A year ago I was in Texas visiting my older brother whose lung problems had squeezed the muscle right out of him so he was skin stretched tight over bone. He was very weak. A lot of the time, his hands were just folded on his chest and he couldn’t go anywhere without help. So he was in a hospital bed in his living room and sometimes on the commode, but nowhere else. He stayed where he was put. But he was alert and knowing, cantankerous is the word that our family would have used to describe him. He’s a pisser, I thought to myself. He is such a pisser. That is my word, not my family’s. He was a tough guy, opinionated, always fixing for an argument, that’s when we were older. When we were kids, he watched out for me, put me on the handlebars of his bike and rode down the street like Superman.
I remember being in his kitchen last year and looking out into the living room where his bed was and where he was sitting upright, his legs hanging off the side preparatory to some action – getting dressed, going to the bathroom, having a bath, I don’t remember. His shirt was off, his back exposed, and I could see his ribs, count them, even as far away as I was, each one a thick branch of an old, old tree. I wanted to put my hands on his back, feel the ridges of his ribs, tell him that I remember when his back was muscled and tan, when everything about him seemed perfect and orderly.
When I was a child, there was no one better in the world than my brother.
With his daughter, I made an early Thanksgiving dinner for him. There was turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other things, I don’t remember them all, and apple pie and fresh whipped cream. His son wheeled him to the table and he ate. We all ate as if we were living in a different time, pretending that there wasn’t a hospital bed just yards away but reminded by the hose connecting him to the oxygen tank behind his chair. He liked the dinner, especially the pie, and that made me glad that I’d done all the things that our mother would have done, glad that I stood for an hour rinsing the frozen turkey under the faucet so it would thaw.
When I left the next day to come home, I put my head down close to his while he was laying still in his bed watching TV. He told me he loved me. He said those exact words. He had never said such a thing to me, no one in our family had ever said such a thing. That’s how we were. I knew there would never be anything between us that was better or more true than what he had said and so I told him I loved him, too, and then I said goodbye.
Originally published November 17, 2020