Today would have been my brother David’s 48th birthday.
He died 7 years ago in a motorcycle accident, ironically coming home to Ohio from a buddy’s son’s funeral in Pennsylvania. There’d been a lot of deaths in his gang recently, and the last thing he’d said to his friends was, “I hope the next funeral we go to will be mine.” Like a true biker (he parked his Harley in the spare bedroom sometimes), he went down protecting his passenger. She survived; he never came out of a coma.
I remember the day my dad called me to tell me about the accident. I was in a traveling job, working in San Diego. My parents had reached that age where their friends and relatives were started to pass away, and it seemed like every time Dad called me, there was some news of a death. My dad called in the middle of the day, while I was at work. I’d been thinking about saying it as a joke the next time he called, so I did: “Who died?” I asked, innocently.
Silence. “Your brother was in an accident. He’s in a coma.”
I choked. I tried to say something, but the words wouldn’t come. I stumbled to an empty stairwell, cell phone plastered to my ear, so that my co-workers wouldn’t see me cry.
I wasn’t expecting this response at all. My brother and I were not close. Most people that knew both of us assumed one of us was adopted, despite the strong resemblance between us. Growing up, David threw me down stairs head-first, tried to drown me in the pool, beat me, stole from me. He outweighed me by about 100 pounds, and I lived in fear of him throughout my adolescence. After I moved away, I hardly ever spoke to David.
David always maintained that he didn’t want to live past 40. I never expected him to, either, and prepared myself mentally for that possibility. I figured I’d get a call one day after he’d died doing something foolish (like not taking his medication for diabetes, which he was prone to doing), I’d shrug my shoulders, say, “I’ve been expecting this for years,” and get on with my life, pretending he’d never been alive. It would be a relief not to have to worry about him any more.
Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Dad had double bypass heart surgery. I went to Ohio to see him that weekend, and my brother picked me up at the airport. He took me to a biker bar for a steak dinner and we talked. He’d decided he wanted to live past 40. He’d kicked drugs (mostly weed, I think, but who knows), and he’d cut down his drinking. He’d bought a house in the drug-free area near a school, and finally held a job for more than six months. He had a live-in girlfriend with two teenaged girls; he was trying to act like a father figure for them. We connected for the first time.
David had finally started growing up.
We were finally able to starting building a healthy sibling relationship. I forgave him for the past, and asked him to forgive me for shutting him out for so long.
The road to rebuilding was long, years, and it seemed like we’d only just started down that path, and now he was in a coma. I knew most people never come out of comas.
“Are you still there?” Dad asked me.
“Yes,” I said weakly, my voice shaking.
I was alone in a distant state, without my wife, without my kids, without any family at all, surrounded by people I’d just met and barely knew. I never felt so alone in my life.
I don’t remember how we ended that conversation, or even hanging up. In fact, I don’t remember much of anything over the next two days. I was useless.
I went to Ohio that weekend and visited my brother in the hospital. He was thinner than I was at that point, and it felt weird, like I was in some kind of a mirror, and I was really him, the fat one, looking at me, the thinner one, lying in the bed, dying. I stayed with him for a while, squeezing his limp hand, trying to reach out to him with my mind. But there was nobody home.
I knew he was going to die. I went home, couting the days until the inevitable tear-filled call from my Dad telling me he was going to pull the plug on his firstborn son. Nobody should have to do that. Nobody.
In retrospect, I think I was wrong about David’s consciousness. I think he heard the nurses talking about pulling the plug. I think that somewhere in that shell, David realized how hard Dad’s decision had been and wanted to spare him the guilt my father would have carried to his own grave, wondering if his son would have snapped out of it, if he’d just given him one more day. I think David gave up then, and just let his body fail him. They never had to pull the plug; before they could, David’s organs started shutting down, one by one, quickly, and he was dead in a matter of minutes. At least that’s what they told us, and that’s what I choose to believe.
It still feels like a part of my life was stolen. Like if I let myself forget my brother, he would be expunged from my memories, too. I didn’t want to be affected, didn’t expect to be affected, yet I was. Profoundly.
I pray for my brother’s soul every time I go to Mass. Still. Because at the heart of it, he was my brother and I loved him, despite my resolve not to. I’ll probably keep praying for him until I die.