With days or weeks to live, my brother Chris looks at me, and shrugs, “Why shouldn’t I ask her? That way I can tell Vickie I love her.” Snow swirls outside the living room window. A light wind moves through the spruce needles.
Vickie and Chris became a couple twenty years ago after he had moved to Florida. Vickie, with a long mane of red hair and a free spirit (which was how my brother describes her), was the one that got away.
“You can tell her tomorrow by just telling her,” I say. Being his little sister, I always wanted him to think I was smart, and now, wise. He has ignored me as long as I remember, but in his drug fog, he listens. The addict’s meanness is gone now that the cancer has humbled him.
“Yeah, maybe not marriage.” Not yet.” I don’t say anything.
Chris wants to be around long enough to make big decisions like this. He starts talking about getting a ring for her. “A memento,” he says and gives me a wry smile, sadness at the edge of it. His mind plays tricks, imagining he can marry Vickie, and recover from his illness and his addictions. He still takes Xanax and those yellow pills in addition to the morphine that he gets from Hospice. Everything is speeding up and there’s a frantic pace to get life lived before it’s over.
Vickie is full of the future all these years later when she gets off the plane in Denver in a snowstorm. She says, as I grab her to take her to the car waiting at the curb, “I want him to stop smoking, meditate and eat healthier.”
“Let’s have you meet again. It’s been a long time since you’ve been together,” I say. One look at him sitting in the front seat of the car is a truth telling moment for her. We make our way through the city’s icy streets and into the house. After getting Chris inside, she sees the hospital bed from the hallway. “I could sleep with you in there, Chris. Keep you company.”
“No,’ he says. “My body hurts. As soon as I feel good.” He’s antsy and wants to smoke, and the only place to light up is our garage. It’s too cold in there even when he wears the blue, puffy jacket that used to be my husband’s.
Later, she says to me, “He sounded so strong on the phone.”
“I told you he didn’t have long to live.” I don’t have to remind myself that this is why he’s here in Colorado with me.
“But I wasn’t sure what you really meant. Not long to live could be six months.”
I look at Vickie like I’m the one in pain. “Or it could mean a week. He wants you here. Be with him.” My so-called wisdom is finally kicking in.
Vickie stays in the spare room on the daybed for more than a week, helps dress him, frets and cries. I clean, cook, go to my job, and try to give the two of them time. As I drive to work, I wonder how I can give time to someone who’s dying.
Nine days later, Chris wakes up in the middle of the night, sits up, calls out to me, and lies back on the comforter. His breath slows and eventually stops after minutes or maybe an hour. I feel like the walls in the room have gotten smaller and my legs won’t move. Chris’s face is colorless. I close his eyes for him and wait until Hospice arrives. The TV is still on from the night before, people talking with English accents. A long, yellow van with a stripe around its belly takes him away in early morning.
Two weeks go by, and Vickie and I fly to south Florida to clean out Chris’s trailer. I pack my black carry-on bag, which is the same color as my heart. Hours later we walk out of the Fort Lauderdale airport into a muggy afternoon that turns my hair thick and curly.
Weeks ago, Chris had given me the key to his trailer in anticipation of this day. I no longer dislike this part of Florida the way I did when he toted drugs and built his life around ratty friends. It was a dangerous, foreign place; addicts walked the streets and some of them were friends of his. It was sticky and hot, smelling like brine and sewer. Now, years later in springtime, Chris is gone, and I want to make a memory of something good down here.
The air is damp and there are lightning bugs on the lawn in the evening. It’s like my childhood summers, humid and buggy, with sounds of far off sprinklers, a rhythm of psst, psst, psst. Contentment: a confusing feeling after Chris’s death, but it ‘s all around me. My eyes are wet, and I take a long breath; being in the trailer relaxes me. Even with the rotting floorboards and lizards running under the molding in the bathroom, I can smell my brother’s aftershave and the faint smell of cigarette smoke. I’m in a reverie, a concoction of melancholy and peacefulness, a drink I want to sip for days. It’s a relief from the cold months of watching him die.
Vickie stays in the trailer too, but walks for hours in the neighborhood looking at blooming red geraniums and pink snapdragons while I sleep. She’s in my orbit, ready to sort through Chris’s junk and treasures. She has to leave in a few days to go back home.
It’s time. I get the oversized trash bags from the kitchen and we begin. We throw away grease-stained shirts and jeans, magazines, broken reading glasses, old bar soaps, pocketknives, hats with foreign car dealership logos, and pens from various body shops. We divvy up the good stuff.
“Do you want these aviator sunglasses?” I ask Vickie. I know she does.
“Chris loved them and they made him look tough even when he was skinny and frail.”
“What about these British coins?” Chris had gone to London for Jaguar auto repair training in 1995.
“Yes, I want them too, she says, and then, “You can have the passport and license. After all, he’s your family.”
This moment is when I can tell Vickie that Chris was going to ask her to marry him. She would have been family too, but they still had love, old and new, suffering and tenderness. Maybe he wasn’t ready or changed his mind. Like a sparrow hopping around looking for something to keep his attention, Chris never wanted to commit to any woman. He told me once grinning, “They all want to marry me and have babies. I’m not cut out for it. I’m just not. Hell, no.”
“Here are his W-2 forms for the past eighteen years!” I shout to Vickie from the Formica kitchen table on another warm evening that feels like summer. She’s resting on the couch, and we have the windows open.
“What a pack rat!” she says. I start to organize the papers to make sense of the timeline of his working life. Other parts of his life will remain a mystery.
After a couple of days we get his stash tallied and make another pile for Goodwill. I give Vickie most of the things. I don’t want any souvenirs. I have the smells of south Florida: the salt water in the canal lapping at the retaining wall, the mildew on the porch, the perfume of the magnolia blossoms on the trees and the scents from inside the trailer.
We find a bag of weed and some Zig Zag rolling papers in a dresser drawer. The evening before Vickie leaves we smoke a joint while sitting on his twin bed. The faded yellow and green striped bedspread is from my parents’ house. Later, we take a walk over to the canal in the trailer park. It’s balmy outside, and I take off my cardigan sweater. On one of the dogwood trees, someone has hung twinkle lights and little colorful eggs in honor of Easter. They sparkle and sway in the night breeze. I think they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Vickie leaves the next morning, and I stay another day. I ride Chris’s old two-wheeler along the streets, noticing that most homes have carports instead of garages. The trunks of tall palms look like elephant legs on the front yards. I see the Easter eggs again on the small tree. Today, they look plastic and ordinary.
In the afternoon, the front tire goes flat and I walk the bike back into the trailer park and place it under the eaves on the porch. Tonight, I sleep on Chris’s lumpy bed for the last time, my phone alarm waking me at five in the morning. It’s not yet sunrise when I open the fuse box behind the trailer and turn off the electricity. I close the windows, lock the front door, and step over the cigarette butts on the porch, a last remnant of my brother’s life. I drive to the car rental place. It is empty of people at this hour and there is one other passenger on the shuttle. I am flying back to Denver, to the sleet and rain of early spring. In my small black suitcase I have documents and papers from Chris’s stash and the only thing I really wanted. It’s a photo of Chris and me when we are about nine and six, taken at the beach. Our sweatshirts match our bathing suits, and Chris is standing right by my side, his arm around my shoulders. He doesn’t look restless or sad or sick. He’s smiling. The sun is on our faces.