I believe in the transformative power that can be contained in a single smile.
I learned how a smile can change your life when I was 9 years old, and my baby brother Eddie, only 2, was dying of cancer on our living room couch. My parents had taken Eddie to Lourdes in France, at the encouragement of my aunt, the nun, convinced as she was that a miracle was to come. So, they took my brother, their only son, born after his 8 sisters, to Lourdes, to a spring where St Bernadette is said to have experienced visions of the Virgin Mary, and where miracles are said to occur. They dipped him in the water, quickly, as it was so cold, and then they brought him home.
As my brother’s condition worsened, it became clear that the miracle that all had hoped for, the miracle that sent my parents half way around the world with their terminally ill child, was not to be. My brother died one night, with my father at his side, while all of his sisters slept.
When I look back on that time, however, it is not the miracle that did not occur which stands out so strongly to my mind, it is the miracle that did.
The day before Eddie died I stayed home from school, and as I sat beside him on the broken down green couch, (a couch which just months before he and I, and the others had used regularly as a trampoline), I asked him the questions we so often asked in order to keep him lucid. “Where is Jesus, Eddie, where is Mary?” He would respond by slowly raising his thin little arm and point to the crucifix at one end of the couch and the statue of Mary, bought in Lourdes, at the other end. And then, for reasons still unknown to me, I asked him one more question that day, a question which I don’t recall having ever asked anyone before in my nine years. “Do you love me?” I said, before I could stop or censor myself. And that is when it happened. That is when Eddie looked at me, and he smiled.
That is the last time I remember seeing my brother, the next morning when I woke up, he was gone. But it is that smile, and what it represents, that stays with me to this day. It is a smile of acceptance, and of unconditional love. It is a smile of encouragement that it will all be okay. It is a smile which knows that this is not the end, but just the beginning of us all being together. It is a smile that believes that suffering nor even death can break the bond of love. It is a smile that affirms the most simple, but most unimaginable truth—that being with each, simply being with each other, is among the greatest gifts we can give or receive. It is a smile that stays with me, and one that I try to pass on to my four children, and to others who need to know these things– things that often cannot be articulated, but which were conveyed with crystal clarity, on the smiling face of my dying brother.
It seems ironic to me that the thing my family most longed for, the thing we prayed the rosary for every night, was the exact opposite of what we received. Eddie was not cured. I could not save him. But in the end, he saved me, his devoted and unspeakably grateful sister, with a single, sweet, everlasting smile.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.