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Our Reading Lives

Remembering Reading to My Brother

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Emily Martin

Contributing Editor

Emily has a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi, MS, and she has an MFA in Creative Writing from GCSU in Milledgeville, GA, home of Flannery O’Connor. She spends her free time reading, watching horror movies and musicals, cuddling cats, Instagramming pictures of cats, and blogging/podcasting about books with the ladies over at #BookSquadGoals (www.booksquadgoals.com). She can be reached at emily.ecm@gmail.com.

I was a voracious reader as a young kid. My brother Adam, not so much. Where I was drawn to the written word, Adam was much more skilled with interpreting visuals. He was a talented artist from a young age, and he was also good at chess (which also requires visualizing). Reflecting back on our childhood now, I think Adam enjoyed it when I read to him because he was free to close his eyes and visualize everything.

two kids reading together
image by Emily Martin

When we were very little, our parents read to us. Adam and I would sit on either side of our mom or dad and look at the pictures. Sometimes we knew the story so well that we’d read along. As soon as I was old enough, I took the pages into my own hands and read to Adam.

The books we read together started with children’s books like The Polar Express and If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. When we got older, it was stuff like The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe and The Secret Garden.

We didn’t always have the same taste in books, however. Adam went through a phase where he really loved reading Goosebumps books, and I hated them. When he asked me to read them to him, I would read each character with the most obnoxious voice I could think of. My hope was that eventually, he’d ask me to read something else. But he just sat through it anyway. Real little brother energy.

As we got older, Adam started to enjoy reading on his own, and he didn’t need me to read to him anymore. As young adults, we could talk about books we enjoyed, and we would give each other books as gifts. But reading aloud to each other? That just wasn’t something grown-up kids did together.

But then Adam got sick.

In his final days, his eyes started to fail him. And when it became difficult for him to see, he asked for me to read to him, like I used to do when we were kids. I tried to pick stories for him that I thought he would like, stories with magic and stories that were a little dark. A few stories with surprising twists. I read from short story collections like St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Her Body and Other Parties.

In Adam’s final days, he was tired. It was difficult for him sometimes to connect to an entire story because he was so fatigued. But he wanted to try so badly. He would stop me and ask me to talk through what just happened again before I kept reading. In those moments, when it was difficult for him, he still pushed through. And I realized that he was doing this for me just as much as I was doing it for him. We had connected through reading all our lives, and he was giving me a few final moments to connect, expressing love through listening.

July 22 should have been Adam’s next birthday. I think if I were going to gift him a book this year, it would have been Chain-Gang All-Stars. As an adult, Adam was very involved in politics and enjoyed reading dystopian novels. But I will never have an opportunity to sit and talk with my brother about books again. I will never get to read to him again.

He died of leukemia in November 2017.

But we did give each other one last reading gift before he died. More than anything, reflecting back on those final days with my brother, I realize that reading to him was a gift he gave to me. Even when he was too tired to know what I was reading anymore, he kept listening. It was his final opportunity to let me care for him, and his final chance to give me fond memories. I hope that my reading to him was a comfort to him because I know it was a comfort to me.