I remember a black and white photo of my brother. He’s five or six years old, holding up a fish and smiling, his eyes almost closed against the sun. I can’t blame that boy for the man he would become anymore than I can blame that fish for ending up in my grandmother’s skillet. We’re all hungry for something.
It would be easy to blame my parents; I’m sure they blamed themselves. But I don’t, and I don’t think my brother did either. Oh sure, there were probably times when he did, when he remembered the sound of my father’s shouting, or that pinch of disappointment on my mother’s face. All parents make mistakes. They push too hard, let you off too easy. But I went with my mother the day she visited the lady on the parole board. I listened to her plead for my brother’s release. I saw the shame in her eyes. She did her best, as did my father. Their best just wasn’t good enough to fix whatever was broken in my brother. Or my sister, for that matter. Me? I suppose that’s another story. This story belongs to my brother.
In high school he fell in with a bad crowd. It’s tempting to blame those kids, but wrong. Because when we moved across town to get him into a different school district, my brother insinuated himself into a similar crowd at the new school. I’m a mother now, so I understand why my parents sold their older, beloved home and moved us to the plain-vanilla house with no trees. But they must have known it was a long shot. Even they couldn’t have been naive enough to think there’d be fewer asshole teenagers in the suburbs. Kids are kids. The ones at the new school just drove nicer cars.
And there was Vietnam. That war chewed everybody up, even tough guys, so maybe it can shoulder some of the blame. Not long after my brother came home, I remember going upstairs to tell him dinner was ready. His room smelled of vinegar and B.O., almost like barbecue. He lay sprawled on top of the sheets, asleep, his skin gleaming with sweat. Dope-sweat. I knew not to touch him; since he’d come back from Vietnam he wasn’t someone you wanted to startle. So, I kept my distance as I called his name, first a whisper and then louder. He didn’t say anything, but he roused himself enough to turn and look at me. The room was dim, orange from the setting sun, and my brother’s eyes were gold, a faded hazel, his pupils almost gone. I went downstairs and told my mother that he wasn’t hungry.
My brother had been on Methadone maintenance for twenty years when he died. He was fifty-seven. Methadone played a role in his death, but wasn’t entirely to blame. It’s dangerous to mix Methadone with other drugs. Everyone knows that. My brother knew that. At his funeral, they played classic rock, and soldiers folded a flag. His widow videoed the service. I wish I’d told her that she did a good job with the music and the honor guard, but I didn’t. She’d finagled things so that my husband and I were stuck paying for the funeral, plus she was drunk and wearing thigh-high boots. My husband and I just got the hell out of there as soon as we’d settled the bill. I waited until we got to the airport to start my drinking.
Neil Young blames the needle, but he’s wrong. Yes, damage was done, and yes, comparing a junkie to a setting sun is a kick-ass simile. But the thing is, if it hadn’t been heroin it would have been something else. When self-destruction is where you’re headed, there are plenty of ways to get there.
Okay, so this is where things take a hard left turn. Originally, I had a short paragraph here that tied everything up, talking about how even though I’d lost the photo of my brother, I’ve learned its lesson, blah, blah, etc. … It was a satisfying ending, and true when I wrote it; I hadn’t seen the picture in years. I probably should have just left it alone. But every time I thought about that photograph something tugged at me, and that sense of unease—added to the fact that I’ve never been very good at leaving well enough alone—is what led me to pull out those dusty boxes and start digging.
Layer after layer, box after box, I shifted and sorted. And then there it was. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the photo I’d been thinking of—the angle is right, with the windows of my grandparents’ lake house in the background, the corner of a white table in the foreground. But it’s also completely wrong, since there I am, standing next to my brother. It’s my raised fist that holds the stringers, and there are two fish, not one. If I’m five years old in that picture—and I know I am because I’m wearing the Mighty Mouse shirt I wore almost daily then—my brother was fifteen when it was taken. He looks it—awkward and lanky, his pants too short. His hand is wrapped around my forearm, helping me lift the weight of the morning’s catch.
I told you this story belongs to my brother, and it does. But the truth is he’s holding on to me, and we’re both lifting up those fish, both smiling, our eyes almost closed against the sun. And this brings me to a place I wasn’t planning to go, to a lesson I’m not sure I am ready to learn. Because if I’ve really decided to stop blaming that boy for the way things turned out, then maybe it’s time I afforded the same kindness to the girl in the Mighty Mouse shirt.
About the author:
Melissa DeCarlo’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Connotation Press, PMS Poemmemoirstory, A River & Sound Review, and others. Her somewhat neglected website/blog can be found at melissadecarlo.com