Negative Zero (from my perspective)
I lie in bed, trying desperately to sleep. I think about my biology grade, the homework I have not finished, the memoir I have not written, and it starts to get to me. My thoughts turn to my brother. As I stare at my white painted ceiling the dancing shadows start to morph into the face of an eighteen-year-old boy I’ve created in my mind. Then I remember: my brother is Zero.
I was five when we went to California to visit Grandma. I sat in our rental car, bouncing in my seat, enjoying the air that came through my open window. Grandma’s house smelled of mildew and old people, and it was good to get out. The breeze in California seemed fresher than the breeze in New York. The air seemed lighter, even though it was filled with special clouds that could touch the ground– smog, Mommy had called it. I could hear birds chirping in the big green trees.
Mommy stopped the car. The air suddenly got so thick with tension it pushed me down and made me stop bouncing. Mommy and Daddy got out, so my sister, Sarah, and I followed. They led us to a gigantic wall with little plaques on it that loomed over me like an angry cloud. The wall was so tall, even Daddy couldn’t reach the top. I was confused, and asked why we were there. Mommy answered, “To visit Will.” It took me a moment. A terrible, embarrassing, much too long moment of trying to access my undeveloped memory. Then I remembered: I would have had a brother. How could I have forgotten? I mentally slapped myself.
Daddy used a long pole with a grabber on the end to lift pretty flowers up to Will’s plaque. I love flowers, but didn’t say how pretty they are because they felt like sad flowers. I couldn’t see his name on the wall, and wondered how they knew which was the right one. Mommy started to cry a little, then both Daddy and Mommy started saying prayers, and mumbling things about heaven and God. I did not understand, and I was afraid to ask more questions, so I started poking at the dust on the ground with my shiny Mary Janes. I looked at the wall of names and wondered how so many people could all be dead at once.
We walked back to the car, and I sat still, trying very hard not to be happy, so my parents had a chance to be okay. But the ocean looked so sparkly from that hill, and the sky was so blue outside my window. How could I be sad?
Now nothing is left of Will, not even my memory. My brother is Zero. How can there be negative zero? Such a number doesn’t exist. It didn’t make sense to my mathematical mind when I was five, and it still makes me shake my head, as if that will make it all right. I still don’t understand completely.
I lay in bed, remembering all that is lost from my memory. I picture his face, imagine his personality, and fantasize about the protective older brother I never had. I feel a shiver run up and down my spine, and I pretend it is Will, telling me everything will be okay. I roll over and drift off to sleep.
Wrinkles (from the perspective of Dawson Dean)
I was young, maybe twenty-two or so, when my grandmother – my mother’s mother – died. My mom went up to Seattle to say goodbye to her mother, and to see her for the last time before she died. I remember thinking I don’t think I can ever do that. I never thought I could say goodbye to my mom for the last time. I was young and had much to learn, including my own strength.
I saw my mom as she was dying, much as she saw her mother. She was in the long-term hospital in California where I had moved her from the hospital where she had been being treated. I had flown out from Kentucky to say goodbye, but I kept telling her I would come back in a few months, that I would see her again soon. She hugged me for the last time and she was holding my hair as she kissed me and told me she loved me, and I should walk away and be happy.
As she told me that, I looked into her face, and saw the wrinkles and the wisdom. I knew there were a million memories playing like a film behind her shadowy blue eyes. In that moment, I realized that she knew she was dying. She knew she would never see me again. She knew this was our last goodbye. I didn’t really realize that until the last moment that she knew she was about to die. She was telling me goodbye. I stood up, turned, and faced her. She blew a kiss to me and I blew a kiss back.
Then I left. I forced my feet to pick up, move forward, and slowly walk out of the room. I forced myself down the hallway. Walk away and be happy. Her words were still ringing in my ears. How could I be happy? Yet I managed to walk away. I somehow urged my legs to go down the elevator. I pushed myself to walk out of the hospital and get in my car and drive away, under the endlessly cloudy sky. Because I just had to.
Now I’m in medical school, and working harder than I ever have before in my life. The work I do takes more strength than I ever knew I had. Every test I take, every night spent studying instead of sleeping… I don’t know how I do it, but each time I just force myself to keep going, and I always accomplish what I set out to do.
Age 14, Grade 9
Stuyvesant High School