From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul


A single grateful thought raised to Heaven is the most perfect prayer.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Johnny was three years older than me, almost to the day. I was born on August 28, and he on August 29. “You were my birthday present, Sal!” he used to say. Only my brother could get away with calling me Sal.

Since both our parents worked, Johnny took care of me after school. In the winter he made sure I was dressed warmly. On rainy days, he played records and we danced around the house.

When Johnny was a high school senior, he asked me to be his prom date. We danced the night away! Though it would be years before he would tell me, I knew he was gay. All I wanted was for Johnny to be happy and loved.

And he got plenty of love from my kids. The twins, Nicholas and Matthew, couldn’t get enough of him. In their tiny voices, they called him “Nonny,” and the nickname stuck.

My husband, Howard, and I loved our house so full of laughter, and we wanted to fill all five bedrooms with kids. The trouble was, by the time we were ready for more, I couldn’t get pregnant. At thirty-two, I was going through early menopause.

So we put our name on the long adoption waiting lists. Sometimes in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I’d call Johnny. “I’ll never have another baby,” I’d sob. Johnny’s gentle voice soothed me. “Yes, you will,” he said. “Never give up, Sal.”

Then in 1990, my world came crashing down. Johnny told me he had AIDS. “No!” I cried, tears streaming down my face. I refused to believe that my dear brother would die. I took him in my arms and we rocked and cried. If only I could hold on to him forever and protect him. . . .

Johnny lived only a few blocks away, and I was there all the time helping out when the disease started to claim him. There were times when, with a sparkle in his eye, he’d take me in his arms and dance me around the room. But those days were fleeting.

By the fall of 1992, we knew the end was near. On a September afternoon, Mom, Dad and I gathered around his bed. “I’ll miss you most of all,” I whispered, bending to kiss him. “When you see the bright light, you can go. It’s okay.” And with a last, shallow breath, he was gone.

Numb with grief, I picked up the small religious medallion that Johnny had kept at his side throughout his illness. I pressed it to my heart and cried. When I got home, I placed the medallion on a shelf.

How would I get through the rest of my life without him? I would weep and hold the medallion, praying. My big brother was gone. No more dancing. No more “Sal!”

Then one morning a few weeks later, Nicholas and Matthew ran into the kitchen, crying “Nonny is here.”

I felt my legs tremble. “What?” I stammered.

“He came to us,” they said. “He was wearing a red shirt.” How I wanted to believe! But I knew the boys missed him and that this was their way of expressing it.

The “visits” continued for months until one day the boys just stopped mentioning them. They’re okay now, I thought. Life was going on, but it was a sadder life. “We’ve got to have a baby,” I cried to Howard one night. “We need hope in our lives.”

So we stepped up our search, this time with an international adoption agency. The weeks turned into months without any word, while my heart grew eager to give a child the love I could no longer give to Johnny. In dark moments when my hope started to turn to despair, I heard Johnny’s words: Never give up, Sal.

I didn’t. After two years we got the call. A two-year-old Russian girl named Anna needed a family. Before I knew it, I was on a plane. Though her life had been hard, Anna was healthy, and she thrived with us. She didn’t know English, but she communicated through smiles and kisses.

She’d been with us a few months, when one afternoon I came home from shopping to find Howard anxiously waiting at the door. Taking my arm, he led me over to Anna. In her hand was the religious medallion I had taken from Johnny’s deathbed. Looking up at me, Anna held out the medal and said, “Nonny,” then laid it down at my feet. “She’s been saying his name all afternoon,” Howard said.

My eyes filled with tears and my mind was wild with wonder. Shakily, I put down my packages. “We’ve never talked to her about him. She barely understands what we say!” I cried. And even if she’d heard the boys talk about Johnny, how did she know the medallion had been his?

Had Johnny visited her, too? Here in our home? Maybe back in Russia, keeping her safe until we could take her in our arms? Perhaps Johnny was Anna’s guardian angel, and she’d seen him. That’s why she called out his name. I thought I’d lost Johnny forever, but now it seemed I was wrong.

Last night, Anna stopped playing with her toys and ran up to hug me. I looked down at her sweet face and for a moment I saw Johnny in her joyful nature. The bonds of love never die. Johnny will always be with us—if only in Anna’s beautiful smile.

Eva Unga
Excerpted from
Woman’s World Magazine

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