By now I should understand that when every choice starts to feel like a miscalculation, a mistake, I’m up against forces bigger than myself. Yet I was secretly, irrationally angry at them for succumbing too willingly to death without any burning or raving or raging. If they’d just tried hard enough, I sometimes thought.
By Nancy Grace McCabe
In June 2020, my brother Jeff texts me, asking me to contribute money to clean up the jungle-like lot in Wichita where our childhood home sits. “Shouldn’t we just have the house torn down?” I ask.
I imagine walking through it one last time. I picture the curio shelf, the big fireplace and piano and bookshelves crammed with yellow-bordered National Geographics, even though I know that the reality is moldy, rotted floors, filthy bathrooms with sagging shower doors, gnawed corners and mouse droppings.
Jeff says that tearing it down will cost at least $10,000. He can’t afford it yet. Maybe in a few months.
The house was abandoned years ago after repeatedly flooding when the city widened the highway. But I still feel irrationally ashamed about the overgrown lot, the deteriorating house, exasperated at my family’s failure to maintain appearances. We forget to mow our lawns, we let weeds take over, we leave behind lost causes like my hopelessly damaged childhood home. I envy people whose gardens bloom with casual artfulness behind sturdy houses with uncluttered granite countertops, stylish squishy furniture, and polished but substantial antiques. I envy people who live long lives, unlike my dad, who should have gone to the doctor sooner, unlike my mom who became so consumed by grief that she let her own health decline. Other people appear impervious, disguise decay, defy time. Not my family.
A couple of weeks after Jeff’s text, my younger brother Bob calls. Jeff’s boss just contacted him; Jeff didn’t return to work after a vacation. I realize that I haven’t seen any Facebook updates from him in a while, either.
“He’s probably in a hotel room somewhere, too sick to get home,” I say, but I’m uneasy. Jeff can be unreliable and disorganized, but he never misses work. Top of FormBottom of Form
My own life is imperfect but basically orderly. I find clutter depressing. I pay bills on time. I make lists and check off tasks. Jeff is sloppy and spontaneous. There’s a rumor that he has storage units all across America, leaving behind things when he moves and never retrieving them. On more than one occasion, he has disappeared, stranded in a hotel in eastern Kansas with congestive heart failure, immobilized by gout in Arizona, falling off the radar while visiting Colorado. His friends sounded alarms till he resurfaced, posting on Facebook, sounding mildly irritated, that he was fine.
Now my calls are bumped to Voicemail. I send a group message to the people he interacts with most on Facebook.
Uche saw Jeff eleven days ago. “He looked bad, really terrible,” says Uche. “He’d put on weight. He was retaining water. I said, ‘Jeff, stop trying to live like a young man. We’re not young anymore.’ He was always on the road, going everywhere. It wasn’t good for him.”
“He looked fine,” says Doug, who’d seen him the next day. “He had a little cough, but that was all.”
Jeff’s boss dispatches an employee to his house. The employee reports back: there are three cars in the driveway, a locked garage. Mail overflowing the box, packages piled on the porch. A garbage can by the curb, full of water.
Now I’m really worried. I call the Tulsa police to request a welfare check. All goes silent for two hours. I can’t stand waiting. I push redial. I’m transferred three times. When I finally reach the officer, he pauses, sounds awkward. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he says, “but your brother is deceased.” The officer tells me that they found him on the living room floor. His body has been sent to the medical examiner’s office.
My boyfriend Steve does most of the driving to Tulsa while I’m on the phone with probate attorneys and funeral homes and the medical examiner’s office, trying to get results from Jeff’s COVID test so we know what precautions to take. It’s negative. I’m relieved. From the back seat, my daughter Sophie makes us a reservation at an Air B&B.
I stare out the window, wondering what I could have done to save my brother, a futile line of thought that I can’t stop following. I’ve tried to save people before. Like the Fourth of July when I called relentlessly looking for someone to repair my parents’ broken central air, worried about the misery of my sick dad in the heat. Someone came to fix it. Within a month, my dad still died. When my mom refused to eat, I drove to the mall for a pretzel that I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist. She still died days later. By now I should understand that when every choice starts to feel like a miscalculation, a mistake, I’m up against forces bigger than myself. Yet I was secretly, irrationally angry at them for succumbing too willingly to death without any burning or raving or raging. If they’d just tried hard enough, I sometimes thought, they wouldn’t have died.
I will write an obituary and eulogy that will neaten up Jeff’s life. Not mention things like how much he hated school, how teachers complained that he was lazy and withdrawn and uncooperative. How his weight fluctuated wildly as he grew to be 6’4’’. How the year we overlapped in high school, as he traveled stalwart through the halls with his pack of friends, I cringed at slick boys with loud voices whose taunts floated behind him. I kept a low profile. I’d been targeted by a similar group of boys in junior high and didn’t want to repeat that. Sometimes I thought that my brother and I saw in each other reflections of our own awkward weirdness and avoided each other because of it.
My family had always seen me as the self-sufficient one. I was six months old when my nineteen-month-old brother contracted a rare blood disease. Mom abruptly weaned me and farmed me out to relatives while she spent nights at the hospital. When they built our house, my parents carpeted the room next to theirs in blue and papered it with brightly colored sailboats, balloons, and trucks. For me, they installed pink carpet and wallpaper flecked with gold and pink in the furthest away bedroom. Now I look back at the messages of architecture and décor: that I was expected to be a small if feminine adult at three, that four-year-old brother was a little boy who still needed them.
But I was always glad to have the room with the most privacy. While Jeff remained sickly, I grew up robustly healthy, logging perfect school attendance. My family disapproved of me for seemingly having things easy and yet still being discontent enough to complain, to chafe at restrictions, to be the first to leave home, to depart sharply from their conservative worldview. Nevertheless Mom was inordinately pleased that I kept a tidy house, ate salads, dutifully had my brakes fixed and my teeth cleaned, and saved for retirement.
Of course I won’t include any of this in my eulogy. Instead, I’ll talk about the video footage that suggests that as babies and toddlers Jeff and I were best friends: he assists me as I take my first wobbly steps, we sit together criss-cross applesauce watching Romper Room. I will mention how my brother always arrived when he felt like it and not a moment before. I will mention his gruff voice, his ready laugh, his ironic sense of humor.
A day and a half after leaving Pennsylvania, we pull up to the curb outside Jeff’s house. Bob and some cousins have arrived ahead of us. It looks like they’re holding a garage sale, furniture spread out across the driveway. “It smelled pretty bad,” says my cousin Bill. “We just wanted to get it out of the house.” The probate attorney said not to remove anything, but really? We should leave trash and cat feces, rags of old clothing, heaps of mail, boxes that were never unpacked after my brother moved here five years ago, a garage full of more boxes that seem to have come from a recently emptied storage unit?
I’m flooded by a sense of shame. I have a vague memory of refusing to enter the bathroom downstairs after Jeff moved to the house’s lower level in his teens. The toilet had repeatedly clogged, overflowed, and leaked until the floor was permanently damaged. Mom gave up on the spaces where my brother lived. She just closed the doors. The whole time I’m in Tulsa, I simply won’t enter those bathrooms. I’ll drive to a convenience store down the street to pee.
The central air in the house broke a few years ago and apparently Jeff never had it repaired. It’s 90 degrees outside and in here the heat is suffocating. My shock and shame renew themselves: how did my brother function in this stifling air? How did he sleep? He made a decent salary, had cars, a camper, a motorcycle, guns, but doesn’t seem to have called a plumber, didn’t replace the air conditioning unit, didn’t mow the back lawn. In the sweltering kitchen, cousins have sorted hundreds of unopened envelopes into piles across the table and counters. I feel at once judgmental and embarrassed and horrified and apologetic, as if my biggest failure is not having somehow saved my brother from living like this.
Jeff’s friend Doug, an attorney, drives to Tulsa to help me sort papers. In the oppressive heat of the living room, Doug says, “How did he live like this? No wonder he liked to visit me in Wichita. We even referred to the guest room as ‘Jeff’s room.’” And then, mournfully, “Was he so ill that he just didn’t have the energy to take care of things? How did I not know that?” He shakes his head, eyes roving the room, as if he didn’t really know my brother, his best friend, after all. As if he had failed him somehow. “I didn’t know,” he kept saying. “I just didn’t know. And you know him. He deflected. He was never serious. If you got too close to the truth, he deflected.”
Later I talk to Jeff’s other best friend, Uche, on the phone. “I’m not that shocked,” he says when I tell him about the state of things. “We used to be roommates. Jeff was just always a mess.” Later in the conversation, his voice is full of sadness as he says, “He was a lonely guy.”
Guilt and remorse and sorrow stab through me, as if there’s something I could have done to change that. In the long silence as Doug looks around my brother’s living room, in the long pause on the phone with Uche, I can almost hear them thinking the same thing.
The funeral home feels hushed, solemn and serious. Bob and I are ushered to a room with comfy chairs, discreetly placed Kleenex, and gravestone and vault plaques on the walls. They are all for someone named Mary C. Matthews, advertisements for the ways we can memorialize our loved one. On one plaque she was born in 1960 and in another 1943. She was a beloved wife, mother, and daughter. She was an accomplished engineer. She was an inspiring English teacher. A talented dancer. A gourmet cook. There are a dozen versions of Mary C. Matthews.
I look at the plaques and I think of the dozens of versions of my brother. The one who made terrible grades but much higher ACT scores than I did and 100 percent in a college chemistry class I barely passed. The extrovert with many friends who was isolated, especially during the pandemic. The one with whom I had long, funny texting conversations that brought us closer during the last few years after decades in which we’d had no relationship.
When we were teenagers, when Jeff lived downstairs and I lived upstairs, I went to school during the day and he worked nights. In our twenties, I’d come home for visits and barely see him. I’d go downstairs for a late night snack and run into his friends in the kitchen. “Who are you?” they’d ask, and I’d say, “I’m Jeff’s sister,” and they’d look blank. They hadn’t known he had a sister.
For three days, we sort through mail and boxes and items, looking for a will that doesn’t exist, locating valuables, renting a dumpster to dispose of trash, and arranging for cremation and a probate process. I flip through the paintings that were hanging on the wall of the room where my brother died. My dad once collected forty-some of these clichéd landscapes that used to make me feel embarrassed about my family’s taste and even more embarrassed by my own snobbery. Now I keep three of them.
Despite a thousand pieces of unopened mail, a houseful of flashlights and clocks, of laptops and exercise equipment, of sock monkey magnets and coins passed down by my grandpa and a ring passed from oldest son to oldest son ever since the first McCabe arrived from Ireland, I’m still trying to figure out how to summarize my brother in a eulogy. We had so little in common: him with his TV shows, guns, cars, motorcycles, electronics, road trips, Jimmy Buffet songs, me with my books and piano, folk music, beaches, walks and bike rides, dance. And yet even during the years we barely communicated, Mom pointed out that independently, while living in different states, Jeff and I bought the same couch and ocean-themed shower curtain. And once we discovered that our handwriting looked creepily alike.
So our relationship was never a lost cause even when there seemed little to salvage. Once in our thirties, Jeff came to visit me in South Carolina. He arrived two days after his projected ETA, went straight to bed, and didn’t stir until 3 p.m. the next day. He declined to stay for dinner and was on his way at 6 p.m., embarking on a ten-hour drive back to Ohio. Maybe we were both nervous that we’d have nothing to talk about. And yet over the years I learned, especially through Facebook, that we had similar ironic senses of humor and appreciation for quirky tourist attractions and impatience with racism and homophobia and social rankings and petty meanness.
After our parents died, he said to me, “We need to make an effort to stay in touch and get together for holidays.” I offered to cook him a Cornish game hen every Christmas, but he never showed up. Once he drove all the way from Kansas to San Diego to see Sophie compete at YMCA Gymnastics Nationals, arriving in the middle of her final event. After his heart surgery, I invited him to recover at my house. He seemed pleased by the offer, but he didn’t follow up.
I organize a virtual memorial service, deliver my unsatisfactory eulogy. The medical examiner’s report comes back, designating heart disease as the cause of death. Eventually, I locate one of my brother’s storage units, in Ohio. Steve and I sort through clothes, photos, tools, tents with missing pieces, fishing poles, a 20-year-old two-pound bag of walnuts. And boxes and bags full of loose and rolled coins and coin albums and proof sets and unused rolling papers. I examine a roll labelled “wash quarters.” I assume they were intended for my brother’s laundry.
I’m on my way to the Walmart Coinstar machine with boxes of change when I remember my dad shaking coins out of his pockets every evening, picking through them, looking for copper and silver, wheat pennies and mercury dimes. It strikes me that Jeff would have never been patient and methodical enough to roll these coins. When our dad died, Jeff must have brought these back to Ohio, and then, when he was abruptly transferred, tossed everything into a storage unit with rental fees he went on paying for twenty years. Through Google, I discover that the wash quarters are Washington quarters with high silver content.
Even though this family legacy sat in a storage unit for twenty years, I feel guilty turning it over to a coin dealer. He sorts through the collection and presents me with a check for $10,000.
I think about the fictional Mary C. Matthews, imagining alternate universes in which the same person can play out multiple lives. I imagine my brother alive in some alternate universe, because how is it possible to die like this at the age of 58? We should have grown old, reminiscing about our childhoods in our 80s. Instead I’m stuck with the job of raging against the light on behalf of everyone else.
And suddenly it occurs to me that Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle isn’t so much about nobly fighting the inevitable forces of mortality. It’s about denial. Because denial makes us feel better, like we have some control.
In the winter, I have my childhood home demolished. Afterward, my cousin Melinda Facetimes me from the edge of Greenwich Road next to what used to be our driveway. The camera pans a wide blur of treeless, houseless, snow-patched land. No chimney, swingset, porch, metal shed, pigeon pen, grapevines, apple tree. All gone, with no sign now of machinery, dumpsters, hardhats, debris. I feel a hollow sense of loss and inadequacy and regret.
Later, I stare at the paintings I’ve hung in my upstairs rooms: A lighthouse in stormy weather. A gothic house perched on a cliff above the sea, windows lighted. A pond with a waterwheel attached to a wooden house. Simple, ordinary lives within walls that will never crumble.
And even though I know there’s little I could have done to save my brother or my childhood home, I feel stricken, the question still lingering: what if I gave up too easily?