Brooke with an “e”–A Tributary Role
By Jennifer L Griffith
When you hear the word “brook” you probably envision a small stream of water that picks up and drops off nuggets from here to there, transporting them to a larger river, adding to an even bigger picture…somewhere down the line.
A similar essence fills my thoughts in regards to brook; yet for me it conjures up the kind spelled with an “e”—B-r-o-o-k-e. At random times without any particular prompting, Brooke floods across my mind. I hear her voice carried on a spirit as sweet as Louisiana honeysuckle drenched by the morning dew. I see her timid smile surrounded by freckles framed by a warm auburn glow. I feel her soul carrying undercurrents barely seen or heard until a storm dumps too much too fast to contain, seeking peace and a gentle ride again.
I used to teach at Brooke’s high school. Though I’d never taught her, I knew her. I watched her. I could see the pangs in her eyes that had risen up out of her heart from trying to find her channel through the tempestuous seas of high school. My own heart ached for her, though she probably never knew it. I fancied the art she had sketched and painted for others to bear witness of what had flowed veiled through her soul. Art equals voice for most who paint, compose, write, play an instrument, sculpt, draw—-no less for Brooke.
Nancy & Brooke
As a teacher I was required to stand outside of my doorway when students traveled between classes. Sometimes I’d grumble about the precious moments I could steal at my desk before my room filled with students again. But on most days I loved to find familiar faces amongst the flooded hall. Former students, current students, or those like Brooke who didn’t fit either category. They were just memorable for other reasons, and some reasons remained unknown. At least once a day I’d spot her—head down, arms tight around her torso, pulling on her blouse with her fist. She kept her feet moving forward in an attempt to survive the rapids that carried her from class to class.
“Hey, Brooke,” I’d holler out across the surge of bobbing heads in the hall. I wanted her to know that I saw her, that I was near, I cared, never really knowing if it had mattered much to her or not. I only knew that it had mattered enough to me, so I’d holler. I’d smile.
On my “Hey, Brooke” occasions, she’d make eye contact, pass a quick grin, lift her hand ever-so-slightly, and then hurry on to class, or lunch, or to find her friends. Often her demeanor told me that she probably wanted to drift by me—unnoticed. Kind of like the unassuming creek behind her Illinois birthplace, whose presence barely appears on a map, but whose purpose is more precious and clear than that of the muddy Mississippi, grand in its demand.
As Brooke sojourned through high school, her mother Nancy and I had bonded through a weekly Bible study of mismatched women growing through different trials and stages of life. Nancy and I became inseparatable friends, bound by the Holy Spirit, sisters in Christ. Through that time our group prayed for Brooke after her car had landed in a ditch, causing the airbag to deploy into her face leading to eye surgery. We petitioned God when Brooke’s asthma would drag her down, and more when her parent’s marriage held together by the tiniest of threads. We asked God to steer her artistic side, and to help her find loyal friends in the midst of the storms that she’d weathered—rarely spoken of—most held inside.
From time to time I’d choose silence. I’d simply watch her flow on by on the far side of the hall, not obstructing her mission or thoughts. But somehow I think she knew. She knew I saw the load that tried to sink her. The burden for what used to be her family. The struggle to find her way through what would be.
But what would be?
Overwhelming subjects, friends going separate ways, and the pressure to fit in, they all had challenged Brooke’s fortitude. So many things predictable, yet so much unknown.
At some point in high school Brooke became a barista at the coffee shop down the highway from my home. Her sister Becky had worked there and prepared the way for her “best friend” to do the same. Each time I’d walk through the door, I’d get a quick smile. Brooke would then fill my order—Iced Vanilla Nut—before I could even say a word. Her spirit mingled with her desire to serve others, and the “regulars” and staff took note.
Back at school I had to scan the daily absentee list to check for my students who tried to “skip class” later in the day. Each time Brooke’s name had appeared, I’d later find out from Nancy that she had a doctor’s appointment for her eye or asthma or a sinus infection. But by her senior year, her name appeared on the list more than not. I’d see her in the hall less and less—I’d worry.
I felt it my duty to ask her mother, “Was Brooke home sick today?”
“No-o-o,” Nancy would reply in a soft voice like that of her youngest child. Her mind would drift off, probably in wonder about her baby girl’s mysterious absentee pattern or more that she had chosen to remain mute about.
“Senioritis,” one teacher had proclaimed. The highly contagious affliction prone to hit many of a given age.
On one hand, the diagnosis fit. A student running from structure and responsibilities, rebelling against authority because they could. Because they wanted their freedom to chose. But deep inside I knew the debris Brooke now carried had grown beyond her tributary role. She hungered for the serenity of her origin, yet the vast rift between her parents appeared unbridgeable. The torrents of school had turned into something worth skipping. An environment that she could escape and tides that she could control. She likely found harmony off-campus, separate from the hard, cold desk at school surrounded by teachers who demanded her attention for the finer subjects of life and peers who picked and hawed. But I feared the consequences of not graduating would only add to her burdens.
By the time the Class of 1999 graduated, the principle called her name, she walked across the platform and offered up a reserved smile. Brooke had pulled it off, somehow. Her doe-like eyes flashed up a few times to take her diploma, and she walked off the stage. Her parents clapped, separate, yet together. Proud that number three—their baby—had finished school, in spite of all the highs and lows. Brooke was free to flow without the levees of cinder blocks and bells that tolled.
In the year that followed, Brooke chose to work instead of attend college. Her parents had officially separated, their family home was “For Sale” and sat on the brink of foreclosure, and her asthma nagged through a cough now and again.
During part of that time, I had spent the winter out West ringing in 2000 on top of the snow- covered Rockies. I talked to Nancy weekly, and we prayed for her house to sell in a stagnant market, peace in the midst of marital rift and financial despair, and for Brooke’s health as she battled “walking pneumonia.”
I returned to Louisiana in March to open up my business while recovering from a snowmobile accident. Shortly after my return, Nancy and I met at the coffee shop down from my home. A much-thinner Brooke stood, talking on the pay phone with a cough that now broke up every other sentence. Still recovering from “walking pneumonia,” or was it her asthma? Her doctor tried different medications, and by July she had ultimately refused to see Brooke because she was too old for a pediatrician at age nineteen. Weeks later Brooke found another doctor who changed her meds again.
In August, Nancy’s house sold a month shy of foreclosure. We celebrated the answer to prayer and Brooke’s leap of independence as she moved in with her sister/best friend, Becky. The day Nancy had moved out, we sat in her new place, and in an exhausted voice, she said to me, “Brooke coughed up blood last night.” I’d figured she had meant, “threw up blood”.
Brooke with her art
My heart sank. Extreme weight loss as a teenager who “threw up blood” all added up to “bulimia” in my mind. Later that night Nancy asked Brooke if she had an eating disorder. Brooke firmly replied, “No.” She promised her mother that she did not try to lose weight, but she had, in fact, merely given up fast food.
We then concluded that the dust and mold stirred up from the move, in conjunction with her new steroid medications explained her symptoms—what else could it be? We had settled on the new conclusion and figured her doctor, who she would see in two days, would settle our concerns.
Nancy, Becky & Brooke shortly after her trip to the ER
At her appointment, Brooke told her doctor what had happened. He replied, “If you cough up blood again, go to the ER.”
Two nights later I answered my phone. “Jennifer, I’m at the ER. Brooke has a mass on her right lung.” It was Nancy.
The pit inside of my stomach burned. It must be a mistake. A mix-up with the x-ray. An error with the equipment. Or, worse case, a spot easily removed. I tried to soothe the shivers in my friend’s voice, but I didn’t have the words. I prayed. I drove as fast as I could to the hospital to be with my friend and cried out to God even more.
That night I watched a father dash into the ER, demanding answers from Nancy regarding his baby girl. I looked on as a mother, worn out by life’s weary ways, dug deep to try to explain what led up to the ER visit. One sister sat on the bed stroking the other’s hair, seeking comfort as the winds of change blew about the room with undercurrents to match. I didn’t realize it that night, but now I know that I watched a chasm start to narrow and a common goal rise up out of the bitter void. This needed their unity and grace for the healing of their daughter. I witnessed the formation of a new -and in many ways unlikely- team unite for a cause—Brooke’s life.
Through many weeks of waiting and praying, the mass that consumed two-thirds of Brooke’s right lung was diagnosed— Leiomyosarcoma.
Over the next ten months, the family had traveled to Tulane Hospital in New Orleans, to Sloan Kettering in New York, to MD Anderson in Houston, and a bald Brooke even made a trip with Becky to London somewhere in between. A trip she’d won through her work.
After more tests and waiting, and seeking out the perfect treatment, Brooke passed from her mother’s arms into the hands of God with a peace that did surpass all understanding. Brooke departed knowing that the ultimate healing was that of the forgiveness that occurred between her mom and dad and with her and her Maker. She was healed. Brooke is healed, and escaped further the grueling tides that often accompany the ways of living longer. She sings without a cough. She dances without despair. She draws and laughs and sings some more…Brooke with an “e” is healed!!!
Brooke's art from hospital
I often reflect on Brooke’s final year in high school. I smile. I laugh at my conviction for her to be in school. To conform to the life she was “supposed” to live. To follow the rules. Yet Brooke yearned for liberty. She ran from the pressure of being on the outside of life, inside of the boundaries that had held her back. She lived her final healthy year free from the bells, walls and crowds. She yearned for existence beyond the confines that we thought were good for all. I in no way condone skipping school, but in Brooke’s case, I think she had it right. Maybe on some level, beyond her grasp and mine, she knew that this was it, so she lived her days on terms that she could control. She went with her gut, ran from the structured existence, took cues from her creative side and flowed with life outside of the banks.
“You go, Brooke with an ‘e’,” the tiny stream whose spirit had touched many by depositing gems along the greater reserve of life, far beyond the limits of her time. “You go.”