the pond. Both of us felt more freedom than we had ever known before. After playing in the water, we lay on the sand and drank the sunshine into our skin. We lay there talking about the dust fairies that swam in the rays of sun that peeked through the tops of the trees. Rodger said,
“Hey Charley, let’s call them sun angels.”
I stared at them a moment and responded,
“That’s so cool!”
We sat and watched the sun angels play in the light. Butterflies were fluttering around us. Their wings were so beautiful. They had many colors painted on them; not one of them looked the same. I had never seen so many of them in one place before. I thought it was strange how they flew all around us. A beautiful white one even landed on Rodger’s nose. Another one landed on my knee. It was so wonderful. We felt that we were part of them.
To our dismay, we began to notice the shadows of the trees leaning toward home. It was getting late. We dressed and followed the silhouette home. Before we left the wood line, I looked at Rodger and said,
“Let’s keep this our secret. It will be our piece of Heaven.”
Rodger’s eyes widened with the excitement of a shared secret. It was our first, but not our last. Secrets between siblings can be the best secrets ever shared. We did tell our parents about playing in the woods. We did not want them to worry about us whenever we disappeared into them the next time. We lived the next few years of our lives guided by the light and shadows of the woodland trees.
* * * * * *
One day, a few years later, when we were playing in our heaven, I began to notice Rodger was acting strange. He seemed to be distant and his face looked strained as if he were hurt. I ran over to him to see what was wrong. He told me,
“My stomach hurts and my head feels like a rock is in it.”
I began to worry. I told him,
“Come on Rodger; Mom will know what to do. Let’s go home.”
For the first time since we discovered our heaven, we left early and went home. Before, we never even went home when it rained. We always crawled into the nest beside the pond and whispered giggly stories into each other’s soul. When we got home I told mom,
“Rodger said his stomach hurts and so does his head.”
I was a very protective big sister. Rodger was all I had in the world. I could not let anything happen to him. Where would I be without him?
Mother came over and touched him on the back. She looked concerned and told him to go and lie on the sofa and rest. Rodger lay on the couch looking strained and cold. I did not know what to do for him. I reached to the back of the sofa and pulled mom’s afghan over him. It was odd how he looked so cold, but when I touched his skin he felt so hot. I was worried for him. Rodger and I had never been sick; except for a few minor colds. We secretly felt that nature kept us healthy, even when others were sick. Mom returned moments later with a thermometer. She put it in Rodger’s mouth and told him,
“Hold this under your tongue sweetie, so mommy can check your temperature.”
After she checked his temperature, she went to the phone and called my dad at work. I could hear concern in her voice; it made my heart squeeze to hear it, even though I did not hear what she said. I looked at Rodger and stuck my tongue out at him, so he would not know how worried I was. Mom made another call. I walked over and turned on the television on for Rodger. I had to have something to do.
Soon Mom had us in the car and we were on our way to town to see the family doctor. It was a long ride in the car. Rodger slept on the seat beside me. I tried to be good and be quiet so he could rest. I did ask mom to turn on the radio.
I sat patiently in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. It did not take me long to know why it was called a waiting room. It was so boring. I needed to know what was wrong with Rodger. I walked around and straightened all the magazines. I even read several copies of one- called Highlights; the Timbertoes cartoon inside it caught my interest. Mabel and Tommy Timbertoes were almost as busy as Rodger and me.
After looking through the magazine, I began to stare at the brown paneling that covered the walls. I wondered whose forest was cut down in order for these walls to be decorated. I walked around the empty waiting room and ran my hand along the cold wooden antiseptic walls and wandered if someone might do that with our heaven someday. Right then and there, I made a pact with myself that I would never let anyone touch our heaven.
After what seems like years, Mom and Rodger exited the examination room with the doctor following closely behind. The doctor gave my mom a white piece of paper and they shook hands. Mom stopped by the front desk, wrote a check for the woman behind the desk, took a piece of paper from her, and we left.
To my dismay we did not go home. We went to a place called a lab. Mom said,
“The doctor needs to look at Rodger’s blood to see what is wrong with him.”
Rodger and I held hands in fear in the back seat of the car. The question on our minds was how did he plan to look at Rodger’s blood? All kinds of thoughts were going through our minds. We had very active imaginations, so you could picture some of the wild things we supposed were about to happen. I was thinking that they were going to have to cut him open to see his blood. Rodger looked white. He was beginning to have dark rings under his eyes. I can only imagine what I must have looked like to him. We entered the lab. Rodger and I sat on adjoining seats still holding hands. We were very afraid. The person in the lab let us stay together, as she put the needle into Rodger’s arm to bring out the blood that filled the glass tube like gushing water. I could not believe how brave he was being. I felt as if I were going to faint. He did not even cry. I know I would have screamed if they tried to stick that thing in me. The lab lady explained that they would do special tests on the blood in the tube with microscopes and such. I immediately felt reassured. Now she was telling me something I understood. I had used microscopes in science class in school. We looked at water bugs that were too small to see with the “naked eye,” (a neat term my teacher used that I decided I needed to remember). I spent the whole ride home telling Mom and Rodger about microscopes and science. I had to do something. The silence in the car was so thick that I felt I could hardly breathe.
A few days later, Rodger was back to normal, except for his color that looked like what my mom called pale. We were finally able to go back to our heaven. Mom kept taking Rodger back to the doctor. He had some x-rays taken of his chest. He did not like it, but the pictures of his bones were cool. We both liked that.
One day, my dad went to the doctor’s office with us. Rodger and I had to sit in the boring old waiting room and wait. It took them a long time. When they finally came out of the examination room, Mom was crying and dad was holding her face to his chest. I asked her with a voice filled with alarm,
“What’s the matter Mom? Is everything going to be okay with Rodger?”
She looked at me and tried to smile and said,
“Look sweetheart it’s not anything you have to worry over.”
She bent down and kissed Rodger and me on our foreheads and started crying again. I was very afraid and I did not know why.
Later that night, both sets of our grandparents came over for a visit. Rodger and I were sent to bed early; this concerned us a lot. We were usually allowed to stay up late when they came for a visit. Rodger and I could not sleep, so we sat on the bed and told stories about our heaven. We enjoyed making up adventures for the sun angels and other creatures that resided there. Rodger was better at making up stories than anyone I have ever known. After a while, I had to go pee badly, I did not know if I should go to the bathroom or not. I might get in trouble.
My mom and dad were acting very serious today. I decided to quietly sneak into the bathroom; they would never even know I went. While I was in the bathroom, I heard my parent’s voices. Mom was crying and Dad was telling our grandparents that Rodger had something called cancer. I did not know what cancer meant, but I did know that the sound of the word made my skin crawl as if a centipede were running up it. This could not be good.
For weeks, no one told us anything. Rodger and I went to our heaven more often than ever. It seemed that we had to be there as much as possible. While there, I tried to forget the word cancer. It was very hard. I did not even know what it meant. One day in school, I waited until all my friends left for the playground, walked up to my teacher and asked her,
“What is cancer?”
She looked surprised by my question. She responded with a sincere voice that made me believe in her,
“Cancer is an illness that affects many people in many different ways.”
I looked at her and said,
“Is it bad?”
She was silent for a minute. She looked as if she was trying to think of the right thing to say. When she responded she said,
“It can be, depending on the type of cancer the person has. If you want to know more, you can look it up in the library.”
I smiled at her and told her,
“Thanks, I just might do that.”
I could not concentrate on school for the rest of the day. That night I asked my Mom,
“What kind of cancer does Rodger have?”
She started crying again. She asked me,
“How did you know about it?”
I told her about the night that I overheard their conversation in the bathroom. I asked her,
“Is cancer bad?”
She reached up and began to cradle me in her arms. She said, in a voice deep with an emotional timber that had become so familiar,
“Yes, Charley, it is bad.”
I panicked and told her,
“Mrs. Neely told me today that not all cancers are bad!”
My Mom looked at me and said,
“Rodger’s cancer is bad. He will have to take a lot of medicine that will make him feel worse before he can get better. He will need a lot of Love and support from us, okay Charley.”
I told her, with all the sincerity my ten-year-old body could muster,
“You can count on me.”
She kissed me and told me,
“This it is not something a ten year old should worry about, so try to let Daddy and me take care of it.”
I knew that I was not going to just allow them to take care of it. After all, Rodger was my only brother, not to mention my best friend in the whole world. It became my job to support him through his illness.
* * * * * *
A year passed and soon it was Rodger’s birthday. We were happy that he was home for his birthday party. He spent a good portion of his time in the hospital getting chemotherapy treatments. He was very sick, and he had lost all of his hair. I had knitted him a cap to wear that would keep his head warm. He always looked cold to me. My love for him was so strong that I felt I would just burst. My mind screamed,
“He Is My Rodger!”
The family bought Rodger many games to play while in the hospital. I did not have any money to buy him a present, so I brought him a pebble from the pond that was sort of shaped like a heart. It was hard to pick the perfect pebble for the perfect gift. He looked at me and a tear rolled down his face. We both knew how much he missed our heaven. We talked and laughed about the many adventures we shared there. I did not go to our secret place very often anymore. I felt I needed to be with Rodger as much as possible. One night, about six months later, Rodger came and crawled into bed with me. He looked at me and said,
“Let’s go to heaven.”
My heart skipped a beat. I rolled over and hugged him and told him in my best big sister voice,
“You are not allowed. You are too sick.”
He smiled at me and said,
“I feel great, let’s go!”
His eyes scintillated with a glow that I had not seen for a long time. His lack of hair made his eyes seem bigger and more sincere. I could not resist. Together we set off into the woods. Rodger was almost running. He was going too quickly. I kept trying to get him to slow down before he made himself sick. He would not listen to me. He just kept going as if afraid to stop for fear that he might not be able to get there. When we arrived at the pond, we ran and played just like old times. Rodger stopped and lay down on the sand. He turned and looked at me and said in a definite matter of fact tone,
“I’m going to die.”
Then, to my surprise, he jumped up and began to peel his clothes off layer by layer. He walked over to the water and it completely enclosed around his feet. He was smiling, a smile I had never seen before. I felt near panic hearing him say he was going to die. He was giving up on us. I felt cheated. I needed him. Looking at him and with soft fear in my voice I said,
“No–you are not!”
I felt that my will was strong enough to keep him alive. I yelled and said,
“I will not let you go!”
After a moment he returned to the sand blanket — for a long time we just lay there and looked at the sun angels playing in the rays of the sun. I turned and looked at him. His color was bad. I had never seen him look so white. He had pushed himself too far today. I began to feel guilty that I had brought him here. I looked at him and said,
“We need to go home.”
Rodger started to cry. I went over to him and hugged him close to my body. He began to cough and as he did blood came out of his mouth and nose. This happened a lot lately. I got really scared. I dressed and went to get Mom and Dad. They came immediately. This was the first time they had ever seen or heard of our secret spot. Rodger was lying on the sand, still naked. His white body on the diamond white sand seemed to be drawn into the yellow sunlight. The sun angels were dancing around as if they were having a celebration. Mom and Dad went to Rodger. He looked at them with a smile as innocent as a butterfly and said,
“Welcome to heaven.”
My Mom cried, harder than I had ever seen before. My Dad picked him up and held him in his arms. He began to rock him and cry. I had never seen my Dad cry before. He was sobbing hard. We all gathered together, tightly weaving ourselves around Rodger, as if attempting to keep him weighted in life by our Love. Rodger looked up at me from the center of the family; my heart stopped short. I saw a look in his eyes that I had seen before. A flash of memory flooded before me. Rodger was at the door of the wall that led to our heaven. The white sunrays were shining on his white face. He looked like an Angel. Stepping through the golden light, he looked up at me awe-struck by the beauty of what was before him. He was not sure what he was supposed to do. I looked down at him. His face had that beautiful confused look. With my heartbeats squeezing the air out of my lungs, I looked at him and told him,
“Go ahead Rodger. I want to see too!”
He smiled and closed his eyes. I am certain he ran off into heaven and played with the sun angels. My Dad carried Rodger’s lifeless body out of our special place, but I did not mind. I knew he was still in heaven.