This story is more than ten years old, and although I have picked it up several times and tried to get it right, this is the first time I think I have done it justice. One day in the summer of 2007 I received a phone call from a crying woman. She lived in a nearby town and wanted to share her story with me. I remember sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, the only place you could smoke in our apartment, and writing down what she was saying frantically. The call was over an hour, most of the time spent with her trying to convince me she wasn’t crazy and that everything she said was true. The way she relayed the details and the emotion in her voice gave me no doubt she believed the events had happened.
I asked to call her back the next day and follow up on some of the details. She agreed but never picked up the phone again or returned my messages. It seems that like her brother who had died the year before, she needed to get it out and then move on.
Brother and sister relationships are never easy. They can be as varied and complex as the people who are involved in them. The seesaw exists between those moments you want to kill them and those moments you’ll defend them with your life. You compete for the attention of you parents and spend quiet moments whispering about how to get one over on them. Through it all, in most cases, is an undying love built on shared experiences, close proximity, and a whitewashing of battle scars smoothed over by adulthood and the medicine only time can provide.
There is no doubt that Emily loved her brother Greg even though age had done nothing to encourage him to become responsible or take anything seriously. She had spent most of her life coloring within the lines and making sure she arrived 15 minutes early for every appointment. He spent his time making sure he didn’t have appointments. “I was always jealous of him,” remembers Emily. “He just didn’t care. Everything came easy to him because he had no pressure to do anything right, or do anything the way people thought you should do it. He just blew in like a tornado, made everyone laugh and cheer, and then blew out. But never on time.”
She remembers one time as a teenager when her car broke down a mile off the highway. She called him from a pay phone and he said he was on his way. After an hour of waiting for him, she called again and woke him up. He had hung up the phone and fallen asleep. When he finally arrived over an hour later he had stopped off at a local donut shop to get her a dozen of her favorites before picking her up. They laughed and ate the whole way home, and she totally forgot he had arrived so late and had taken a nap before picking her up.
“Everyone loved him. They knew he couldn’t be relied on for anything or to not loan him money if you wanted it back, but his spirit infected everyone he met. You just couldn’t help smiling when he was around, and when he wasn’t you swore about him up and down.” By the time she had married and had her first child, Greg had found his calling as a mechanic but has done nothing to become more responsible outside of work. Her son, Jeff, was the pride and joy of Greg’s life. “You knew he would eventually get married, but it was not something he looked for. He was a bit too irresponsible to be a good dad. He was a great uncle.”
Near perfect, says Emily. He still would forget to show up to birthday parties or make plans to join them at the beach and then never make it. When the two boys were together, they were inseparable, but Greg was still too much of a free spirit to write down the appointments and Jeff was too young to have expectations of his uncle being there. As he grew up, however, the young boy began to ask where his favorite relative was when the family would get together.
That’s what made his seventh birthday party so special. They were having some of his friends and the whole family over for a big barbecue, and Jeff had asked for a confetti cake with chocolate frosting because he knew it was his uncle’s favorite.
“I begged my brother for two things; get to the party on time and make sure he had a present. I even offered to get one and put his name on it. He laughed. He said he already had one bought and wrapped, which I knew had to be a lie. It was a week before the party and my brother never got anything ahead of time. He’d just show up with something he picked up on the way, unwrapped with the price tag still on it. No matter what it was, it was Jeff’s favorite gift. I remember that used to piss me off. There was no thought behind it. He just knew the exact thing that would make him happy and always seemed to find it on the road between where he was and my house. Of course, part of it was that Uncle Greg had bought it.”
The Saturday before the party she called him at home to make sure he remembered the barbecue was the next day. She joked she would come and pick him up, and he could spend that night at her place so he wouldn’t be late. He said he had some things to do that night, but he promised he would be there.
When her phone rang a little after 1:00 am that night she had just gotten to sleep after cooking for the party the next day and finishing some last minute wrapping of her son’s gifts. It took her a while to fully understand what her mother was saying on the other end of line.
“He was always a crazy driver. We all thought he would die in an accident because he drove too fast and too crazy. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that though.” Coming home from a friend’s house after a night of poker, Greg was hit by a teenager who ran a red light and was killed on impact. He had not been drinking or driving recklessly, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The next day most of the family walked around like zombies, tired from staying up all night to handle the details of the accident and stricken with grief. They had thought to cancel the party, but rationalized that Greg would have wanted them to celebrate his favorite person in the world. “I felt like he was there with us. I knew it was in my head, but I felt he was with us. ” Jeff asked where his uncle was, and Emily told him he had been called into work and might be there later. He was visibly disturbed by it, but asked them to save him plenty of cake.
Emily’s idea that her brother was in the house might have been an abstract idea, something more like his spirit was in their hearts and minds, but when she tried to light the candles on the birthday cake, the idea became a little more concrete. When she lit one candle, it would go out like someone was blowing it out. When she almost got them all lit, something unseen blew them out again, except they went out one by one. “It was just the kind of crap he would pull. He was always doing those little brother annoying pranks to get under my skin. Never anything too bad, just little things that would make you laugh thinking about them after. But the candles blew out one at a time. There’s no way the wind or something else would put them out like that.”
She finally laughed and told her brother to stop it. She was then able to light them without any trouble. Like her son had asked, when everyone was gone and he was put to bed, she took one slice and left it out for her brother to let him know how much everyone was thinking about him. The next morning the cake was gone, and no one in the family every confessed to having eaten it or having thrown it away.
The next few days were full of plans, and Emily found some comfort in that. Instead of crying herself to sleep and grieving her brother, she threw herself into handling all of the details of his wake and funeral. She spent time carefully writing his obituary and making reservations at his favorite restaurant for a get together after the burial. She deflected Jeff’s questions about why she seemed so sad and where Uncle Greg was. She finally sat her son down Wednesday morning to explain to him as best she could that he would not be able to Uncle Greg anymore.
“How do you explain that to a seven year old. I tried my best, but I know I fumbled it. I was not in a place to tell him. I knew I had to, but I didn’t do it right.” Her son just stared at her and walked away. By the time she dropped him off for school he seemed to have come to terms with it and said he would miss his uncle as he kissed her goodbye and got out of the car.
That day was another storm filled with details and plans and running around town trying to make sure everything was just perfect for the wake and funeral. By that night she had run herself ragged, and when she got home late that night she found her husband had put Jeff to bed and fallen asleep himself. She slumped in the chair and opened a bottle of wine and allowed herself to really think about her brother and how he was now gone.
“I was having my own personal wake for him, remembering some of the dumb things he did over the years.” Between the wine and the running around over the last three days, she closed her eyes and started to fall asleep.
“I can tell you, as clearly as I am talking right now, that phone did not ring. I was right next to it, and it would have woken me up. That phone did not ring. ” Instead her sleep was broken by the beep of the answering machine. She had one new message.
“It was his voice. I could barely hear it, but it was his voice. He was laughing, that stupid laugh he used to do when he had done something wrong and I was called on it. I remember he called me ‘Em.’ He never called me that unless he was trying to keep me from getting mad at time.” Time has changed some of the details of that week for her. She doesn’t remember most of the things that were said to her by people consoling her or what kind of flowers were at the funeral. She does however, clearly remember what her brother said to her in that fifteen second phone message.
“Em, I told you. It’s in the closet near the front door. I told you.”
Emily still cries when she says the words, even all these years later. “He told me it was in closet. I had no idea what he meant, but I knew it was him.” When she went to listen to the it again, the machine said there were no messages. She rewound the tape and tried to play it again, but it was gone.
The next day was the day of the wake. She had taken the day off of work to settle some details but still dropped Jeff off at school. Her brothers words continued to play on her mind until she could not longer ignore them. She stopped by her brother’s apartment and used her key to get in. The place was a mess, just how she imagined her bachelor brother would have lived. She knew it would be her job in the coming days to go through his possessions and clean the place up, but today she was only concerned with the closet.
“When I opened up the door it was on top of a bunch of blankets. He had done the worst job of wrapping it, but there it was with a little name tag made from the leftover wrapping paper and a bag of Skittles taped to it.”
She sat down in the middle of the apartment and cried, talking to her brother and thanking him for the present. Thinking back on it years later she felt she was talking to the air. For the first time since the birthday party she didn’t feel the presence of her brother with her. “He had done the last thing he needed to do. Right there I felt he had moved on.”
Jeff didn’t fully understand what was happening at the wake. Instead of spending time in the room with the casket and the crying relatives, he mostly stayed in the room attached to it where people signed the book and went out to take a breather. The whole time he played with his new Matchbox stunt track and four shiny new cars, a present from his favorite uncle and munched on candy. When people would ask him what it was he would stop and hold up the cars, bragging that Uncle Greg had bought it and had worked on a car like the one he was holding up.
“It was the perfect gift. It was what the two of them shared. They loved to talk cars and play with those damn things. Whenever I stepped on one I knew it was a 50/50 chance Greg had left it there on the floor. He was like a kid sometimes, but that’s what you had to love about him.”