By Melissa Nuñez, 16, Warren HS (Downey)
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Melissa still thinks about her brother on special occasions, like her birthday and award ceremonies.

This summer, I was volunteering at my local library and my first week there I met another volunteer. We started talking about senior year and school. Then she asked me a common question: “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I told her no, but the fact is that I once had a brother. It made me think about him, but I didn’t say anything because I had just met her. 

I always ask myself, “Should I mention him or not?” Technically, I am an only child but it’s complicated. If I say yes, I have to tell them that he passed away. I want to only tell people I know well and not those I’ve just met because it’s very private. But if they ask a follow-up question like, “Did you ever want siblings?” I tell them. There are times they say, “Oh, I’m sorry” and then we keep talking about other things. But other times there’s an awkward silence. Some ask questions like, “How old was he?” or “How did he die?” because they want to know what happened. 

Feb. 14, 2003, when I was 7, was the day my parents told me that I was going to have a little brother or sister. I ran in circles and jumped around the apartment screaming and yelling because I was so happy that finally I was going to be a big sister. For years, I had been asking them for a baby brother or sister. I was tired of being an only child. 

I wanted someone else to play with and talk to. I imagined that if I had a sister, I could do her hair, put makeup on her, play house and she’d be like my daughter. If it was a boy I would give him advice on girls, play sports and watch TV with him. 

When my mom was pregnant I took it upon myself to make sure she was OK. I helped her around the house, watched TV with her and rubbed lotion on her pregnant tummy. I would even read to the baby because even though he or she wasn’t born yet, I knew he or she could still hear me. I would be so excited to go home after school because I would get to spend more time with my mom and my future brother or sister. Nine months felt like an eternity. 

I turned 8 on Nov. 7, 2003. Three days later my mom went to the hospital to give birth. It was a late birthday present. My parents left me with my mom’s friend. The next day I got the news that I was a big sister to a baby boy who my parents named Nicholas. I was so happy that finally my baby brother was born. A few days later, I was allowed to go visit my mom in the hospital and when I asked her where the nursery was she told me about the problem. 

Nicholas had been born with an abnormal heartbeat and had been taken to Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach. The second week I went with my parents to see him in intensive care. 

I connected with him right away 

Photo by Jennifer Gonzales-Romero, 19, University of La Verne

I saw a beautiful baby boy who looked like me except he had lighter hair and skin. When I talked to him he looked around the room like he was looking for my face. It was like he recognized my voice from all those times I had talked and read to him. The next few times we visited him, my mom was able to hold him and I would bring books to read to him. He seemed to like it because he would turn his ear toward me and listen. 

At the hospital I talked to a counselor who explained to me what was going on with my brother. She said, “Nicholas isn’t feeling well right now.” She said he had to stay in the hospital but I could visit him, talk to him, read to him and give him lots of love. It was comforting that I was still able to be with him. She gave me a book about a baby being sent to a hospital because he was sick. I would read it to him over and over again and one time I took it to my third grade class and read it to the class. 

After a month or so Nicholas was transferred to pediatric care where he was in his own room with a crib, TV and bathroom. It was like his home away from home. Most days my mom would pick me up from school and because my dad would be working, we would have to take three buses to get to the hospital. I had never been on that many buses so it was like my own little adventure and I loved it. When we would get to the hospital, I would leave my backpack in the room, go over to Nicholas’s crib and say hi, give him a kiss and tell him about my day. After eating I would do my homework and when I finished, I could watch the Disney Channel. I would sit next to Nicholas’s crib and talk to him about the show I was watching. When my dad got off work he would pick me and my mom up from the hospital and we would go home. 

Nicholas’s doctor informed us that he could go home but that he was at risk for hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling. I pictured water going into his skull, making his head bigger, which helped me understand. 

When he came home I helped my mom change him and give him baths. I would watch movies with him; his favorite was The Little Rascals, which always made him laugh.

In February at one of his checkups the doctors detected the beginnings of hydrocephalus. He had 11 operations. During every operation I was worried because anything could go wrong. On July 12 he was able to come back home. He needed special care but he was home and that was all that mattered to me. I could keep him now. 

He had to go back to the hospital 

Then on July 16 my mom told me that he had gotten a fever. He was hospitalized again and that’s when things got worse. The fever had been caused by a septic shock, a serious condition that occurs when an infection leads to life-threatening low blood pressure.

On July 19 the doctor gave me and my parents the news that my baby brother had only a few hours to live. I cried and screamed and kicked the floor, repeating over and over, “He can’t die, he can’t.” My parents were finally able to calm me down and then I fell asleep. When I woke up I went over to his hospital crib but he wasn’t there anymore. My parents came in and by the looks on their faces I knew that my brother had died. I was sad I wasn’t able to give him a last goodbye. He passed away on July 20, 2004 at 1:20 am. 

After my brother’s memorial my house was quiet for a few weeks but then we were able to talk about it. I said I was really sad because I really wanted a brother and my dad said he had been really excited about having a son. My mom talked about how she missed him. But we talked about how he was in a better place now. It made me feel better because if he had lived he wouldn’t have had a normal life because of all the care he would have needed. But now, he wouldn’t suffer.

That fall I entered fourth grade and I saw the school counselor during lunch for about two months. We’d color and make bracelets and we would talk about my time with Nicholas and how I felt after he passed away. She let me talk about how I felt angry and she would say that it was normal because it was part of grieving. She made me realize that thinking this way isn’t going to help so I was able to accept that there was nothing that would change his not being here.

Every year I’d think about how old he would be at that time and what he would be doing. At the start of eighth grade I thought about how he would be starting school that year and he would’ve gone to the same elementary school I did. 

There were times that I really wished my brother were there. In eighth grade, my math and science classes were harder than my seventh grade classes. At the end of my first semester my GPA had dropped to 3.5 and I didn’t get the highest award for my GPA like I had before. I was really bummed. I didn’t tell my mom because I didn’t want her to get mad. I wished Nicholas were there because I would feel comfortable talking to him about it.

I would go to the playground over the summer and I saw little kids playing. I would think about how Nicholas could’ve been one of those kids. 

In high school I got busier so I wasn’t bored like I used to be and I didn’t think about him as much. At the end of my sophomore year my best friend, who was like my brother, and I grew apart. I started realizing someone can leave you unexpectedly. Before I was so sure about everything. After Nicholas died I thought nothing else could go wrong because something so tragic had already happened. But something will go wrong again. There were times when I really needed a best friend and I didn’t have that anymore. If Nicholas were here I would still have someone, a brother.

I imagine him being there for me

I want to make him proud. There are times when I get stressed with schoolwork and feel like giving up, but then I think, “If he were here, he would cheer me on.” If I’m struggling in a class but at the end I get a good grade, I feel happy and think that he would be happy too. 

Most of the friends I’ve made in high school and even some from middle school have no idea about Nicholas and it’s not something I talk about just to make conversation. But during my junior year, I was tutoring with a classmate after school in the library. I was talking about L.A. Youth and she asked what story I was going to write and I told her. She said her dad had passed away so she understood. She said she wasn’t able to give him a proper goodbye and I told her I wasn’t able to give my brother a proper goodbye either. After that conversation we talked about other stuff and I gained a friend. 

At home I’m not an only child. We still have him present with pictures and by having a special place for his ashes. We reminisce about the times we had with him. He’s still in our lives.

I don’t talk about my brother so others can feel sad for me. I talk about him because he’s special and what happened is important to me. I thank Nicholas for having an impact on my life. I learned that life isn’t going to be easy and that I shouldn’t take it for granted. I learned to appreciate the little things. 

Also by this writer … 

Opening my mind. Melissa, 16, learned not to judge people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. (May – June 2012)