“A cup of coffee,” is what I think after the first call. You are in the hospital, Becky calls to tell me, and pre-dawn calls and hospitals and all institutions, really, mean coffee. So I pad into the kitchen quietly and make a cup and pour in cream and sugar, and then feed the cat. I look at yesterday’s mail and the sink full of dishes from last night. I stare at my phone and then I stare at my reflection in the sliding glass door for a long time—outside, just pitch black.
It is just after 4 a.m., the first call.
And, you know how it is, you get a call and it’s scary but scary in a way that means something bad “might” happen “someday” and so I am accepting the way I always am when these calls come and I think to myself that I will pack a bag just in case you aren’t improving, and then I will leave right after work and come down to see you. We have done that before: (1) You go into the hospital; (2) I come swooping in. It’s a thing. It happens once a year, at least, sometimes more. It happens for different reasons. You have an infection, you are sick with something, you need surgery again, you have an infection, you are sick with something, you need surgery again, you have –
Side note: I remember I called you Christmas Day. Your voice boomed at the answer, your nickname for me buoyant and loopy on your lips, “Monkey!” and I had said Merry Christmas and you had said Merry Christmas, but we only talked for a minute, for less than a minute. You were happy, on your way to a movie and running late. I heard it in your voice that you were healthy of mind, not white-knuckling the holidays this year. You sounded…what? What was it I heard? I try to remember and then I do: rich. You sounded rich. You were always broke, but rich is that sound you get when you are surrounded all the way, in every direction, with love. We had a quick conversation, just long enough to exchange a greeting and ‘I love you’ and for you to tell me not with words, but with an uncommonly relaxed, lovely tenor of voice, that you were content these holidays. That you were content. (You were content.)
(I scroll through my voicemails and find two you have left me. I do not know what I will hear when I replay them and so I do not replay them. I am afraid to. What if I hear fatigue, or frustration, or any of the million kinds of angst a person can feel, and what if that is what I hear instead of, “Monkey!” What if that is what gets imprinted into my memory when what I want is to hear only the happy ghost of you, rich?)
Coffee in hand, I finally go tell Shane that “my brother is sick, he’s in the hospital again.” He nods; he too has heard these words too many times. I go about my morning in the dark, still in my pjs, pulling down my overnight bag and packing a change of clothes and wondering if there are hotels near the hospital.
(I promise I was poised to swoop in, to do my part, my side of the story.)
I pick up my phone and send a text to your girlfriend. I’ve never met her and this is a lousy way to become introduced, but I do it. I text, “This is Mary, I’m 5 hours away. Can you ask doctor if I should come now?” A reply comes pinging, almost immediate, “I’m so sorry. He passed away 10 mins ago.”
You think I would fall down or smash the bathroom mirror with my phone. You think I would keen and scream. You think I would rip the hair from my head, but I do not. I think only, “no.” I think, “he is sick and has an infection.” My fingers shake violently as I pick up my overnight bag, lost as to what I should do next because you have changed the way it goes.
You had an infection and the hospital had put in the IV and the calls had been made and blood tests done, all rapidly. So now comes the part where I come in and they say, “He is very sick,” and I nod and they tell me what needs to be done and I take out a book to read and update family and friends and settle in and you smile at me and thank me and I say of course and we make small talk and then talk about our growing up years and we remember mom and dad, the good and the bad, and you tell me something about your kids and I tell you something about mine and I sneak you coffee from somewhere other than the cafeteria and you sleep and I watch and you mumble in your sleep and I keep constant vigil until you fucking get better.
That is how it works. Not this.