Lifeline

 

by Patricia Feeny

issue 65


MY BROTHER BILLY WAS SHOT AND dumped on a roadside when he was in his twenties. The next morning authorities pulled him from a rain-soaked ditch and unloaded him in the Intensive Care Unit of a St. Louis hospital. The police paid little attention to the attempt on his life: this was Billy’s world, and he likely had done the same to someone else.

***

Years later in Kansas City, Billy was in intensive care again, hooked to life support when we celebrated our brother Matt’s marriage in Emmett, Michigan.

At the time of his illness, Billy was on parole. His crime had elevated him to a federal prison, where he hobnobbed with white collar criminals and worked in the inmates’ library. He was proud of his prison cred. Had body art been widely appreciated in the early 1980s, Billy would have walked out of prison sporting tattoos to commemorate his accomplishment.

The oldest of my parents’ eight children, Billy had fallen ill at thirty-five, days before the wedding of their fifth child, my fourth brother. For forty-eight hours, I stayed with my parents at the Kansas City hospital where Billy’s chest inflated and deflated with precision. Then we caught a plane to Michigan in time for the rehearsal dinner. For my mother’s sake, I affected a sad demeanor as we departed. I’d done my duty. Now I couldn’t wait to get to the festivities and get loaded.

***

Several days earlier, I’d flown from St. Louis to Kansas City after my mother called to report Billy’s sudden illness.

I just talked to him the day before yesterday. Her voice was loud, ripped with panic. He said he had a cold. Somehow it progressed to sepsis.

My mother and I were both nurses; we knew what this meant. A common illness had invaded Billy’s bloodstream at warp speed, attacking his vital organs.

He passed out at home right after I talked to him, my mother continued, barely pausing for a breath. He was in a coma when they got him to the hospital.

After the assault of my mother’s breathless report, I felt like I would fall into a coma, too. But I remained vigilant. I was the third child and lone daughter of the first fuve children. My mother depended on me.

By the time I reached the hospital, the doctors had cracked open Billy’s skull to relieve pressure on his brain, rolled him out of surgery on a ventilator, and deposited him in the ICU.

When I stepped into Billy’s glass-enclosed cubicle, I wrapped my arms around my mother and felt tears gathering in my eyes. She likely thought this was for Billy. I didn’t tell her I was relieved to see him helpless.

My father stared at the floor, as if he had something to do with his son’s condition.

Dad told me he wished he could trade places with Billy. My mother whispered the words, nodding her approval.

My father’s declaration surprised me. He was largely a “hands-off” parent, except with Billy, whom he beat with regularity throughout his childhood. My father showed occasional interest in his other children, if he was home and had just the right amount of alcohol in his system. For the most part though, he was absent, annoyed, or indifferent.

My parents stood at one side of Billy’s bed, his third wife at the other. Billy’s wives were attractive, uneducated, unskilled, and blindly in love. But Billy’s charm seemed to be losing its grip on Wife three.

I have to get tested for hepatitis, she said to no one. Her right hand squeezed her left as she spoke.

Why? I asked.

Billy has hepatitis. The wife said this a bit too loudly, betraying the anger beneath what seemed like a play for sympathy. My mother’s eyes shifted to the floor.

I convinced the wife to leave for a cup of coffee and told my parents to go with her. My father would have preferred a beer, but he would have had to leave the hospital for that. If I thought there was a chance he would, I’d have asked him to bring back a bottle of Chablis. Instead, I asked for a cup of coffee. Our hospital vigil was a rare alcohol-free family gathering.

When the others stepped away, I stationed myself close to the bed, listened to the hiss of the ventilator that breathed for Billy, and watched the drip-drip of the intravenous medications that caused his heart to beat. I considered which would cause his death more quickly—turning off the ventilator or the IV? Such musings smothered the Catholic tenets that formed me. I was too numb to notice.

My mind wandered to the surprising picture of my parents united in fear and grief over Billy’s condition. This was a dramatic U-turn from a lifetime of Billy-fueled conflict. Apparently the stand-off began at Billy’s birth. My mother said my father once referred to Billy as a “thing” when he was an infant: Can’t you shut that thing up?

My father told her, I’m not changing my life for a kid. His father killed himself when he was two; as far as he knew, mothers handled things alone. And alone my mother was, while my father caroused with other women.

When he wasn’t at work or chasing women, my father unloaded on Billy until the son grew too big for the father to knock over. My grandmother had beaten my father throughout his childhood, and he decided beatings were the cure for all things distasteful in Billy. My mother seemed to suffer as much as Billy. She was unable to quell my father’s rages, unable to comfort Billy, unable to protect him from my father, then later, unable to protect her other children from Billy.

***

Billy believed his position as first-born entitled him to ownership of his siblings: two of the boys became indentured slaves to his entrepreneurial spirit. Billy used Brother Two to fence stolen wrist watches, directing him to sell the wares at the brother’s exclusive, private school. Billy understood market economics: he knew where the money was. Despite this, it didn’t occur to him that one of the students might have a conscience and report the jewelry kiosk in Brother Two’s locker. Billy’s commerce landed Brother Two in public school, where he hid his shame in sex and booze.

Billy targeted Brother three as the perfect drug mule: a loyal boy who allowed his older brother to define him. He didn’t question Billy when he said, Pick up a package at the airport.

At twenty-two, Brother Three was arrested and released on bail. Our mother packed him in the trunk of her Buick and spirited him away to another state, where he escaped prosecution.

I couldn’t let his life be ruined, she told me after his safe delivery. I was impressed. Traveling with a loved one in the trunk of a car raised the bar for our family’s problem-solving.

Though Billy didn’t assign me a role in his criminal enterprises, he used me to commit a crime that generated no financial reward, a crime deeply hidden in the 1960s of our childhood. At sixteen Billy used my thirteen-year-old body to satisfy his interest in teenaged girls, fondling me in my sleep until I would wake and chase him from the room. When I reported this to my mother, he used my account as evidence of the boundless imagination of a young girl.

My mother emphasized the hazards of making such a terrible claim against my brother, underscoring her message with, Patty, Dad would kill him.

So you think I made this up? I demanded my mother take a side: either Billy was lying, or I was. I was a liar, but of the expedient and transparent variety: I didn’t steal her candy. I didn’t break the jelly jar.

By contrast, Billy’s tangled stories created a sympathetic boy-hero who was ever-present when disaster struck our family, leaving me forever suspicious of his roles. Mom, I saw that weird kid kill Patty’s cat, he blurted over the pay phone near the scene of the cat-killing. Our little brother burned down half the house, but I saved his life, he crowed to his friends. That episode was recorded in the family chronicles as the day-the-baby-turned-on-the-stove-and-ignited-his-plastic-car-and-Billy—in his underwear—carried-him-out-of-the-house.

Though it took a cunning mind to unravel fact from fiction in Billy’s narratives, I believed my mother had what it took. I thought she would recognize the truth and save me. But I was wrong.

Billy’s really upset. He talked to a priest at school about this. My mother prattled on while her eyes darted from mine to a place over my shoulder. She stood outside my room as if she hoped to dispense with the matter as she walked the hall picking up dirty socks and Lincoln logs. The priest said it’s common for girls your age to fantasize.

I glared at my mother before I slammed the door on her pleas for Billy.

***

Billy never entered my room again. I tracked his movements in our home and stood watch over my six- and seven-year-old sisters. I caught him in their room one night while they lay sleeping in their double bed. Billy lurked on the far side of the room, barely visible in the darkened room, lit only by a slant of light on the edge of the blinds.

Get out. I spat the words across my sleeping sisters. Billy didn’t move or speak.

I said, get out.

Billy turned his head from side to side in search of an escape route. The only way out was past me. He crept around the bed and hesitated as he approached me.

If you ever touch one of the girls, I will kill you.

Billy looked to the floor, then to his left and right. He turned sideways and slipped between me and the bed and out the door.

My sisters said Billy never touched them. He either believed I would kill him or my father would. Regardless of his reasoning, he behaved like a man who feared for his life. He saw something in me he didn’t expect. I wonder if he realized his mistake in not using me in his criminal enterprises.

***

As I sat in the Kansas City ICU, I marveled that I felt no resentment toward my mother. Aside from minimal exchanges of information, I didn’t speak to her for a year after she accused me of slandering Billy’s name. My rage gradually dissipated between my adolescence and my arrival to the hospital.

With Billy, I felt no such softening, even when I saw him helpless in the ICU. Since age thirteen, I stoked my rage without pause. At thirty-two I was a Jekyll and Hyde head-case, fantasizing about killing my comatose sibling while the family sipped coffee in the hospital cafeteria, confident the patient was in good hands.

I watched Billy’s muscular chest rise and fall. His face was clean-shaven, days after his admission to the hospital. The nurses did a good job presenting their patient to the bereft family. A fringe of dark hair peeked from the bandage wrapping Billy’s head.

I imagined him recovering from his freak illness: walking the halls of the hospital, handsome, charming, and towering over the nurses as they stifled girlish giggles. The image brought a shot of bile to my throat.

I settled my panic with thoughts of the other possibility—Billy’s death. I convinced myself God would take his life as payment for his crimes. I knew the God I expected to kill Billy would not condone my righteousness, so I tried to feel contrite. Hate and shame ping-ponged across my mind and set both temples pulsing. I edged into a hospital-induced hypnosis, my world shrinking to the size and sound of the tiny, boxed room.

Struck by a surreal throwback to Catholicism, I came out of my stupor: I imagined Billy wanting to confess, to do penance, to make amends, to close the rift between us. I fell in love with the drama of that moment, imagining a scene that made me wholly good as I helped Billy clear his conscience. I was no longer a murderous sister. I was a savior.

I stood, leaned into him, and whispered, I forgive you.

It took no courage, no character to stage an imaginary confession and absolution. I was safe. I realized this later, but at the time, I thought I was benevolent, even amazing.

I put my hand on his arm. I couldn’t remember the last time I touched him. Then I knew it was before he last touched me. It had been nineteen years.

***

A few days after my visit to the hospital, my parents and I flew to Michigan for Matt’s wedding. The wife stayed with Billy.

Seated next to me on the plane, my mother rattled with anxiety and talked incessantly, her deaf ear toward me. My father sat on her other side, reading the paper, behaving as if he were traveling alone. My mother recounted every detail of the week.

For an hour she repeated conversations with the doctors while my father and I emptied airplane liquor bottles and arranged them on our drop-down trays.

Pat, do you want another? My father leaned across my mother, who continued talking to the air in front of her.

Sure. Let me get this one, Dad.

No, no, I have it. He turned his capped smile to the flight attendant and pressed bills into her palm. Keep the rest. Thanks, Hon.

I smelled second-hand smoke from the back of the plane, hankered for a cigarette, and wondered how soon after landing I, a purported non-smoker, could sneak off with Brother Two and his Marlboros.

My mother never stopped talking and began to obsess over what-ifs: What if they didn’t prescribe the correct antibiotics? What if Billy had an undiagnosed stroke? What if Truman Medical isn’t the right place for Billy to be treated?

I tried to reassure her, but she couldn’t hear. I crossed and uncrossed my legs in the cramped seating. I knew it wouldn’t help to raise my voice, but I did anyway, hoping I could say—and she would hear—exactly the right words to ease her anxiety. She didn’t hear me and continued to recycle each detail of Billy’s condition.

I said under my breath, I can’t listen to another fucking word.

My father, seated on the other side of my mother, heard me and tried to cover his mouth, but a laugh blew out between his fingers. He had my mother’s good ear. She heard him and guessed I’d spoken against her. She shut up and closed her eyes. I could see the hint of tears edging out. I had betrayed her at the lowest moment of her life. Before my conscience could take hold, I told myself I was a saint for all I was doing.

***

The next day my mother turned to me at the wedding reception and said, Dad and I think you’re the prettiest of our daughters.

At first I thought the din of the party distorted her words. Then she spoke more than she had since the flight from Kansas City, detailing the finer points of my features, tracing them to ancestors on each side of the family. Apparently she’d forgiven me and my father for our cruelty and renewed her faith in me, the hypocritical daughter.

My father confirmed the conversation about my features, leaning in, speaking in a low voice. None of this added up, but I enjoyed it immensely. We were all drinking too much. Days later I realized what my parents’ tribute meant: Thank you for coming to Kansas City.

My family made its usual mark at the wedding: we were loud, loaded, and loquacious. We considered those who weren’t in the same state to be stiffs. This pretty much covered the bride’s side of the family. Fortunately, Matt, my newly married brother, had crossed over to her view of the world long before the wedding. He was likely embarrassed by his family but had the grace not to show it. As the band lulled the party with gushy love songs, I danced with Brother Two while I fantasized about a man I had just met in St. Louis, a man who would become my husband.

***

At the end of the wedding weekend, my mother returned to Billy in Kansas City. My father and I each declared ourselves too important to be away any longer from our jobs. I traveled back to St. Louis, and he returned to Illinois. Ten days later, my mother and the wife decided it was time to give up. I think my father flew to Kansas City to be with my mother when they unplugged Billy. She kept me abreast of the events of the day, calling me from the ICU waiting room. It took two hours for Billy to die. I don’t remember anything else.

That evening I had a drink with my future husband, our second date. After a few sips of gin and tonic, I told him my brother died that day.

Oh my God. Don’t you want to be with your family?

They don’t live here. As the words left my mouth I remembered Brothers Two and Three lived in St. Louis. It didn’t occur to me to be with them or with any of my out-of-town family. I feared the new man in my life would know I was deeply flawed.

Anyway, I didn’t really like Billy. As this bizarre explanation hung over the table, I scrambled for words to make me look better, stuttering and speaking too loudly. But the man didn’t seem to notice. He nodded, compassion in his eyes, the first of a lifetime of surprises to come.

***

Billy’s funeral was a blow-out. All the wives showed up, lining one side of the grave, left to right, Wife One, Two, and Three. Wives One and Two tottered in spiked heels that stabbed the earth. Wife One wore a tight red dress and matching pill-box topper, her blonde waves curling at her neck, a white feather jauntily perched on the right side of the hat. Wife Two wore a tight black dress and covered her dark tresses with a broad-brimmed hat that created a two-foot circumference around her tiny body. Wife Three’s apparel must have been nondescript. I recall only a simple hat and the sheen of her light brown hair. Men and women I’d never met mixed in with the family at Calvary Cemetery. Presumably these unknowns were Billy’s friends from his criminal life. As the graveside crowd dispersed, I looked for the strangers, but they were gone. They likely were five miles from Calvary by the time the dirt hit the coffin.

After the burial we invited the remaining mourners to Lombardo’s, a nearby restaurant, where we pushed tables together to show how friendly we were to the Wives and anyone else who endured the hot September day. My mother was delighted Wife One, her favorite, was among the bereaved. We devoured mounds of pasta and reordered pitchers of beer, four or five at a time.

Feeling terrific after the luncheon, I decided it was time to introduce my boyfriend of three weeks to my siblings. I invited him to the after-party at Brother three’s home, where grieving friends and family swayed with booze and the sounds of Led Zeppelin. Brother Two cornered my boyfriend and questioned his relationship with me.

Are you fucking my sister? Yeah you. Are you fucking her? He pointed at me in case my boyfriend was confused. Yeah, my sister. Brother Two was known for his tactless first impressions. But that night he carried on like a jealous lover itching for a fist-fight. It’s a simple question. Are you, huh?

My boyfriend, stunned and sober, stared first at Brother Two, then shifted his gaze to me, unmasked helplessness in his eyes. He was no match for a terrorist mourner.

I grabbed his arm and escorted him away in search of a less combative family member. I spotted Brother three and pushed our way through the crowd. He was happily holding court with some of his friends and appeared pleased to meet my boyfriend. He nodded at him with generous attention while my boyfriend alternated between smiles and condolences, trying to strike the correct note for a festive bereavement on the brink of a riot.

After his death, Billy haunted me. I woke in the middle of the night and thought he was in the house; I lay motionless in bed, straining to decipher the creaks of my old house, until I fell back into my restless sleep. During day hours, I spotted Billy in a bookstore or driving down the interstate. My Billy-sightings caused short, ragged breaths and erratic heartbeats. I told no one, afraid to admit my lunacy: I thought Billy was alive. The magician who conned his way through life somehow faked his death. I imagined how he staged the illness, greasing the palms of crooked doctors and escaping the ICU for a life free of parole officers and police records.

Fear shadowed my life, but I acted fearlessly. I was what some called a strong woman and others called a bitch. I alternated between the two, while I tried to affect concern for my family. I felt nothing.

After each Billy-sighting, images of the early years of my childhood flooded my thoughts for hours. As a young girl, I thought there was no one as funny or as smart as Billy. I re-read my autobiography, penned at age ten, where I proudly announced our relationship: He’s my big brother. In the background of these sweet recollections, the memory of Billy’s screams buzzed and my mother’s pleas to my father hummed: Not his head. Don’t hit his head. You’ll give him brain damage.

Following Billy’s death, my father refused to discuss him. He decided to have relationships with his remaining children, adults who were unused to the attention. My father listened to our stories and paid bills for my sister. He asked me to meet him for dinner when he visited St. Louis. We talked business and politics while we swirled cocktails. I bloated with self-importance and felt ashamed I inflated so easily. I was beginning to love my father.

My mother fell into a depression. I implored her to find a reason to live. Mom, I know you’re sad, but you have seven other children. We need you.

My mother stared at me as if she were deaf in both ears. I saw in her eyes the lacking in me. I knew nothing of motherhood. I knew nothing of death. I knew nothing.

At the end of the second year, a dream of Billy broke my mother’s depression. In the dream, he faced execution at midnight but came home to visit his family before he died. My mother spent the visit pleading with him to flee, to save his life. He refused.

My father said, It’s time to go.

Billy comforted my mother: It’s OK, Mom. This is the right thing to do.

He kissed her goodbye and left with my father.

***

Three years after my mother’s dream, I had my first child, a son. I clutched him and cried into the soft spot on the top of his head while my husband reassured me, his arm across my shoulder.

I knew something now about motherhood. Through its eyes, I saw Billy. I knew the bent curve of his infant arms, the smell of his new skin, the pull of his fist wrapping a nger, unaware of the life ahead of him, unaware he could never please the father who thundered through our home.

I wept for my brother.

I longed for his mother to hold him dear, for his father to use his name.

I thought of my grandmother, my father’s mother, who scorned him as my father scorned Billy. I wondered who loved or failed to love her, if my grandfather’s dramatic departure was the seed of her misery, or if she had been the seed of his.

Though many people rise above life’s horrors, not everyone does. I wasn’t sure Billy ever had a chance. Perhaps he couldn’t do any better. I could afford this generosity. There was no one he could hurt.

As I stroked my precious son, I pitied him, certain he deserved a better mother, a woman made strong with compassion, not a woman who nurtured a ravenous anger far beyond its use, a woman who measured every nuance for its potential harm.

In that moment, breathing in my son’s sweet scent, I knew with chilling clarity who I was and feared I was not enough.