top of page


It's the little things that carry the most weight.

            For example, when I was six years old and my brother was sixteen, I slipped in the bathroom and -- don't ask how -- slit my eyebrow open on the sharp edges of the cracked-open door, which I kept open for escape purposes; we'd watched Jaws the night before and I was scared a shark would come up through the shower drain.

            Jacob heard me scream from his basement bedroom and rushed up the two flights of stairs to my side. He took a face cloth, soaked it and pressed it against my forehead, wet and slick with blood. Through my blubbering and tears I could see his smiling face; his eyes and hair were the color of vinegar.

            Then he drove me to the hospital for stitches (our parents were out). When at last, in the waiting room, I had stopped my crying, he got down on one knee, gave my cut a gentle poke, pinched my fat baby cheek and said, "It's okay, Janey. All of life's a book, and every scar is a chapter."

            I don't know why, but I smiled. It was the little things.

            Somehow, even then, he knew I would be a writer.

            I owe him a lot, even now. He was a good student; all his teachers liked him. Every year, on the first or second day of class, they would take a good look at my last name, Morganstern, and ask, "Are you related to Jacob?" And when I said yes, they would smile and nod; their eyes would lapse into some bright memory I could not see and they would say things like "Ah, Jacob," or, "I remember him! How is he?" And I would dutifully tell them that he was fine, that he was still drawing; more I did not understand.

            He was like that, my brother. He had a million friends and even though he knew so many people, he never forgot any of them. Whenever our parents went on vacation he had a party, and instead of locking me in my room like any rational teen would do, he invited me downstairs amongst the crowd. I'd sit on our olive-green, half drowning in its sagginess, and watch him make the rounds. He clapped people on the back and served them drinks in red Solo cups, saying "Hey Charlie, hey Lisa, hey Marisol." He called them each by name.

            The girls flocked to me, of course, and while I showed them my latest crayon drawings and told them all about how one of them, Chocola the sweets fairy was really a princess, my brother looted our parents' fridge and passed around a pack of beer. Then he'd settle near us with his own can and smile. As the girls cooed and fawned over me, he stood there and lapped it up; they loved that he was a family man. He nodded at my Barbie-talk, and when one of my captives made eye contact, he'd say, "Janey here will be the next Austen."

            Every time. He liked the joke.

            It was the little things.

            When our parents came home, they were mad, of course, and lectured him about underage drinking, but they could never stay mad for long. What did they expect him to do, he said, when he went away for college? The more he did it, the less they cared, and finally they gave up and  preached about drunk driving and alcohol safety instead. They saw promise in his work and didn't want anything to hinder it, to come between their son and what they saw in his future. They hung his pastels and portraits everywhere in the house, even when he didn't want anyone to see them, and when they had company over, they would say, "Yes, that there is a one of a kind; my son drew it. He's going to an art school."

            Except he didn't.

            After graduation, Jake didn't apply to art school. Didn't submit a portfolio. Didn't even apply to college. He just sat in our basement and did nothing. He was tired, he said. He hated school and he wanted to rest. It came as a surprise to all of us.

            So did the day he slipped in the shower.

            I was sixteen and he was going on twenty-six. Apparently, his legs gave out and he cracked his head against the sink; I heard it from downstairs and ran up. I found him, crumpled on the floor, slender and shining with water, gripping the knotted towel around his loins. Blood leaked from his scalp. It looked as though something had taken a bite out of the right side of his head.

            This time, our parents were home, and we all drove him to the hospital. The doctors patched him up and had us stay a while, so they could test for signs of a concussion. While we were waiting for the brain scan, it was quiet and my brother was in a daze. Amid the beeping and of the heart monitors and the sterile curtains, I leaned forward in my seat and poked him where all the gauze was, ignoring my mother when she hissed at me. Jacob bolted awake and looked my way.

            "Don't worry, Jakey," I said. "All life's a book and each scar's a chapter."

            He smiled and, unconsciously, as if by fate, I rubbed the scar on my right eyebrow.

            It was the little things.

            The doctors sent me and my parents home to wait for the results. It was busy that night, and they said they would call us in the morning. They said they would keep Jacob over night for observation, that he was safe in their hands.

            What they found wasn't a concussion.

            The only thing I knew about cancer was a book I'd read about a couple whose bones and lungs were full of it, and I remember clearly the passage where the boy tells his girlfriend that he was no longer in remission, that he'd had a scan and that he'd lit up like a Christmas tree.

            Jacob underwent testing as soon as they found the first blotch.

            The tests came back malignant. 

            Then they did a scan.

            I was amazed at how, in one image, my brother had become a universe. Tiny knots appeared from nothingness, swam in his gut. Moons and stars and planets. They were in his bones, his lungs, his liver.

            It was the little things.

            When Jake heard the news, he cracked a joke about his star sign. He was swathed in his hospital gown and half mummified by the bandages on his head. I couldn't focus. No wonder he'd  been so tired, I thought. It took a lot of effort to keep those galaxies inside him.

            Though he kept smiling, he saw the look on our parents' faces and agreed to chemo, but when he said it, I knew his heart wasn't in it. He had that half-smile he always got when he was plugging along something; the smile he always wore, I remembered, when he was in school. Even his art, sometimes, failed to bring to him a genuine grin.

            So he trudged on, for a while. Diligently going to sessions and pretending he wasn't sick, even though it was clear the chemicals were almost worse than the cancer was. What really bothered me was that I didn't see him anymore.

            He kept himself holed up in his room and refused to come out save for bathroom breaks and meals. I wrote him stories and poems, happy ones, and slid them under his door. The only response was the look in his eyes when I saw him next at the dinner table; they weren't as hollow when I did that. Like they were holes filling up with dirt.

            After three months, they weren't getting any results. The doctors pushed the options: experimental medicine, hospital care.

            He refused them.

            "I told them to take the money they were gonna spend on me and put it toward something useful, like an actual cure," he recounted to our parents later. They argued with him. He didn't respond.

            The following week I knocked at his door. I didn't have any poems with me this time, but there were some things I wanted to say. I didn't want to yell at him like Mom and Dad did, I just wanted him to understand. How could he just give up? How could he do this to us? I wondered. Hot, melancholy rage built up in my lungs and in my bones. It swam in my gut. There was no answer. I knocked again, and when again there was nothing I pushed the door open.

            I found him typing at his computer, headphones down over his ears. I tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped and took the headphones off. R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion filtered through the speakers.

            "Hey," I said. Then I saw what was on his computer screen. On a blank page, he'd written:

                        Jacob Morganstern 1990 - ???

                        He died as he lived: A Cancer.

            He saw me looking and made no excuses. "What do you think?" He asked.

            "It sucks," I said. All of a sudden my throat felt tight. "I can write you a better one."

            He chuckled. "Yeah, I bet you can."

            I looked around his room. It was covered from wall to wall with paintings and drawings, canvases and white pages of color. Bright sunsets met spring meadows on the same wall, while war scenes and skulls adorned the other. The two sides met above his bed, and a broken heart -- an actual, human heart that had edges like glass -- hung near his headboard.

            He was working on the brain half. On the easel by his bed -- I assumed he didn't have the strength to stand up too much anymore -- was a canvas half finished. Like the heart, the brain had glassy edges, polygons, like in those old computer games. But this one was inside a man's head, which looked like it'd been blown open by a grenade. Blood oozed down the back of the man's neck.

            I looked at Jacob.

            "I'm scared," he said, and swallowed.

            "I know," I said. "I'm scared too."

            I hugged him and then pulled him to his feet, toward his bed. We laid there, together, curled up in his blankets, crying. And I breathed in his smell, felt the warmth of his hug, their unwillingness to let go. I breathed in the sorrow, the rage, the dust mites.

            All the little things.


bottom of page