"Goodbye," I say. I guess this is the end.
You pull me close. "I love you," and your hot breath puffs on my ear.
Puffy white snowflakes begin to fall out of the gray sky as you're pulled back, away from me.
Someone else says something sharp. It's time for me to go. Your face is tight, your eyes are strained. You're trying not to cry. You've been so strong.
Now you're about to lose the last of everything. But through it all, you still kept smiling. Will this break you? Or will you keep smiling, the way you always have? You said goodbye to my father and then Father and then our new family and the only brothers I ever knew. Always with a brave smile, saying it was going to be okay.
How do you do it? I almost wish you didn't know how, so that we could have been broken like the rest. It looked easier to be broken. It was what they wanted. No need to crush an already broken bowl into even smaller pieces with your heavy military boot.
He grabs my arm. My group is leaving. You smile at me. "It's going to be okay." I know it's not, I've known for a long time now, but somehow I still believe you. I guess sometimes believing and knowing are different things.
Father would disagree. You used to argue, the two of you, about things like believing and seeing, late at night over the kitchen table, each intent on victory, trying to convince each other. Then times changed, and there were different, more important things to argue about.
Then times changed more, and there was no one left for you to argue with. Except me. But you would never debate with your little boy.
I'm wearing his scarf wrapped around my neck. You gave me your sweater, too, when I got cold on the train. You shouldn't be looking after me like this. It should be the other way around. I feel like I have to protect you, but you still treat me like a sick little boy. Am I still a sick little boy?
I remember being a sick little boy in father's watch shop. I held his tools for him until it got too cold in the evenings and he sent me home. I was there on that day they threw bricks through the window. You weren't there, thank goodness, but you remember it I know. You must have been so afraid for us when you heard about the riots. Father grabbed me and shoved me down behind the counter as glass shattered on the floor. We kept silent, not daring to let them know that we were inside. I could feel his hot breath on my cheek. He was afraid.
I stand still without shaking. Inwardly I shiver in the cold, despite my extra layers. The people around me move and shout and cry. I keep silent and watch your face across from me.
It's the opposite for most of the people in my group and yours. Beside you strong young men are shouting comfort to their mothers, little old ladies who sob behind me, or are silent, staring off into nothingness. Some of them smile faintly. Probably they are going to meet their husbands or children for the first time in a long time.
You won't have that luxury. You are sturdy and strong. I know it hurts you to survive. You would rather die while your son has a chance.
You're so beautiful. I saw you almost cry when the doctor gave his verdict on you and me. But you kept a strong face for the man you still think of as your little boy. You smile and tightly hold some of the mothers around you, crying because their children are in my group. You make other people strong around you. I hope you survive. I pray you survive.
I haven't prayed in so long. Prayers were what got us into this, weren't they? The prayers of a chosen people hundreds of years ago. And now we stand in groups, wailing as the world ends.
The distance becomes greater between us as your group is lined up to go away to work and mine is lined up to get "cleaned up."
I am surrounded by screaming and crying but still you smile. "Goodbye," you mouth over the noise. "I love you!" You tried to get them to take you instead when the doctor decided I was too weak. You pleaded that I could work better than you. You offered them everything.
You tried to get them to take you instead of father on that day, too, but they never would. They came to get him, allegedly just to look over some paperwork about our watch shop but you knew he wasn't coming back. You clung to him and told him you loved him and that it was going to be okay in silent whispers. He smiled tightly and told you to go to Father Pawlowski, even though father had never been into religion. Even our own.
I remember you pulling me through the town in the middle of the night. I was trying not to cough in the cold, muffling my face with my father's scarf. I didn't want to tell you how cold and afraid I was, but it can't hurt now.
I was thirteen, but still you treated me like a boy. The priest gave us fake baptismal certificates and passed us off as his sister and her invalid son. Good man. That lasted us for nearly two years. Through everything you always told me you loved me and it was going to be okay, even as someone recognized the invalid son and Father gave us different certificates and we ran through another cold night to a different town to become part of the Nowak family. I grew up with their boys as my brothers, do you remember? They taught me how to stand without shaking even when I felt weak. I had to look and act like one of them. They told me how to appear strong, but really I learned it from watching you. You were afraid but you never feared. You laughed as we hid inside their family, always dreading being found. You loved playing with their little baby girl. They gave us five more years to survive.
Now here I am, a man. I wonder what happened to Father Pawlowski and the Nowaks.
They’re finally leading us away. Your eyes are filling with tears. The snow is swirling around us and trampled black under the feet of the sobbing crowds.
“I love you,” you call. “I love you!” What else are you to say?
I was weak my whole life, but you taught me to be strong.
I roll my father’s scarf around my hand and wave it in farewell, smiling. “I love you!” You smile at me as they march you away. You’re proud of me. I wonder who will get the scarf and your sweater after I’m gone.
You taught me how to say goodbye. You told me that the people we say goodbye to are never gone for good. But now you will be. And so will I.
You are waving as they lead you off to the dark building that will make up your section of the camp. You never wasted time on encouraging speeches. You just held me tight. I love you. Goodbye. That was all you ever had to say.
The mothers around you cry and stretch their arms out towards their children in my group.
“It’s like trying to organize a room full of babies,” says one soldier to his companion. “Wah, wah.”
He doesn’t know that they have to cry. What else are they to do?
I jump to meet your eyes in the moving crowd. “I love you! It’s going to be okay,” but you can’t hear me anymore. You strain to keep your eyes on me as your group moves off surrounding you.
I feel so empty, while you’re so full of smiles. So hopeless, but you help a stumbling woman beside you and whisper something in her ear. You will push them on. You will survive.
Four months in the future you will walk out of this camp with another woman’s baby in your arms. The children who stayed alive by hiding under the beds will climb the fence and wave at the soldiers. Always a mother, you will tell them to get down. The soldiers will distribute cookies from their packs to the starving children and you will wish that I was there because I loved cookies when I was that age. One American soldier will offer you his coat against the cold and tell you, in his broken Polish, that you have a beautiful baby.
It’s not your baby, but you will thank him anyway and smile. You will look toward that empty, ghostly building at the back of the camp and think that you did have a beautiful baby. You arrived strong, with a sick son you bore, on a train. You will leave strong, with a weak baby you promised to care for, on a truck. As a mother with a child they will make sure that you get to ride, not walk. You will pull the other woman’s child close and whisper to me as you watch the dark buildings recede into the skyline.
“Goodbye. I love you.”