When my friend awakened at Mama’s coaxing, he seemed perfectly normal. Mama gave us both a mug of grape juice before we ran out to play. As we scampered down the trail, I related all the important information in Jesus last letter to him he had slept through. So he wouldn’t feel bad, I told him that he hadn’t missed that much, which was true, but he was still curious to know what I left out.
“For pity’s sake, Nehemiah.” I threw up my hands. “You know my oldest brother. He talks in riddles sometimes. He keeps interrupting himself to talk about the Gentiles joining our faith—stuff like that.” “Blah-blah-blah,” I mumbled repeatedly as if to clear it out of my head.
“Jude stop!” Nehemiah reached out to grab my sleeve. “What does all this mean? Is Jesus really touched by God?”
“I dunno, Nehemiah.” I answered, scratching my head, “I suppose so. No one can deny his divinity. He stopped a storm and helped save Levi’s life. You heard all that other stuff. But he didn’t really say much about Gaul in his last letter, except a lot of weird things. Mama’s worried about him. Matthias, Joseph of Arimathea’s son, hates him, but his guards think he’s some kind of god.”
“All right.” Nehemiah nodded in satisfaction. “Let’s go find those berries.”
Recently, we had found a patch of berries in the orchard, but Nehemiah was panting and out of breath when we arrived at the spot. As I write down these words, a rush of recrimination fills me. There hasn’t been a day in my life that I don’t recall something wrong I’ve done to someone. My failure to recognize how very special Nehemiah was, while he was alive, is high on my list. In his case, I regret what I didn’t do. While he suffered quietly that afternoon, I piled an armful of prickly berries into his tunic, oblivious to his groans. With each of us carrying such a large amount of berries, I was certain Mama would have enough to make a pitcher of punch or jar of jam to spread on our rolls.
Receiving our offerings cheerfully, she promised us each a honeyed roll if we would pick some weeds. I realized that moment how out of touch with reality Mama had become. After providing her with so many berries, we would get a roll. This was, I grumbled to myself, a shabby deal. Yet Nehemiah, in spite of his labored breathing, volunteered happily, as if we were being rewarded handsomely for our effort. During our unexpected chore, I argued with Nehemiah about this. She gave us such delicacies at lunch and at the evening meal, so why should we work for it? Nehemiah could not give me a good reason why. As so often, he mumbled his reply, leaving his sentence unfinished as if he had fallen asleep. In fact, for a moment, until I nudged him, he stared vacantly into space, his mouth gaping, a drool escaping his lower lip. It made me shudder. I wondered if he might be addled in the head. As it turned out, he picked his portion so slowly afterwards, I ended up filling my bucket of weeds and most of his too, doing over twice the amount of the work.
For awhile, after our effort in Mama’s garden, we idled around the backyard, hunting for lizards and bugs—a pastime Michael had taught us before he ran away. Nehemiah had nibbled sparingly on his roll after I wolfed down mine, so we tossed his crumbled roll to the birds we saw in the yard. Because we could find no lizards to eat our captured bugs, Nehemiah let his small number go. Hide-and-go-seek and rock-tossing were too tiring for Nehemiah today, so we found ourselves a patch of shade in the orchard, so he could nap and I could play with my bugs for awhile. It was, considering Jesus disappointing letter from Gaul and the trick Mama played on us, proving to be a boring day. Following Nehemiah’s example, I dumped my garden basket. Locusts, beetles, and countless winged and unnamed critters crawled, skipped or flew away. I thought, fleetingly, as I watched a moth escape, how wonderful it would be if men could fly.
That night, as I thought how uneventful my life was becoming, I was tempted to tell everyone at the table just how boring my adopted brother had become. I wanted also very much to complain about Jesus’ boring letters. Considering the fact that none of the townsfolk would let their children play with my brothers and I, life, in general, was quite dull. “Boring, boring, boring,” I grumbled under my breath. Yet, in spite of myself, I held my tongue. That night, as we sat around the kitchen table, listening to Papa and Mama discuss the old times in Nazareth before Jesus cured the sparrow and everything changed, I wondered just how much they hadn’t told us about Jesus’ past. As they talked amongst themselves, James, Joseph, Simon, and I took our turns tossing the dice Jesus had “cleaned.” During the game, I watched Nehemiah once more fall asleep. A stab of guilt overwhelmed me as his eyelids drooped, head sank onto his chest, and a drool escaped his mouth. I could not help cringing as his head bobbed lower and lower and the drool stretched further and further from its source.
“Whoa, what’s the matter with him?” Simon asked, making a face.
“That’s disgusting,” Joseph said, hiding his eyes.
“Nehemiah’s sick,” I replied, easing his head down onto his arms. “He doesn’t have any energy anymore. It’s like watching one of Mama’s flowers die.”
“Nonsense,” sneered James, “he’s just tired. He probably doesn’t get enough sleep.”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, shaking my head. “He goes to bed the same time as we do. It has to be something else.”
“He’s touched in the head,” Joseph announced indelicately. “One of our uncles acted like that before he died. It means he’s addled. Next he’ll be soiling himself and forget his name.”
“Uncle Ahab was a drunk,” Mama’s interrupted curtly. “Nehemiah’s but a child. What a cruel thing to say!”
Papa had bristled at Joseph’s words, perhaps because he was becoming a drunk, himself. I placed my hands over Nehemiah’s ears as he took Joseph to task.
“Joseph,” he growled, wringing his finger, “do you hate your adopted brother that much? Michael was a plague to us, but Nehemiah’s done nothing wrong. Why do you and James pick on him so much? I know how you tease him and Jude. You should feel sorry for him, not condemn him. Would you rather he just fade way, as Michael had? Where would this poor unwanted child be if we hadn’t taken him in?”
“Papa, Papa,” Mama cooed, patting his arm, “Nehemiah’s still in the room.”
“He can’t hear us.” Simon gave him a nudge. “Are you sure he’s still alive?”
Nehemiah stirred. James and Joseph gasped when a snore escaped his bubbling lips.
“My poor friend,” I exclaimed, patting his back. “He’s not unwanted, but he’s fading—like a leaf turning brown, ready to fall.”
“That was poetic.” Papa sighed, scratching his beard. “It’s true: Nehemiah’s always falling asleep. We just haven’t paid attention to him. He might be very sick.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph said contritely. “I shouldn’t make fun of him.”
“Me too,” said Simon, reaching over to pat Nehemiah’s head. “We don’t want you to die!”
“Well, what can we do?” James asked, studying the sleeping boy. “Could it be his diet? Maybe he needs some of Mama’s tonic.”
“Yes, and some of my garden herbs,” she said thoughtfully, checking his pulse. “Perhaps he should eat more vegetables, and drink more water to flush himself out.”
“James might be right.” Papa studied him a moment. “Maybe he’s just tired. I’ve had sleepless nights. We’ve all had them. Lord knows how his aunt treated him. If Nehemiah’s not getting his proper rest, he might need this nap.”
Everyone nodded hopefully, except Simon. “Nehemiah, are you all right?” he nudged him again. “…There-there, little brother.” He laughed. “Open those little beady eyes.”
Raising his head a moment, he smiled wanly but fell back asleep. For the first since Nehemiah joined our family, Simon had called him brother. Mama pulled him up gently by his armpits and, with our help, guided him to his pallet.
“With a little care, he’ll be all right,” she said, as we eased him down.
I stood there watching him sleep. “Are you sure, Mama? He does an awful lot of that. I’ve seen him. He’s asleep more than he’s awake.”
“Care and prayer,” she chimed, “—an unbeatable combination. He’ll get his energy back!”
Mama had always been a pretty good nurse. There was no reason for me to doubt her sincerity that moment, and yet something was amiss. Tonic, herbs, vegetables, and rest were among her remedies, but no one suggested the obvious: a physician. It seems so apparent to me now, but back then in the backwoods of Nazareth Nehemiah’s malady— sleeplessness and lack of energy—didn’t fit the normal signs of illness. He didn’t appear to be running a fever. He hadn’t vomited, shivered, coughed, sneezed, or, as Joseph so crudely put it, soiled himself. There were no visible signs on his body, other than his normally pale skin. The only noticeable irregularities about Nehemiah that we could think of were his droopy expression and inability to stay awake. All these things we discussed that evening. When my friend awakened for dinner after his nap, he acted normal enough. His appetite, never as large as ours, seemed good. Without complaint after dinner, he drank a mug of Mama’s tonic, which she mixed with some of her herbs. Because his greatest and, in many ways, only symptom was falling asleep throughout the day, we all agreed with Mama’s suggestion that he get more rest. All of us turned in earlier than normal tonight, partly for Nehemiah’s benefit but also because Papa was especially tired, himself, after drinking so much wine.
Mama was more worried about Papa now, as he lumbered off to bed. I felt better about Nehemiah’s condition because we agreed on one important point. More than anything else, he needed his rest, which included a good night’s sleep. So obediently, without argument, he visited the cloaca, scrubbed his face, and crawled immediately into bed.
That night, as I slept next to Nehemiah, he did, in fact, toss and turn in his sleep, but so did James and Joseph. The following morning he awakened sleepily, but acted normal enough at our morning meal. We had not really found a cure for what was wrong with him, but from that day forward, I watched him more carefully than I had before. This was much easier for me than the others. Nehemiah was with me constantly. I made sure that my friend took his tonic each day, even though Mama sometimes forgot. I also reminded him to eat his vegetables and not exert himself when he was tired. Nevertheless, despite my efforts, I didn’t have a clue.
Mama, who relied upon age old remedies, remained as ignorant as everyone else about Nehemiah’s failing condition. I suppose it was because she was constantly in motion: cooking, baking, cleaning, gardening, and tending to her family’s needs. Papa, like me, was fond of Nehemiah, but, unless he was in the kitchen chatting with us, was too distracted by his work. James and Joseph, of course, pretended they were concerned, but they didn’t care. They had never accepted the fact that my parents adopted another waif. I was not certain how Simon felt now. Once and while, when our older brothers were busy, Simon would tag along with us, as playmate or predator, depending upon his mood. In general, I must admit, I was mostly to blame for ignoring the signs. Watching Nehemiah was not enough. His condition worsened day-by-day before my eyes and I failed to sound the alarm.