Yesterday, when the doctor took him off the respirator, he was able to breathe on his own and more remarkably, opened his eyes. When his wife Mary came into the room he was sitting up. He looked at her and smiled, and he took her hand. He was able to say a few words.
This describes a good day. Some days he does not open his eyes. He has had two strokes since he was hospitalized for a broken hip. His heart, kidneys, and pancreas are all functioning poorly.
He is the eldest of my seven siblings. By the time I was finding my place in the family he was gone from home in an orbit somehow different from the rest of us, an outcast for some indefinable reason. He was in school in Denver, then in the army, I’m not sure in what order. I remember a family trip to visit him when he lived in Cedar Rapids. In his apartment, while we waited for him to get off work, my mother snooped and read a letter that was sent to him, a shock coming over her face. She showed the letter to my father. The confrontation that must have taken place happened offstage, and I never found out what was in the letter. I imagined it being the letter of some former girlfriend saying she was pregnant. My brother struck me as an awfully lonely man in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
I got to know him better as an adult. He would show up on weddings and anniversary celebrations. He was friendly, if that’s the right word, always inviting me to come visit him and Mary in Tucson despite my purchase on being everything that he had contempt for: socialist, gay, vegetarian liberals. His voice, railing, got high and nasal. Sometimes, you felt, he deserved his unlikeableness. He was the only person I have ever heard my sister Francine yell at. I resolved not to talk politics with him and sometimes broke my resolution, raising my own voice. I managed not to suggest he alter his diet from brats-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner to something less artery-clogging. Those horses were well over the hill.
My aunt once said of him as a little boy, “I used to feel so sorry for him. He just couldn’t do anything right.”
If you saw him you could see our resemblance. Sometimes I’m comfortable with that thought.
I hear the story of his opening his eyes and smiling at Mary who loves him. I read it as a redemptive moment, though I wonder if there is such a thing or, for that matter, a need for one.