The Broken Sidewalks

The broken sidewalks took me where I wanted to be. The tires of my bicycle absorbed every bump, crack and uneven pavement as my bike carried me to my destination. I was a precocious eight year old; usually the leader of the pack, rarely, the follower.

My bike was made and given to me by my friend, Bill. Bill and Marilyn were my neighbors who lived in the house across the street. I never asked about their age, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were fifty year old empty nesters. Both were deaf – which I found intriguing. Why do they use their hands to communicate? Why do their voices sound strange?

When I had the chance, I would watch them from my window with curiosity. I decided I wanted to make friends with them, but my older sister would not let me. As the eldest girl in the family, it was her responsibility to watch over me while my mother worked. After weeks of pestering her for permission to walk across the street so I could introduce myself, she finally capitulated. I was allowed to go, but only if she accompanied me. I had no other choice but to agree, as it was the only way I could meet my new friends. The introduction went smoothly, but with a whisper of confusion on Bill and Marilyn’s part. They must have been thinking to themselves, “why would this little girl want to make friends with an old couple like us?”

Over the next few months, I would go to Bill and Marilyn’s house. Spending all the time with Marilyn; sitting and talking with her on her sofa or sitting at her kitchen table to watch her cook dinner. Because she was born deaf, talking was not easy for her. It was difficult for her to regulate the volume, pitch and sound of her voice in a way that most people can understand. Her words were not clear. To me, her voice sounded like the adults on the Charlie Brown cartoons. She was able to understand me because she could read my lips. Marilyn tried to teach me sign language, but I didn’t have the patience to learn. Somehow we managed to communicate and that was good enough for us. 

One afternoon while playing in their backyard, I spied an old, rusty, broken down bicycle leaning against the fence in the far corner. I asked Bill to whom this bike belonged. Bill must have detected my desire to take this jalopy of a two-wheeler as my own because he gave the bike a spit-shine, slapped on new tires and graciously gave it to me a few weeks later. I was delighted and grateful to call this new mode of transportation, my new, old bike.

From that day forward, I rode my bike up and down Berryman Avenue, my street. When I felt brave, I would cross the street and ride the sidewalks of that block. Although broken, the sidewalk cut through the neighborhood’s overgrown weeds and tall grass. On occasion, I could hear the unsettling sounds of something rustling and scurrying alongside me. I was certain the tall grass was home to rats, snakes and lizards.

I loved the sense of freedom my bike and the sidewalks provided. The time and thoughts belonged only to me. No adults to say, “don’t do that” or “don’t go there”.  One day, for no particular reason, I biked all the way to the end of my street, near the railroad tracks. It was the outer most section I was bold enough to go. All the kids knew, once you’ve passed Washington Boulevard, you had gone too far. I reached the corner, looked both ways at the traffic light, turned around and rode back to the safety of my block. It really was not a big deal, but I felt courageous for the effort.

One of the places the sidewalk took me was to my friend, Melanie’s house. Melanie lived on a tree-lined street with impeccable lawns and brightly colored flower beds. Although she lived around the corner from me, the houses on her street were far nicer than mine. The driveways on her street were steep and inviting to all neighborhood kids zooming around on bicycles, big wheels or skateboards. We would walk our bikes to the top of these driveways and ride down at top speed. We wanted to separate from the pack, so Melanie and I had the idea to “trick out” our bikes. With clothes pins, we affixed playing cards to the frame near the tires. The sound of the cards flapping against the spokes was gratifying. The other kids noticed and soon after, our idea was a common thing and all the rage in the neighborhood.

I became confident in my cycling abilities and my knowledge of the neighborhood sidewalks grew. With ease, I could describe the people living in a certain house and what types of cars they drove. Some neighbors were nice and waved, others would simply walk by without any gesture at all.

A sizable section of the sidewalk near my next door neighbor’s house was uplifted because of the massive eucalyptus tree roots. I knew to pedal faster there because catching “air” was guaranteed, as was the smile on my face.

My bicycle and the sidewalks fit me perfectly and it was a reflection of my personality. When I first saw the bike, it was alone but not forgotten. After minor repairs and new tires, it looked like a bike on display in a major department store. Despite the scratches and rust spots, it was functional, beautiful and served its purpose. The sidewalk represents my childhood; with the cracks, bumps, and obstacles, I maneuvered around and over them, becoming wiser and unbroken.

When the sun set and the daylight grew dim, I knew my adventures were coming to an end. I relied on the broken sidewalks to show me the way home, to the step of my front porch.

 

Hearing the phone ring at 1:00 am is like an explosion to your ears, especially when your brother is lying in a hospice facility waiting to die. No matter how much I prepared for that moment, it was not easy when it finally arrived like a sledgehammer hitting a rose. The last words I planned to say and the last thought I wanted to share evaporated like droplets of water on a hot sidewalk.

The last few months I dreaded, yet relished Saturday afternoons. Saturday afternoons were the only days I could visit my older brother, Raymond, at the hospice house. Conditions changed quickly at the house and visitors had to be sensitive of that. It was different from visiting a sick friend in the hospital. These residents were indeed sick, but they were also dying. Raymond did not have the luxury of going home.

During the drive to Long Beach, I ruminated on the same questions; should I walk in the house smiling and happy, or should I be somber and depressed? Do I greet the other men with a hug and words of encouragement, or is that crossing a boundary? The freeway exit was approaching quickly and I would soon be in the company of fifteen men in the last stages of the AIDS disease.  Most of the residents were frail and sickly as the disease had already consumed their bodies and spirits. As if the disease was taunting them, some looked like they were merely fighting the common cold; barely any outwardly indications of the sickness coursing through their veins.

We made the last left turn before parking in front of the stately house known as The Serra Project Home. My heart heavy and stomach in knots as we parked. I exhaled.

Before I step out of the car, I look to my right at my son, Michael, now eight months old. “I’m coming to get you, don’t worry,” I whisper to assure him I was not abandoning him. Unbuckling his seatbelt and scooping up all the tools necessary to keep a toddler fed and busy for the next hour. Carrying a healthy baby boy into a place where death waits patiently for each occupant seems cruel; one has a future with possibilities and dreams and the others have days or weeks with a definite outcome. Yet, both need the same love, tender care and devotion from those around them.

I knew this visit was not going to be the same because Raymond was not sitting in the huge living room waiting for us. Usually, we would find him sitting on the overstuffed brown leather sofa, wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt and house slippers. It was out of necessity for him to dress this way because he weighed under 100 pounds and not enough body fat to keep him warm. The sofa was a strategic place for him to sit because he would often need to vomit or empty his bowels and extra steps made this painful and embarrassing.

After seeing the empty sofa, we walked down the wood-paneled hallway and made a right turn – his room was second on the left. He had decorated his space with a few comforts from home; family pictures, bedding and decorative trinkets.

Raymond did not look good. He was lying in his bed, napping comfortably underneath his blankets, even though it was a warm day. Our arrival caused him to awaken. Looking over at us, he gave a loving smile and extended his arm to touch Michael. “Hi, Michael,” Raymond said happily. I bent over to give him a kiss on his forehead then carefully placed Michael on his stomach. Raymond was able to harness enough strength to prop up his pillows and lean back. His expression as he looked and stroked Michael’s chubby arms was beautiful and gentle. Although he was in pain and discomfort, his interest was on us and our well-being. “How are you guys? Is Michael being a good boy? Everything ok?” We spent the next thirty minutes with him. It was obvious Raymond was getting tired so we decided to cut our visit short. I picked up Michael and said to Raymond, “Get your rest and we will see you next week.” Giving him another kiss on his forehead, I walked away not knowing the visit would be the last time I would speak with him.

I sat in the car, sadness and emptiness enveloped me. My heart ached and I cried silently. I can’t take away his disease nor relieve him of the torment the sickness is causing. I know his soul felt heavy. Raymond was heartbroken to put his family, especially our mother, through this anguish. The only thing I paid attention to was Sade’s, By Your Side playing on the car radio.

Raymond passed away early Monday morning.

The phone on the nightstand rang loudly and I knew. Tony answered the phone, “hello, what? when? who’s going? ok. ok. we’ll meet you there.” “What happened?” I asked without breathing. “He’s gone,” Tony said heavily. What do I do, I thought to myself. How am I supposed to act?

My brother is dead. It’s so final. Should I cry? I want to call a friend, someone to share this moment of despair with me. I don’t want to be alone, yet I don’t want to be touched. Panic and calm at the same time.

It was 2:00 am by the time we arrived at the hospice house. Everyone was asleep except the night nurse. I walked toward the dimly lit room. Raymond lie peacefully in his bed, the comforter neatly tucked under his arms and one hand placed on top of the other. He was handsome even though the disease had robbed him of his health. I sat in the chair next to his bed and touched him. “It’s over. You are free now. Your body is healed. No more pain. No more shame. Thank you for being my brother. I love you.”