May 25, 2015
Jenny’s mind was quick, her wit too. She talked circles around other people who were slower to understand. She moved fast but she came up against her brother’s illness and was speechless. Rap songs, her X-Files, her Anne Rice vampire books, none of them gave her solace. She moved even quicker, moving faster than her emotions which hadn’t caught up with her. I realized I had taught her well.
Every day she left the sanctuary of her ground-floor studio apartment on the Upper East Side and walked into the pulsing life of Manhattan. She looked like any other pretty woman heading off to work except she had a secret inner world. Her life used to be about her boyfriend or where she and her friends would meet on Friday night. This night she would go to the hospital to see her brother. He was twenty blocks south of her, not free to come and go anymore.
What did she think as she caught the subway? How did she cope with the enormity of her dread? Because she could no longer pretend he would be okay, and the treats she gave herself in the past to get her through hard times couldn’t even begin to touch the empty hole inside her. At times, I have been her, have been in the trap of watching life move forward, move uncontrollably towards an outcome I have pushed away, knowing I must surrender to it but not sure how.
As the stations flashed by the subway windows, the people a blur, she was hurled forward. She braced her feet as the train screeched to a halt at her stop.
I imagined her thinking back to when she believed her brother would get better. Of course he would. Life would go on. He would leave home like she had; go to college. On summer break, he’d drive down to her apartment and they’d go out and have a few drinks at the corner hangout. They’d talk about music and what classes he was taking. Her boyfriend would meet them and they’d go out for pizza. Life would go on. Today and yesterday would fade into a memory that they’d refer to as ‘that time’ or ‘before I got better.’
She shook her head as if to shake free the thoughts because they weren’t real. They were the dream she had created to push away for a few moments the hard truth that her brother wasn’t coming into the future with her. Forever, there would be a hole where he should have stood next to her. His absence would take the place of him. Her memories were what she would have left.
I thought of how he used to run screaming after me when I walked down the hill towards the bus that would take me to work in Manhattan, into the next state from New Jersey. And how every day she had to take him by the arm and walk him to kindergarten, telling him Mommy would come back.
She was what he had when I left but who would she have when he was gone? Who would take her hand when she cried? Who would guide her away, back to life?
Today even the sidewalk seemed to pitch and roll, unsteady under her feet. She stared bewildered at the insistent life of the city, its clear movement; everyone looking like they had purpose and a destination. No one strolled. She faltered for a moment, forgetting what street she was on until she saw the coffee shop at the end of the block and realized she was on 20th Street, two blocks from work.
This morning she was tired. She hadn’t slept well. The streetlight outside her French doors shone in and she couldn’t escape from the footsteps of people talking and walking by. Or worse, from her own mind, which continued to create scenes, one worse than the other, of what was going on in her brother’s head, right inside, so he couldn’t run away.
She had bolted upright, flipped on the light and reached for a cigarette. She sucked the smoke deep into her lungs and she began to calm down as she watched the smoke rise into the darkness overhead.
She remembered the fight she’d had with her brother over smoking when he was already sick. “What are you smoking for?” he demanded. “Why are you doing something to harm your own body?” He paced in front of his room, agitated. He slammed his fist into his closed door and it resounded throughout the house. He was almost in tears. “I’d give anything to be well and you’re playing with your life!”
Now she watched the orange fire in the tip of the cigarette burn. She lived on cigarettes and coffee, not much else. She couldn’t eat.
She visited him in the hospital, bringing her stories to give him hope, to entertain him. But her bravado was fading. She was exhausted.
Every night she tried to sleep, paced her wooden floor, lit cigarette after cigarette, in her own way keeping vigil with no energy to plan or dream, nothing but the rawness of her heart as she faced what life had become.
At the end where all the words fail, we will not be going through the same door but will you wait for me while I live my life? Will you stand in the doorway and wave to me? Will you turn and walk away, abandoning me here alone, my sweet, griping, pain-in-the-ass brother? Will I have to go on remembering for the two of us, living for the two of us?