The first time my brother David ever walked, he lunged, throwing himself at whatever shiny toy it was he wanted, and then his feet caught up and saved him.
This was in the hospital. I think it must have been a Saturday morning. We were in the playrooms they have in the hospitals with wings of sick children. There were chairs lined along the wall and in the middle there were toys, so people sat in corners, in clusters, far away from each other, and watched as their sick sons and daughters played on the floor. I remember not recognizing any of the toys. I was 5, and I guess all I played with were sticks and Superman, but I remember not recognizing the toys and they were all very strange. I remember sitting there, on the end a little ways away from everyone, and watching David, laughing even though he could barely wheeze. He was wheezing but playing, and apparently didn’t even know he was in a hospital.
David was walking along the chairs, holding himself up, when he let go and lunged and walked. Mom screamed. We all screamed and cheered, clapped and were amazed. Except the family next to us just sat there. My mom said, “It’s his first time. That’s his first time walking,” and they said “Oh” and their lips were thin and tight and their faces were quiet.
I said it, “That’s his first time,” an echo, a justification, because I didn’t understand why they couldn’t be happy. I knew it wasn’t their child, but they could have said, “Hey, that’s great.” They could have smiled and said, “Congratulations.” But instead the woman just tried to keep her face from moving. She kept her lips tight and she looked away from us, away from her bald daughter, and she looked at the wall. The man looked at me. He had a mustache, drooping down, and I thought he might be Mexican. He looked at me sad. He looked at me and he smiled, so his mustache moved, but the smile wasn’t for David or my mom, it wasn’t for walking for the first time or for kids who get to grow up and run, it was for me, and for what I said, and for how I didn’t understand.
I didn’t understand. I was 5. I didn’t know they were watching their child die. I didn’t know that David was supposed to die, that no one there was expected to survive, and that “first time,” in that room, was supposed to mean last time too. I don’t think I could comprehend that “sick,” for these kids, the babies in the oxygen tent cribs, the little boys wheeled down the halls, the girls with chemo faces and fat dolls, for these kids “sick” meant leukemia and holes in their hearts and lungs that wouldn’t let them breath. I didn’t know that those weren’t just toys on the floor but toys for dying children, and that room, that strange room, was a womb for death. I thought the toys were just strange toys. The man looked at me sad, and he smiled a sad smile under his mustache.
I thought of this yesterday on the bus. I don’t know why. I guess the daughter’s dead. She'd be 22 or 23. I imagine the man alone, mustache and sad smile.