One night when we were kids, my younger brother, James, and I were eating banana splits in our parents’ bedroom. We were watching a show on their little television set while sitting on the bed, laughing and eating. At some point James grew quiet, and when I looked over at him I saw that he had fallen back on the bed, his mouth was open, and he had a wild look in his eyes. I think he was also shaking.
I screamed for our parents in the living room, and it seemed like they were there within seconds. My mom told me to run to the kitchen for a glass of water, so I jumped off the bed, and as I was running down the hall I heard her say, “Don’t let him swallow his tongue.”
When I got to the kitchen I was so panicked that I couldn’t find a glass. I don’t know how much time passed, but I finally found one, and with trembling hands filled it with water from the faucet. I started to run back down the hall, trying not to spill the water, but on the way I stopped when I saw that the front door was wide open. My parents were gone and so was James. I don’t know where my older brother, Tim, was during all of this. That’s all I remember about that night.
Life changed for our family after that. James recovered, sort of. My mom said that he had turned blue in the car on the way to the emergency room, but once they got him there he was saved. Thankfully, we lived less than a block from the hospital; just two doors down, through the alley and across San Jose Street.
There was little verbal communication in our family, so I didn’t know at the time if James had choked on a piece of banana or if he had suffered a seizure. In any case, my baby brother was never the same after that night. Over time, he seemed to withdraw into himself, and would often get agitated and angry.
I don’t remember if our parents told Tim and me to be extra nice to James because of what happened to him, or if I noticed that he was now allowed to get away with behavior that in the past would have caused him punishment. But in my little girl mind I must have been jealous and resentful. I probably didn’t care that he was more fragile. He was my bratty little brother, and when he directed his anger at me, I didn’t hesitate to fight back.
Our physical attacks were sometimes vicious, leaving us heaving with exhaustion. If our parents were in the room, we would continue torturing each other behind their backs by using our knuckles, where we would bend our middle finger into a weapon, hold it together in a fist, and then either twist or punch it into a tender arm or thigh. This aggressive behavior continued throughout our childhood, and didn’t stop until we were much older.
I don’t recall ever fighting with Tim. He was more of a protector. I was comforted in knowing that whenever I stumbled, Tim would let me hold onto the back of his shirt to regain my footing. Or more likely, he would sense that his little sister was in trouble and put out a steadying arm. James, as the youngest, always followed behind, forever kicking at the ground or at the back of my ankles. He seemed to live inside a private world that only he knew. I don’t know if he ever tried to hold onto the back of my shirt, but if he had I would have only slapped his hand away, sure that he was just trying to pull my hair.