Several years ago, I entered this essay into a contest, and it only came second, so I never published it. Today, before you read my next post, I’d kind of like it if you read this essay.
“There goes Jonathan,” Dad said. He opened the car door and climbed out without another word. My mother also got out, but then leaned back in and told the three of us to stay in the car. “Do not get out of the car,” she said.
We sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds before realizing what must have happened. We hadn’t even noticed the sound of screeching brakes or the sickening thud my parents had heard. The reality hit all three of us at once and we screamed in unison. I was eleven, Matt was almost nine, and Greg was four.
We screamed for what seemed like hours before subsiding into tears, and then waited in vain for someone to come tell us what was going on. The huge double decker red bus behind us blocked our view of the street in the northern English town of Carlisle. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going to go see what’s going on,” I said. “You two stay here.”
After getting out of the car, I ran down the sidewalk past the big bus. All traffic had stopped. My brother Jonathan, Matt’s twin, lay limp and motionless in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. I knew he was dead. I started running to my brother’s side, but a formidable bus conductor wrapped her arms around me from behind and jerked me back. I kicked and fought to get loose. “He’s my brother!” I screamed.
She hauled my writhing body back to the sidewalk. “Now then,” she said, “didn’t your parents tell you to stay in the car?” Sobbing with grief and anger, I had no choice but to let her drag me back to the car and shove me inside with my other two brothers. She stood guard next to the car, her intimidating demeanor a deterrent to any further plans of flight. I told Matt and Greg what I’d seen, and we all sobbed together, knowing Jon must be dead.
An ambulance arrived, and after what seemed like an eternity, Dad returned to the car and we followed the ambulance to the hospital. He didn’t have much to say, other than that our brother was still alive and that Mom had gone with him in the ambulance. I wondered if he said that to keep us from freaking out.
At the hospital, Dad disappeared and left us in the waiting room, but we didn’t stay there long because we kept hearing screams of agony and we couldn’t bear it. I led my brothers out to our rental car in the parking lot and we knelt down in the back seat and prayed like we’d never prayed before.
Dad found us in the car and explained that surgeons were operating on Jon in hopes of saving his life. He had broken both bones in his lower right leg and had a very serious head injury. No one knew what the outcome would be, but we needed to find a place to stay.
We ended up at a small family-run hotel. Dad got us supper and then took us to our room and told us to go to bed. Our room had three beds and huge windows to let in the light, which didn’t fade until after 10:00 p.m. We went to bed but not to sleep. Instead we prayed.
Long after darkness fell, the door opened to reveal my parents silhouetted in the light from the hallway.
Mother’s voice sounded shakier than I’d ever heard it. “He’s going to live, but he’s in a coma and we don’t know when or if he’ll wake up. When and if he does wake up, he may be nothing like the Jon we remember, because of his serious head injury.”
Lying in bed, I wondered what it would be like if Jon wasn’t himself anymore.
The next morning we began a new routine. We had breakfast at the hotel before my parents left for the hospital. Dad took me aside and explained he was entrusting me with the job of entertaining my brothers all day, and making sure we all were clean and in bed by 8:00 p.m. He would come at lunchtime to get us some food, and then leave again. I organized games and helped my brothers do puzzles from the hotel’s collection. We played with the resident Afghan hound and petted the pony that served as a lawnmower for the hotel’s lawn. The day dragged on as anxiety gnawed at our minds.
Nighttime brought a new challenge. I made sure we went to bed at 8:00, while the sunlight still streamed in through the windows and our parents kept vigil at Jon’s bedside. No kid could sleep in that bright sunshine, and certainly not kids whose brother hovered between life and death. Fear permeated that room as powerfully as the rays of the evening sun.
I knew, if we were going to make it through the next few days, I would have to come up with a powerful distraction. For some time, I had been telling my brothers stories at night when circumstances forced us to share a room. Now I knew the time had come to tell the story of all stories, a story so engrossing it would banish worries about Jon, if only for an hour or two.
I created characters rather like ourselves—four siblings traveling in England. At first, I stole shamelessly from the plots of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books I had read, but I soon had to make up my own material, because my self-imposed task was to keep going until my brothers became tired enough to sleep. That first night, when darkness at long last seeped into our room, I left my intrepid heroes in a life-threatening predicament. My brothers begged me to keep going, but heartless big sister that I was, I insisted they go to sleep, after promising them another installment the next night.
In truth, I had gotten my characters into a crisis I didn’t know how to resolve, but I had all the next day to work it out in my head. All day my brothers talked about the story and speculated about what might happen next. They asked me countless questions, but I only answered questions about the part of the story that had already been told. Their fascination colored our whole day and made everything about it more enjoyable. That night, I had no trouble getting them to bed on time. As soon as we snuggled down under our blankets, the boys implored me to continue the story.
With my head full of the new plot twists I had dreamed up during the day’s activities, I began to spin my tale again. My brothers hung on every word. Somehow, by the second night the story had become the world we all lived in after bedtime. Even then, at age eleven, I knew stories had power. When I was five or so, my Russian grandmother decided the best way to ensure I would never go near the furnace was to make me afraid of it. She told me a terrifying story of the evil man who lived in the furnace. If I even went near it he would jump out and grab me, pulling me into the furnace where I would burn to death in agony.
My five-year-old self believed every word. Not only did I never go near the furnace, or into my dad’s workshop, but going into the basement at all terrified me. My grandmother’s little story succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, and now I saw my own story working its magic during our family crisis.
On the fourth day after the accident, my brother Jon woke up from his coma, remembering nothing of his accident. We were not allowed to see or visit him. To some degree, we felt abandoned by our parents, who spent every waking moment at the hospital with Jon while we were on our own at the hotel. Jon got new toys and we did not. Our only consolation was the story we lived in every night. Every day as we participated in various activities, my brain went into overdrive planning thrilling plot twists for the story, and my brothers couldn’t stop talking about it. Every night when we went to bed I could hardly wait to take my spellbound audience with me to our world of adventure.
Jon remained in the hospital for nine days. For nine nights my other two brothers and I lived in a world of my devising, a world full of intrigue and adventure, and conspicuously lacking in serious injury. On the last night, when we knew Jon would be released the next day, I gave our characters a happy and triumphant ending. When we reunited with our injured sibling the next day, the first thing Matt and Greg told him was that he had missed out on the best story of all time. This bothered Jon much more than his injuries did. The boys talked it up so much he felt bereft and deprived, and begged me to retell the entire tale for his benefit.
Matt and Greg talked about that story for years, even well into adulthood, and Jon continued to grieve over having missed it. It was far too convoluted for me to remember or repeat, but that never bothered me, because that particular story had one purpose. The story had been a weapon, a mighty weapon, the only weapon I had to fight against fear and anxiety for nine long nights. When the crisis ended, I laid that weapon aside.
Events like my brother’s accident change lives. It changed mine. Not only did I realize how much I loved my brother, but lying there in our light-filled hotel room every night, I learned how compelling words can be. My words created a world we lived in, a world where we shared the lives of the story characters. We cared deeply about them. When they were in peril (which was every night) my brothers worried about them all the next day. When the characters were betrayed, my brothers wanted to defend them, rush to their aid, and rescue them. When the characters succeeded at something, my brothers rejoiced and felt invincible themselves.
For nine nights, the darkness of fear was held at bay by nothing but the power of words, words that told a story. Stories are one of the most powerful things in this world. They bind us together as families, as ethnic groups, and as nations. Whether it’s a family telling the same old stories around the table at Thanksgiving, or a tribal elder telling the legends of his people, or an elementary school teacher telling her class about the winter at Valley Forge, stories are the threads that stitch our lives together.
There are some who believe that fiction is somehow not wholesome or edifying, and therefore not fit for those who follow Christ. Yet Christ himself used fictional stories to teach powerful lessons and deep spiritual truths. God made us in His image and that includes His creative power. Stories–good stories–teach us to care for others, because if it is a good story, we all but become the main character and want the best outcome for him or her.
Stories can make us brave and strong. There’s a reason so many stories are about someone who is small or weak and yet achieves great things. We read those stories and they give us courage to follow our dreams or to set right something that has gone wrong. At the age of eleven, after nine nights in a hotel room in Carlisle, I knew all of this. Most of all, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories.