After spending all our money on Wacky Packs and Slurpees at the 7-Eleven, my brother Danny and I decide to take the shortcut home. We veer off from the sidewalk and cut down a steep, weedy embankment. At the bottom, three stacked logs hold the base of the hill in place.
I step out onto the logs and consider the distance to the ground. It’s maybe hip-high to me, but I’m chicken. It might as well be Mount Kilimanjaro. I want to jump, but I’m scared, and then—I leap! For one glorious moment, my body soars until—slap! —the soles of my sandals hit the pavement.
I did it! Now it’s Danny’s turn. I want my brother to feel that same wild joy. I’m excited because Danny’s never jumped before.
I’m six. He’s nine. He’s never jumped.
Other kids ask me, “What’s wrong with your brother?”—not to be mean or anything, but they can see it. The way he walks—holding his forearms cocked out in front for balance. The way he talks—sometimes he’s hard to understand. Sometimes he drools. Sometimes, he even wets his pants.
He’s got a disease of the nervous system: Familial Dysautonomia. It’s genetic. He was born with it. I’m lucky because I could have inherited it, too. His eyes don’t make tears, he can’t feel a hot stove and sometimes he gets very sick.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I hear our parents’ voices, frightened. We pile into the car and race to the Children’s Hospital. I sit real still in the ICU and try not to breathe on any equipment, because I don’t want to break anything. Danny has to stay in the hospital for a long time.
While he’s sick, I’ve got to play by myself in our backyard. I take my pink rubber ball, and I throw it, straight up at the sky, as high as I can! Like I could smack God with that ball!
Danny gets better eventually, and then he’s ‘healthy.’ Except he still can’t run, and he can’t ride a bike. And he can’t jump.
But how do they know that? How do they know it for sure? There’s this big slide at the park that was too high for me until the day I climbed up the ladder, and there were too many kids coming up behind me, and I had to go down, so I did. It’s gonna be like that right now for Danny.
“JUMP!” I scream
“Bend your knees,” I instruct. “And pump your arms like this.”
Danny attempts to mimic this portion of the manoeuvre. He bends his torso, straightens up and then bends both his knees.
“Good!” I enthuse. I reach out and clasp Danny’s sweaty hands. “Come on, now! One, two, three, jump!” Danny executes a little stamp with one foot. He’s older. He should have taught me. “You can do it, Danny!” I insist, with irritation.
Danny bends his legs, then does a little bouncing motion. His feet don’t leave the ground. Danny sweeps his long fingers across his shaggy brown bangs, pushing them aside to reveal his face tensed in concentration, like his brain’s sending a message but his feet aren’t picking up the phone.
Suddenly, I’m not sure this was such a great idea. Part of me wants to let him off the hook. But then I think about Mom and Dad. They mean well, but I think they’re partly at fault. What could Danny do if they just made him? I want him to jump. I want it for him. I want it for me. I need Danny to be able to do this, just this one simple thing. “JUMP!” I scream.
Danny bends and straightens and peers at the ground. I want to cry, and I want to hit something, but I don’t because this isn’t Danny’s fault. It’s not our parents’ fault. It’s no one’s fault. Danny’s not going to jump. Because he can’t. And he doesn’t.
Instead, he turns to face uphill, and then kneels down on his hands and knees. Next thing I know, he’s crawling backward off those three logs. One foot touches the pavement, then the other, and that’s it. He’s made it.
Guilt and regret churns in my gut while Danny brushes off pebbles and sand from his knobby knees. My brother never learned to jump. We never spoke of the incident again.