The video begins with my mom calling to my little brother, asking him to sing a song for the camera. Come over here and sing a song, she pleads.
My face edges into the shot, blocking our view of him. It’s 1989. I’m six years old.
“I can sing another one,” I offer. I repeat it and scoot closer until the only thing in view is my face, framed by a fluffy perm, ducking in a show of shyness just before breaking into “My Country Tis of Thee.” My brother is four. Mostly blocked by my performance, he gazes upward and turns in small circles, singing to the sky.
People—co-workers, college friends, Facebook friends, uncles—watch the video and say: and your poor brother, laughing.
My hair was dyed purple the first time we visited my little brother in rehab. I’d never dyed my hair a color other than black or brown or red or blonde before. We sat on the floor with Jimmy Johns sandwiches while he sat on the bed, not hungry, sweating and grumpy, detoxing from heroin. He’d been there for a week. He hadn’t slept.
“Did you notice Lindsey’s hair?” my mom said.
He squinted at me, bleary. I tried to move into better light.
“Do you like my new permanent?” six-year-old me asks through a mouthful of peanut butter cookie.
It wasn’t until my mom came over after work and told me my brother had confessed to her that he’d been using heroin for two years and needed help that I knew I’d seen him with a needle in his arm. Before he said the words, it was like a distant memory, the details fuzzy and unreliable—oh yeah, I did see him shooting up that one time. But it had only been six, eight weeks ago. I’d told myself I hadn’t seen it. I lied until the lie was the truth.
Holiday World is a kindly, low-rent theme park in Santa Claus, Indiana. Seven of us piled into in my dad’s cab-and-a-half truck to get there. That morning, the boys spread a map over their laps to trace our route with their fingers, and I’d thought how beautiful it was, how rare a thing in the year 2012, to see a paper map with all its colors in the morning sunlight.
We bought an overpriced souvenir photo of my son, my dad, my brother, and my husband all on a rollercoaster together, all with huge, wide open grins. Also a rare thing, to see them all so shining and happy: my husband the cynic, my stepson the teenager, my dad the Midwestern farmer, and my brother, whatever he was.
I spent my thirtieth birthday at the quarry with my brother and a sixer of Ruby Redbird. It seemed like the best place to be. We sat at the edge of the dock and talked while looking out at the water. We split the beers. I told him I was going to therapy. I told him I was afraid of addiction waking up in my body. I told him parenting a teenager was hard. We talked about our parents’ marriage while he sifted through his tackle box.
Later, taking a sunset drive on the golf cart, a tiny red fox scampered across the path in front of us. My brother asked if a fox symbolized good luck.
“It feels like good luck,” I said, and it did.
I unblocked my brother’s phone number the day before my most recent birthday. I was hoping to receive good wishes from him and didn’t want to miss them, or at least miss the opportunity.
When I did, the texts I’d temporarily held at arm’s length by blocking his number came tumbling into my inbox.
He hadn’t shown up on Father’s Day. Grandma made brownies and Grandpa would soon forget our names. Our dad unfolded a lawn chair in the sunshine and drank a cold bottle of beer. Nobody asked where my brother was anymore.
You can go get fucked. Yea I am gonna do what I want and treat people how I want. You act like I’m fucking ignorant and honestly I’m just as smart if not smarter than you. You’ve read a lot of books but you still don’t know right from left, see how fucking far that gets you.
What I’d told him, holding my breath, was that not showing up wasn’t cool.
I don’t deserve this, I’d texted back, trembling, unsure if I did or not.
Our hotel room was connected to my brother’s by a door that he’d left marginally open. I said “Hello?” and pushed it with my fingertips, sneaking it open in fractions in case he was changing. I needed his Wendy’s order. Dad was going on a fast food run following our long day at Holiday World.
He hadn’t seen the door. “Hello?” he said back. His eyes darted from wall to wall. Syringes in orange caps were strewn on the flowered bedspread. He held one arm.
I pulled away and shut the door. My husband asked if we should get fries to share and I said yes.
Visits were easier after he detoxed. Every Sunday, my parents and I drove two hours and then inevitably argued about what fast food to pick up for my brother. Dad sat on a jacket on the floor. I sat next to him, leaning against the bare cinderblock wall. Mom perched on the edge of an alcoholic cop’s unmade bed. I scrolled through Facebook on my phone, gathering updates on his friends’ lives. We asked him about his classes, which he hated and didn’t need. He regaled us with stories of the really crazy people in rehab. I flipped through the Big Book, which enamored me, as all big books do. We listened to the clock radio. On Saturdays from 1 to 4, the local classic rock station featured “twin spins.” “Yeah, more Sabbath,” Dad cheered, and we sat in silence while the two of them nodded in unison, keeping time in death metal.
I will not give in to doom in this life. I don’t know why I can’t. But I can’t.
By the time we got home from Holiday World, I’d convinced myself that I hadn’t seen the needle in his arm or the syringes on the cheap floral bedspread.
A man got drunk and stupid at the small-town bar near my parents’ house and knocked my brother off his barstool with a fist to the back of his skull. You’ll never be anything but a junkie, he hollered.
When he was still so small and lispy, we’d spend the night with babysitters and I’d translate for him: He wants milk. He’s tired. He doesn’t wanna be here.
He was in rehab for a month and got out in time for Christmas. My husband opened our back door to see him on December 23, stoned as hell, but—I rationalized—not high on heroin. He passed out in an armchair in the glow of our Christmas tree light.
His friends die, one by one. He texts me, frantic, saying I can’t take this anymore. His obituary unspools in my skull.
I ate fried chicken and waffles at a gourmet farm-to-table restaurant for my birthday last month, surrounded by my husband and stepson, parents, and grandparents. When I opened my gifts, Grandma leaned to Grandpa and said, “Lindsey’s opening her gifts now, because it’s her birthday,” which was just subtle enough a reminder for him, and he looked at me like well isn’t that wonderful, like nothing was wrong and nobody was missing and the truth was such a pleasure to step into.
In the video, my little brother stumbles in the gravel and falls flat in his tiny puffy coat and my mom asks me to help him up. First I poke my face into the frame, blocking him, saying, “He can’t get up.” She calmly asks me again to help him. I start to walk away, then appear again, saying, “Can you hold my cookie?” After another quick cut, I appear, cookie-less, on the other side of the fence where my brother is quietly waiting in the rocks. Just as I shuffle up to him, he pulls his small weight up and balances just right and stands. I am completely unhelpful, holding my hands out limply but not offering them to him. I shuffle back toward the camera and ask for, then demand, my cookie.
It’s the showstopper, the slogan, the hilariously selfish punch line: Gimme my cookie as my little brother gazes down at his knees, dusty from the gravel. He wobbles, barely big enough to stand upright in his winter coat. My hungry face fills the frame.
I’m never going to be you, so give it up, he says, as if that’s what people want.
I played Hamlet and he didn’t come. I wrote a eulogy for our beloved Aunt Jayne and he didn’t come. Grandma made brownies on Father’s Day and he didn’t come. We sat outside, my family, my grandparents, my parents, and Grandpa’s fine white hair stood straight up in the wind.
All I want is for him to show up. Eat a brownie. Sit in the sun.
On my thirtieth birthday my brother and I fished off the dock, nobody else for miles. When the hook snagged in the fishes’ mouths, he swore and untwisted the line with his fingertips, murmuring, “Sorry, buddy.” Their gills oozed blood. He was sure to push the worms into their gasping mouths before tossing the wounded fish back into the water. We stood side-by-side, squinting, telling ourselves their dark shapes were swimming away.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.