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A Tale Of The Christ

REAL   The Journal of Liberal Arts
Volume 29  Spring & Fall, 2004
 College of Liberal Arts
Stephen F. Austin State University

 By Dave Donelson

Bible-times people in robes and sandals walked along a dusty road toward Bethlehem.  Joseph led a donkey carrying Mary up to a Roman soldier seated behind a rough table in the shade under a tree.  Then scenes of the Nativity filled the screen as a voice told us that Judea had been ruled by Rome for a hundred years, but the prophets said that a Redeemer would be born to bring them salvation.

I was watching Ben Hur with my Mom’s friends, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, who sat with me between them in the dark theater.  I was eight years old.  It was weird that these two grownups would take me to the movies, especially the night before Christmas.  They were nice folks and everything, but I figured my Mom must have wanted me out of the apartment for awhile.  Maybe she knew my stepdad was going to be in a bad mood.  She was always telling me to go to the store or go outside and play when she saw him starting to get mean.  Maybe that’s why she sent me to the movies on Christmas Eve.  I tried not to think about anything but the movie.

The voice in the movie kept talking about Jesus times and the Romans.  I knew the story of Jesus, of course, we talked about it all the time in Sunday school, but I didn’t know what he had to do with this Ben Hur guy.  The posters showed four white horses pulling a chariot in front of an ugly statue with a bunch of Roman soldiers and people in robes and stuff standing around.  There wasn’t any cross or anything else about Jesus in the poster.

Finally, the Nativity scene ended and there was a Roman riding through the streets leading a big army.  The screen said “Anno Domini XXVI.” I didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t matter; the Romans were cool.  Horns blared loud fanfares and drums beat out a heavy march while the Roman soldiers carried their banners on tall poles with eagles on top.  I thought maybe the guy on the horse was Ben Hur, but then someone called him Messala.  I knew from the way he was talking about crushing the Jews and stuff that he was the bad guy. 

Mr. and Mrs. Stewart walked me home that night.  Like us, they didn’t have a car.  We could walk or get around pretty well in Indianapolis on the bus if you had to.  That night it was cold, but there wasn’t any snow.  Mom made me wear my big coat, wool cap, mittens, and a scarf—-all of it over a tee shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and a sweater! I left my coat open on the way home and didn’t put the ear flaps down on my cap so at least I didn’t look like a total fruit.  As we walked, Mr. Stewart asked me what part of the movie I liked best and I told him it was the chariot race.  Not when Messala got run over, but when Ben Hur made his horses jump over a big wreck and he got thrown over the front of his chariot and didn’t even get killed.  The battle with the ships was pretty neat, too.

Mom opened the door and invited the Stewart’s in, which was really weird.  It was almost midnight!  The living room was dark but I could see my stepdad silhouetted in the doorway to the kitchen.  He was leaning against the door frame, but he was holding a coffee cup instead of a beer, so everything was probably all right.

“Shhh,” Mom said.  “The baby’s asleep.”  Then she plugged in the Christmas tree.  The red and green and blue bulbs made just enough light for me to see four plastic chariots frozen in mid-race on the floor.  An army of miniature Roman soldiers marched in a line behind them.  Some of them carried those banners with eagles on top of the poles.  Excited, I flopped down to look at them from floor level. 

“Wow!” I said.  “Just like the movie!”

“Santa came while you were gone, hon,” Mom said.  “What do you think?  Did he do OK?”  I rolled over and jumped up to put my arms around her waist and buried my face in her stomach.

“Thanks, Mom.  These are great!”

“Don’t thank me, thank Santa.”

“Oh yeah.  Okay.” I had figured out Santa last year, but it didn’t hurt to play along because it made Mom feel good.  I looked up at her.  “Boy, I can use these with my Alamo fort.  Can I get it out now?”

“Oh no, you don’t,” she answered with a smile.  “It’s way past bed time and we’ve got church and then a long bus ride to Aunt Fay’s tomorrow.  That’s why Santa left your present early.  Off to bed, now.”

“Aw, Mom.  Just for a little bit.  Please?”

“That’s it, buddy,” my stepdad said.  “Get yourself to bed.”

I knew better than to argue, so I headed off to the bedroom I shared with my baby brother.  Mr. and Mrs. Stewart wished me a merry Christmas and I heard them telling Mom I was a little angel during the movie.  I closed the bedroom door, put on my pajamas, and crawled into bed.  The baby was breathing softly with a little snuffle from a cold.  I tried to stay awake thinking about how I could set up the tin Alamo walls so it would look like the chariot race place, but I drifted off.

 * * *

That spring we got a car, a clunky old Buick without fins, but at least we could go places without the hassle of the bus.  Mom drove the baby and me up to Aunt Fay and Uncle Frank’s house for a couple of weeks after school let out for the summer.  She said my stepdad had to stay behind to keep looking for work.  Mom said we all needed some fresh air and Aunt Fay’s house was the best place she knew of to get it. 

My Uncle Frank managed the co-op feed store in Buchanan, a really small town about an hour from Indianapolis.  He was a great big guy with short curly hair and strong hard hands made rough by throwing around heavy sacks of feed.  Aunt Fay was tall, too, but she was kind of skinny.  She worked in her garden and cleaned her house all day long.  Mom said Aunt Fay’s house was cleaner than a hospital and weeds wouldn’t grow in her garden because they were afraid of her.

I really liked my aunt and uncle.  They looked tough but they weren’t that way at all.  My cousin Jerry and I used to wait on the porch for Uncle Frank to come home from work.  When we heard his truck, we’d hide behind the bushes on either side of the steps and hold our breath until he came up the sidewalk.  Then we’d jump out and each grab one of his legs and hold on tight.  It was like hugging a walking telephone pole.  Uncle Frank was so strong he would just keep on walking as if he didn’t have a kid wrapped around each of his legs.  He’d march right up the steps and into the house and tell Aunt Fay he’d worked so hard today that his legs felt like they were stuck in cement.  Then he’d look down and pretend he just noticed us.  That was the signal for each of us to grab one of his hands and get swung up onto his shoulders.  He could lift us both at the same time and laugh while he was doing it.

Aunt Fay was real nice, too, although she was pretty strict about washing your hands and face and saying your prayers and stuff like that.  Mom called her “Sarge” because she’d been in the Women’s Army Corps during the war.  Mom said that when I was a baby we lived with Aunt Fay and Uncle Frank, but I don’t remember that.

Aunt Fay really liked babies.  You could tell by the way she’d stop whatever she was doing whenever my brother pulled himself upright and took a couple of steps.  He was just learning to walk.  He would crawl over to a chair or something else to hold on to, then stand up and lurch away from it.  He could usually go about three steps before he’d lose his balance and sit down hard on his behind.  He did it so often he wasn’t even surprised anymore and so he’d just sit there and laugh.  Aunt Fay always went “Boom!” when he plopped down and that made him laugh even more.  After a couple of days, he started saying “Boom!” himself whenever he sat down.  Then he’d clap his hands and laugh so hard sometimes he’d roll right over on his round bottom.

I was just a year younger than my cousin Jerry, but he was about a head taller than me.  We roamed all over Buchanan on our bikes.  I even got up real early to help him with his paper route.  One morning after we had delivered all the papers, Jerry and I stopped on the way home to try out the new slingshots Uncle Frank had made for us.  We snuck into one of the neighbor’s gardens and filled our pockets with hard green grapes.  Green grapes made great ammunition because they were just about the size of marbles and pretty hard.  They were lots better than rocks.  We walked our bikes along the gravel road, stopping every now and then to take a shot at a fence post or one of the glass insulators high up on a telephone pole. 

There was a big corn field next to Aunt Fay’s house and the utility wires that ran along the road were always full of birds.  When we got there, Jerry pointed at the line of birds on the wire above us, loaded his slingshot and fired almost straight up.  He missed and the birds didn’t even flutter.  I started to snort a laugh then clamped my hand over my mouth to keep from startling the birds.

“Come on, smarty,” he whispered.  “Let’s see you do it.”

I pulled a handful of grapes out of my pocket and picked through them until I found one that was perfectly round and slightly larger than the rest.  I stretched the band back to my nose and sighted in on a fat black starling on the wire ahead.  When I released it, the grape sailed along an arc directly at the bird.  It seemed to go into slow motion at the end of the flight just before it struck.  The starling’s feathers muffled the sound and the grape fell to the ground.  The bird didn’t move for a second, then it just slipped off the wire and fluttered to the ground as the rest of the flock jumped into the air and swept away over the corn in the whir of a thousand wings.

“Hey, cool!” Jerry shouted as we bolted for the spot in the road where the bird flopped weakly in the dust.  “Great shot.”

Jerry and I sat on our heels looking down at the starling.  I couldn’t see any blood or anything, but I knew it was just about dead.  Jerry didn’t say anything.  I reached down for it and he grabbed my hand away.  “Cooties” is all he said.  The starling lay in the dust on its side.  It jerked its head and one eye looked right at me.  My breath caught and came shallow when I saw what I had done.  The bird’s eye was bright red and a single drop of blood had squeezed out beneath it.

* * *

My baby brother had been crying and fussing for several days.  He didn’t want to eat and Mom had to rock and rock him to get him to settle down.  Even then, he would only sleep a little while before he woke up crying again.  Finally, Uncle Frank drove Mom and the baby to see the only doctor in Buchanan, Dr. Hestler.   Mom said I could go but I had to be quiet.

Dr. Hestler was a rumpled old guy with gray hair and glasses.  He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a vest that was unbuttoned so his stomach could poke through.  His office was full of sturdy and very old oak furniture.  The examination table was a wooden platform padded by a folded wool blanket covered with white paper from a role at the end.  The only decoration on the wall was a calendar from Uncle Frank’s feed store.  Dr. Hestler looked in the baby’s eyes and ears and mouth.  He took his temperature and blood pressure and listened to his heart.   The baby squirmed and whimpered the whole time.  He asked Mom if the baby had diarrhea and told her to give him plenty of fluids.  He said there wasn’t any fever, so it probably wasn’t anything serious like a bad appendix, maybe just an upset stomach or a little gas.  He said to come back in a couple of days if nothing changed.

We went back to Aunt Fay’s, but Mom said she was still worried.  Aunt Fay said that Dr. Hestler was a good man and had probably seen hundreds of babies acting just like this.  Besides, he was the only doctor in town.  If Mom wanted to see someone else, she’d have to drive clear back to Indianapolis.  Mom told Aunt Fay she didn’t want to do that because my stepdad was there and he might find out she was back in town and she didn’t want to get him stirred up again.

The baby fussed all that night and the next day.  He wouldn’t eat and when they tried to get him to drink some water, he just kept spitting it back out.  Then he would turn his head away and clamp his little lips shut.  It was Wednesday, so we all went to prayer meeting after supper, except Mom and Boomer, of course.  I felt guilty because I was glad to go just to get away from the crying for awhile.  But Aunt Fay said she was going to ask Reverend Larson to say a special prayer for the baby and we should all use our silent prayer time to do the same.  That made me feel better.  I figured that I would add some more prayers before I went to bed and that Jesus was sure to hear us, there would be so many people asking him for the same thing.

Mom looked worn out and sick herself when we got home.  Aunt Fay mixed a little sugar in the baby’s bottle and he finally took a few swallows.  Then she added a little whiskey to the sugar water to settle his stomach and help him sleep.  He took a couple more swallows and slipped off with the nipple still in his mouth.  Mom finally fell asleep in the rocker with the baby on her lap.  Aunt Fay left them both to sleep in the chair and we all went to bed, too.

“Dear Jesus,” I prayed from my bedside in Jerry’s room, “Please make Boomer get better and don’t let Mom be sad anymore.   I love you, just like Aunt Fay says, so please make Boomer feel better.  I know you can do it.  Thank you.   Amen.”  I went to sleep right away.

Mom’s shrieks racked the house.  I couldn’t get my bearings at first, then I remembered where I was and scrambled out of bed and ran to her room.  Aunt Fay ran through the door just ahead of me and fell to her knees to see the baby laid across Mom’s lap. 

“He’s not breathing!” Mom yelled.  “Do something, Fay!”  I stepped closer and could see the baby jerking weakly.  His face was turning from red to blue.  Aunt Fay stuck a finger in his mouth and pulled it open.  She covered his mouth and nose with her mouth.  Then her cheeks puffed out as she breathed into the baby’s lungs.  She lifted her head, took a deep breath, and did it again.  The baby whimpered faintly.

“Oh my God, Fay, what’s wrong with him?” Mom pleaded.  She lifted the baby to her shoulder and rocked him gently.

“I don’t know, but we better get him to a hospital,” Aunt Fay said.  “That was a convulsion!”  She was still on her knees and reached up to lay her hand softly on the baby’s back.  The baby sort of gagged and went rigid.  Aunt Fay snatched him away and laid him on the floor and his back snapped into an arch.  Again she opened his mouth with her finger and started blowing air into his lungs.  When his little body slumped back to the floor and he took a breath on his own, she looked at Mom and asked her if she thought she could manage the drive to Indianapolis.

Uncle Frank stayed with us while Mom and Aunt Fay took off for the hospital an hour away.  I was so frightened I was numb.  All I could see was the baby jerking up and down on the floor.  Uncle Frank sat down in the rocker and pulled me onto his lap.

“That’s OK; go ahead and cry,” he murmured into the top of my head pressed against his chest. 
“I’m scared, Uncle Frank.”

“I know you are.  But don’t worry.  The Good Lord Jesus will take care of you and the baby and your Mom,” he whispered.  “Sweet Jesus takes care of us all.”

We all just sat around the next morning, waiting to hear what happened.  Uncle Frank said there wasn’t anything we could do but wait and pray.  Jerry turned on the TV but there wasn’t anything to watch.  They only got one channel from Indianapolis and it had some stupid show about cooking with a woman wearing a dress and an apron and a pearl necklace.  She looked like she was getting ready to go to church.  I never saw my Mom or any other lady I know dress like that when they were cooking dinner.  So Jerry turned it off and put on the radio.  “The Battle of New Orleans” was playing and then the station gave the news.  It was all about some guy who got shot down by the Russians and how he confessed he was a spy for the U.S., but President Eisenhower said he was really a hero.

Jerry turned it up louder when they started talking about sports.  Stan Musial was my favorite player but Jerry was a Cubs fan and he liked Ernie Banks, even though he was a Negro.  Uncle Frank said they were both real heroes because they didn’t play for money, they played because they liked to.  He said Stan Musial even asked for a salary cut this year because he didn’t play very well last year.  Uncle Frank said that showed what a fine man he was.  The radio said that both teams won yesterday.  The Cubs beat the Dodgers and the Cardinals beat the Giants.

Aunt Fay finally called just before lunchtime.  She told Uncle Frank that the baby just came out of the operating room and would be in intensive care until he started breathing better on his own.  Uncle Frank handed me the phone and she told me Mom was okay but she couldn’t talk to me right now because she was sleeping in the waiting room.  I didn’t understand everything, but Uncle Frank explained it as best he could.  The baby had gone into convulsions three more times on the way to the hospital.  That’s why Mom was driving; so Aunt Fay could give mouth-to-mouth and keep him alive.  A doctor rushed the baby right into the operating room and, when they cut in, they found a blockage in his intestine that had become gangrenous and a really high fever had set in.  That's what caused the convulsions.  No one knew what caused the blockage.  It was just one of those things that happens sometimes.

After lunch we sat around and listened to the radio some more, waiting for word from Indianapolis.  Then Jerry remembered something.

“Hey Dad! Can we go to the movies?  Ben Hur’s opening tonight.”

“Sure, that’s a good idea,” Uncle Frank said.  “It don’t do no good for you just to sit around here waiting for the phone to ring.  That sound good to you?”  He looked at me where I sat with my chin propped up on my crossed arms.

“Yeah.  Sure.  OK,” I said.  I had already seen the movie, of course, but there was some neat stuff in it like the sea battle and the chariot race.  It was weird that the movie was just getting to Buchanan, but I realized that everything was a little behind there.  Heck, Jerry even wore a coonskin cap sometimes, even though Davy Crockett was over and the guys in Indianapolis had given them up over a year ago.  Uncle Frank gave us each a dollar and dropped us off at the movie theater after dinner.  He asked the lady at the ticket window how long the movie was and said he’d be back to pick us up when it was over.  He said not to worry because Jesus was looking after the baby and he would be all right.

We got some popcorn and Cokes and settled into our seats in the dark theater.  I tried to concentrate on the movie and stop thinking about Mom and the baby.  I did pretty good for a few minutes, but when Baby Jesus cried in the manger, it reminded me of my brother.  I closed my eyes and tried to pray for him.  Like Uncle Frank said, I’d pray to the Lord Jesus to make the baby get well and come home soon.  I prayed, but I didn’t really feel much better.  I still felt confused—-like there were too many thoughts running around in my brain and I couldn’t hold on to any of them.

At the end of the movie, the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross and hoisted it upright.  The sky went dark and big clouds rolled in and Judah Ben Hur watched with a bewildered, frightened look while the music welled up and got real sad.  I started crying but turned my head away from Jerry so he wouldn’t see.  I felt so bad for Jesus and hated the Romans so much.  It was all so unfair.

Judah’s mother and sister, Miriam and Tirzah, went with Esther into a cave to escape the storm.  They cowered in the cave as the sky turned black and the wind roared outside.  A huge flash of lightening lit the cave and you could see that the sores from their leprosy had been healed.  They ran their fingers over each other’s face and started to cry.  I cried, too, but silently.  Miriam and Tirzah emerged from the cave and stood with their faces uplifted into the rain.  The sweet waters washed over them gently as the storm abated and the sky began to lighten.  The blood of Jesus trickled from the base of the cross and mixed with a rivulet of water.

Three empty crosses stood atop the mound of Calvary, silhouetted against the brilliant sky.  A shepherd drove his sheep past them at the base of the hill.   A hard sob gripped my throat and I couldn’t hold it back so I rushed out of the theater into the lobby.  I slumped against the wall by the door and the ticket lady rushed over and knelt to put her arms around me.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked.

“My baby brother,” I gasped.  “I don’t know.  He might be dead!”  The blunt fact struck full force and I sobbed.  I could hear her and the popcorn guy and then Jerry trying to make me feel better.  Uncle Frank came and took us home.

* * *

Nothing smells as good as the feed store.  It smells toasty and hearty and incredibly complex.  The sweet decay of newly-mown grass, an acrid whiff of leaves burning in the fall, even the rich aroma of baking bread are all in the dust that fills the air.  Each grain lends a separate smell to the mix and makes the air almost thick enough to chew.  Cracked corn, oats, barley--even sunflower seeds--all get lightly toasted by the friction of grinding and mixing and bagging and the air sparkles with their dust.   It’s like breathing cornflakes.

Jerry and I hung around the feed store a lot that summer.  I stayed with Aunt Fay and Uncle Ray while Mom stayed in Indianapolis taking care of the baby.  She was able to take him home from the hospital but he was still real sick and needed a lot of rest and quiet.  I missed Mom and the baby, but I understood why it was best for me to stay in Buchanan.  Besides, my stepdad was home with Mom sometimes and she said he wasn’t in a very good mood so it was probably best I stayed where I was for a few weeks.  Anyway, it was summer and there were lots of things to do with Jerry in Buchanan.

Besides delivering Jerry’s papers and hanging around the feed store and going to church and Sunday school, we played Ben Hur a lot.  Uncle Frank let us make two swords from scrap wood we found behind the feed store.  We cut shields out of a big corrugated carton and tied them to our arms with rope we poked through.  There was a huge dense bush in Aunt Fay’s front yard that we hacked and stabbed over and over again.  It was really neat because your sword would go right in when you jabbed it and then stick there with the handle poking out like you had driven it through some Roman soldier’s chest.

Aunt Fay caught us, though, and laid on a real tongue lashing.  She yelled something about her “favorite forsythia” and yellow flowers in the spring and how we had ruined it for next year.  When Uncle Frank came home, she told him we needed a good smack because we beat up her bush.  He took us out behind the shed but, instead of whacking us on the behind like he usually did, he smacked his own thigh a couple of times to make a noise to fool Aunt Fay.

“Now, don’t you tell on me, you two,” he said with a little grin.  “I hate that doggone bush.  A forsythia ain’t nothing more than the king weed of the bush family.  But, as much as I’d like to see you beat it to pieces, you better lay off or Fay will give you a smack herself.  Now, get on out of here.”

One of the best Ben Hur things we did was chariot races on our bikes, riding real fast around the cinder track at the school grounds and pretending to run over the other charioteers and stuff.  We swerved from one side of the track to the other like we were dodging around wrecked chariots and dead horses.  Jerry and I took turns being Ben Hur and Messala.  Being Messala was cooler because you tied a stick to each of the saddlebag baskets on the rear wheels.  They stuck out like the knives on Messala’s chariot wheels in the movie.  You could run over people and chop them in half and maneuver your knives into their wheels and grind them up so they wrecked.  It was cool.  One time, though, I got lost in the fantasy and rode up beside Jerry like Messala trying to wreck Ben Hur.  I pedaled alongside him and started to slide over.

“Hey, watch it!” he yelled when he saw what I was doing.  He stood on his pedals for more speed but so did I.  The cinders shot out behind us as our tires dug in.

“Look out, stupid!” Jerry tried to swerve away but there was a curb there and he couldn’t.  I gave it an extra push and jerked my bike to the left.  I was trying to rub the stick against his back tire, but instead it flipped into the spokes.  The stick snapped with a loud crack and Jerry’s tire locked and he flew over the handlebars.  The basket ripped off my bike and I fell over sideways onto Jerry’s.  His handlebar jabbed into my ribs real hard and my elbow ground into the cinders on the track.

“Look what you did, you fart!” Jerry screamed.  He had broken his dive with his hands and now they were skinned and bloody with cinders struck in his palms.  His chin was all scraped up, too.  He got to his knees and inspected his hands, fighting back tears and trying to think of something else to call me.  I crawled off his bike and over onto the grass off the track.

“God, man.  I’m sorry.  Are you hurt?”

“What do you think, stupid?” and he held out his palms to me.

“Me, too.” I held out my hand to him and then lifted my shirt to see if I was bleeding.

“You are such a butt hole.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry.  Besides, you were Ben Hur and you weren’t supposed to fall.”

“Yeah, right.  Like I could keep going with that stick in my wheel.  Hey, look what you did to my bike!”

The handlebars on both bikes were twisted crooked and the wire baskets were mashed.  Jerry’s was worse, though, because two spokes were torn out of the back wheel and some others were bent and just barely hanging by one end.  Jerry yanked them out so the wheel could turn.  We started the long walk home, pushing our bikes as best we could.  Jerry’s t-shirt was spotted with blood from his chin and smeared with blood and black specks of cinder from where he wiped his hands on it.

Aunt Fay made us both sit still while she washed our scrapes and picked the cinders out of our skin.  That hurt.  But what really hurt was when she painted iodine on our palms.  That stung so bad we squeezed our eyes shut and cried “Ow-w-w-w” while we tried to blow on them to stop the burning.  When Uncle Frank came home, he just shook his head. 

* * *

The summer ended and school was ready to start when I went home.  Mom crushed me to her chest at the front door and brushed her hand through my crew cut, pressing my face against her neck.  My throat tightened up.  She pushed me back to arm’s length so she could see my face.

“Did you have a good time at Aunt Fay’s?  Were you good?”

“Yeah, it was okay.  But I’m glad I’m home.  Where’s Boomer?” I asked.

“He’s in the crib.  You’ll see him in a minute.  Let me look at you first.  I missed you so much.”

“Me, too, Mom.  Where’s Eric?”  I peered past her into the apartment, looking for my stepdad.

“He’s not here anymore.  I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” She smiled just a little.  I let that sink in for a moment then looked at her very soberly.

“Where’d he go?”

“He’s gone for good.  Don’t you worry about him.  He won’t be around anymore.” Now I was really glad to be home.

“Is everything OK?”

“Sure, sweetheart.  Eric just couldn’t take it anymore and so he left when I wouldn’t send...” Then she realized what she had almost said.  “I mean, he just decided he wanted to live someplace else.  So I said, ‘good riddance.’”  I hugged her again and neither one of us said anything for a couple of quiet minutes.  Then I said I wanted to see the baby now.

Instead, she sat on the couch and pulled me down next to her.  She told me that there were some things that I should know about first.  Boomer’s just fine, she said, but he’s different now.  When he had the convulsions, his oxygen was cut off and his brain didn’t get as much as it needed.  So he lost something up there inside his head and he was different from when I saw him the last time.  I looked at her but I didn’t really understand what she meant.  She took my hand to lead me into her room, where the baby’s crib was now.

It was dark and quiet in there.  We stood still while our eyes adjusted to the dim light and I could hear the baby’s breathing.  It was soft and sort of raspy.  Mom lifted a window shade just a little and I could see him lying on his back under a blanket in the crib.  He didn’t look any different to me and I reached down to touch the hand he was clenching to his chest.  His hand didn’t move but his eyes opened for a second.  He looked at me but I could see he didn’t recognize me.  His eyes were just blank.  Mom held her finger across her lips and we went back into the living room.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked. 

“They don’t know for sure yet, but he’s back to being like a brand new baby now.  He doesn’t see very well and he doesn’t talk or walk or even crawl.”

“Will he get better?”

“Sure he will, honey.   We just have to pray for him.” She looked back into the baby’s room and her voice got soft.   “Right now, he’s just peaceful.  He doesn’t even cry.”

After his nap, I tried, but the baby didn’t play.  He just laid there and looked at me without changing expressions.  I stopped asking Mom questions because I could see they were getting her down.  I knew she was trying to be cheerful so I wouldn’t feel bad, but her face sagged every time I asked something else.  That night I tossed in bed, sleepless with my unasked questions.  Was he going to grow up?  Would he ever start walking again?  Would he say “Boom!” like he did at Aunt Fay’s?  The questions just rolled through my head.

Mom had hung a cross Uncle Frank gave me on the wall above my head.  It was plastic and, when the lights went out, it glowed softly white with violet around the edges.  The longer the lights stayed off, the weaker it glowed.  Uncle Frank said it would help me remember the Baby Jesus every night as I went to sleep.  The cross kept drawing my gaze as I tossed in bed.  I kept trying to thank Jesus and I tried to pray like I had so many times that summer, but it just wouldn’t come out right. I was mad, like Ben Hur.  I wanted to lash out at someone about Boomer, but I didn’t know who.  Uncle Frank had said it wasn’t anybody’s fault and Aunt Fay told me it was just one of those things that happened. 

But they were wrong.  My baby brother wasn’t something that just happened.  This wasn’t a ball game where I could just shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, well.  Maybe next time.”  He wasn’t going to have a next time.  Jesus wasn't going to make him better.  That was just a movie.