When you are the youngest of three what is the first thing that pops into your head when you think of your older siblings? Is it a wonderful time you spent together growing up or the times they held you down sitting on your chest hanging a big green luggie over your face? For me it’s the ladder, My brother Donald could be a bit of a shit and he just loved to hear me scream I suppose. Where else would I learn about Indian rope burns, noogies and how to play or rather lose at knuckles. I was his first punching bag but as much as you hate the pain you still looked up to him. He was after all the same guy that showed up at the schoolyard when some kid who was being a pain got his big brother to come along to intimidate me. My big brother was bigger than his so though no blows were exchanged the matter was settled quickly.
He was also the same guy that took me into the woods and showed me the trails close to our house up to the point that overlooked our home town. He showed me the way to safely climb a rock and taught me how to get down onto a ledge under the point. This information would serve me well for years as my friends and I explored these local woods every weekend enjoying cooking out over an open fire.
He was the guy that was there on one scout camping trip as a leader assistant. I argued with my tent mate over where to set up our tent. It was my tent after all. He settled the argument and made me compromise and got me to set up the tent where my roomie Tom wanted to go. Later that night as the outer edges of a tropical storm hit us the wind blowing so hard our tent was collapsing on us. I was on my back with my arms and legs outstretched to keep the tent up in the hurricane-force winds meanwhile Tom prayed. The lightning flash was blinding and the sound of thunder roared and shook the ground. Moments later my brother was opening the flap of the tent to see how we were. On my back holding up the tent I said fine why. He pulled back the tent flat to reveal the huge Oak tree I wanted to set our tent up under was on the ground where we would have been if I’d won the argument. My brother getting me to compromise probably saved my life that night. As much as a tormentor as he was when we were young he made good choices, had good friends and I looked up to him.
At some during high school, he discovered beer as we all do around that age. That was a turning point in his life. He was always pissed off at our father and a few bottles of beer gave him the courage and bravado to let the old man know. When you’re outweighed by a hundred pounds it wasn’t a fair fight but he got what he wanted, a battle, a showdown that he would keep trying to win for years. It’s hard as a kid to see two people you look up to beating the shit out of one another but that was my life as a young boy. I grew up watching domestic violence first hand. I never had sleepovers on the weekend because I never knew when my brother would come home drunk spoiling for a fight. I was embarrassed by it all. Excuses were made why my brother had his front teeth knocked out. Why things were broken in our home. Heartbreaking to see my great aunt whom we lived with in her 90’s hitting them with her cane to stop. My mother is so upset she starts breaking dishes in the kitchen to draw their attention from each other. I sat there on the stairs not able to do a thing at my age watching this fight unfold with all too often regularity.
In winter 1983 was when my brother died for the first time. After a day spent at a funeral for my father’s best friend’s son who accidentally shot himself in the face we retired to quiet sleep. I was having the most intense dream ever sitting at a campfire, I could hear the snap crackle pop of the fire and even smell the smoke. I couldn’t taste the marshmallows but it was very peaceful. I heard my bedroom door open abruptly and my father grabbed me out of bed and pushed me into the hallway. Not awake and disoriented I walked into a wall as the hallway was full of smoke. It’s only about eight feet from my bedroom door to the stairs by I walked into another wall till I found my way. I saw my brother’s room in flames. It was December 15th and I was standing in the snow on the front lawn in my winter boots with a jacket on in my underwear because I didn’t use PJ’s and getting pants wasn’t given as an option when my father shoved me out of my room. Our hometown uses volunteer firefighters so ten minutes is an eternity when you’re watching your house burn and your brother is still unaccounted for. A can of lighter fluid in his room exploded by the window and blew debris all over the cars in the driveway. My dad then suggested we get the ladder from the garage and see if he climbed out onto the balcony attached to my brother’s bedroom.
On a normal day, this 50-year-old wooden extension ladder was so heavy I could barely pick it up. That night with the adrenaline flowing I not only picked it up with ease I had it up against the house and extended in mere seconds and I was scrambling up onto the balcony. My brother wasn’t on their so I had a look through the window and saw very few flames. I stood back and kicked in the door with ease and looked around for my brother but saw nothing but charred furniture. Now this was a few years before the movie Backdraft and I’d never even heard of this term but as soon as I took a couple of steps back we got a huge backdraft of flames that covered where I was standing only moments before. What we found out from the fire chief later is when we exited the house earlier we left the front door open so that was drawing the fire downstairs towards the oxygen. When I kicked in that door the flames went for the easy source of air to consume which drew the fire back upstairs towards the now wide open balcony door. This allowed the firefighters who had now arrived the opportunity to do a room to room search eventually finding my brother passed out on the floor of the upstairs bathroom. When they brought him out and laid him in the snow on the front yard he was clinically dead. He’d stopped breathing. They worked feverishly for the next five minutes pumping his chest to keep his heart pumping while giving him oxygen. Eventually, he started to cough and regained colour.
If my father ever had a reason to go at my brother before he had a reason now as he destroyed the house and forced us all into a trailer in the driveway. If arguments were uncomfortable in the house they were even worse in a two-room trailer where the main area was kitchen, dining room, living room and my brother and I’s bedroom.
After a week I asked if I could move back into the house in my great aunt’s room. She’d been relocated to an old age home till the house was rebuilt and her room on the first floor was the only space in the house that did not experience smoke or water damage. So to avoid the battle in the driveway I stayed in the abandoned house on my own.
Even after my brother moved out a few years later and I was still at home he sometimes came back for a rematch with our father thinking he finally had the skill to outmatch the old man. He never did. I was a teenager by then and one time got between the two of them as the battle moved to the front yard. Someone hauled off with a punch that missed the intended target and knocked me out. Next thing I knew I was in the kitchen with my mother who said I took the punch, got up, drove my car that was on the street into the driveway then I went in the back door and sat down. The last thing I remember was standing between the two of them yelling at them to stop.
As troubling as all this history may sound it was merely the tip of the iceberg for where my brother’s life would go in the coming years and decades. The only thing he ever did that was positive was create his son who against overwhelming odds has turned out to be a rather well-adjusted young man. He was an abusive alcoholic husband during his short turbulent marriage. When that went south he went even further off the rails. I guess for me the line that he crossed I couldn’t forgive is when he drove his son as a five-year-old along with his then girlfriend’s five-year-old daughter both in the backseat while drunk and already under suspension from a previous DWI. I went to his house and told him if he wanted to kill himself then to just do it but don’t take innocent kids with him. My ultimatum that day was that when he was clean and sober a year to please give me a call. My phone never rang.
I heard through our mother over the years that he was in and out of prison for god only knows what reason. I never wanted to know and I never asked.
I didn’t see him again till 2008 at our father’s funeral. At this point, it had been over 15 years since we had last communicated. No one in the family expected me at the funeral since I became a father for the third time the day after dad died. I figured I
needed to say goodbye so I was on a plane only 12 hours after welcoming our newest daughter. Many family members were shocked to see me with my oldest daughter in tow and I made the rounds introducing myself to people I didn’t know. I’d walk up and tell them I was the son of the deceased till one person at the visitation said he was too. I recognized the voice immediately but not the face. The 15 years of hard living and alcoholic abuse had aged him about 30 years to the point I couldn’t even recognize him. Over the next few days, we mended a few bridges but the fact he was still drinking didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t want him around my daughter but he’d become a more reclusive quite drunk. Those couple nights we both stayed at our parent’s house were the last we ever spent under the same roof. When I left to fly home to be with my wife and our new baby I’d never see him alive again.
We chatted on the phone a couple of times over the years. He was working on a boat that was taking him to the middle east and I think he was scared of being killed in a war zone. It was understandable I didn’t have Libya or Kuwait on my tour itinerary so I got why he was nervous. I last spoke to him not too long after he became a grandfather. He eventually had two grandsons who just lived across town but he never met them even once. I’m not sure how receptive his son was and I understand his trepidation as well to have his father be around his new family.
As was his pattern I got a text on Christmas day last year. We had a couple of exchanges and I told him mom wasn’t doing very well. Our big brother hadn’t shared this with him but then no one in the family shared anything with him. When you self ostracize yourself away from the family and intentionally have no contact it’s kind of hard to expect us to reach out to you when things aren’t going so well for our mother. I told him on the 28th I’d let him know how she was and he reiterated to “PLS KEEP ME updated”. That was the last thing he wrote to me.
On Monday, February 8th I saw a text from our older brother Mike who’s been dealing with our mother since he lives in the Falls close by. Seeing a text from him to call him did not instill me with confidence because the last time I called him mother was going downhill fast. I expected a new update heading in the same direction only to find out it was our brother he was calling about. The smell from his apartment had caused some complaints from neighbours and when the authorities entered the suite they were a few weeks too late. They were going to need DNA and dental records to identify the body at this point. The sad reality is the police couldn’t just call a close contact because he didn’t have any. They had to call our mother’s old number, find out the house had been sold and contact the realtor to get to Mike. I’m not sure when they found the body because this investigation to find the family had to take a day or so. It’s not the end I ever expected for him. I sort of figured he’d have a violent end whether by his own hand in a car wreck drunk or beat to a pulp by someone he challenged to a fight. As I’m writing this right now his son just called me from the apartment where his father died. I can’t imagine the emotions he’s experiencing right now looking at his father’s life’s work. Seeing the missing hardwood floor they had to cut out because he expired there. Hi slast outgoing call was made January 14that 2 pm so he died after that date. Seeing his father had a framed photo of him holding the grandson he never met did Rob in. A bunch of old paperbacks and cases of empty wine bottles. Quite a legacy but for better or worse he will always be my big brother and I guess he’s in a far better place now.