THE ONLY ONE
“I’m sorry,” a friend said upon hearing about his brother’s death.
Cory’s comeback was, “You’re the only one.” Cory got a little charge out of this transgression of polite discourse. He was only telling the truth. He had never been close to his brother. Cory and Stephen were years apart, eras apart. Stephen was a lawyer who shilled for the lumber companies in Washington whereas Cory had dropped out of high school, did odd jobs, and was a tree-hugger.
Cory grew up under the impression that he was one of fate’s unfortunate pranks. His mother had been in her mid forties when she became pregnant with him. Both parents made it no secret how unexpected and not particularly welcome his arrival had been. They already had the son they wanted, smart and well-behaved, in pre-law. By the time Cory was a teenager, Stephen was already a junior partner. His example was dangled before Cory as another reason to feel badly about himself.
When Cory got older, he understood how it might not have been his parents’ intention to demean him but the damage was done, whatever the motive. Before he was twenty he moved to California. Stephen was on the West Coast too but far enough away, first in Oregon and then later in Washington.
Over the years Stephen made a few attempts at establishing a connection, none of which Cory reciprocated. One summer Stephen and his wife Anne drove down the coast on vacation. They allotted an afternoon to spend with Cory who took them into the Sierra to Sequoia National Forest. He made his brother pose for a photo alongside the massive stump that was once “Queen of the Forest.” If the message hit home, it wasn’t acknowledged.
Cory rejected the idea that he might cut Stephen some slack, that Stephen’s job possibly was something banal like insurance or tax legalities. Even as such, Stephen was living a fat life from the business of cutting down trees. His shirts were pressed: his hands manicured; he drove a Lexus. For Cory paying bills was a Sisyphean task; one out, another in.
Cory had just passed his thirtieth birthday when he heard, not from his parents but from his ex-wife, that Stephen was terminally ill with ALS. Cory felt so many things at once; a little panic, a hint of satisfaction tinged with regret and compassion. ALS, he imagined, was a terrible way to die.
Compassion was not a preferred feeling. Compassion implied empathizing, perhaps offering aid and comfort. That was not going to happen.
The prognosis, in terms of time left, was somewhat vague so the news of Stephen’s death coming so soon after the news of his illness knocked the wind out of Cory. After debating for several days, he called his parents back in Ohio. His mother on the phone sounded as though she had aged decades. Her voice cracked; she sobbed. His father didn’t sound much better. From him Cory got the impression that Stephen had killed himself rather than face a torturous decline.
“You’re the only one” now sounded painfully crass. It was never true. Stephen’s wife Anne had loved him and so had his parents. Cory hadn’t given his brother much of a chance. He decided he would go to Washington for the memorial service and he bought a new suit he couldn’t afford.
The new suit stayed in its plastic wrap. He heard from his parents that Anne had taken Stephen’s ashes up to Mt. St. Helens and scattered them in the woods in a private ceremony. The lack of a memorial bugged Cory. He wanted something to be final.
One day he found an official looking parcel in his mailbox with the return address of a law firm in Tacoma. Cory dreaded opening it, sure it was some bad news though he didn’t know what it could be, and it sat on the kitchen counter for two days before he slipped a butcher knife under its flap. Inside were papers for Cory to sign. He was the sole beneficiary of one of his brother’s mutual funds, to the sum of $74,672.14.
He was immensely grateful, even though he did not want to be.
That night for the first time he had a dream about his brother, not a long, involved dream; a dreamlet. He was sitting on a couch at a party and his brother unexpectedly came into the room and sat beside him. He was in anguish, suffocating, gasping for air. He grasped Cory’s shoulder, imploring him for help but there was nothing Cory could do.
The dream was so disturbing that it awoke Cory, and he shook his body to slough off any residue of the dream and the certitude that his brother would never leave him alone.