According to my mom, I asked for a little brother several times.
I don’t remember this.
In 1971, during the month of January, my parents presented me with a little brother.
I don’t remember this.
I’m told I was rather disappointed with this gift. “He doesn’t do very much, does he?” was, apparently, something I said on more than one occasion.
I don’t remember this.
I don’t remember many things about the first few years of his life here. I was only five-years-old when he came to live with us. I remember many things about my little brother, David, but, those early years are lost to time.
Let me tell you what I do remember.
I remember that he was adopted.
So was I. (My birth parents’ names are sealed in records in some South Carolina courthouse.)
David’s birth mother was my father’s niece. She was young, single, and, in 1971, single-parenting wasn’t as common as it is today. She saw that I was loved, and asked my parents to give her child the same love and good home they’d given me.
I remember that David had the biggest, roundest eyes I’d ever seen. I was five years old when David was born, so I suppose my exposure to people with big, round eyes was rather limited. But, they were big enough to have made an indelible impression on my memory.
I remember that he was full of energy, and curious about everything. He was slow to learn to talk, so he’d just point. That he started talking later than many babies was more than made up for once he decided that he had things to say. David, as a child, could talk endlessly.
I remember that he hated being hugged, cuddled and snuggled. The minute anyone would pick him up and try to pull him close, his entire body would stiffen, his limbs would lock, and he’d push away.
I remember that he could throw spectacular fits. They would begin with his face wrinkling up, his eyes squeezing shut, and loud cries would emanate from some dark, scary place inside him. These cries would then turn into shouts of “No!” or “I want it!” or some such protest or demand. Then the jumping would start. Some kids throw themselves across the bed, or onto the floor, and kick and scream, pounding the floor or bed with their legs and arms. Not David. My brother was a jumper. Up and down in one spot to begin. As the cries got louder, the jumping would carry him around the room. If he was near the hallway, he’d jump his way up and down the hallway, back and forth, jumping, until the fit left him.
I remember that when he’d throw those loud, bouncing fits, not a single tear was shed.
I remember one time, when he was about 5, and I was about 10, I burned him with the car’s cigarette lighter. We had gone to the cabin, and, as we were driving down the dirt road, almost at our destination, my mom stopped to speak to one of the neighbors. David and I waited in the car. I had recently become fascinated with the car lighter after having seen a friend of my mom’s light her cigarette with it. It fascinated me how the coils inside glowed red, and how that hot red caused a cigarette to burn but not catch fire. Since we were alone in the car, it seemed a perfect time for me to check out the cigarette lighter. I’d push it in, and when it popped out, I’d pull it out and watch the coils burn red and then slowly fade. I did this several times in succession, and, at one point, I decided, for whatever reason, I needed to press a scrap of paper to the coils. It rather surprised me when, unlike the cigarette, the paper caught fire. I quickly blew out the flame, opened the window, and tossed out the scorched paper. David then uttered those ubiquitous words that have inspired sibling fights since the beginning of time: “I’m telling mom!” I don’t remember what I said to him, probably some Big Brother to Little Brother threat. I glanced at the lighter in my hand, the coils were no longer red, and, I pressed the end against the bare part of his leg just below where his shorts ended. He screamed. I pulled away the lighter and saw a round red mark on his leg. The coils may have been out, but since I’d heated the lighter several times in a row, the outside of the lighter was still hot, a fact I don’t think occurred to me until after I saw the red mark. I jumped out of the door, and ran to the back of the station-wagon, opened the tailgate, and rummaged through the cooler, until I found a frozen pound of hamburger. I carried it back to the front, pressed the ice-cold package against his leg, and soothed him as best I could, apologizing profusely, and begging him not to tell mom. He never told. I never played with the cigarette lighter again.
I remember that David could get furious quickly. He didn’t shout. I was the one who shouted in anger. David was a thrower. He’d throw his toys. Not the soft, plush ones. No. He’d throw the ones that would hurt. Blocks. Matchbox cars. Tonka trucks. Anything big and heavy. Once he chased me around with his popcorn popper push toy, one of the old, 1970s versions, made of wood and heavy plastic; I avoided being hit by making it to my room and getting the door shut before he struck. He beat the closed door of my bedroom with the push toy. Mom was not happy when she saw the damage to the door and had to have it replaced. When no toys were handy, he’d hit people. In second grade, he punched his pregnant teacher in the stomach because she wouldn’t give him something.
I remember that he would eat, and eat, and eat, and he was always skinny, no matter how much he ate. He’d eat everything on his plate, eat seconds and thirds, and still steal food from the kitchen to eat in his bedroom. He was given several tests by various doctors to find out if he had a nutrition deficiency or another medical reason for consuming so much food. They found nothing to explain it. My mom took him to a child psychologist who recommended that when stolen food was found in his room, he was to be made to consume it all, right then. The idea, as I understood it then, was that he’d eat so much at once he’d be sick, and, that if he were sick enough times, he’d not steal food anymore. I suspect that today they would consider this idea abusive, but, in the 1970s, it was what they told my parents, and they followed the doctor’s plan. I think David was the only one who wasn’t changed by this experience. I know it freaked me out, especially after watching a few episodes of David eating things, like an entire big jar of grape jelly. He wasn’t sick. He even ate all his food at dinner about an hour later. Another time, I watched David eat three jars of ice cream syrup (chocolate, strawberry and caramel) without being sick. After a few of these marathon eating sessions, where he’d consume vast amounts of food without getting sick, mom and dad stopped. It seemed pointless. David went back to sneaking food.
I remember that he began stealing when he was in second grade. He would take my toys, and he’d steal the food, but, until second grade, it was limited to theft around the house. In second grade he stole food from other kid’s lunch boxes. He’d steal money from the teacher’s desk and purse. When he was 8, they sent him to the school for the hard-to-handle kids. I can’t remember what the politically correct phrase of the day was, but, basically, it was the school where they sent kids who were troublemakers, because having a school full of troublemakers seems like a perfectly natural way of … what? Helping them? On his way to and from this new school he’d walk by a grocery store and a drugstore. He was caught stealing from them on more than one occasion. After the manager at the grocery store told David that next time he was even seen in the store, he’d call the police, David moved on to the convenience store that was not quite on the way home. He was caught there too. He never stole magazines, or toys. It was always food.
I remember the day that everything changed. It was a few months after dad died. David was 9. In retrospect, I’m sure there was an element of a young boy acting out because he didn’t know how to grieve. Retrospect is like that. It gives you perspective; it gives you possible answers, but it doesn’t take the sting out of the memories. This particular day, David was late coming home from school. About half-an-hour after the time he should have been home, Mom and I got in the car and went looking for him. He was nowhere along the route he walked home from school. We stopped at the grocery store, the drugstore, the convenience store. He wasn’t there, and no one had seen him. Mom brought me back home, in case the phone rang, or in case David came home, and she went back out, driving around.
A few minutes after I walked into the house, the phone rang. It was the police. They had David. He’d been stealing.
When mom got back home, we went to pick David up at the police station. He had been caught at the convenience store, and, this time, they called the police. There had been a shift change right after the police took David to the station which was why none of the convenience store employees had seen David when I asked. The reason it had taken the police so long to contact us is that David had made up a story: that his father had died (true!), and that his mother was in California with relatives (we had no relatives in California), that his fourteen-year-old brother was taking care of him while mom was in California, but, I had a job and worked until late at night and he had to wait in the backyard until I got home around midnight. He gave them a phony phone number. When they finally told him he would have to go to a foster home until they could contact his mother, he finally broke down and gave them the correct contact number. By the time we got home, I knew something had changed.
I remember in those months after my father died, my mother was locked deep in an anxiety attack, and wrapped in grief for the loss of the man she’d been married to for thirty-two years. It would be six months before she’d return to work, and more than a year before the anxiety broke and left her able to function again. During those desolate months after dad died, my mom was not capable of much — she paid the bills, and went grocery shopping. That was about it. I made sure there was food on the table, and that David made it to school every day. When David was arrested that day, something in my mother broke. She realized that she could not care for David any longer, that she had neither the energy nor the will. She decided to do what seemed right for David — since he needed extra care; she thought if David went to live with his birth mother, it would be a better place. He’d have a mother who was younger (mom was 56, his birth mother was a good twenty-five years younger), and he’d have a father figure and several siblings if he went to live with his birth mom. His birth mother was happy her son was coming home.
I remember the day he left. I can still see his little 9-year-old face as he set off on his new adventure. In the fashion of many kids about to take a trip on their own, David was very excited, so excited, in fact, that the last thing he said to mom, before he got on the plane, was, “I’m so excited to be going home!” I don’t think he meant anything by it, but mom, still locked in the anxiety, and dealing now with the loss of a son, took these words as a rejection of anything she’d ever done.
I saw him once during the next six years. About a after he was sent away, mom and I had driven to Iowa to visit one of my dad’s brothers. On the way home from Iowa, we stopped in the small Nebraska town where David and his family were living.
When he was 16 or 17, he came to live with mom while he finished high school. He’d been having problems at home, and he wanted to come back to us for a while. He was older and taller. And, he was still David. He ate. He stole. I wasn’t living with mom then. I was living with someone. David was involved with things at school, I was involved in my own life, so I didn’t see him often. He left here a year later.
He enlisted in the Navy. We hoped that the military training and codes of conduct would help him find his way.
He was dishonorably discharged.
Over the course of the next six or eight years, I’d get a call from him out of the blue. He’d call me to tell me what was going on in his life. By the end of the call he’d be asking me to borrow money: for rent, for car repairs, for food. I always sent what I could. He was my brother after all. Truth be told, I also felt guilty. I felt I should have been able to do more to help him, to protect him from mom, to do … ?
He called me one evening and told me he too was gay. That he was living with an older man. That he too had contracted HIV. I remember the horrifying sense of anguish I felt when he told me he was HIV+. I remember the burning sense of anger I had at myself for not setting a better example, for not teaching him to protect himself. I felt as if it were my fault he’d contracted that awful virus. I remember the sense of loss I felt at that moment, the loss of his presence, and the loss of his life — this was sometime around 1990, and, back then, HIV was a death sentence. Everyone was dying from it. There were no treatments, no long-term survivors. You got HIV; you got sick; you died. I mourned for him.
I remember the next time I talked to him. It was about a year later. He called to tell me he was sorry that he upset me, but, he wasn’t gay, and he didn’t really have HIV. He said he only told me because he wanted to feel loved and cared for. I was angry, but I was joyous that he didn’t have this hateful disease. I was furious at him, and, I hated myself, I hated my mother; I hated his birth family. I hated that here was this young man who would make up this story in order to feel loved when he should have had a family who showed him how much they loved him. With time, I learned that David was loved, that his family loved him. I learned, like so many other times, David said what was most convenient to say. I learned that David wanted to be loved, but didn’t recognize love when it was given to him.
When he told me he’d made up the HIV story, I was relieved he would not die from HIV, and angry that he’d told such an incredible lie. There were so many things I wanted to scream at him yet I could not think of anything to say. My thoughts were mean and angry, things I knew I would regret saying. What I said was “I’m so angry and hurt right now I don’t know what to say. I think I don’t want to talk to you right now. Maybe later. But not now.” I hung up the phone.
Those were the last words I ever said to him.
I remember that over the next twenty years, the news of David came in bursts. He was married. He fathered a son. He left his wife and son. He was living here. He was living there. He was with this woman. He was with that woman. He stole from this person. He stole from that person. He was on the run, one step ahead of the police.
Then there was silence.
No one knew where he was, or how he was.
I remember the call that came ten years ago, at the end of January. It was David’s new wife (that piece of news hadn’t reached us). She was in tears. She was calling to say David was dead. He’d been ill for a time, though no one was sure what was wrong with him. She said he died in his sleep. He was curled up next to her. Of all the feelings I felt when I heard the voice of this stranger on the phone, telling me she was his wife, and that he was dead, of all the thoughts and emotions I had in those moments, I remember that the strongest feeling was being thankful that this man who was my brother had died curled up next to someone who had loved him. Perhaps, at the end, he recognized love.
It was only last year I learned the details of David’s life with this wife. By the time David died there was little left of their relationship. He’d conned people, conned her. He’d stolen. He’d cheated. He’d hit her. The love she had for him was the love for what had been, not the love for what currently was.
When David died, he left a trail of hurt and betrayal behind him. My romantic notion that David had died surrounded by love was just a notion. He died next to someone who had loved him until the hurt he caused her nearly broke her. I had to change my romantic notion to “at least he didn’t die alone.” I’d often feared that we’d hear news that his murdered body was found in some dark alley. Instead, he died in bed, un-alone. There’s some comfort in that.
January is a mournful time for me: David was born in the first half of January and died in the last half of January. This year, January was more mournful than usual. As I sat down to write about David, I realized that most memories I have of him are the ones with the most drama involved. David loved the theater, movies, singing and acting, so I suspect it might amuse him that it’s the drama I remember most.
It’s not all drama, my memories of David.
Some memories are vague, nothing more than fleeting moments of memory. They’re all of laughter. I’ve got several distinct memories of David laughing — in some he’s just a small kid, barely able to stand and walk, and in others he’s older, and while I can’t make out the words, I can see how animated his face is as he’s telling me something, for he had a very expressive face, and the memory ends with his laughing, sometimes briefly, other times rather heartily. And, I can hear the sound of the laugh. I can hear the three-year-old David laughing, and I can hear the 18-year-old David laughing. Both sounds bring a smile to my soul.
There are other memories that are more specific. I can remember playing Blind Man’s Bluff in the front yard with David and a few kids from the neighborhood. This memory starts with it being David’s turn as the one with the blindfold, and words from me to remember to not run while blindfolded. Our front yard has a chain-link fence all around it, and, when one can’t see, one shouldn’t run, as one could run into the fence. I can see the game unfolding: us talking to blindfolded David, trying to “find” us by the sounds of our voices. I can see with absolute clarity this moment: the instant when David got excited and thought he knew where someone was and knew he could touch them and make them “It.” Even through the blindfold, I could see his eyes light up with awareness, and, in his excitement, he forgot the rule to not run. He ran. Into the chain-link fence. His face struck the crossbar and his body struck the springy chain link. The springiness threw him back about five feet, landing him face-up in the grass. He took a minute, but, I knew he was ok once he laughed.
Another memory: David walking towards the pole of the clothesline in the backyard. He’s talking, and talking, and talking, and walking right at the pole, looking right at the pole, and walking right into the pole. The impact caught him by surprise, pushed him back a foot or two, caused him to stop talking for an instant while he assessed what had just happened, and then resumed his talking moments later as if there had been no interruption.
The clearest moments I remember are David singing. My father, a man with a good voice who sang in a Barber Shop Quartet, claimed David had perfect pitch. I know little about perfect pitch, but I know that, when he was young, at least, he had a beautiful singing voice. Me, I love to sing, though I’m willing to admit that I’m of average voice. That doesn’t stop me though. And, I loved singing with David. We used to challenge each other to hold a note. We’d hear a long note in a song, and we’d see if we could hold it as long as the singer of the song. We each had a pretend microphone, and, we’d play the record loud and sing-a-long (having parents who worked two jobs left us plenty of time alone to play loud music and sing!) I have this clear memory of standing in the living room, the sun streaming in the window, David and I holding our pretend microphones, seeing who could hold the long note in Donna Summer’s “Dim All The Lights”, and that long end note in Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love.” I think we spent the better part of an afternoon singing our hearts out.
The thing about memory, about its selectiveness. Not only do we pick and choose the memories we want to keep, but, sometimes, the memories we end up keeping are selected for us, because of all the drama associated with the moment. I have many memories of David being in trouble for something or another, but I can find no memories of David doing things that caused no trouble. I have memories of my parents scolding David for something, and I have all kinds of memories of David saying “I don’t know” when asked why he would do such a thing. But, I have no memory of any conversation with him. I know we talked, or at least I think I know that we talked. I seem to have these vaporish images of him and I walking and talking, or sitting and talking, but, unlike the fog on the ocean which can amplify sound, the words that pass between him and I are in the mist. The memories I have of David seem to have been chosen for me because of all the drama associated with them. With so much drama around, the normal, every day, mundane things never made a strong enough impression on my brain.
It’s been ten years since he died, and my heart still aches. It’s been aching for him since I was 14. In February I’d lost my father, and, one autumn day, when David got on a plane, I lost my brother.
And, then I lost him again after he came to live with us to finish high school then moved away.
And I lost him to life: I was in my early 20s and had moved in with someone. I had discovered my HIV-status while David was here finishing high school. He’d been in the room when I told my mom. In 1989, no one really knew much about HIV, about how you could and couldn’t get it. There was still lots of fear it could be contracted through casual contact. David was there the day I told mom my status, and he was there to hear her say “Even if it means I’d contract it myself, I want you to know that I will take care of you if you get sick. You won’t ever be alone.” He saw that love, and, I can understand why a few years later, he told me he had HIV. My life at that time was spent in a relationship, it was spent working full time, and I’d gone back to school full-time. I thought if I were going to die young, I should go to college (I’d not gone right out of high school), so I could get a good job, so I’d have money to do all those things I wanted to do before I died. In all that life, in all those moments I was trying to live, I lost my brother. I was too wrapped up in my own world to think about what was going on in his. And, yes, when he told me he didn’t have HIV, well, as much as I understood, I was angry. It was just another David moment, I thought.
And, I let him go.
I didn’t think about him for a while. When I finally grew up enough, and wanted to seek him out, he had lost himself, hiding away from all of his family. No one knew where he was.
And, then, he was dead. The ultimate loss.
When those we love die, and we’re left behind, we spend a great deal of time thinking about the things we wish we had said or done, and we spend even more time feeling guilty about things we did or didn’t do. I’m no exception. I feel guilty that for all those years, from the time 9-year-old David left, until the time he died and that I made no memories with him in all those years. And, I feel guilty that what memories I have of him are only a small part of who he was — I know nothing about him other than the drama he created, the drama that swirled around him.
I remember this: he is my brother, and I love him.
David: after all these years, I can still hear your voice holding the long note at the end:
thank you for sharing – I feel I have now met David, somewhat, as well; I love what your Mum said when you told her about HIV: I understand where she was after your father died and having to give David up, but her response to you, and having taken David on in the first place, shows that she had wide-open love, she accepted all; and I know this isn’t the whole picture of her, but that was an element of her, wide-open love
I know you write for you but it always ends up helping me too. When the dark times come for me your writing reminds me to find a good. Today it was sitting in the living room of one of the many places we lived. Our cable had been shut off so we had been to the library. I was knitting away and he was reading out loud to me. It was a book of Stephen King’s short stories. It was a good night……it is a good memory!
Thank you for sharing that memory with me. You’re right about needing to find the good memories of David. Sometimes they are tough to find. I suspect that’s why the good memories are startling (and healing) when we stumble on them. Thank you for reading. And thank you for sharing all the stories with me.