After he was vaccinated, I exhaled. I had not even realized I was holding my breath.
My brother is a high-risk front-line surgeon in a busy inner-city safety-net hospital. Since March he has been in a virus war zone. At 62, he’s donning PPE and operating on patients while I hide at home in sweat pants. I ask as few questions about his pandemic work as I can get away with, without appearing callously uncaring. I will never fully understand why he didn’t just walk away. In the face of disease and death, why not leave it all behind?
Our texts this summer hint at my chicken attitude and his sense of service. I pleaded: Why not give it all up? Please? Just retire! You love hiking in the mountains — go do it! His brief, noble response: It doesn’t work that way.
My brother is eight years older and we love each other deeply but see the world differently. Since 2014 we are the only two remaining from our original family of five. I cling to him even tighter. The thought of losing him — the last link to our history — is more than I can bear. We lost our mother in her 50s (lymphoma), our sister in her 30s (lung cancer), and our father in his 80s. Now our connection is more precious.
Cancer and chemotherapy have totally destroyed my immune system. This past decade, I have lived with Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia, a rare, incurable but treatable lymphoma. Under strict lockdown, my protective bubble is impenetrable. I focus exclusively on my survival while my brother heals others. I hide to save my own skin while he covers his to enter infectious rooms. I think about my own health solely while he helps strangers selflessly.
My brother’s a scientific, data-driven, analytical, brilliant surgeon who knows how to cut you open and put you back together masterfully. He loves the unpredictability of a hectic hospital. If you are bleeding to death from a gunshot wound in the middle of the night, you want to see his face when looking up from that gurney racing toward the O.R. But if you’re in a panicked, existential crisis needing copious embracing and empathy at 2:30 a.m., I’ve learned to consider turning elsewhere before calling and waking him up.
By contrast, I’m a “free to be you and me” flower child who values a long heart-to-heart healing chat above all else. I coordinate cancer support groups nationwide and listen for a living. I love nothing more than a mindfulness retreat where vegetarian food is served alongside soul-stirring stillness. I cannot be trusted to mail a bill on time to the electric company. I suspect I might be a bit of a snowflake.
Growing up, in one fight (or 12), I may have hurled unkind accusations his way: “selfish,” “entitled,” “arrogant and unfeeling.” I could claim, as I did in childhood, that “he started it.” Without a second thought he’d carelessly shed dirty tissues and used dishes around our pristine home, gobble up the last slice of chocolate cake without asking if anyone had their eye on it, make gourmet masterpieces to bring to other people’s houses, and fight with my sister.
But these family misdemeanors mean nothing now. Because every day, my brother steps into a contagious world protected only by disposable armor. He takes risks that I’m ashamed I would not be gracious or brave enough to take. He gambles each time an ambulance wheels in a patient needing his expertise. Pretty sure I’d yell, “Check, please!” and hightail it out those sliding glass doors.
Although I could not be prouder of him, I may never fully understand him. Or know what it is like in that hospital, bearing witness to the despair of an out-of-control pandemic. Opposites in so many ways, he is my hero and I love him more than he will ever know.
Enough that I will remember never to bother him at 2:30 a.m. again.
Lisa J. Wise is working on an essay collection about family legacy, loss, laughter, and living fearlessly with third-generation lymphoma. She is vice chair of member services at the IWMF. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.