“Talk in everlasting words
And dedicate them all to me
And I will give you all my life
I’m here if you should call to me
You think that I don’t even mean
A single word I say
It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away”–The Bee Gees
If we could wipe away words as we wipe away tears life would be easier. Tears are easy. They fall from us and a small piece of paper, once a mighty tree, clears them forever. But words, those, my friends, are a different story. Therapy can heal words spoken, soften them and even change their composition, perhaps…but they remain, because they’ve been heard.
The call came in the middle of the night that my brother, Randy, was ill. It was his abdomen and his wife, Maria, was away on vacation.
“Hey, can you come stay with me?” The fact was he, like Dennis and me, was a hypochondriac. Some siblings play ball, some musical instruments, we compare CT Scans. Just a year earlier he was struggling with some form of cardiac disease. In his defense my brothers and I are all wired the same.
“Do I have to? It’s so late…what if I come down in the morning?” I was not only tired but afraid I’d veer off the road in their rural town of Weston.
“Yeah, its okay…I’ll be all right…unless I pass out or something from the pain…but don’t worry…”
Annoyed was the word to describe my feelings. “I’ll be there soon.” Had our mother taught the art of guilt well? Indeed she had.
Driving south, the Merritt Parkway seemed endless. Each bend prompted me to widen my eyes for sleep was not far away. The melodic ring of the cell phone broke the monotony.
“Are you all right?” Worry, our second familial trait. “I don’t want you to get hit by a deer or something. Maybe you shouldn’t be coming.” Was he kidding? Where was that sentiment before I’d left my bed?
The level of annoyance was growing exponentially, my voice terse. “I’m fine. I’ll be there soon.” We’d been through much together, the good, bad and indifferent. I remembered the days of our youth. No one could have predicted the future, but I certainly held the past.
With a little luck you could have an older brother, several if very lucky. My parents hadn’t chronologically planned our family well. Having three boys, our mother fancied us a television family, most likely “My Three Sons”. Aside from the number, there was little resemblance. A tremendous age difference between Dennis and me sent him to college when I began first grade. We could have been closer if the age limit on drinking were lowered to six. Perhaps he could have brought me to college dorm parties and concocted some inventive cocktail using Nestle’s Quik or Yoo-Hoo, but it was not to be.
Two and a half years separated Randy and me, so mischief and bonding was a natural occurrence. My mother would coddle me which annoyed my older sibling. When he wanted to leave me behind, excluded from his group of friends, she’d cross her arms, reference the saying, “He ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother” and force an inclusion. It felt good to be the object of her affection, not to mention the ease with which it made getting away with just about anything.
Phrases such as, “You know the rules” and “Not as long as you’re living in this house” were thrown about, but for the most part, as the youngest, punishment was deferred onto Randy. His revenge was taken when our parents weren’t looking. As older brothers do, he’d lock me in the closet, wedging a chair under the door handle so it couldn’t be opened, or lock me in the basement, my small, soprano voice crying for help. Basically he thought of me not so much as a brother but a pain in the ass. The potential dorm parties with Dennis looked better and better. On the other hand, Randy was my protector and mentor, where this story begins.
He was always much bigger than me in many ways. His hair was brown, tinged with auburn and his eyes shone hazel. There ran through his veins a different blood than Dennis and me, more of a risk taker, or least he used to be. If a subject interested him he would speak at great length and his intellect would never retreat, traits he shared with Dennis. If uninterested his mind went to a private place that challenged him. I never knew where he was but always know how to bring him back– change the subject to one of his great passions– business, home renovation or his greatest joy, his son, Christopher.
Randy was always precocious. A living encyclopedia, he seemed to know everything about, well, just about everything. As an adult, I found myself drawn to the telephone when an answer was needed to even the most obscure question or to “bounce” a thought off someone with innate intuitiveness. My mentor and I could, at times, go for extended periods without speaking, not for any reason other than life consuming time, but we were only a press of a button away. The relationship was easy, as it always had been.
My sense of humor? Randy thought it witty. He’d listen to me, enjoy my stories, and always worry about his “little brother.” His home, one of his greatest passions, was always open, large, a metaphor for his heart. He thought me brave, a title bestowed during a private conversation and one returned upon him. When my journey of writing began, a short story of a childhood memory caused him to look at me over his glasses. He jokingly threatened a lawsuit, at least I think he was joking. I love it and think you will too. It’s about two little boys doing what comes naturally. The motto in our house was, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire and where there’s fire, there’s Randy.”
I was not more than eight years old or so. Rather than wasting his time teaching me about history, science or math, my older brother was solely responsible for teaching me about art. The art of awareness. Our three bedroom house afforded my parents the largest, our oldest brother, Dennis the next largest and Randy and me the smallest bedroom. In thinking of it we were strangers really, two souls thrown together, like dorm-mates, for an extended period of our lives. The room was sufficient for two young boys and made for intimate awareness of one another, lifelong confidants and flowing, sometimes exasperating conversation. Secrecy was an impossibility, privacy unheard of. From the bunk bed above, in the cool darkness of an autumn night, Randy softly whispered.
“Hey, dick weed, are you sleeping?” I stirred. “You want to do something really fun?”
Lifting my head off the pillow, half asleep, I responded. “What is it?” Logic should have dissuaded me but trust abounded. The printed cowboy pajamas made their way down the ladder. Lying at the foot of my bed he slipped them down and covered himself with the blue crocheted coverlet. Holding up his finger, as an instructor would, he pointed below the blanket as his hand began to move back and forth. By virtue of his non-verbalization this screamed, “Off-limits”. Then, hushed, he spoke.
“Do this to your koots…but be really, really quiet.” (Koots was our “child’s-word” for penis)
Puzzled, my hand followed, touching that spot on myself, the place the Bible forbids, and began copying his movement. There was no discernible sensation other than being in the bathtub washing myself. Continuing on, slowly and methodically, that all changed. Something was very different. My brain disengaged, floating, detaching itself from my body, my soul lingering above looking down as if from the heavens. Euphoria began to envelop me and the point of no return was at hand, literally. For a split second I worried death was imminent, that perhaps this was the reason God commanded us not to touch ourselves. My senses heightened and my body, excluding my hand, seemed paralyzed. My brain lost all capability of rational thoughts, sensing only electrical impulses. My small body was sinking into the the sheets and mattress as the world and my breath left me. I had died… and clearly gone to heaven.
“ I’ve never felt like that before.”
“Unbelievable, right?” Randy nodded with cocksure approval and climbed back up the ladder.
Easily addictive, Pandora’s Box had been opened. This, an act so frowned upon, so irreverent and unspeakable, had the potential to decimate my Catholicism. This could easily escalate me to Gold medal status were it an Olympic event. Why wasn’t it an Olympic event? I stood on the platform my neck laden with thirty gold medals. As the American flag was hoisted, the Star Spangled Banner played in the background. I smiled gleefully as a grateful nation cheered my prowess, acknowledging my parents proudly seated in the audience. My parents. My parents? After much thought we decided secrecy was best.
“We need a code word or something,” Randy said, “How about ‘hanging around’? Its easy.”
“Hanging around” was perfect. No one would be the wiser and with “hanging around” added to life it seemed complete. We’d “hang around” the basement, our Clubhouse and even in my tree fort in the old Weeping Willow in the backyard. I’d spread the word to friends, some already knew, and the older kids in the neighborhood, Randy’s friends, of course were light years ahead. At the top of our street, the woods, a virtual barracks built by rows of pines, boulders and bushy shrubs, served as a perfect naturalized “jack-shack”. No one wanted this parade to end.
Christmas was nearing, and the snow, seemingly endless, was piling up. At school, our teacher, Mrs. McRae, helped my class coil together red and green construction paper, creating garlands to decorate our Christmas trees at home. I presented mine to my mother, who was hard at work making the preliminary dishes for Christmas Eve.
“Well,” she said, “We’re going to put this right on the tree. We can’t just leave it hanging around.” She was appeasing me. My mother wasn’t one to hang our homemade school projects. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the words. Perhaps it was the impending holiday, the birth of Christ, performing an Exorcism. Perhaps it was the guilt. Perhaps it was her use of the term “hanging around”. Or perhaps I simply had a big mouth. My guess is the latter.
“Randy and I hang around with our kootses.” To this day I haven’t a clue why I said it. Why did those words come out of my mouth? There are times, in my life, when being possessed is the only answer.
Slowly she turned to face me, her eyes wrapping me like Wonder Woman with her truth telling lasso. Unsure of what I meant, yet quite sure, she approached.
“Excuse me…what did you say?” The wooden spoon, wet with sauce, was off-putting. Like the poinsettias adorning the fireplace, my complexion turned red as I tried to skirt the issue. Surely something big was on the verge of surfacing.
“I don’t know.” That’s it? That’s all I could say? I was eight and my current skills at “spin” weren’t yet perfected. “I wasn’t really saying anything…just making stuff up.” I winced, a dead giveaway.
My legs were paralyzed as the blue braided rug in our dining room seemed to be made of wet cement. Pulling one foot from its hold, I built enough momentum to escape the impending doom. The maple trestle dining table offered sanctuary below. My mother leaned down, her index finger, manicured in a soft pink frosted polish, motioned back and forth beckoning me. How could one finger, narrow and small, house such power? She lured me from my safe room demanding an explanation.
“If it was nothing you wouldn’t be running away. Come out from under there and tell me what you said…I’m not asking again.”
My mind was pensive. Could I make it through the living room, down the hall and lock myself in the bathroom? It was a long-shot but worth a try. Sensing my thoughts she blocked that exit. Perhaps I could use my soulful brown eyes for exoneration. The years had taught me to use them as a means for a purpose. I was a master at the art of ocular expression.
“Chip, this is it. I’m not asking again.” Her hand gestured with finality. “No Christmas presents. I’m getting a message to Santa. The end.”
There was no choice, it was over. Leaving the confines of my sanctuary city I faced the Special Counsel. As the interrogation continued there was but one choice, plea bargaining. Yes, I would sing like a “song bird” potentially throwing my brother under the bus and saving my own ass…and gifts. Or perhaps the truth would set him free as well. It was a long shot and a justification of my actions.
“Sometimes, at night, Randy… well… once he showed me how to play with my koots. It felt good.” There was no turning back. I was a stool pigeon.
“Play with it? You mean shake it?” My mother was getting the picture and it wasn’t a pretty one.
“Well, sort of. You go like this…” I demonstrated the motion with my small hand, “It gets kind of hard and warm and feels all good.” She put her hand on mine stopping the movement.
“ I get the idea. I’ll kill him.” I think she meant it.
Ignorance is bliss. From behind the eyelet curtains in our living room Randy, his blue snow suit, covered with crystallized water, was playing with his friends in the newly fallen snow. Inside the warmth of our house, his life was unraveling. Looking up and down the street I searched for cars. Perhaps his sled would slide across Orchard Road in front of one and he’d be killed instantly, a much less painful death than facing our mother. More to the point he could not kill me. The back door opened and the sound of his boots being tossed meant he was very much alive.
“Ma, can you make me some hot chocolate? I can’t feel the tip of my nose. My face is numb.” If only his ass were numb he’d be all set.
“Hey Rand, come here a minute and help me. Leave your wet clothes on the breezeway.”
Edith was cunning, perversely living for the element of surprise. Opening the refrigerator, she took the glass bottle, poured the milk into a small, silver pan and mixed in the cocoa and sugar. As they blended together over the heat, Christmas carols played in the background. Bolting from my fortress, I shot by Randy and hid under the bunk bed until the fireworks were over. My unsuspecting, soon to be late brother, his face still red from the cold, wondered how he could share my DNA. He didn’t even know the half of it. Yet.
“What’s up with the dick weed.? He’s such a dope.”
“Stop calling him that. Where did you learn that anyway?” Then, as “O Come All Ye Faithful” began she said, “He’s probably in the bedroom just hanging around…why don’t you go join him? That is if your koots isn’t numb from the cold.” My sense was the shit that hit the fan was all over the kitchen. I hoped it hadn’t landed in his cocoa but feared it had.
Morbid curiosity abounded having never witnessed an execution. Quietly I made my way toward the battle zone, keeping my distance from the kitchen but able to see Randy’s somewhat ashen face. His eyes, like daggers, caught me and penetrated my very core, sending chills down my spine. Death would come that night, it was evident–he would most certainly bludgeon me in my sleep.
Amazingly he didn’t flinch. Even at a young age he kept his composure, like James Bond. It was impressive. Both sets of eyes locked in a stare down as he sipped his hot chocolate. There would be many more such scenes in the years to come.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said sipping the hot chocolate, “This is good.” My mentor was convincing but not to our mother. Sweat was pouring from my brow as the climax approached.
“Then let’s call your father and Dennis and see if they know what I mean.” She’d played a trump card which had our family’s face on it. He didn’t want everyone in on this. “Chip, get in here.” Me? Why me? Hadn’t I said enough?
Shifting slightly to the edge of his seat my brother stood. It was a Marlon Brando moment. I backed away. He was holding a hot drink which could potentially be used as a weapon. And then, surprisingly, he caved.
“Okay, it’s like this,” Randy gave up the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as our mother turned and went to her stove victoriously.
Surprisingly and disappointingly there were no fireworks. The executioner drew no ax and the preacher gave no fire and brimstone sermon. God didn’t seek revenge nor was there any throwing of hot chocolate in our mother’s face so we could escape to a far off land. She simply stirred the pot of sauce after my brother confessed his sin. Was her collected behavior pacifying or terrifying? The greater question was, did her initial look of disbelief stem from the fact my older brother had taught me to masturbate, a sin in our Catholic upbringing, or had she raised a stool pigeon, a snitch, a sin in our Italian culture? She herded us to the dining room where we sat around my former fortress.
“You’ll go blind you know, if you keep doing that. It’s a sin to masturbate.” Rising, she walked to the living room and pulled two books from the shelves, setting them before us. “Look it up in the bible. Then look it up in the encyclopedia. And go wash your hands, twice, no, three times.” It was, after all, the 1960’s, progressive parenting and social liberalism hadn’t yet taken hold, in our house anyway. To me she said, “And you, little man, have a big mouth.” Randy wore a look of vindication. Turning on heel she made her way to the kitchen where important business was transacting. As she stood behind the open refrigerator door, her shoulders began bouncing, as if chuckling, her head shaking back and forth.
As he passed me on his way to the bedroom I noted, “That wasn’t so bad.”
Leaning in, my once trusting brother warned, “I wouldn’t fall asleep if I were you… dick weed.”
As I pulled onto Singing Oaks Drive the night seemed darker than usual. My body was exhausted and my demeanor, truth be told, somewhat dark as well. We’d all been through his hypochondria and like the days of our youth his lessons taught me well. The car negotiated the long, winding driveway and from the window, the large chandelier was ablaze, as if company was expected for a celebration. Parking in the circular portion of the drive, I grabbed my duffel as the front door opened. There, in the doorway stood my brother. For some reason I noted he still wore pajamas. I walked into the massive foyer.
“Thanks for coming.” He looked relieved. Somewhere in my head was our mother reminding me, “He ain’t heavy…” I’d have never turned away from a cry for help yet my irritation got the better of me. And then, that loose lipped little boy came out and I said it.
“You’d better be really sick this time or I’ll kill you.”
At that moment those words, the ones I wish could be erased, those words that I’ve lived with every day since his death, came from my overzealous mouth. It was as if speaking to my mother on that winter day. None of us could have foreseen the future. Though said in jest they foreshadowed the saddest year of being a sibling…and the untold guilt for ever having uttered them.
My brother scoffed, in a child-like voice, as he often did when we mocked his over active mind. “No one cares about me…”
But the days to come would prove him wrong. Time would become precious. Would those of us who loved him still look for answers to our questions and advice from our brother, husband, father, uncle and friend? We would. In the expanse of his bedroom, a far cry from that of two little boys on Orchard Road, nestled among his obsession with pillows and flowing bed linens we’d lay, sometimes not uttering a word, sometimes talking incessantly.
“I wish we could go back,” he once said, his body surrounded by down feathers. “I want to go back to Orchard Road, to mom and dad.” How does one reply? I too wished we could go back, but not that far, so I could “un-say” what I had and change his course, but couldn’t. And, anyway, my hope was simply a heartbreaking wish.
Nodding in agreement I promised. “Yep, life was easy then…but I take us back…in my writing.” He flashed back to this particular story and many others over his life.
“Great…just don’t make me look bad.” He sounded like our mother.
“I won’t…well…maybe, just a little…” then, “Dick weed.” The brotherly tables had turned and the opportunity to call him that felt good. Ah, justice. “You’re a windfall of material for me you know.” Our thoughts reflected the most private moments of our lives, those requiring a “pinky-swear” or pin prick of blood with a promise of eternal secrecy. Now, thankfully, there were no demonstrations given under the covers and my status had long since been elevated from pain in the ass.
We said, “I love you”, words not spoken from one bunk bed to another, perhaps never, though near the end they were said often. It was in fact true, he was was not heavy, he was my brother. Our mother’s use of that quote had been validated. During that year, the visits, the talks and texts, the shopping excursions, and even the hospital visits, the art of awareness came knocking. While not in the same way, nor with fiery Biblical implications, I was, once again, just “hanging around” with Randy.
*On August 12, 2013 my brother Randy passed away from Pancreatic Cancer. To Dennis and me he was a brother and friend. To his wife, Maria and son, Christopher, he was the world. Randy was 55 years old…