One year ago today, G and H had their first appointment with the art therapist. After weeks of discussing the pros and cons of therapy, this first appointment couldn’t have come at a better time. We’d reached that tipping point weeks earlier. Matt had started lashing out at G and H, and G and H had responded by ignoring him completely. They understood he was sick, but his anger still hurt. They understood he couldn’t be himself, but they missed him. The feelings were (and are) complex and G and H needed a safe space to untangle all those complicated emotions.
While Matt went to lunch with his mom, I took G and H to the art therapist. I remember this first trip to the office. I remember I sat between G and H, who alternated between clinging to me and bouncing around the room with nervous energy. I remember the art project the therapist had them do—draw a picture of an animal with a part that’s not working correctly (like Nemo’s fin) and think of a way to help that animal.
Afterward, they couldn’t wait to go back. I wasn’t sure whether they just liked what felt to them like a private art class or they liked the way they could discuss Matt without fear. Either way, a partnership was forged that day, a safe space to let out and untangle feelings was created.
That afternoon, we (Matt, G, H, and I) had plans to hang out with Matt’s high school friends. I remember wondering how much they knew about Matt’s condition. I remember wondering whether I should warn them in advance. Ultimately, I said nothing, made no warning. As I had so many times before, I decided it would be a betrayal to Matt.
The incident that happened next is one G, H, and I have talked about often. It’s an incident so razor sharp in my memory that I don’t need text messages or photos to jog my memory in order to write the story. It’s an incident during which I couldn’t see Matt when I looked at him, when I realized Matt was simply gone.
As we were getting ready to leave, I received a phone call from the insurance company. I sent G and H—bags of cheddar bunnies in hand—into the basement to put on their shoes and jackets while I finished the phone call and gathered everything I would need for the short road trip. Matt followed them downstairs to also put on his shoes and jacket.
I’d become proficient in the days and weeks leading up to this particular incident at keeping G and H separated from Matt. During the writing with scissors incident, they were in another room. During the bank phone call incident, they were watching a movie downstairs. During car rides and family dinners, I did my best to deflect his anger from them, onto me. But one year ago today, I was caught off guard. I was upstairs and distracted and didn’t see the potential for disaster.
I heard shouting first, followed by crying. When I ran downstairs, too late to deflect his anger, I found a scene that is burned into my memory. G, in tears, crawling across the basement floor, picking up the cheddar bunnies Matt had tossed across the room in a fit of anger; H standing protectively in front of her, yelling at his father for throwing his sister’s snack.
I was too late to prevent the situation, but I thought I could defuse it. I helped G pick up her snack and tried to convince Matt to apologize, to admit that everyone sometimes loses their temper and it was a mistake to throw the snack. Matt refused to apologize, and, after a few minutes, almost seemed to be unsure to what I was referring. As if he forgot. As if it never happened. Which was almost harder for G.
To this day, I’m not sure exactly what incited Matt’s anger. To this day, the memory of this incident breaks my heart. To this day, I am so proud of H for standing up for his sister when it mattered, when it might have been a little scary.
When we arrived to Matt’s friends house, a little emotionally bruised and battered, we were greeted with warmth by people who knew Matt and loved him like family. When he made a sharp comment to me, they sent a smile my way and tried to soften the blow with a joke. When our day was almost too dark, they made it a little brighter.
The story of today is the story of how brain cancer impacts not only body, but mind. The way it reaches and makes a person think and act in ways they never would have thought and acted. The extreme cruelty of brain cancer.
The story of one year ago today is a razor sharp, but it’s also a story full of new partnerships, old friendships, and an unbreakable bond between a brother and sister.