I stood outside my house on a June evening, looking up at the sunset. Although the clouds above me made a radiant display, my mind was somewhere else. I was thinking about my younger brother Donald, who had died just a few months before.
Donald was a high-ranking career sergeant in the United States Air Force, and a devoted Christian who’d played drums in his church. Yet when I thought of him now, I didn’t picture him as that accomplished grown man. Instead I saw him as that little baby who was born when I was 11 years old. The way he looked in the old black-and-white photo my aunt had taken of the two of us in 1959. One of my favorite photographs ever.
Closing my eyes, I could see it perfectly in my mind. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our grandparents’ house, leaning against our aunt’s 1956 Pontiac with my baby brother in my arms. Donald appeared to be yawning, and I looked pretty disgruntled—nearly scowling in the picture. But that had nothing to do with the bundle I was holding. I loved my little brother.
I was just a serious boy, I thought, opening my eyes to watch the clouds swirl above me. It was no wonder I looked so solemn in that picture. Even at 11, I had a lot of responsibility. Donald was the fifth of what would eventually be eight children in our family. I was the oldest. Times were tough for us financially. By the time my aunt snapped that picture, I was already working as a shoeshine boy to help out. Friday evening and all day Saturday I polished the shoes of customers at her barber shop. I took my responsibilities to heart. I wasn’t just holding my baby brother in my arms for a photo that day; I was promising to take care of him forever.
Donald, I know you’re with God now, I thought, directing my words to the heavens. While I watched, a group of clouds swirled slowly and then stopped before swirling again. Little by little, they seemed to be forming something recognizable. I hadn’t been so mesmerized by finding shapes in the clouds since I was a kid. But I could see this was going to be elaborate. I cocked my head this way and that to make sense of what I was seeing. A horse in full gallop? Some kind of castle in the sky?
I gasped and took a step back. The clouds looked just like that old picture! I was looking at myself holding my baby brother in my arms. The image floated above me for one glorious moment, until the clouds swirled again. I watched intently, wondering if the picture I held so dear would again be revealed.
And there it was—the same and yet different. A person holding another close. But it wasn’t me holding Donald this time. Now I saw Donald holding me. “I know how much you loved me,” Donald seemed to say. “I’ll be your big brother now.”
I stared up at the sky, in awe. I didn’t even know I was crying until I felt the tears on my cheek. Donald was in heaven with the angels and with God. And they were watching over me.
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