I was asleep the night Chris died.
He had just returned home from college a week before Christmas and was driving at night with his sister. They were very close, TV newscasters said. She was the first person other than his parents he wanted to see. It was also reported that he enjoyed driving fast and was a NASCAR fan.
The accident happened around midnight a block from his house. The newscasts left me with many questions; Had he been racing another car? Had he skidded on black ice? Had he swerved out of the way of another motorist? How in other words had it happened and why? No one knew.
Chris may have been like my deceased brother who as a teenager fancied himself a race car driver. His passion for cars followed a prior infatuation with scuba diving. In high school, he bought a diving mask and flippers and a deep sea watch and subscribed to diving magazines. But he never took scuba diving lessons although my parents offered to pay for them.
When I was eleven and he was eighteen, our family vacationed in Bermuda. Our hotel offered scuba diving lessons. I asked my brother to sign up with me. We would learn in a pool and then later in the afternoon dive in the ocean. He sat on the edge of the hotel bed and stared at the floor cornered by my excitement and the opportunity before us. His face paled.
I’m not feeling good, he said after a long moment.
I took the lessons alone. My mother wanted my brother to see the hotel doctor, but my father insisted he was fine.
He’s scared, my father said in a disgusted tone. Not sick.
My mother did not respond. She had married a brusque, ambitious and conservative man who put himself through Harvard Business School and was a Naval officer during World War Two. After the war, he took control of his father’s cigar company with distributors nation wide. He was not someone who accepted inhibition especially from his eldest son named after him.
As a consequence, my mother suffered her own self-doubts alone and blamed herself for whatever fears my brother may have had. When he first started grade school, he had trouble reading and repeated the first grade. My mother believed his self confidence was damaged from that moment on. My father dismissed the idea with an impatient mutter of “nonsense.” Still, she persisted in her belief that she was responsible for my brother’s self-doubt. She never forgave herself for not insisting that he proceed to the second grade with the rest of his class.
I was not yet born then to know how he was affected by any of that. What I do know is that when we returned home from Bermuda, my brother shelved his mask and flippers in his bedroom closet, cancelled his magazine subscriptions and switched his allegiance to race car driving.
He started driving with his arms locked at the elbows like Mario Andretti and took curves at high speeds. He could imagine whatever he wanted behind the wheel out of sight of our father’s scorn and a little brother too young to drive.
When Chris lost control of his car, he slammed across a median strip and into oncoming traffic. Miraculously, he struck just one other car. Equally amazing, the other driver, while shaken, was uninjured. Chris’ car overturned onto the sidewalk where it stopped upside down, wheels spinning. The sounds of crumpling metal and glass faded beneath the clatter of tossed hubcaps. His sister somehow survived, although last I heard she was still hospitalized.
Chris’s family lives just down the street from me. I don’t know them. A neighbor pointed out their house; a one-story brown stone and red brick home with a small lawn and sloping driveway. From then on I caught myself staring at the house when I walked my dogs as if it was tainted somehow. An intangible menace hovered about it. I saw no one, only an array of cars in the driveway. Relatives. Mourners. Unaware of the accident, a passer-by might have assumed they had company for the holidays.
I wanted to feel badly, but I felt no more than a kind of intellectual regret I always feel when I learn about the death of someone I don’t know and who died needlessly. Like a tornado picking off one house while leaving others untouched, his dying seemed too cavalier, thrust upon the neighborhood in a casual self-absorbed way by mindless circumstance and leaving those of us who didn’t know him wondering what to think, what to say. Burdened, but freer to move on than his family and friends.
I am not free, however, of my brother’s death. It hovers around me, lurking silently, springing out of the shadows when I least expect to be reminded of him as I was by Chris’s death.
A week before he died, my brother called to tell me he had married his live-in girlfriend in a quick ceremony before a judge. He married her, he said, “for the healthcare,” because he was unemployed and she was working and had benefits.
I thought he was just posturing for my benefit but he persisted.
I don’t know what’s happening, he said. I’m eating right, eating my vegetables, I’m not drinking, but I keep putting on weight
Three years of sitting around unemployed, eating fast food, drinking sodas and indulging in too much booze had taken its toll and he had become obese. Now, I thought, he is so huge, so uncomfortable that he wants to do something about it. Finally.
That’s good, I said about the doctor. See what he says.
A week later, my brother called my parents. He told them the doctor had prescribed a diuretic to reduce fluid that had built up in his body and had contributed to his burgeoning weight. Other than that, my brother said, the doctor had pronounced him in good health. Blood pressure normal. Lungs clear. Lab tests negative. My father said he didn’t believe him. I don’t know how my brother responded. Two days later, he died.
The morning after my brother died, I drove nine hours from my Kansas City apartment to my parent’s home near Chicago. I arrived at night and let myself in through the garage and into the kitchen half expecting a dog to charge down the hall toward me. My parents always had dogs but now in their late eighties, they no longer had the energy or desire to break in a pet.
No lights. The dark hall consumed me. I put out my hands groping for a light switch. Neither of my parents heard me. I shouted to them, listened to their confusion from the living room as they shouted back in worried voices wondering who was there. It‘s me, I said turning on a light, it‘s me.
My mother shuffled into the kitchen, hunched over, her damp, red-rimmed eyes small ponds of grief. No words. She hugged me and then withdrew without a word to the couch in the living room. She stared without seeing out the window into the night. My father asked about my drive. It was fine, I told him. It’s good to see you, he said. I’m sorry it had to be like this. I nodded and he turned off the light. In the sudden blackness, I heard my father’s disembodied voice search for answers. It happened so fast, he said. I don’t understand. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark and I sat down beside the outline of my mother aware of all that was absent; dogs, brother, understanding. So much silence left to us the living.
An evening prayer vigil was held for Chris on the sidewalk near where the car had overturned. They stuck a small artificial Christmas tree in the ground and lit candles around it. They put a small white cross on the median strip against a lamp post surrounded by plastic-wrapped roses.
Chris, we’ll always remember that dreadful night, someone wrote on the cross.
The cross shined at night beneath the light, the roses full and open. A few days later, it snowed and the cross collapsed under the weight. Then the snow melted. The cross lay in mud beneath the white light, dirt-streaked from dried slush. The roses had curled but had maintained their color.
When I was sixteen, I came close to ending up like Chris myself when I nearly crashed into a tree head-on during my junior year high school Christmas break. I was driving a car that belonged to the parents of my friend Brian. At sixteen, we knew only the thrill of the present and the need to show off, convinced that the faster we drove, the cooler we were, all that power, and thinking that way I turned into my street off Hubbard Boulevard in the north shore of Chicago, accelerating to sixty miles an hour, turning left at a fork in the snow-covered road, slipping into a skid. I spun the wheel left and then right, front yards on either side of us wind smeared blurs, frantic, Brian screaming, Brake! Brake!
I veered off the road into some woods. Tree branches raked the side of the car and dead leaves and clumps of snow struck the windshield, and I slammed on the brakes and hurtled forward against the steering wheel and gasped. Brian banged his forehead against the dashboard. We didn’t say anything. Snow-stooped bushes sucked in all sound except our harsh breathing. We were inches from a tree.
Brian told me to get out and we switched places. He backed the car onto the street and we saw the deep gouges the car had made where I spun off the road. Brian drove to my house a few blocks away. The dirt and snow on the car was slashed with crooked lines. We couldn’t tell how badly, if at all, the body of the car had been scratched.
I told my parents we wanted to surprise Brian’s mother and wash her car. I filled a bucket with hot water and grabbed two fat sponges from the garage shelf. The water steamed. My father followed me outside without a coat. He said the water would freeze on the car. We wiped it down, washing away the dirt. Our wet hands stung from the cold and turned pink. My father shook his head, watching the water bead into ice on the car.
As the black grit sluiced off, we saw that only a few spots were actually scratched. Brian’s parents would never notice. We smiled at one another, invincible again.
Get inside, my mother shouted at my father. You’ll catch your death of cold.
He waved her away. He crossed his arms against the wind and frowned, trying to comprehend our logic.
You’ll catch pneumonia, my mother shouted.
It took years, but eventually she was right. One evening, my brother called me and left a message that my ninety-year-old father had been hospitalized with pneumonia. I had known something was wrong for a while. When I called my parents, my father coughed and cleared his throat every two or three words. He dismissed my mother’s concerns for his health. But one night, his chest ached with every breath and he clutched his left side, unable to talk, and my mother drove him to the hospital and he didn’t try to stop her. He was admitted without complaint.
I called him and he answered in a hoarse, exhausted voice, gasping for breath between each word. He said he was fine. Call your mother, he said. I’m worried about her.
My mother spent her days with him in his hospital room and her evenings at home alone. Our house is a rambling two-story structure. My mother hoped to have six children, but she married late and only had three. But the house was built with the optimistic dream of a large brood. Without my father, it must have been like wandering in a museum at night with large swatches of darkness consuming rooms we never used, photos of my two brothers and me ghostly on the walls, the spirit of consummated yearnings within the shadows, the grandfather clock ticking evenly. She sat alone in the living room on the side of the sofa where my father usually sat. The light at the end table reflected off a growing stack of magazines she hoped to read at some point.
I called her every night while my father was in the hospital. She often didn’t pick up and I assumed she was visiting him. I would leave a message and she would call back almost immediately and apologize.
I was asleep, she’d say in a voice without purchase, unmoored in the vacant house. I expected your father to get it. Then I remembered he wasn’t here.
My father recovered after a hospital stay of nearly three months. Thinner for the effort. Defiant, bad-tempered. He resumed ignoring my mother’s words of caution. He is nervous, my mother has noticed. He won’t sit still. On alert perhaps for another betrayal of his body. When I called home and spoke to my father, I sensed him groping for words, searching for some way to articulate perhaps the insight he had gained coming so close as he had to dying before he finally gave up and passed the receiver to my mother. She always assured me he was fine, but afterward, I would call my brother who lived near my parents and ask him what he thought.
He looks great, my brother would tell me. You’d never know how sick he was.
He didn’t tell me that he never visited our father. My mother would call and tell him how he was recovering.
By the time of my father’s hospitalization, my brother was fifty-three-years old. After high school, he attended college and flunked out his sophomore year. He lived at home until he was thirty-five and worked for my father in the family owned cigar store. When my father retired, my brother found a job as an accountant through a friend. Eventually, he bought a house, dated a woman who soon moved in with him and later became his wife. He was laid off after four years and found another job at a local university where his wife worked. A year later, he was laid off again. I have no doubt he worked hard. In college and at his jobs. Maybe he had bad luck. Maybe my mother was right about his lack of self confidence. Maybe he sabotaged anything he wanted because he presumed he would fail. I’ll never know.
What I do know is that after his second layoff he did not look for work. He lived off his inheritance which wasn‘t much but with his wife‘s income it was enough.
My brother stopped dropping by our parents house, to avoid I suspect, their unspoken disappointment in his refusal to find a job. And he no longer called me as much as he once had. I was a working journalist. I traveled abroad. Our parents clipped my stories and pasted them in a scrap book. I was still the little brother leaving him behind to our father’s scorn and our mother’s guilt in a Bermuda hotel room.
Without a job, my brother stayed home, drank, watched TV, ate dinner with his wife, went to bed and saw friends on weekends. He maintained this routine for nearly three years absent of reflection or variance.
Sometimes when we got together, however, I noticed that he would slip back to the way he drove when he was younger. Elbows locked, foot heavy on the gas pedal. He was quiet during those moments, perhaps desperate, the wind coming through the windows and blowing his hair.
However, he was no longer young. He had grown so overweight he appeared inflated. He breathed with the heaviness of a bull hauling lumber. My mother cautioned him about his weight like she had hounded my father about wearing a jacket in the cold. She urged me to talk to him but I didn’t know what to say, discomfitted by just looking at him.
He’s a grown man, I said sounding like my father. He’ll do what he wants. Nothing I can do about it.
My father muttered that my brother had grown as fat as a pig. He was revolted by the sight of him and his own helplessness and inability to understand what was happening to his son.
But the two of them had much in common. Stubbornness for one. Like my father, my brother didn’t listen to my mother. Unlike my father, he died.
On a Wednesday morning, three years after my father survived his bout with pneumonia, my brother woke up struggling to breath. He barely had the strength to get out of bed. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital but by then he had stopped breathing, dead of congestive heart failure.
The what ifs come at night.
What if my brother had taken better care of himself?
What if he had seen the doctor earlier?
What if the doctor had admitted him?
What if I had confronted the discomfort his despair made me feel and talked to him instead of avoiding him?
What if. . . ?
His obituary listed his age, occupation and surviving family members, summarizing his life in a small, two hundred word square of newsprint surrounded by other names in equally small squares of newsprint. No photograph. His dreams, ambitions and fears no longer mattered. What he never achieved in life was not recorded in print. He was reduced to his essence like something dehydrated. Two hundred words. No more. Read them, turn the page. Gone. Just like that.
My brother’s wife called me the day he died. Her voice was measured but worn. I was too shocked to ask questions. She told me that when she woke up that morning, my brother was beside her in bed clutching his chest. I can’t breath, he said. He looked scared, confused. She called 911. My brother became more and more desperate. Did you call? he asked her again and again. What’s taking them so long? She stared out the bedroom window, phone in hand, as if that would make them come faster.
The paramedics arrived ten minutes after she called. The approaching scream of the siren must have reassured them both. So much commotion. It was only eight o’clock in the morning. Clear blue skies, light coming through the curtains. Their neighbors leaving for work.
The medics examined my brother and thought he might be having an asthma attack. They gave him oxygen. They helped him onto a gurney. He appeared to relax a little. He told his wife not to let their cat out the door behind him. The medics would figure out what was wrong. They would find an answer. A simple explanation. He might have to stay in the hospital overnight, nothing more.
Inside the ambulance, my brother closed his eyes. Don’t let the cat out. His last words.
My sister-in-law’s voice quivered overcome by emotion before sinking again into an exhausted monotone.
When will you get here? she asked me.
As soon as I can, I told her.
I got off the phone. My heart pounded with the anxiety of someone who was late for an appointment and has no means of getting to it. My hands shook. I could not stand still. Pacing, I thought, I must call work, I must cancel my dentist appointment, I must call an airline for a flight home. I repeated to myself in a half whisper, My brother died, my brother died, my brother died, until I knew I could say it without breaking down.
I telephoned my job first. My supervisor said he was sorry and then reminded me that the company bereavement policy applied only to parents and spouses, not brothers. Any time off would be deducted from my vacation time.
Next, I called my dentist. That was easy; I did not have to give a reason. Then I called United Airlines. I explained my brother had just died and I needed a flight to Chicago from Kansas City as soon as possible. What was available?
The man on the other end demanded proof of my brother’s death. What hospital was he in? I didn’t know. What funeral home has he been taken to? I didn’t know. What time did he die? Today, this morning, I said, I don’t know exactly. He told me I could not get a bereavement flight without answering his questions. I insisted I just wanted a flight, not a special rate. He hung up. I slammed the receiver down again and again against the kitchen table until it slid out of my hand and I covered my face and wept.
Today, mere days after Chris died, is the second anniversary of my brother’s death. I did not remember until this evening when I called a friend to wish her a happy birthday. As her phone rang it hit me; my brother died today. I hung up before she answered stunned I had forgotten.
A blind woman I know told me recently that with each passing day it gets harder and harder for her to remember what things had looked like when she could see. I wonder if something similar is happening with my memory of my brother.
With each passing day I grow more and more accustomed to his absence until I worry I might forget him. I do not want to but my life has changed in the past two years while his has ceased. In that time, career opportunities opened for me. I moved. I separated from my wife. I met someone new. The economy tanked. I worried about my future. I turned fifty, then fifty one. It seems a long time ago that I was forty nine and looking at framed photographs of my dead brother the day after he died. Washing his car, watching a football game, drinking a beer. Frozen moments increasingly distant never to be repeated.
Some things have not changed. I telephone my parents every Sunday as I did when my brother was alive. They are both slightly deaf now and I shout into the receiver so they can hear me. We compare our weather, complain about it being too hot or too cold. After a brief pause, we struggle for other things to talk about but they don‘t have much to say. Their advanced age confines them more and more to the house and limits their participation in the world of movies and restaurants, politics and gossip, vacations and travel that still remain a part of my life.
So what have you been doing? they ask me, and I tell them launching into a kind of monologue, a one man stage act to which they are the audience only because I am the one doing the doing, not them.
Recently, my father fell and broke his right hip. He uses a walker now. He and my mother manage only through the help of neighbors. Although they have yet to admit it, they will have to sell the house and move into some sort of assisted living situation. Sometimes I find myself obsessively subtracting the year of their births from the current year grateful they have exceeded the average life expectancy but aware that they will not live forever. I know eventually I will get a call about one of them as I did about my brother.
When I am asked about my family, I say that my parents live outside Chicago and that I have a brother who died. To myself I think, he would have been fifty-nine this year.
After I talk to my parents, I walk my dogs, a twenty-minute stroll that takes me past the spot where Chris died. The worn cross lies at a slant beneath dark green spring grass, ankle high on the median strip. I place the cross against the lamp post and wipe it clean speechless when I consider the mysteries of give and take.
I will never know if Chris really wanted to race cars or not or what other ambitions he might have entertained, and how his discipline and self confidence would have been tested in the pursuit of them. The shock of his final moments would have obliterated all thoughts of the future leaving only a blank slate of fear and confusion amid the sudden, dizzying chaos of the crash. He died, thrown from the car into the limbo of what might have been.
My dogs tug at their leashes and I wait for traffic to pass and then run with them across the street to the sidewalk, a sudden lightness in my chest. The sun high, dew-wet lawns fragrant in the spreading warmth, a perfect day, not too hot or too cold. We resume our walk and the day resumes with us, the sun advancing across the sky, everything moving forward, exuberant, spared for the moment of interruption.