The last item to be crossed off on Joe’s bucket list was to see the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. Ben and Joe were enamored with stories of the Lights by their father when they were children. The man had traveled to Nova Scotia with some college friends to catch a glimpse of the miraculous sight. The only two words he would ever use to describe it was “something else,” as in, “Those Lights sure are something else,” and, “Let me tell you, kids, you gotta go see them. They’re something else.” Joe’s hope of seeing the Lights withered away with him, but Ben found a solution to the problem when he did some research.
“Joe, Borealis is gonna be up in Maine this weekend,” Ben said to his brother.
Joe turned to Ben and smiled, “Then what the hell are we still doing here?” And with that simple back-and-forth, the two brothers were off on one last adventure, a ten-hour drive to Maine.
Both young men packed lightly. Joe simply brought one bag of luggage with clothes and toiletries, even forgetting his toothbrush. Ben, the older and more responsible sibling, made sure to pack an extra toothbrush, along with his clothes, shampoo and Canon PowerShot camera. Before they left, Ben called Joe’s primary oncologist to ask if it was allowed. The doctor just shrugged and gave Ben the typical answer for these types of situations. He was more sympathetic and helpful, but the basic gist of what the doctor told Ben was, “Screw it, he’s dying anyway. He can do what he wants.”
The ride was mostly quiet for the whole ten hours. Once the brothers left New Jersey, the radio stations they enjoyed were lost to static, and Joe loathed the countless Dave Matthews Band CDs that Ben had stowed away in his center console. “Don’t you listen to any good music?” asked Joe, disgusted by the numerous alternative rock albums in the vehicle.
Ben laughed to himself and shook his head, “No, I’m sorry my music taste transcends just a single person spinning a disk and mixing beats. I listen to actual music, with a band and lyrics.”
“You’re shot, bro. This crap is awful. You need some techno and some EDM. That right there is the evolution of music,” asserted Joe, who dreadfully mimicked a techno beat with his mouth, causing Ben’s face to turn red with laughter. It was an argument that the brothers had many times. Ben was old school and Joe was new school, and they often butt heads over the most superfluous things. They were arguments and heated conversations that Ben would miss when his brother left him.
Simply put, Ben did not know exactly how he would react when Joe’s mind and soul eventually left planet Earth and disappeared into nothingness. The thought of death was all too familiar to Ben, as he and Joe had lost their father ten years earlier. Now Ben was unfortunately reliving those same tragic feelings with Joe. In the past several months, Ben was forced to watch as his beloved younger brother slowly withered away to a near skeleton, losing all of his smooth, slick hair in the process. He dropped thirty pounds and could only eat light meals, unlike the pre-diagnosis Joe who could literally enter and win a hotdog-eating contest on the Fourth of July. Ben was a grieving mess once he heard the news, and any time he thought of the inevitable loss of his brother, his stomach twisted and churned so badly that any cream inside would soon solidify into butter.
The two reached the Maine beach around sunset, with several hours to spare. They were starving, only surviving off of granola bars and dried fruit for the past ten hours. Ben and Joe stopped at a local diner and sat at a booth with a beachfront view. Ben ordered a turkey burger with sweet potato fries, while Joe simply ordered a piece of toast with butter slapped on it. The brothers ate in silence, as Ben looked up at Joe every now and then, watching as his younger sibling carefully nibbled on the toast.
“So are you excited?” Ben inquired.
Joe looked up at Ben and smirked, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Ben laughed and continued eating. Joe finished half of his toast and put it back on his plate, rubbing his barely full, full stomach. He let out a quiet burp and nodded to Ben’s camera, which was sitting on the far edge of the table. “You gonna take a picture of it?” Joe asked while covering another burp.
Ben nodded, “I didn’t bring it for nothing.”
Joe shook his head and chuckled, “You and your pictures, man… Whatever happened to just living in the moment?”
“It’s the Northern Lights, Joe. I gotta get a picture.”
“Nah, man,” Joe tapped two fingers softly against his head, “These are the only pictures I need. Locked up right in here. It’s the memories that matter the most. I don’t need a camera for that.”
Ben put his fork down on the table, “Well, I do.”
“In case I forget.”
Joe laughed and took a sip of water. He stayed quiet, only nodding. Ben watched as Joe picked back up the half-eaten toast on his plate and went back to nibbling on it. How many meals did he have left with his brother? Ben wanted to take a picture of Joe right then and there. The more pictures he had of Joe, the easier it would be to mourn and deal with his death. At least, that is what Ben believed.
The sun had long set and the brothers were sitting on the beach, their bottoms in the sand. Ben had his camera strapped around his neck. He held it and eagerly waited, staring up at the northern sky like his father once did. Joe yawned and shivered, as the thin layer of meat on his bones was not enough to protect him from the biting cold. Ben looked at Joe and sighed, wondering if maybe this whole adventure would be for nothing.
As time passed and there was still no sign of the Aurora Borealis, Ben tried to remember if he had read the article wrong. He thought to himself, “Was it this week or next week? Did we come up at the wrong time?” In between his worrying and self-doubt, Ben slipped into an even darker, more brutal train of thought, “What if we just aren’t supposed to be happy? What if Joe’s cancer was just the first sign of all the bad things to come? What if we are just never supposed to enjoy our lives?” Ben stopped his thinking when he saw how badly Joe was shivering.
“Joe,” Ben gently tapped his brother on the shoulder, “Are you alright, man?”
Joe smiled, his teeth chattering, “Never… Never been better.” Ben watched as Joe hugged himself and terribly shook like he was sitting on a jackhammer. Somehow, Joe seemed okay with the fact that he was unfairly dying of an unfair illness. He was like a carefree tortoise, roaming across a freeway with a tractor-trailer coming his way. Joe accepted this reality, and Ben wished he could be as calm and cool as his brother.
Another half hour passed without any beautiful colors and lights in the sky. Ben knew that, as the responsible brother, he had to make a judgment call. He took a deep breath and stood up. Joe looked up at his older sibling, confused. Ben sternly said, “Let’s go.”
Ben began walking away, his camera swaying back and forth across his chest. Joe stayed seated and called out to him, “Hey, where you going? Giving up already?”
Ben turned back to Joe, “It’s not happening. It’s getting late, and you’re freezing to death over here. You shouldn’t be out here. You can’t afford to get sick.”
Joe laughed, “I can’t afford to get sick? What’s gonna happen? It’s gonna kill me?”
“Stop, Joe. Just, come on. Let’s get back to the car. We got another ten hour drive ahead of us.”
“Yeah, ten hours up and ten hours back down. You think I’m wasting twenty hours of the time I have left to not see the Northern Lights? Fuck that, I’m staying.”
Ben bit his lip in frustration. He took a breath and said, “Fine, whatever. You can sit here with your ass in the sand for a few more minutes, and then I’m coming back to get you.”
Ben turned and walked away from his brother, resisting tears. The last memory he would have of Joe is a silent car ride with no music and no conversation. The silence would be the most painful and most uncomfortable sound Ben had ever heard. They would just sit and wallow in their mutual sadness. Ben felt that he had let Joe down, and the dark, brutal thoughts crept back into the forefront of Ben’s mind.
Ben was walking for about a minute when he heard footsteps in the sand behind him. “Ben, Ben!” Joe excitedly yelled as he chased his brother, “Turn around, man! Turn around!”
Ben turned and saw Joe rushing after him, with a smile that would convince anyone that this young man was in no way dying of a terrible disease. Just over Joe’s bald, pale head, Ben saw it. He stared up in wonder and awe as Joe caught up and threw his arm around his brother’s shoulder. “Told you so,” Joe grinned.
The two young men stood absolutely still, both of them smiling like it was Christmas morning when they were kids, as their father woke them up and told them the presents were under the tree. Ben moved his hands to his camera, but then he stopped. He did not need a picture. He did not need to capture any of these moments and reduce it to a single framed photo hung on the wall. The memory of this would surely be enough for him, and it was definitely something that he would never forget.
The brothers slowly sat back down in the sand, their eyes fixated on the miraculous sight above them. The northern sky glistened and glowed with extraordinary colors, and both Joe and Ben had trouble comprehending the sheer beauty of the phenomenon. Joe opened his mouth, but his jaw just hung there, as if the words he wanted to use knew that they could not do the sight any justice, and they just decided to not come out. Joe stuttered, “That… That’s…”
Ben smiled and looked at his dying brother. He finished Joe’s thought, “That’s something else.”