I Had a Brother

Sometimes it’s the little things that trigger the memories.  A few weeks ago, when those young women who had been abducted in Cleveland were found, almost by accident, my father said to me, “I don’t believe this story.  It’s impossible that these women could be locked up for all those years and no one ever heard them, or saw them.”  I lashed out in anger, “Dad, there are BAD people in this world, whether you want to believe it or not!”  I went on, “Don’t you remember when Joel and I were little and you and Mom would be getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, and you sent us across the grocery store parking lot to the drugstore soda fountain to get dinner?”  My father was a plastic surgery resident then, and we lived, the five of us, in a two bedroom apartment in a complex next door to the A & P.  I was seven and Joel was five and I had a job–no, a DUTY to make sure that the server did not put mayonnaise on his hamburger.  He wanted it PLAIN and that was that.  I said, “Something TERRIBLE could have happened to us and you and Mom didn’t care.  You just wanted us out of the way so you could get ready.”  My father had no recollection of this whatsoever, and it occurred to me that perhaps he wasn’t even there.  Perhaps he was still at work, sewing up lacerations and dog bites and victims of car accidents.  There were no actual memories of him, only of my mother, sitting in front of her vanity, applying her make-up.  She was beautiful, my mother. While she put on her make-up, my little brother stole candy from the drugstore.

My brother spent his life between drug rehab facilities and prison, with brief moments of hopeful sobriety in between.  We stopped speaking for a very long time after he cashed in the ticket my parents sent him so that he could be best man at my wedding.  He spent the weekend in Las Vegas gambling.  He didn’t bother to call.  When our grandmother died a few years later, we met in Chicago at her tiny apartment just before her funeral.  When my father asked if there was anything of hers that we wanted, he replied, “I checked the silver.  It’s under the bed.  It’s plate.”  My brother survived car accidents, a bad marriage and the AIDS epidemic.  He was handsome, smart and charming.  You just wanted to believe him when he said that things were better, that he was getting along  fine.  His eyes were cornflower blue, and my favorite picture of him was taken when he was eighteen.  He was sitting on a ferry boat on the way to Anacortes, wearing a blue shirt.  In the picture, the sky is gray, and he looks young, and sad.

In 2003 my brother died of an accidental heroin overdose in a flop house hotel in Portland, Oregon.  Apparently, he had been shooting up with a friend, who was recently released from prison and was on probation.  The story I got was that the friend knew that my brother had overdosed, but fled rather than call 911 and risk going back to prison himself.  It was a few days before they found my brother’s body. I don’t remember much about the funeral, except that it was late fall, and turning bitter cold.  I still miss him.

The other day I was rifling through drawers in my office, trying to find an article I had saved about melanoma.  I had to pull out some old framed family pictures that were taken off my desk top during some construction in the office, and put in the drawer for safe keeping.  I showed the medical student the pictures of my kids and we had chatted about my sister and he asked, “Do you have other siblings?”  I replied, “I had a brother.”