MY BROTHER DIED--- HAVING NEVER-REALLY LIVED.
From my book, THE BEAUTY QUEEN:
The degree of emotional damage my mother inflicted on my brother and me can’t be measured. When we were together, just the two of us, Jerry and I avoided talking about our mother. Yet, on two separate occasions, my brother indirectly referenced our secret.
The first phone call came after my divorce, after I moved from Pine Bluff to Little Rock. Quietly, as though he was afraid someone might hear, my brother called to say his psychiatrist had expressed an interest in talking with me. My brother asked if I would meet with his doctor for a one-hour appointment. Normally, I would have said “I’m not his patient so why does the doctor want to see me?” but, I didn’t ask that question, I knew the answer. My brother thanked me and said goodbye.
A few weeks later, I met with my brother’s psychiatrist and attempted to answer his many questions. Trying to describe the sexual abuse was extremely difficult; I had never shared our secret with another person. After 45 minutes the doctor thanked me, shook my hand, and escorted me from his office. I never spoke with my brother regarding the appointment and--- he never asked.
The second occasion was another phone call, almost twenty years later. One week before his death my brother, Jerry, fifty-eight years old, called from his hospital bed. We laughed and talked about many things, including our love for peanut butter candy, our favorite pets, even our first-shared automobile---a cherry-red Chevrolet Convertible.
My brother sounded youthfully happy as he reminisced about good times, particularly the fun we had studying ballroom dancing. Most of all, my brother wanted to talk about Dottie, the love of his life. His voice sounded shaky, a little teary, as he shared the sad memory of Dottie ending their high-school romance. Jerry seemed agitated when he talked about the elaborate cake our mother baked to celebrate Dottie’s breakup with my brother. I knew the story well, how Dottie began dating other guys, eventually married, and moved to another state. In an attempt to replace Dottie, my brother dated one girl after another and, all too soon, married and fathered a child.
Outwardly, Jerry appeared to have moved forward with his life but I knew otherwise. Eventually, through the small town rumor mill, I learned Dottie divorced and was suffering from a rare, incurable disease. I don’t recall the date Dottie’s obituary appeared in our hometown newspaper.
A hospital nurse interrupted our phone conversation, warning my brother he needed rest. I remember his last question: “Sally, do you think anyone guessed our secret?” Pausing to steady my voice, I answered “No, Jerry, I’m sure no one knew anything about our secret.” One week later, my 58 year old brother died.
Devastated, I returned to Pine Bluff for his funeral. An attendant greeted me at the funeral home door and ushered me to a back seat, far from the family section. I learned later that my mother and sister-in-law conspired to “put me in my place” on the chapel’s back row. At the end of the service I watched those in front of me (I was the only person on the back row) being directed to a reception room.
Alone, I walked to the front of the chapel to stand beside my brother’s casket. Several funeral attendants stepped forward to close the casket then recognizing me, moved away. I reached across the steel vault’s creamy satin lining to pat my brother’s cheek. I took my time, my fingers moving upward to smooth his graying hair, thinking “He is fifty eight years old but to me, he’s still just a boy.”
In death Jerry looked relaxed, at peace and, maybe, enjoying his final rest. Obviously facing time constraints, the attendants began working around me….politely saying "excuse us" as they moved flowers and tucked the satin drapes inside the casket, before closing the casket’s heavy lid. Reluctantly, I stepped aside as the funeral director grasped the casket’s metal handles to guide it through the doorway toward the black hearse.
Outside, I saw the parade of funeral cars lined-up behind the hearse, ready to participate in the cemetery procession. Standing there, watching the black hearse chauffeur my only sibling to a waiting grave, I remembered a tune from the fifties---my brother’s favorite. I pictured my brother as I remembered him best---dancing.
Like it was yesterday, I could see Jerry mastering the dance floor with the greatest of ease, his smooth style delivering every step in time to the rhythm. I closed my eyes and watched him lead his partner through difficult dance moves while the music played “Only you and you alone, can thrill me like you do and fill my heart with love for only you.”
Take care of him, Dottie. He never loved anyone else… only you.