KREATIVE KORNER: Learning to be Gentle by Paige Tokay

Paige Tokay, Writer

The following writing piece was written by Paige Tokay, the AEONS Treasurer and a creative writing student at Norwin. 

Name: Paige Tokay

Title: “Learning to be Gentle”

Date: February 2022

Inspiration: Average family relationships interest me, and I really love taking a deeper look into them. I wanted to show the different aspects that affect a family, whether that be money issues, or medical problems, or even the internal pressures to be better for the people you love— but for a needed twist, I portrayed all of them from the eyes of a child. My goal was to make this family feel real, and I’d like to think I accomplished that.



Sitting in the IU Mercy Hospital’s waiting room, Andrew swung his legs back and forth from his chair. He was pretty used to hospital trips at this point— had been going for as long as he could remember. Dad was talking to the woman at the front desk, a bouquet of get-well-soon flowers gripped tightly in his fist. The front desk woman typed something into her desktop, getting room numbers and the go ahead for Dad and Andrew to visit so soon after whatever new treatment Dom had received. A fuzzy TV was on, and though it was too blurred to make out what was on it, Andrew just knew it was the Bulls vs Celtics game. He’d been waiting for it all week, and was sure he could vaguely see the bounce of the ball.

Dad and the woman talked for a bit longer before she cracked a small smile and nodded. Turning to Andrew, Dad motioned with his hand for him to get moving. He flung himself off of the chair and bounced over to Dad and the woman. She pointed down the hall and gave directions. Room 304. Two lefts and a right, then it’ll be straight ahead. Dad nodded and then he and Andrew were on their way, led straight to Dom.

It was a drab room, with decidedly gray walls and white vinyl floors to pair. Dom was laid back stiff in his hospital bed, a small grimace etched on his face and oxygen tubes running through his nose as Andrew and Dad walked into the room. He sat up quickly and dawned a small smile for Andrew when he saw him, patting an empty space beside him on the bed to signal him over.

“Dom, how are you? How’s your lung thing?” Andrew asked in a rush, clumsily climbing onto the bed. Dad set the flowers in a vase in the corner, trying his best to brighten up the room and give the boys some space.

Dom let out a scratchy laugh, voice hoarse. “Doin’ alright ‘Drew. Doin’ alright.”

“Does it hurt any?”

“A little. More my throat than my lungs, if anything.”

Andrew nodded seriously to himself. He liked when Dom talked straight with him. Dad was always beating around the bush with that kinda stuff. It was nice to feel grown— which Andrew was, eleven-and-a-half was very grown, thank you very much.

“D’you know we get TV in here?” Dom asked, sensing Andrew was done with the big kid talk.

Andrew shook his head.

“Yep,” he said slowly, popping the p at the end, “I get all the channels, even the sports ones.”

“There’s a Bulls game on, can we watch, Dom? Please, can we watch?”

Dom put a finger to his chin, feigning consideration, “I’m not sure. You know I prefer the Pistons.”

Andrew made a face, and Dom laughed, “I suppose one game with MJ won’t kill me.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Andrew said, wriggling around from his spot in the bed.

Just like that, all of Andrew’s worries about Dom and his new treatment were gone in an instant. He didn’t know how, but Dom had a way of sucking the bad right out of him. He was good like that.

The two of them laid back and watched for a bit, Dom’s arm gently wrapped around Andrew, pulling their bodies close. Dad sat in the corner, eyes carefully following the boys over the thick rims of his glasses. They were so similar to him, both sharing the same warm brown skin and dark eyes that decorated their father. Though, Dom’s eyes were marginally more dull at second-glance, red rimmed in the face of his brother’s sparkle. Neither boy, however, had the weary quality Dad did, his face pinching up each time he heard Dom’s brittle breaths bounce off the walls. 

“So,” Dom asked at the first commercial break, “Bulls or Celtics, who’s winning?”

Andrew scoffed, “Bulls, of course. The Celtics don’t stand a chance against Jordan.”

“Ah, I get it now,” Dom said, mischief in his eyes.

“Get what?”

“Why you like the Bulls so much. It’s cause you think you’re Jordan.”

“No I don’t,” Andrew protested, feeling his face heat up.

“Oh, yes you do! Now I know where all that swagger came from,” Dom said, gently poking Andrew in the gut. “Maybe I should start calling you Air ‘Drew.”

Andrew giggled, “Quit it, Dom!”

“What, is that title not good enough for his Airness?”

“Quit it,” he repeated, playfully shoving Dom just a bit too hard in the stomach.

The wind knocked out of him so ferociously that you could practically hear it, Dom keeled over and gasping. It was a wrong place, wrong time situation, and before Andrew could even get an apology out, Dad was at his feet.

“Andrew, get off your brother!” Dad said in something akin to a shout.

“Dom, I’m sorry,” he said, frantically stumbling off of the bed. “I didn’t mean to shove you that hard.”

“It’s alright ‘Drew, I’m okay,” Dom wheezed out.

Dad leaned over Dom, eyes scanning him closely for any sign of pain or trouble. “You have to be more careful, Andrew. Your brother can’t get rough like you do.”

“I really am sorry, Dom,” Andrew said, tears welling up furiously in his eyes.

“I already told you— I’m fine,” Dom said, forcing out a smile.

Dad looked towards Andrew, something unreadable crossing over his face, “Why don’t you wait outside for a minute?”

Andrew nodded and stiffly walked just outside of the hospital room door. He stood with his back to the wall, wiping the tears from his cheeks with untamed aggression. He didn’t mean to be so rough with Dom, it just happened sometimes. Andrew didn’t know how long he waited outside the door. The pitter pattering of the hospital all around him was the only proof that time hadn’t stopped entirely.

When the door swung open, Andrew hadn’t moved an inch. “You can come back in,” Dad said, softly, almost apologetic.

Andrew shuffled inside feeling thoroughly chastised. Dom caught sight of him again and smiled, motioning for Andrew to come closer. Once he was within arms reach, Dom pulled him close like he had something secret to tell him.

“Look ‘Drew, I’m gonna be stuck in the hospital for a couple nights, and I was wondering if you could do something for me.”

Andrew sniffled and nodded.

“It’s a pretty important job. Do you think you can handle it?” Dom asked, eyes meeting Andrew’s.

“What is it?” He asked.

“You know the bird feeder on the porch?”

Andrew nodded again.

“Well, I fill it up with seeds every morning for the birds,” Dom said, seriously. “But since I’m so far away, I can’t feed ‘em or watch to make sure they’re all doing okay. I was hoping I could count on you to do it while I’m gone.”

“I can do it, Dom! You can count on me, I promise,” Andrew rushed out.

“I knew I could,” Dom smiled, ruffling Andrew’s curly hair.

“And wanna know something cool?” He added. “If you’re gentle with them, the birds will eat the seed right out of your hand!”

“Really?” Andrew asked in awe.

“Really. I bet by the time I’m back home, you’ll have all the birds eating out of your palm.”

Dom grinned and Andrew grinned right back. He would do it. He’d get the birds to eat from his hand, he’d be gentle, he’d make Dom proud. From the corner of the room, Dom and Andrew’s Dad was quietly— less mischievously— grinning too, eyes honed in on his boys. Always on his boys. Always.

The entire drive home, Andrew was buzzing with excitement. In the blink of an eye, the sun had started to set and Dad was pulling the car into the driveway. Andrew hopped out in a rush and slammed the car door shut.

“Dad, where d’you keep the bird seed at?” he called, running into the house.

Dad walked through the door and stretched, back cracking loudly as he bent backwards. “Under the sink, I think!” he yelled back.

“Thanks!” Andrew weaved through the living room and into the kitchen, dodging the various furniture in between with the practice only a boy running could have. Dropping to his knees in front of the sink, he pulled a bag of seed about a third of his size onto the floor. 

Andrew dragged the bag back through the house and out to the porch, birdseed spilling in a neat trail behind him. The feeder was half full, but already there were a few birds flying around. Andrew pulled the feeder from its hook by the porch steps, flinging bird seed all around. He hadn’t brought a cup or anything to help pour seed into the feeder, so he just used his hands to scoop it in. 

Once the bird feeder was slightly overfilled, Andrew forced the lid over the top and hung the feeder back into place. Self-satisfied, he stood back with his hands on his hips, admiring his work. In all of the excitement, Andrew didn’t notice all of the birds flying away, nor did he notice Dad moving to stand in the front door. 

“Didn’t Dom say he fills the feeder in the morning?” Dad asked from behind.

Andrew startled and spun around. Then channeling his MJ swagger, asked, “Can’t hurt to feed ‘em a bit early, right?”

Dad laughed, crows feet crinkling a bit, “I suppose it can’t. But what happened to all the seed?”

“What do you mean?” Andrew asked.

Dad pointed to the inside of the house, and Andrew spotted the bird seed splatterings all through the living room, twisting into the kitchen entrance.

“I’ll clean it all up, Dad, don’t worry!” Andrew said, dragging the bag back into the house. 

Dad shook his head, and followed his son through the door, the pinches in his face receding just a bit.

The next day, Andrew couldn’t stop thinking about the bird feeder. He’d gone out in the morning— or, more realistically, early afternoon— to check on it, but found the feeder still mostly full. He decided to leave it until Dad got home from work and walked to the playground, hoping to find a game of pick-up ball.

He ended up playing two-on-two for a few hours with some neighborhood boys a couple years older than him— probably Dom’s age, actually. On a normal day, he would easily crush them using some crazy shot from half court and a bit of Jordan magic, but instead they wiped the floor with him. Andrew just couldn’t focus, mind on the feeder back at home. 

He really needed to do a good job. Dom was counting on him, and already he’d messed up with the feeding schedule. He had to make it up; he had to get the birds to love him. 

The walk back home was slow, with the summertime heat beating down hard on Andrew’s back. He could feel the sweat sticking to him in some uncomfortable places, and was just about ready to go inside and cool down. 

The driveway was empty when he got home. Lately, Dad had been picking up weekend shifts at the office, but he didn’t usually stay much later than four. Andrew chalked his absence up to a last minute hospital visit, and continued with his post-basketball routine. He needed to eat some late-lunch-early-dinner and take a shower before he stunk up the whole house.

Before popping into the bathroom, Andrew lingered in the hall. The light from the bathroom shined into Dom’s room, his door fully ajar. He could see the inside just barely— the miscellaneous science and basketball posters stuck up on the walls, the glow in the dark stars Dad had put up before Andrew was ever alive, the pile of dirty laundry sitting in the corner. Andrew felt a pang in his chest, and turned away quickly, nearly knocking Dom’s oxygen tank over in his hurry to the shower. And when he had finished cleaning up and drying off, Dom’s door was firmly shut once more.

Andrew made his way out of the bathroom quietly, hair still dripping as he padded into the kitchen. Standing in the entrance, he spotted Dad hunched over the table. Andrew silently watched his Dad sift through paper after paper, face grim. In that moment he looked tired, and he looked old, and Andrew couldn’t take another second of it. 

“Hey Dad,” he said, putting on a big smile, “how was work?”

Dad quickly stood, scrambling to pull the papers into his arms and out of sight.

“It was good. I got a lot done,” he said, stuffing the papers into the nearest drawer.

“Good,” Andrew said, mind on whatever Dad was hiding, “that’s good.”

“So…” Dad asked, trailing off, “Did you, uh, feed the birds this morning?”

Instantly, the room’s tension was broken.

“No, not yet! The feeder was still pretty full this morning, but they should be ready for more now!”

“D’you need any help?” Dad asked, a smile slowly spreading onto his face.

“Sure, couldn’t hurt any,” Andrew said, already pulling the bird seed bag out from under the kitchen sink.

As Andrew struggled to lift the seed, Dad reached down and pulled it up into his arms with ease, “Andrew, why don’t you go get a cup for this. We don’t need another mess on our hands.”

“On it!” Andrew bounded over to the cabinets and pulled one out. He dashed out of the kitchen and onto the porch before Dad had even moved.

Andrew was pulling the lid off of the feeder by the time Dad had lugged the birdseed bag outside.

“Hey, slow down,” Dad said, dropping the bag. “The birds can wait for a minute longer.”

“I just want to do this right. Dom told me they’d eat out of my hand!” 

“I know, kid. But they need to trust you first.”

“How do I get them to do that?”

Dad took the cup from Andrew’s hand and used it to pour a bit of seed into the feeder, “By being gentle, just like Dom said to.”

Dad handed Andrew the cup, and he took a slow scoop. His hand shook as he poured it into the feeder, trying his hardest to be gentle like Dom would’ve been. He could picture it, Dom filling the feeder with such care, the birds chirping all around him like some kind of Disney movie. There were no hospital noises, no breathing tubes— just Dom and his birds. Andrew wished, for a brief moment, that he would have noticed the birds when Dom had been feeding them, that they could have experienced this together. Maybe when he got back home, they could feed the birds together, just like he wanted.

Once the feeder was full, Andrew turned to go back inside, but Dad stopped him. “You can’t leave yet, Andrew.”

“Why not?”

“Have a little patience. Don’t you want to see the birds eat a bit?”

Andrew hadn’t thought about that. In his head, he’d always assumed the birds would come to him, not that he’d have to wait for him.

“Here, come sit,” Dad pulled Andrew down onto the porch steps. Father and son sat together, just slightly separated, waiting for the birds to fly down. And after a few minutes, they did. Andrew had never seen anything like it, had never thought to look for the little things. It was nice. Peaceful. Something that he’d remember for the rest of his life, kept securely in the front pocket of his mind. And in his dreams that night, he and Dom and Dad were taking flight.

The next day, all Andrew could think about was the birds again, but for an entirely different reason this time. He wanted to be like Dom, wanted to find all of the small wonders of the world and admire them with acute care.

Andrew skipped out on pick-up that Sunday. He walked to the park with a new purpose, forgoing the basketball court for the spattering of woods at the edge of the playground. All day, Andrew sat in the dirt. He looked for bugs and flowers and pretty rocks just for the pleasure of holding them in his hand. It felt good to be like Dom. Everyone wants to be their older brother, and no one had a better older brother than Andrew.

The walk home was much less sweaty than the previous day’s, though Andrew’s knees had a light layer of dirt over them. When he got home that afternoon, Dad’s car was already pulled into the driveway. No overtime today, it seemed. Andrew grinned to himself. He and Dad could work on the birds.

“Dad!” Andrew called, walking through the front door, “You busy?”

Dad popped his head through the kitchen entrance, “Not too busy for you. What’s up?”

“I wanted to feed the birds. Can you help again?”

“‘Course I can. We gonna get them to eat outta your hand today?”

“Definitely,” Andrew said, puffing out his chest with confidence.

Repeating the process from the day before, Dad and Andrew dragged the seed bag out to the porch, cup in tow. 

Andrew reached up to grab the feeder, but Dad put an arm out to stop him. “Wait a second, Andrew. I have an idea.”

Dad pulled Andrew’s hands out softly, and molded them into a little cup. He then poured a bit of seed into his hands.

“Now what?” Andrew asked, almost shy.

“Now we wait.” 

The two grinned at one another. For a very long time, they stood on the porch, birds flying idly by, not paying much mind to the boy and his father. A few times, Andrew considered telling his dad he was tired and wanted to call it quits, but each time he looked over to Dad and saw the contented, untired look on his face, he changed his mind.

Andrew eventually acclimated to the quiet, listening to the birds and light breathing that rose and fell out of him. He watched the birds flitter around him, and in his head, he was flying with them too. Maybe that was why Dom loved to feed the birds so much, that feeling of flying that came with it.

Out of the corner of his eye, Andrew saw a bright red swoop. Slowly, he turned his head. It was cardinal, he knew, whistling out something beautiful. It flew up and down and around, eventually landing on the railing. Hopping once— twice— it skipped the feeder entirely, shiny black eyes on Andrew’s hands. It took everything in him not to shake, not to move at all.

The bird seemed to be considering for a brief second, before jumping right into Andrew’s palms. This was it. This was it! His breath hitched, but he stayed quiet, stayed gentle. This was it! The cardinal lowered his beak and pecked a few seeds, fluffing his feathers as he ate. Dom would be so proud. 

It was a perfect moment.

It was a perfect moment shattered by the phone ringing.

“Shit!” Dad said beside him. He took out his flip phone, quickly switching it off, but it was too late. The cardinal flew away, landing perfectly perched on a tree across the street. Andrew sighed slowly, letting all of the built up air in his lungs flow out.

“I’m so sorry, Andrew,” Dad said.

Andrew turned to him and he smiled, “It’s alright.”

“No really, I should’ve left it in the house.” The weariness was seeping back into his shoulders.

“Dad, I told you. It’s okay. The bird ate out of my hand didn’t he?”

“I know but—” the phone rang again. 

Dad made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat, but Andrew waved him off, “Just take it.” 

Thinking for a long moment, Dad opened up his phone and answered the call. 

Everything after that happened in slow motion. Or fast motion. Or one minute, Andrew was watching his Dad panic over the phone, and the next he was sitting in the ER waiting room. His brain was all scrambled and full of cotton and he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. Just that he was in a chair, and the lady who was supposed to be checking them wouldn’t take their insurance, and Dad was yelling at her for it, and Dom was somewhere in that stupid hospital with about a million walls in between them.

A kid started wailing a few seats away, and his mom tried to gently shush him. Dad sat down beside Andrew in a huff, rubbing his temples with his pointer fingers as he folded in on himself. The kid kept on screaming. The mom picked him up and put him on her lap, but he didn’t stop. Just kept on sucking in air and spitting out screams, again, and again, and again. By the time the mom finally gave up and took the kid off to the bathroom or something, he’d really worked himself into a fit. People were giving the two of them sideways glances and dirty looks, but the mom was too focused on the kid to notice. 

Andrew was too focused on the kid to really take note of them either. All he kept thinking was, Could Dom ever wail like that? Really get to screaming, with big gulps of air in his lungs? He decided that he couldn’t, and for some reason that made him very sad. Which was stupid, because not once in his life had Dom ever even wanted to scream and shout and cause a fuss. But even if Dom wasn’t the shouting type, Andrew thought he still should have had the option, at least.

Andrew felt his shoulder shake. He turned to his left and hazily made eye contact with Dad, the front desk woman standing behind him.

“Andrew,” he said. “Andrew, we have to go now. We have to go see Dom.”

Nodding, he stumbled to his feet. Everything sounded warped and wrong, like Andrew had stuck his head under water. The only thing that kept him upright as they walked to the hospital room was the singular drive to tell Dom about the birds. He had taken care of them for him. One had even eaten out of his hand, just like he’d said they would.

Entering the room was like walking through a ghost. Dom looked awful, his usually warm skin washed out beneath his oxygen mask. Dad walked over to him slow. He pet his hair, hands shaking for a moment, before taking in a sharp breath. Andrew stayed stock still in the doorway, looking down at the floor.


He looked up. The flowers in the corner of the room were already starting to wilt.

“Come talk to your brother,” Dad said, forcing a watery smile onto his face.

Andrew walked over at a snail speed. He stood a few steps away from Dom. Placing his hand overtop of his brother’s, he said, “Hey Dom…”

The weight of words was so insurmountable, resting heavy on his tongue, he could barely force them out. But he had to tell him. He had to.

“I know this is probably the last thing on your mind, but—” Andrew cut himself off, throat thick with emotion, “But I wanted to tell you that I took care of your birds. I got one to eat out of my hand, like I promised. And I don’t know how long it’ll be until you get better and can go home, but I’m watching them for you. For as long as it takes.” 

He broke into sobs as soon as the last word left his mouth.

Dad put an arm around Andrew, and pulled him into his chest, chin hooked over his head. They stood pulled together like that for a long time, father and son separated becoming father-and-son united. And that night, after leaving Dom with kisses and hugs and endless love, Andrew was sure he saw a cardinal flying by the hospital room window, whistling.

Then, and only then, was Andrew sure that Dom had heard what he had said.