We sit in the sauna talking, my baby brother and me. He’s twelve years younger, a serious just-turned-ten.
“More water on the rocks?” I ask. I peek up through yellowed light to the temperature gauge. It’s 75 Celsius, not as hot as we usually keep it. Even at 100 our grandparents won’t get out to cool off. We are Finnish, this is what our people do, have always done.
“Yes,” Nillo says. I dip the copper ladle in the water bucket and toss a half cup of water on the hot rocks. Beneath our bodies the cedar benches squeak as steam rises in a cloud around our heads. I have to reposition away from a small nail head that’s burning my thigh. Above us we can hear the sounds of our mom and dad’s footsteps as they clean up the lunch dishes.
“Are you going to be okay with Mom and Dad at home this year?” I say. What I’m really asking is, are you sad you’re too sick to go to school?
Nillo sighs and looks at his feet. Small and white, absent of freckles, like the rest of him. He looks paler than I remember from Christmas, but of course that’s because now he is bald.
“It’ll be fine. They got me all these tutors and Matt and Adrian are going to bring me my homework.”
“I can come home, my company has an office in Seattle. I could work downtown and be closer.” I watch his eyes for a spark, an indication of want, but there is none.
My nostrils are too hot to inhale. I breathe through my mouth, my teeth bared, lips open. Sweat collects on our skin, rolls down the folds of our limbs in rivers. I look out the small round window at the steel blue lake shimmering only thirty feet in front of us.
“Remember how we always wanted to swim around the lake and jump off all the neighbors’ docks?” I say. He looks up, showing me hazel green eyes large and round as an owl’s. A chuckle lodges in the back of my throat. The cooler full of ice cold Michelob Ultra Light bottles sitting right outside has meandered into my mind and won’t go away. All I want is to take the edge off, to have fun with my dying brother.
“Let’s do it,” Nillo says.
“Now? It’s light out, they’ll see us!” Nillo is already moving, stick thin legs clattering down to the steps to the tile floor.
“Oh, alright.” I give in. On my way down to the lake I grab two towels and a Michelob. Nillo isn’t old enough, isn’t even interested. He picks his way carefully down the sun weathered and rain battered splintery pine boards of the ancient dock, built by my grandfather and his friends the first summer they bought the place in 1968. Whidbey Island is exactly the same now as it was then. There is no one out. We could be naked, we could be thieves, we could be murderers and no one would know.
Nillo sets the rules. “First one to jump off all the docks wins. The loser has to buy ice cream in town.” I survey our task. Small, mostly hand-built wooden docks dot the lakeshore. Half of them at least are rotting, fine carpets of bright green moss slicking their undersides. Styrofoam floats invaded with cattails drag lopsidedly and several docks list dangerously. I flip off the cap and take a sip of beer. The rush of carbonation filling my mouth feels like relief. I take a long swallow, watching Nillo jump in with abandon.
His body looking relaxed in a way I haven’t seen since last summer, before he got acute myelogenous leukemia. I finish the beer, toss the bottle on the dock, and dive in. Goss Lake is cold, but the sun has warmed the top two or three feet, so I try to float where it’s warmer. Nillo reaches the first dock, pulls himself up, and jumps triumphantly off. I swim fast to keep up with him. Mom has told me not to tire him out too much. His next round of chemo starts on Tuesday, after the Labor Day weekend is over. I’ll be back at my desk on the third floor of 202 Sansome Street in San Francisco, where I’ll probably forget to text until they send me a picture of sad little Nillo sitting in the chair with his Beads of Courage. He explained the string of plastic beads to me when I first arrived. Black for a poke, red for platelet transfusion, purple for antibiotic infusion, the list went on. It helps him to have a tangible milestone, my mom said later, with the faraway look in her eyes that never goes away anymore.
We swim and swim, make it about a third of the way. Nillo even manages a full out laugh when I do a belly flop off the neighbor’s lilting high dive. I can tell he’s tiring but I don’t want to stop.
“Let’s head back,” I say.
“There’s only two more on this side,” he says.
I think of the remaining Michelobs, Facebook messages from friends in the city I haven’t checked yet, the Star Wars marathon I’d promised Nillo for the evening. I swim up to our dock, climb the ladder, and shake water out of my hair. In this light my long ponytail looks dark.
Nillo is struggling. I can see he’s breathing heavily and going slowly.
“Help me,” he says.
“You’ve got it,” I say. “Nice and slow.” I will dive in to save him if he truly needs it. In the blue gray water, many lengths of dock away from me, he starts to panic.
“I’m going to die!” he says. I wrap a dry towel around my waist. He has to do this, I tell myself. This is good for him.
Nillo flounders, not making much progress. I could throw him a lifejacket. I could get in the rowboat, it’s tied right next to me, the oars are in.
But I don’t.