JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools

pictures and stories from the water’s edge

JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools header image 2

Wish you were here

November 29th, 2003 · 5 Comments

Today would have been my brother Jim’s birthday. This is the fourth year without him. He was my next-youngest sibling, the one closest to me in age, and I have many memories of our years together growing up. I was old enough to remember a little of how we waited in the hospital during his surgery to remove his brain tumor. He was only a baby, about the same age as my little Elisabeth is now. I remember spending Valentine’s Day and my birthday there in the hospital and hotel, and one time getting a glimpse of my brother, lying in a crib, limp as a rag doll with white bandages covering his skull.

I remember hearing him scream when we’d take him to the hospital for treatments. Lots of memories of Children’s Hospital in Seattle, and nurses searching his arms to find one good vein. I remember how’d he vomit up the chocolate milk my parents desperately tried to feed him, laying him on the kitchen table to pour it down his throat. I see it now – not the kitchen table – but the hallway walls where I’d wait and listen while Mom and Dad took care of Jim.

It was a miracle, especially back then, before CAT scans and MRIs, that my brother survived the aggressive tumor on his brain stem. But it changed him. He looked mostly like a normal kid when he was young, except he had scars on his body, including a huge one, like a railroad track, up the back of his head, where his blond hair never grew back thick. Sometimes strangers would ask my mom if Jim and my other brother were twins, although they were 18 months apart.

He walked with an unusual gait, on the insides of his feet, wearing down his soles in sharp slopes. As an adult he looked different. He had a short and stocky build and he held his small head tilted at an angle. He had a handsome face with big blue eyes and a sharp nose. And even though his body became a man’s, his mind stayed a child’s. Complicated concepts were hard for him to understand. I remember once, when my mom said we didn’t have much money, Jim told her to go to the bank and get more. His speech could be hard to understand. Sometimes I’d have to translate for Ted. Even for me, occasionally I didn’t know what he was saying to me over the phone. I’d have to ask Mom afterwards what he was trying to communicate. He could be very sharp and insightful, but sometimes he didn’t seem to make sense, especially as he got older.

Life was difficult for him. He was classified as “retarded” in the school system, graduating at age 21. Some of his friends were really happy kids, unaware of how different they were from the rest of the world. Not Jim. He was bright enough to know how different he was. And he was mad about it. He was sad about it at times. I remember after he was fitted for his tuxedo to wear at my wedding, he wanted to know “when can I have a girlfriend?” He so wanted to have a girlfriend and a car of his own.

Much of what I remember of my brother is from our childhood together. His stuffed lions and his scar on his head. His collections of cars and tapes. I moved away when he was a teenager, and our relationship suffered. Unlike my other siblings, Jim couldn’t write or email me. Even phone conversations at times would be difficult. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say to me. I felt sad and frustrated, missing out on my brother because I had moved away.

He loved listening to the radio. Pop music reminds me of him. Michael Jackson. Madonna. The hits that were hot during the years I lived at home. He could sing the lyrics and name the stars. He also loved listening to games. When I’d call home, I’d have to ask Jim how the Mariners were doing.

He liked going for a walk. He always liked going out in front of the rest of us, leading the way, whether we were walking on the beach or walking around the block. He’d wear his baseball cap and velcro shoes. I have a picture of him smiling while walking at Stanley Park, beaming in the summer sun, happy to be ahead of us all. He was a great runner too, winning many medals in Special Olympic meets, even competing at the state championships. I remember the rows of ribbons with medals hanging on the wall above his bed.

He loved cars. One year for Christmas I made him a big collage of car pictures I clipped from magazines, and he put it up in his room. He had a stuffed car made by a relative, lots of Matchboxes he could drive on a carpet of roads, and a big collection of magazines. Ted and I each year for his birthday gave him a magazine subscription and that was a good gift for him.

I think of Jim when I see my Elisabeth with her big head and fuzzy hair, looking like my brother as a baby. I think of him when I see Michaela falling asleep with her eyes a little bit open, just as Jim would do. I think of my brother when I see Abigail’s writing – the way she writes letters reminds me of Jim’s scrawl, but already at age 5 her writing and spelling is probably better than his ever was.

I think of Jim when I see a fancy car or an issue of Motor Trend magazine. I think of Jim at the grocery store when I see Hershey’s syrup and MnMs. I think of Jim when I read about Candlelighters in Thursday’s newspaper, the Ronald McDonald houses, and about other kids with cancer.

For all of us in our family, Jim changed our lives immensely, and we each were shaped in different ways, from our perspectives. He had a big impact on me: I wrote my college application essays about my experiences as his big sister, one titled “Tears of Strength”. Jim changed my heart and my mind. He challenged my faith and changed my soul. Growing up with Jim made me a sensitive girl, and I would have been a different woman without him in my life. Through the pain and questions, Jim drew me closer to his Creator.

I miss Jim. I wish he could be here. I’m glad he was able to see my baby, even play with her a little, but Abigail was the only niece he met. I wish he could meet Michaela and Elisabeth, and that my girls could grow up knowing him. I wish he could be here for our holidays, sitting around the table with my brother and sister and mother. I wish I could go and visit him, and spend more time with him, now that I’ve moved back to the Northwest. But then again I feel that is being selfish.

Life was hard for him. He suffered a lot of physical pain, as well as much rejection, frustration and anger. I know he’s happier now. I know he’s in heaven now. I know Jesus had mercy on him, even though his mind couldn’t understand much, much less the often-complicated theologies of salvation, and opened wide the door of heaven to greet him.

I miss you, Jim. Wish you were here.
And I hear you saying, Wish you were here.

Tags: family

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 medmusings // Dec 1, 2003 at 12:43 am

    moms during the holidays

    my guy friends are not the regularly blogging type, so i have to give it to moms during these wacky few weeks. Their personal entries are the most compelling writing i read every day. For example, my wife is enduring…

  • 2 medmusings // Dec 1, 2003 at 10:11 am

    moms during the holidays

    oops, my bad: i forgot to mention Lisa a mom who blogged today about the tradeoffs between work & stay-at-home mothering. And how could i forget the writer of “glove girl” Halley or the kindest person i met at bloggercon,…

  • 3 medmusings // Dec 1, 2003 at 10:59 am

    moms during the holidays

    oops, double bad: tania pointed out that she’s my wife, not julie who pointed this out earlier today, and i didn’t understand what she meant 😉 oops, my bad: i forgot to mention Lisa a mom who blogged today about…

  • 4 medmusings // Dec 3, 2003 at 12:47 am

    moms during the holidays

    triple bad: i do have one incredibly prolific blogging guy friend, Ted who’s apparently a Java celebrity, and i think in the bay area right now with his new job. Sorry Ted! He’s the better half of, and original blogging…

  • 5 Julie Leung: Seedlings & Sprouts // Dec 17, 2004 at 8:41 am

    Ashes to ocean: a final goodbye to my brother

    Yesterday we released my brother’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Jim died five years ago this December, after suffering three brain tumors in his young life. (I’ve described missing him at Thanksgiving, on his birthday and the anniversary of…