I awoke yesterday at 5:45 a.m., the cats blinking at me in confusion. It was Saturday. And still dark. But they got over it, as they knew they were about to have an early-morning tuna snack. I was out the door by 6:50 a.m., with a to-go coffee in my hand. I made it to my “home town” within 2.5 hours, listening to my Italian language tapes most of the way there. I don’t think I absorbed much, but still it was a welcome distraction. When I was 30 minutes out, I called my friend Jenny. I’ve known Jenny since high school. She’s worked for my dad’s company for the past 25 years, so she knows my family’s history. All of it. In fact, she knows more than some of my family. I called to talk strategy. You see, Jenny is my buffer. She steers me around the landmines. She runs interference. She does surveillance. She’s a very good friend. We agreed she’d sit next to me at the memorial. And she’d create a barrier around me that the pedophile brother-in-law couldn’t breach. Assuming he showed.
And he did.
I arrived at my mother’s about 45 minutes before the start of the service. My mother and father were the only ones there. My dad was in the bedroom dressing, and my mom answered the door and hugged me. I started to cry. It was so hard to see her knowing her eldest son had died before her. She told me it was too soon to cry. I took a breath and gathered myself. I had 30 minutes to settle down before we drove to the church. One of my nephews, the son of my younger brother, Steve, showed up next. And then Steve came in.
It was shocking. Who was this man in front of me? I last saw him at Christmas, only four months ago. He looked like he’d aged ten years. And he looked so frail. He was using a walker. Steve has been undergoing chemo and radiation for mouth and throat cancer. He’s also gone through alcohol detox, which I hear was very difficult, physically. But he’s sober now. I’m hopeful he will stay that way. He’s lost 40 pounds since last I saw him, and looks gaunt and tired. He doesn’t look like Steve any more. I found out yesterday the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in his throat, which he will have removed in the coming weeks. Why my brothers? Why not my brother-in-law?
Jenny arrived shortly thereafter and when she hugged me, again I lost my composure. This became a pattern throughout the day. With every hug, a sob would escape my held breath. I held my breath a lot yesterday. When I breathed, I cried.
My dad came out of the bedroom and sat down in his chair. He had three pairs of shoes. One was his. The other two were my mother’s. He was trying to put on one of my mother’s shoes by slipping his toes into the heel-end. My dad is 83 and has dementia.
We left for the Catholic church, which my mother has attended for 35 years. When we arrived, I saw that my sister, her pedophile husband, and the daughter (my niece) he had molested were already there. Jenny steered me to the opposite side of the vestibule. My two nephews were there; the sons of my eldest brother who died. They looked handsome in their suits, and broken, all at the same time. I hugged them. I sobbed. There were lots of lovely photographs of my brother in happier times. Photographs taken when he was younger, before the alcoholism got too bad, and photographs taken more recently, during a nearly ten-year period of sobriety, before his fiance died. Once she died, he was lost. And he didn’t want to come back.
I steered my mother and father and Jenny to the front row. My father sat on the end, then my mother, then me, then Jenny. My nephews sat behind me during the service, and I could hear them crying. My sister and the pedophile sat on the opposite side of the aisle, a few rows back. Steve sat behind them with his son and daughter and her boyfriend. He didn’t like church, and he especially didn’t like the front row. Jenny asked me if I was sure it was alright she sat in the front row. I told her it was alright. I needed her beside me.
My mother cried silently throughout the service. I held her hand. Her other hand was holding my father’s. My other hand was full of tissues. When the service ended, my mother broke down. My father and I took turns holding her. My sister and I helped her stand. That’s the closest my sister got to me all day. We didn’t speak.
Afterward, my niece would tell me, “I’ve never seen grandma cry before.” I said, “I have, over Mike.”
Mike had a hard life. He battled severe alcoholism for the past thirty years. His wife left him and he was alone for over a decade before he met Sally at AA. Sally loved him. And she made him happy. My brother had proposed to her and they were in the midst of making wedding arrangements, when she fell and hit her head. At my niece’s wedding. (The pedophile’s eldest daughter.) She was seemingly fine, but a few days later, she went into a coma. Several months later, she died. Mike never recovered. He was buried in grief, and he hadn’t the will to dig himself out. He let himself drown. I understand. My mother found solace in the idea that he was no longer dying of grief. That he was free. And since she believes in an afterlife, she thinks maybe he’s with Sally again.
My brother left a hand-written will. My mother found it in his garage a week or so ago. He said he was leaving all his worldly goods to his sons. He wanted to be cremated. He was. He wants his ashes, along with Sally’s, to be sprinkled in the Guadalupe near San Marcos, where he and Sally loved to go tubing in the summertime. He came to Austin and had lunch with me those weekends. Those are the times I will hold dear.