People say life is short. Sometimes maybe too short.
Valentine’s Day is a time to remember and keep in touch with those you love.
This story is loosely based on actual events.
My cousin Brandon and I were very close. We were born on the same day in the same hospital. I was born three hours earlier, but I never lorded it over him. Well, maybe sometimes, which always irritated Brandon. I was always a little taller, a little heavier, and a little stronger. That seemed right to both of us, since I was a little older. It was something that we could laugh about.
In everything else we were even. We lived three blocks apart in Walnut Creek, California, so we did almost everything together. We looked like we might be brothers — maybe even twin brothers. As we got older, there were more ways we were even. We had a lot of friends, we loved things that were funny and we loved to laugh, we were good students, we liked to play with computers, we liked to read — mostly science fiction like Star Wars and Harry Potter, we liked to swim, we liked to play basketball, and we liked to go hiking in the nearby hills and mountains with our dads. Our folks said we were ‘attached at the hip’ because anytime they saw one of us they knew the other would be nearby.
Something we did from the time we knew what they were was to mail each other a Valentine card. They were always the funniest, silliest cards we could find. We’d open them at the same time because it was more fun when we could laugh at them together.
The one thing that made us different started when we were six. Brandon hadn’t been feeling good for a few days. He had headaches and muscle aches and felt dizzy. His mom thought it might be the flu, so she took him to their family doctor. The doctor had her take him to see a specialist at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
Brandon was told that he had leukemia. That’s a type of cancer that is in your blood. He needed to have treatment immediately, and that meant he needed to be checked into the hospital that day. They told him the type he had was unusual for a child, and he’d start undergoing treatment immediately.
He wanted me to come and visit. The doctor said absolutely not, that I was too young. I could bring an infection and that could made Brandon very sick and he might die.
Brandon said he didn’t care about those things, that I was his cousin and his best friend and he wanted to see me. Period. He was always very persuasive.
I went online and read the rules for visitors. One part talked about kids visiting. ‘Friends and family members 12 years old and older may visit your child. Please talk to your doctor or nurse if you think it is important for someone younger than 12 to be with your child. Before younger children can visit your child, they must be screened for illness.’
I showed Mom what I found on the hospital website about visitors.
“Please find out what being screened for illness means and how I can have that done so I can visit Brandon.”
Mom checked with the hospital.
“Matt, I found out that you can be screened at Brandon’s hospital. If we go today it will take about an hour, and they’ll have to put a needle in your vein to draw a blood sample so they can test it and make sure you’re not sick. They’ll need two days to make sure it’s okay for you to visit Brandon, so since today is Tuesday we’ll know by Thursday or Friday.”
So we went to the hospital. Mom brought all of my records from my regular doctor, I had a big needle stuck in the crook of my left arm and I watched as they filled two little vials with my blood. On Thursday they called and said I was cleared and could visit Brandon.
Since it was during summer vacation I was able to visit him twice a week. There were days when he was having treatments he called chemo and radiation. The treatments were hard on him and he was in pain most of the time. He lost most of his hair, and he threw up a lot.
After three months in the hospital Brandon was able to go home. Then he’d go to the Children’s Hospital Clinic near where we lived once a week to get checkups. Finally, just before his ninth birthday, he called me on the phone.
“Hi, Matt. Guess what?”
“What?” I replied.
“My leukemia is in remission. It’s not in my blood anymore. I’m cured!”
I was so happy I was jumping around. “That’s so exciting! That’s wonderful! I gotta tell my mom!”
I held the phone away from my mouth and shouted as loud as I could, “MOM! Come here! Quick!”
She rushed into the kitchen. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing! Everything! Brandon is cured! Here, talk to him!” I handed her the phone.
She talked to Brandon, then she talked to Aunt Susan. I decided that they’d be on the phone forever so I tore out of the house, ran the three blocks to Brandon’s house, and rang the doorbell about five times until he opened it.
We stood there, me on their front porch holding the screen door open and Brandon standing inside holding the front door open, and both of us crying so much we couldn’t even talk because we were so happy.
Brandon’s mom came to the door. “Matt, come inside and close the door so we can keep the bugs out.”
“Sorry, Aunt Susan. Can I hug Brandon?”
“Of course you can.”
Brandon poked me in my shoulder. “I’m not fragile like an egg, Matt. If you hug me I won’t crack open.” That made us both laugh.
I grabbed him in a hug — not too tight — and he hugged me back real tight. That made both of us start crying again.
“I love you, Brandon,” I said through my tears. “I’m so glad you’re all better.”
“I love you too, Matt. And I’m even gladder that I’m all better!”
The way he said it made me laugh, and Brandon started laughing, too.
The doorbell rang. I guessed it was my mom. Aunt Susan opened the door and it was, and they hugged, then my mom hugged Brandon, and Aunt Susan hugged me.
So Brandon didn’t have leukemia any longer. And at the end of summer we went to fifth grade together and everything was perfect.
When Brandon was ten his dad got a new job with IBM in Boca Raton, Florida. I guessed that was a Spanish name, so I went on Google Translate.
I called Brandon. “Hey, did you know that Boca Raton means ‘mouse mouth’ and that the mouse on your computer is called a raton? Is Boca Raton where you’re going to live?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know about mouse mouth and raton for a computer mouse. I’m taking Spanish, too. But we won’t be living in Boca Raton. My folks found a house in Parkland, Florida. I’ll be going to school there, too.”
“When will you be moving?”
“As soon as the house closes. That sounds funny, doesn’t it? But it means all the paperwork is finished and we — well, my folks — own the new house. We’re starting to pack our stuff in boxes now. You wanna help?”
“Sure. When d’ya want me to come over? How ’bout this weekend? That way we shouldn’t have any homework to bother with.”
“That’s good. I’ll see you Saturday morning. Why don’t you come for breakfast at eight o’clock?”
“I’ll have to check with my mom, but I’m sure it’s okay. Is it okay with your mom?”
“Of course. She’s used to having you here whenever.”
So I helped Brandon pack. It was sad because we wouldn’t see each other all the time. But my folks said I could visit in the summer, and we could go to Disney World in Orlando, too. And Brandon could come back to Walnut Creek and visit us and see all of his old friends, too.
For our eleventh birthdays we each got a new laptop with a built-in camera and Skype for making video calls. We also got new cellphones that had a regular and a wide-angle lens which was great for group video calls with our friends on my end and Brandon and his new friends on his end.
Everything continued to be great. Brandon had his annual exams and his leukemia remained in remission. We graduated from our middle schools and went on to high school. I went to Las Lomas High in Walnut Creek; Brandon went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
Everything came crashing down when Brandon was thirteen years old and went in for his annual checkup on Friday the ninth of February. They rushed him to the hospital and started a series of tests. The doctors found that his leukemia had relapsed and the cancer had spread to other parts of his body. Brandon had said he didn’t ever want to go through chemo and radiation again. The doctors told his parents that they agreed; with or without chemo, there was no chance of recovery.
My parents and I flew to Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, the day before Valentine’s day, and drove to the hospital to see him and his parents. He looked so pale and weak and tired. The doctors did everything they could to make him comfortable.
I took Brandon’s hand. He smiled. “I’m so glad you were able to come to see me. It was very, very important for me to be able to see you. I’ve always thought of you as my brother.”
My tears wouldn’t stop. Brandon looked at me. “Don’t cry, Matt. We all have to leave at some time. My time is just a little early.”
“I can’t help it,” I said. “I’m so sad. I don’t want you to die. It’s like a huge piece of me is being torn off and I won’t ever be able to recover it.”
“Just remember all the fun times we had together. That’s what I’m doing, remembering them now. I’m leaving those memories for you. Please hang on to them, Matt. They will let you recover that piece of you because it’s a piece of me.”
“This is so hard. I don’t want this to happen to you. I don’t want you to hurt.”
“I don’t hurt. I feel okay. I know what’s happening and it’s better than having to go through chemo and radiation again.
“Matt, please do something for me.”
“I’ll do anything you want. Anything.”
“Please help my folks cope. They are losing me and I’m so sad about that. I can’t do anything to help them. But you can. Please Skype with them the way we’ve been doing every week. Please come and visit them during summer vacation. I know you’re strong so please share some of your strength with them.”
I was sobbing. “I will, Brandon. I promise.” I turned to my folks. They were holding on to each other, crying. “I promise. Mom, Dad, I’m making that promise.” I looked at Aunt Susan and Uncle Sean on the other side of Brandon’s bed, both holding his other hand. They looked at me. “I promise,” I said. “I promise. Brandon, I will do what you asked me to promise.”
We were with Brandon and his parents when he passed away. I was holding his hand. Seeing him die was like having a knife thrust into my heart. Brandon shouldn’t have had to go through something like this.
It was exactly 1:11 p.m. on the clock above Brandon’s bed. I’ll never forget that time. I’ll never forget 1:11 p.m. on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Valentine’s Day. I’ll never forget Brandon. I’ll never forget that promise I made to him.
His doctor walked behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. He didn’t say anything. Words weren’t needed. But what he did helped me. It helped me pull myself together. It was like he passed some of his strength to me.
There was a chapel in the hospital. We went there, me, my folks, and Brandon’s folks. We sat. No one said anything. There wasn’t anything to say. Our grief was individual, each of us, our own.
Then someone knocked on the door. It was Brandon’s doctor. His face was pale. “I’m sorry to intervene, but there’s been a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. There are casualties that are being brought here. There are some who’ve been killed as well. When you leave there will be a lot of police activity at the hospital entrance. I wanted to let you know.”
On TV in the waiting area on Brandon’s floor I watched coverage of the murders of fourteen students and three teachers and sixteen others injured and in the hospital, several in critical condition. Brandon’s room was still there, not yet turned over to someone else. They were making it ready.
My folks joined me. Brandon’s folks were busy signing papers and dealing with what has to be done when a loved one dies in a hospital.
I was horrified at what was happening as we watched it on TV. This took my mind off of Brandon in a way. I knew what he would be doing if he was here. He would be joining the mass of people participating in the candlelight memorial for the victims of the Valentine Day shooting. I found out that it was being held at the Parkland City Amphitheater, and I walked from the hospital with others who were going there from the hospital after visiting with their friends and relatives who had been injured in the shooting.
My parents stayed with Uncle Sean and Aunt Susan to help them arrange things. I had an open return ticket and Dad scheduled my return flight on Friday. That was February sixteenth, a school holiday at Las Lomas High. I had to return to school. We were also off on Monday; we had a four-day Presidents’ Day holiday.
My dad took me to the airport because he had to sign for me to fly as an independent child passenger. That met the Alaska Airlines requirements because even though I was under fourteen years old I had my dad’s permission to fly without being accompanied by an adult on the flight. I called my friend Jeff and told him that I’d take BART from the San Francisco airport, and his mom said she’d pick me up at the BART station in Walnut Creek. Jeff came with her and offered to stay with me Friday night. And longer, too, if I needed someone at home with me so I wouldn’t be alone.
It was strange walking into the house and knowing that my folks wouldn’t be there. I just stood in my room looking around.
“Matt, where would you like me to sleep?”
“Would you mind sleeping with me?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t mind. I think that’s a good idea. And if you need to cry, go ahead. If you need me to hug you, just hug me or ask.”
That’s what I did, and having Jeff there was something I really needed — having someone to hug and hold on to and be there next to me when I had nightmares about everything that had happened.
The next morning when we got up I fixed breakfast. Scrambled eggs and frozen waffles with blueberries. It was actually better than it sounds.
After breakfast I went out to our mailbox and collected three days’ mail and brought it in. I sorted it into three piles: mine, my folks’, and advertising and junk.
My ‘pile’ had a letter from school stating that my absence was approved with a ‘Return to school on 2/20/2018.’ There were five valentine cards. I opened them one at a time. One from Alicia, my next door neighbor and on the swim team like me; one from Ryan, Alicia’s cousin and on the water polo team; one from Donna, Alicia’s girlfriend; one from Jeff; and one with no return address and a postmark I couldn’t read except for the date, 02/14/18.
I opened it. It was a picture that had obviously been printed on a home computer because it was a single sheet of photo paper:
It was signed the way Brandon always wrote his name.
My legs gave way and I collapsed onto the floor. Jeff rushed over and crouched in front of me. I was crying with deep, wrenching sobs.
“What’s wrong, Matt? What’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong,” Jeff said.
I handed him the card and the envelope.
“It’s from Brandon. It’s dated on Valentine’s Day. That’s the day he died, Jeff, the day Brandon died.”
“Oh, my god!” Jeff said. “It must have been mailed the day before and didn’t get postmarked until the day after.”
“But Brandon went into the hospital on the Friday before Valentine’s Day, that was the ninth. He couldn’t have mailed it. And it wouldn’t have gotten here by now.”
“His parents must have found the envelopes he’d had ready to put in the mail and they went ahead and did it. Later, you can call them and ask them.”
He helped me get up off the floor and I sat in one of the chairs at the kitchen table.
I looked at the card. The last Valentine card I’d ever get from Brandon. I chuckled because it was just like the cards we always sent each other, funny and silly. I cried because I’d never get another card from him.
“It doesn’t make any difference when it got put in the mail. What’s important is that this is the last and best Valentine card I’ve gotten from Brandon. I told him that his dying was like a huge piece of me was being torn off and I wouldn’t ever be able to recover it.
“He told me, ‘Just remember all the fun times we had together. That’s what I’m doing, remembering them now. I’m leaving those memories for you. Please hang on to them, Matt. They will let you recover that piece of you because it’s a piece of me.’
“I’ll never forget those words, Jeff. I have Brandon’s memories and I will hang on to them forever because they are his memories, the piece of him that he gave me to remember him.
“And to remind me that he asked me to hang on to them, he sent me his last Valentine card.”
I looked up, up to where I knew Brandon was. “I’ll always remember you, Brandon, always,” I whispered to him.
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This story and the included images are Copyright © 2018-2020 by Colin Kelly (colinian); the original Matt and Brandon image is Copyright © by Stanislav Komogorov | Adobe Stock File #102470293; they cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey’s World web site has written permission to publish this story and has licensed use of this image. No other rights are granted. The Valentine card image is under the Terms of the Creative Commons License CC0 | pixabay.com.
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