I wish I'd been there, outside Dawg Haus that late summer morning. I'd have seen the laughter in his eyes, heard the joy seasoning his every word. How I would have chuckled. His sister, had she been present, would have heard them too. Instead, Laurel would overhear the words a few days later, in a different setting.
However, as summer wound to a close and school lurked a few weeks away, a group of young people hung together as only teenagers can. Around the tables bordering Dawg Haus, the local hotdog stand, life vibrated with shared remembrances, soared on the wings of cherished dreams.
"Ooh!" one of the girls suddenly shivered. "I just had a terrible thought. What if something happened to one of us? If one of us died? That would be horrible, wouldn't it? I can't imagine."
Everyone started talking at once, then Justin quickly piped in, "Hey you guys, all I have to say is no one better cry for me. Well," he chuckled into the sudden silence his words created, "OK! You can mourn a week. But," and his eyes sparkled that familiar gleam, "if you're crying after that, I'll come back and kick you in the butt. How can you be sad about me being with Jesus?"
Laughing in agreement, conversation flowed randomly until one-by-one they each headed into their own part of the day.
Before I knew it, Justin was walking Laurel to work while he told her enthusiastically about the new job he would begin at Dawg Haus in eight days.
It had always been like that between them. Twins at heart, born two years apart. She, his teacher, his guide, his greatest cheerleader. He, as the years passed, becoming her champion, her protector, filling the gap that would have been her father's, had life been different.
Nevertheless, now they stood, on a new threshold. And as they walked away side-by-side, laughing over those brother-sister secrets, memories flooded my heart.
It had all begun when I came home from the hospital and laid the sleeping eight-pound bundle into two-year-old Laurel's eager arms. A magical heart weaving occurred, unexplainable, but undeniable, even to her two older brothers looking on.
Evidence of the magic marked every day, starting with wanting to feed Justin, just like Mommy did. Her little two-year-old heart simply couldn't grasp breast-feeding as a Mommy-only thing, but she learned to be content helping to burp him after he ate.
Storytelling started almost day one. Hour upon hour of story time passed between Laurel and Justin, her eyes never leaving his. For years I would discover the two sitting, side by side, as Laurel read to Justin from Bible storybooks. Soon, she was reading to him "for reals."
Closing my eyes, I see the two of them still, playing school a favorite past time. I loved to stand in the doorway and simply listen. Laurel took her responsibility seriously. She would teach the lesson, make up homework assignments, then give Justin tests over the material she taught. I soon realized Laurel drew from what she learned at school each day, then came home and taught it all to Justin. He never more than a few steps behind her.
Being an inseparable team over the years saved Justin's life, more than once.
Their first introduction to a pool came when they spent a weekend away. With none of my children knowing how to swim, you'd think it would give Justin a fear of water. It didn't. However, it created a terrifying dilemma for Laurel on this weekend when they were sent outside to "swim" without adults.
At one point, Jessica, the teenage daughter of the house, walked by Laurel and her brothers on her way back to the house.
"Hi! Guys. Having fun?"
No answer, only enormous wide eyes in three little faces.
No words, only Laurel's finger pointing shakily towards the bottom of the pool.
Fully clothed, Jessica dove in, frantically pulling Justin to the surface.
I can still hear six-year-old Laurel.
"Mommy, Justin didn't move." Tears filled her little voice. "Then he just started coughing, and coughing. I was so scared. His hand slipped off the rope. I couldn't reach him."
"The rope in the pool. I couldn't reach him. Phillip couldn't reach him. Jarrod couldn't reach him. But then Jessica came."
Laurel cried as she relived it. Then went on to tell me it happened twice. Phillip and Jarrod, eight and ten, nodding in agreement, filled in every detail they felt their sister hadn't painted colorfully enough. Four-year-old Justin looking on, wondering what all the commotion was about.
I don't think I ever hugged my children tighter.
And so it went over the years, a camaraderie life simply couldn't dampen grew. As my older two boys went off to college, Laurel and Justin remained an unflappable duo. Then a sudden illness threatened my life. I still remember Laurel assuring me.
"Don't worry, Mom, I'll always take care of Justin."
"Laurel, you're seventeen years old."
"Mom, we'll be fine. I can take care of him."
I recovered, and we moved halfway across the country to a small town in the Texas hill country, but the two of them remained adamant. Justin now took the lead.
"We don't want you to worry, Mom. God has brought us here, where Laurel and I can both get jobs."
"Justin, you guys need to stop worrying. I'm fine. Besides, you're fifteen."
"Mom, Laurel and I just want you to know that if you start getting sick again, we'll make it. We've already talked about it and have a plan. If we both work after school and weekends, we can earn enough for rent. So just don't worry."
Despite my reassurances, they had it all worked out, and by week's end Justin and Laurel both had jobs. Their jobs may have been in different places, but their hearts still beat in unison.
Before we knew it, that school year ended, and Laurel graduated high school. At her graduation party, everyone was puzzled when she opened her gift from Justin. A small piece of yarn lay in the palm of her hand. However, our looks of confusion disappeared in the expression passing between brother and sister.
"You goof, Justin."
"I only did what you said," he laughed.
They let us in on the secret. Several months earlier, while Justin and Laurel waited for the school bus, he reached over and tugged on a loose piece of yarn hanging from Laurel's sweater.
"I don't want it," she quipped.
"Well, what do you want me to do with it?"
"Give it to me for graduation."
He'd kept it, carrying it in his wallet more than six months, waiting for this moment. The heart moment maybe lost something in translation for the rest of us, but it bound them tighter than ever.
A few weeks later, all these memories passing through my mind, I watched brother and sister walk down that street to Laurel's job. And I knew, when her shift was over, and the moon hung high in the sky, Justin would be there, outside the door where Laurel worked, waiting to walk her home again.
No one present earlier that day in front of the Dawg Haus dreamt of the gift Justin's few heart-felt words would deliver to his then absent sister. Words spoken with a sparkle in his voice as the new morning rang with life.
Nor did understanding dawn six days later, when Laurel, answering our front door, discovered a policeman, standing hat-in-hand.
She only felt life crumbling about her as she heard the stranger speak.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. There's been a car accident. A fatality is involved."
"Was my son there?"
"Ma'am ma'am, he's the fatality."
A door closed in Laurel's world as the officer spoke. She didn't speak. For hours, she lay on the floor curled tightly in a ball, not seeing, not responding, to anything, anyone. At the funeral home the next day, her body was present, but nothing else. Surrounded by classmates, acquaintances, and friends, Laurel barely seemed aware of her surroundings when the kids began sharing with each other that conversation held outside the Dawg Haus, the strange turn the conversation had taken, and Justin's response.
Laurel simply disappeared, inside herself. Nothing got through. Each passing day my concern increased. She still didn't talk. I would look at her, but no one was there. My vibrant, vital daughter, who never stopped embracing life, simply slipped away before my eyes. Nothing I did stopped it. I prayed. And I prayed. And when I closed my eyes at night, I continued to pray.
Then one morning, my daughter returned. A deeply-saddened Laurel, but a responsive Laurel. My daughter once again saw sunshine, even if veiled, at times, by shadow. We talked together. Shared memories. Mingled tears. Even laughed.
I didn't bring up the darkness she'd known. I didn't want it reappearing.
"You don't have to worry, Mom. Didn't you notice?" Her words fell so softly one morning.
"Notice how long it lasted."
"How long what lasted?"
"How long I grieved?" she whispered. "Justin gave me a week."
I looked at her, puzzled.
"He said I could cry for him a week. But if I cried longer then ."
"If you cried longer then what, Laurel?"
"If I cried longer than that, he'd come back and kick my butt." A soft smile kissed her lips as she spoke. "And I don't want Justin coming back to kick my butt, now do I, Mom? He's at home now. Safe. With Jesus. I'll see him again, in a twinkling of an eye."
Wrapping my arms around her, my heart filled with the preciousness of life, and the priceless gift Justin had given his sister in that conversation outside the Dawg Haus. And I knew, in the secret depths of my heart where we cherish hope, a new day would dawn. A day where Justin would be standing outside another door, waiting to walk his sister home again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~
DeAnna Brooks (December 5, 2007)
Having raised four children, I live now in Texas. Mostly my writing is a sojourn with God. I find myself ever planted in Eden, glorying in its abundant and rich communion with the Almighty. Or, I am looking back, with longing. And the sojourn continues.