4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I remember it like this. It was the summer of 1980. I was nine.
It was six months after the operation, and my father was so weak that my mother would drive him to work and sit outside the door of his office in case he needed her.
That left me to babysit my brother, Butchie. I would lay on the floor at his feet and watch television all day long. While the heat soared outside and the pool sat unused, I would sprawl on the floor under a blanket, with my feet over the air-conditioning vent on the floor, literally cooling my heels. And we would watch television: Brady Bunch, Woody Woodpecker, after-school specials about teens using heroin or wheelchair-ridden after a car accident.
I distinctly remember there was one docudrama about a young girl who lived out her young life in a crib on a ward, with only the view of one small window across this sea of crying, drooling, screaming bodies in cribs. There was a voice-over as she told her own story. By the end of the movie a nurse had realized that there was an intellectually developed person held prisoner in this body they stored in that crib. At the end of the movie, she sat with her thin hands curled under her chin, and she typed out her story with the help of an aide, free from the institution.
This was worth checking out.
And so I stood and leaned over my brother and held his face thisclose.
“Are you in there? Do you hear me? If you communicate with me, I’ll tell the others.”
He sat with his hands clasped tightly over his head. I think he rolled his eyes, dodged my gaze, probably pulled my hair. And except for the drone of the ever-present television, there was silence.
That summer eased into fall and then winter and then years rolled by. After I left for college, it was my father and my brother who I missed the most. Neither talked on the phone, one because he was too worn out, the other because he didn’t talk at all.
When I returned from college for my first Thanksgiving since moving away, I remember sitting next to my brother’s bed late into the night. I sat in front of the television, him in his adult-sized hospital crib just behind me, and I remember leaning the metal chair back until it braced against the bars of his crib, his face thisclose, peering over my shoulder at the television, Seinfeld or The Simpsons. I was enveloped in the slightly spoiled milk smell of his sheets, lulled by his ragged phlegmy breath, at home again. The cartoon wallpaper, the warmth of the room, the hum of the television, all seemed frozen in time.
It was in that moment that I realized that the only way to be with him was to be with him. And for the most part, I no longer belonged. I’d return for holidays and summers, but never again would I truly live in the house, exist without time or purpose, right there next to him. The throwaway moments that were the foundation of our experience of one another, these were gone.
When I went away, in his mind’s eye, where did I go? Had I simply left the room or did I cease to exist?
When my father died in 1997, I returned home for the funeral, along with my three other siblings. The week is a blur: smelling my father’s pillow, creating a photo album of his life, a visit from the pastor who didn’t seem to know him all that well. I think we brought my brother to the funeral home before the wake. I can picture him walking with his heavy steel braces up to the casket, him standing there with his hands clasped tightly behind his head, me telling my brother that my father had gone and that he wouldn’t be back for a very long time. I think Butchie went to sit in a pew to rock back and forth, hands clasped, yelling out once or twice, but mostly silent.
After that my mother sold the house, bought a small condo, found caregivers to help with the care of my brother. We’d all return home or gather for holidays, but not in the same way. For all of us, our gathering time became shorter, harder to manage.
In 2009 my mother called me home to say good-bye to my brother. Now a mother of three myself, pregnant again, newly moved to Massachusetts, I hopped in my car and drove. He was living in a nursing home in New Jersey; a stroke had left him unable to walk. He’d lost all his teeth. His hair was shaved short. They spruced him up with the cologne we sent him for Christmas, dressing him in the Old Navy, boys’ size 10 sweatsuits we’d buy.
I spent that day sitting with my mother, meeting the nurses, telling Butchie to take his medicine, watching them change his diaper. Before I left I held his face thisclose and I told him it was okay, that he’d done enough, that he could be finished.
Butchie died in 2012 at age 50. I hadn’t gone home since moving and hadn’t seen him since that last visit three years before. And part of me is ashamed. I was his champion, singular in that way we each see ourselves in relationships that exist outside the realm of the concrete world. I had left this person who had formed me for the four children and happy home I had formed six hours drive and a hundred years away.
My mother asked me to write his eulogy, and I did, telling tragic, funny, sad stories of how his strength had formed us each. Fifty years without a word, and the chapel at the nursing home was full. People sent notes from afar, doctors and nurses, teachers and caregivers. Fifty years of silence.
Maybe it’s okay that I didn’t go home to see him again. Butchie’s world was his own. When we weren’t there, right there, sitting through another episode of Jeopardy or Happy Days long into the night, until he snored and snuffed in his sleep breathing out the scent of milk, perhaps we really weren’t there at all. Or worse, maybe he understood our absence and resented our return because in the end, we could always leave again.
But I’d like to think that behind those blue eyes there was a sense of memory, living, breathing, milky, indelible memory, like the ones I carry with me now. Perhaps we never left him, even when we did, even my father. Because despite the fact that I saw him laid out in a coffin in New Jersey, I swear that Butchie is alive and vocal in my heart and mind. He is living and providing meaning in the world I’ve created for my students and children every day. In my mind’s eye, Butchie is sitting, curled up in his smelly chair, right next to my father on a gorgeous beach somewhere, and they are both at peace, both having said all they came to say.
(This post was written as part of a WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge called, The Sound of Silence. To read more about my brother read Lederhosen and I Love the Word Retarded, and It’s a Complicated Love)