I wrote my sister a letter to tell her about our very sick brother but she didn’t answer me or call him which was more deadly than the last time I wrote to her when she sent back my letter unopened crammed in an envelope with my name written in hard big letters, so angry-looking I felt small and childish like I’d interrupted something important, a discussion she might have been having with a friend on the lounge chairs on her back porch overlooking a valley resplendent with trees and a running creek where in a different time we might have ridden horses, their hooves clicking smartly on the wet rocks.
I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting.
I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.
No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.
I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.
I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.
All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.
I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”
In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.
Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.
I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.
I read the news of my nephew’s death on Facebook.
I knew it was coming but I didn’t in the way that anyone older finds it so hard to believe that a younger person would die first. We think dying will be linear and orderly with people lined up by age, everyone waiting their turn. Only they don’t. Some people take cuts in line. Others stand patiently for years, eyeing the progress of the line, being ignored by fate, watching others move on, having nothing but happenstance to blame for their long, long wait.
In the comments box, I wrote, “He was my sister’s beautiful boy.” Even though it was nearly a half century ago, I remember him sitting on my sister’s lap, a beautiful blond boy with brown eyes. He fidgeted and squirmed, always wanting something, to be somewhere else, to change what was happening. And she seemed that way, too, uncomfortable, stressed, like so many of us were when the reality of having babies sank in. How long will I be a hostage? we thought. It was a clammy, frightful feeling. Will I ever feel free again? Will I ever shed this skin, this second skin that is stuck to mine like plaster?
She wore her hair in a french twist. It was perfect and very Hollywood. She was thin and blond with hip bones that flared just below her waist. She was older than me by six years, sophisticated, enigmatic. She divulged nothing, sat curled up in an overstuffed chair after her beautiful boy went to bed, smoking long cigarettes and drinking beer. She and her husband had struck out for L.A. on their own a few years before. They’d sold their tiny house in Detroit and packed their silver Corvette with their clothes and favorite records. They moved into an apartment with a carport and she worked at the gas company while he sold cash registers to stores. They lived the California life and became orphans.
For a long time no one went to see them. It was too far. And then people went to see them but they stopped. It became too far again.
My nephew grew up. And I would see him every several years and it would always seem as if he thought I knew more than I did about his life, he wanted me to be wise when I wasn’t, to intervene in a lifetime tangle of his family’s knot, to free the hostage and supervise the new peace. But I never did what he wanted. Because I didn’t know how. His hostage was, after all, my big sister. She was impervious. Varnished many layers. Impenetrable. So I left it there. Left it. Dropped it. No. Set it gently on the grass. And then I disappeared.
When I saw the photo of my nephew’s son on Facebook, his young adolescent face in profile, I wanted to touch his cheek with my fingers. His was the face of my nephew and my sister and of a hundred relatives in scrapbooks and picnics. But I’d never seen him in person nor his brother nor his sister. And now their father was dead. If there had been a rope connecting me to this boy and his brother and sister, it had fallen in a pile the day he died.
Oh. I think. This is the collateral damage of family discord, these children lost to me is the price I should pay. And then I think. No. I should go there and pick up the rope. I can be the kind of person who picks up the rope.
That is the person I want to be now.
A tiny thing can last for years.
The memory of it can be as fresh as the first second, the leaves on the bush as green, the soil underneath as loamy and dark and the tiny elves’ footprints as distinct.
My brother would motion for me to come look under the bush. “Come over here, Red. Look at what I found.” Then he’d move the branches and the leaves so I could see clearly the tiny footprints left by the elves from their party the night before. He’d explain how the elves gather at night to sing and dance but scatter in the morning so as to avoid discovery.
I believed him. I was eight. Maybe I should have known better but I thought it was possible there were such beings as elves and having my seventeen year old brother tell me so made it definite. He said there were elves under the bush in our yard. And so there were.
Hunting for elves stopped when my brother went to college. I’d look myself but there were never any footprints and, after a while, I decided it had been a fiction. I gave up looking and took up sitting in the branches of a tree next to our house and then, later, hiking off to the woods where there was a small, damp cave. There were no elves in either place but they were special for their loneliness and felt like home. Home was hollow without my brother.
My brother and I grew up and away, from home and each other. Our differences more powerful than memories of elves under bushes. He disapproved of everything, so I thought. I opposed everything he supported. He seemed angry a lot of the time, not at me, just everything. Geography made it easy to back far away and so I did.
Then one year, after many years of very little contact, he gave me a sterling silver bracelet with a single elf charm. The elf was sitting with his arms around his knees and looked like all the elves I’d imagined under the bush. The bracelet was a sign of gentleness and love for me that I hadn’t felt in twenty years. Had he thought of this himself, I wondered, or had he told his wife the story of the elf parties and she bought it. I never knew. I decided to believe he’d sent it on his own.
I stowed the bracelet in the drawer of a jewelry box on the dresser of an old house we owned on the shore of Lake Superior. It was a fairy place to me, magical, and so I decided the bracelet should live there.
And then the house burned down. It was January, powerfully cold with a great wind blowing off the big lake that turned our fairy place into a giant ball of fire that lit the night for miles around.
After the fire, I walked through the ashes, finding pieces of carpet, the lace edges of pillowcases. I found a metal ladle and tiles from the bathroom. There were nails and shattered glass everywhere. But there was no elf. There would be no elf for me. The elf was gone. Everything was gone. A crowd of things was gone. The elf was lost in the crowd.
After our house was rebuilt, my brother and his wife came to visit. We hadn’t seen each other in a dozen or more years so having him there on our porch, on our beach seemed dreamlike, almost like we had become the elves.
I told him that the bracelet had been lost in the fire and he seemed, for a moment, not to remember having sent it. But then it came back to him and we joked about the elves under the bush. I remember him standing on the beach, him in his plaid shirt and Texas jeans, holding a beer, me standing in Lake Superior. We talked about the bracelet and the joke of the elves. But I didn’t tell him what I was really thinking.
What I was really thinking was that my brother had saved me with his stories about the elves, the wee footprints he would make with his fingers, his feigned surprise at the discovery of the elves’ having been there, right in our yard, while we were sleeping. He had saved me from being lonely and invisible, last on everyone’s list. He had created a tiny time of enchantment. He had made me feel special, blessed by elves’ visits. He had given me a gift that has lasted nearly sixty years.
He’d given me the elves.
Image: Poor little birdie teased by Richard Doyle
It’s hard to believe looking back like I did today, sorting through hundreds of photos, some so old that they were printed in squares like they were taken with a Brownie camera, so hard to believe that I never took her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye and told her, “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
She was a teenager when we adopted two toddler boys. The first was a thin delicate boy, gentle and undemanding, but he needed so much to make up for what he’d lost. He was hungry in all ways but hid it so well; he was patient, unassuming, expecting little from us. He never cried. We marveled at that until we figured out what it meant. Still, we rocked him for hours just out of joy for him coming to us.
The second boy came to us after having laid in his crib day after day looking at the ceiling of the orphanage cabin where he’d lived his whole life next to several adjoining cribs, some of those babies lying on their backs, too, others standing at their crib railing, railing against the boredom, the heat, the people busy with other children and other things. He was silent. Because of his brother, we expected that. But it didn’t last.
He was sick. He threw tantrums. He needed breathing treatments. He took steroids. He was sweaty, sticky all of the time. Holding him was holding a wet, squirming box of heat. Nothing made him happy.
On our first trip to Florida together, he fell and hit his head on a stone bench. This meant that he had stitches on the back of his head in addition to the every four hours breathing treatments, the little machine with the mask and the tubes and the plumes of medicinal air floating up around his ears. Meanwhile there was the other quiet, patient boy needing everything he couldn’t ask for.
It was hell to admit that we were in over our heads. A teenager, then one little boy and then another. But we were. Or we would have been if the teenager hadn’t been the person she was. Able, strong. Not uncomplaining, thank God, because then the story wouldn’t be worth telling. She didn’t complain so much as give us looks that we correctly interpreted as her saying, ‘what did you think this was going to be like?’
She was nobody’s fool.
So now, oh, twenty-five years after the fact, I am saying thank you. I am saying to my daughter what I am maybe just now realizing. I could not have done it without you. We, the two of us, the parents, could not have done it without you. And we might be late, we might have waited a very long time to say this. But we say it anyway.
I’d never seen one before but I knew what it was right away. The contraption laying at my feet underneath my dad’s old Sears picnic table was an animal trap. It sat in a heap, the chain and the two toothsome jaws, rusty with dead leaves and dried grass blown from the old power mower he used on his little backyard.
“John,” I said to my brother who was sitting on the other side of the picnic table, “what was Dad doing with an animal trap?” I pointed under the table.
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably trapping some animals.” He didn’t seem to think it was the least bit incongruous for my piano-playing, dime store-owning, bird-loving, rose-raising father to have an animal trap sitting out in his backyard.
Inexplicably, especially looking back, I let the matter drop. My brother, nine years older than me and often more like a parent than a sibling, had moved on to other subjects having to do with parceling out my dad’s belongings and getting his house sold. My dad had died a week before in his favorite chair watching CNN. That morning, he’d played a round of golf. He didn’t suffer. He just died, apparently without straightening up or at least putting the animal traps away.
A few things drove my father crazy. One was the constant thrumming he heard coming from the community center about a quarter mile away. He griped about this sound on every visit. “Don’t you hear it, Janice?” No one heard it but him. Not me, not his neighbors, just him. He was undeterred. The noise was there, he was a taxpayer, they needed to get rid of it. Goddamnit.
The other constantly irksome thing was the neighbor’s cats. “The damn cats are killing my birds,” he told me, pointing out that his bird feeders were full of finches and cardinals. “I’ve asked the guy next door to keep his cats inside but they keep turning up in the yard.” I shrugged it off. More old man complaints.
Just to make conversation, I’d always ask him about the neighbor’s cats when I came to visit. A few months before I’d asked him for an update and he told me that ‘he had taken care of’ the cat problem.
“Oh really? How?
“I put them in a pillowcase and drove them out to the country and let them go.”
“What? You can’t take somebody’s cats, Dad. You really did that?”
“I warned him. If he didn’t keep those cats inside, I was going to have to do something. So I did. I took them out in the country. We’re fine now unless he gets more cats.”
I’m not sure. I have no way of knowing since the person who could explain is now deceased. But I think it’s a safe bet.
The neighbor got more cats.
They’re not crazy about each other at the moment. They’re kind of going their separate ways. But I can predict, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow morning, that when push comes to shove, one of my adopted Nicas will throw down for the other. No questions. No analysis. They are each other’s – ‘just call and I’ll be there.’
And thank God.
Thank God we were smart enough to know that the greatest protection we could give our kids was their own little coalition. Each one has two other people who are in the same boat – adopted, from Nicaragua, raised as Jews in Milwaukee by a gentile mom and a Jewish dad. The smallest minority on earth, maybe, but not one of them is alone. Ever.
This is a picture of the three of them taken about 6 months after Jhosy, our daughter, arrived. You can already see her position in the hierarchy. And you can see in their little happy faces — they had it going. Our kids — they ended up in our laps for who knows what reason — they figured it out. They are connected.