Juan Carlos was always sick, but we didn’t know what that meant.
He had a special breathing treatment machine in the school nurse’s office. It wasn’t like the inhalers some kids carried in their pockets; it sounded like an industrial fan and it gave off vapor when he used it. When JC was in trouble, it wasn’t like a gasping asthma attack. It sounded like he was drowning.
I was at JC’s tenth birthday party. He had a piñata and a hundred drunk relatives. Most of our fifth grade class was invited and we danced to Selena in the driveway of his grandmother’s house while the adults played dominoes in the garage. When he started to gurgle like a blocked drain, his mother pounded on his back and got out their home version of the breathing machine. When she pulled up his shirt, I saw the rickrack of his ribs, the pale grey color of his skin, blotching red when he coughed.
I joked later to our mutual friends that he looked like that scene in E.T. when the alien is lying in a ditch beside a stream, mottled like a salami, obviously near death.
We all laughed, because the image was funny and pitiful, and we didn’t know what it meant.
JC had a massive crush on my best friend, Rachel. She had been his first kiss, I knew. She had touched him over his pants at his request, the way that kids do. It was furtive and naughty and she asked me if that meant she wasn’t a virgin anymore.
I knew, but I told her I didn’t know what it meant.
Maria, JC’s overworked mother, seemed to fall apart over every little thing. I remember her cussing out our landlord because some thief broke her mailbox lock. I saw her burst into tears over a flat tire. She had zero patience with her other kids and would yell anything they made her say twice. I didn’t know then that adults who can’t process emotions like frustration and rage and grief they often have trouble containing their temper or having proportionate reactions to normal life stressors.
We were ten. I was ten, Rachel was ten, Juan Carlos was ten years old. Maria was maybe thirty, and she was understandably frustrated that her son could be born with a disease for which there was then and still is still now no cure. She was enraged because no doctor or hospital could save him when he started to drown inside his own body. She was grieving every day for a child she knew would die.
Cystic fibrosis is an inherited genetic disorder, and both parents have to carry the gene for the offspring to be affected. It’s caused by a mutation, and JC knew that word when the doctor said it because we all read X-Men in the library and in the one good bodega that carried comic books. He didn’t know how to translate it for his mother, who didn’t know the word from comics or from anywhere else. He told her it meant it wasn’t her fault. She nodded and said she knew what it meant.
Juan Carlos was on the swings. I was on his right, Rachel on my right. We knew swinging would make him wheeze, but he didn’t care. On his left was Jessica, and at her feet, Jesus. Jesus was counting. Our school was badly overcrowded; administration resorted to a trimester system with two months on and one month off to ease the bursting classrooms and teeming halls. But even with a quarter of us out at all times, there just weren’t enough spots. When someone stood at your foot and counted down from a hundred, you had to give up your swing.
Jesus got bored counting down on Jessica and started ducking and darting beneath her swing as she flew through the air. Ever the showoff, he cut it closer and closer. None of us thought this was a problem until he snagged her shoe with his shoulder and pulled her down off the black rubber seat down to the gravel from a terrible height. I knew the sound because I’d watched my mother spatchcock a chicken. I jumped from my seat, Rachel jumped from hers. JC dragged his feet and staggered off after us.
Jessica was unconscious, and that was for the best. Jesus was wailing. When I got closer, I saw that Jessica’s tibia was fractured and the jagged edge of it poked out through the hairless skin of her lower leg. Someone hauled Jesus away. A yard narc dragged JC to the nurse’s office to bring back his breath. Rachel and I stood there, just staring, until someone told us we had to go, then screamed at us to tell them the girl’s name. The girl who lay there, bone exposed to the air.
I told them her name. Rachel and I didn’t talk about what we had seen. JC came back to class when he could breathe again, and he didn’t bring it up either.
Jessica didn’t ever come back to school. We didn’t know what that meant.
JC missed a lot of days after Christmas. When he did come in, he could barely hold up his head. His labored breath sounded as hard as a full-time job. Teachers didn’t call on him, and he didn’t swing. When Rachel asked if he wanted to kiss again, if he wanted her to maybe touch it, he shrugged. He didn’t want anything.
I knew what that meant.
Juan Carlos wasn’t first person I had known who died, but he was the first person my own age. Not a baby who wasn’t going to make it, not a grandparent whose time was up. He turned eleven. We were eleven.
Sixth grade began without him. The relatives who had thrown him that birthday party didn’t invite the kids who had been there to his funeral. Nobody notified us. Maria left without giving our landlord notice; I saw them go into the empty apartment with the sheriff that summer.
Out by the swings, our playground featured a huge maple tree. It dropped its spiraling seeds by the thousands that fall. When there were people on the swings and people counting them down (newly forbidden to run beneath) Rachel and I caught them. We called them helicopter seeds.
“If I catch this one, it means Juan Carlos is in heaven right now.”
Rachel usually held out her hands like a basket and let the seeds fall gently in. It made her look like a Disney princess; delicate and belonging more to nature than the rest of us. But this time, because our dead friend’s eternal disposition was riding on it, she reached up and snatched the helicopter seed out of the air in her small brown fist.
I was a superstitious child. I grew into a superstitious adult. I want to believe that there’s a heaven for kids who die for no reason, and that he’s there.
I still want to believe that’s what it meant.
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