by Rosemary Prawdzik
My brother’s eyes followed me, wary and haunted, their vibrant blue undimmed by the stroke that impaired his left side. No trace remained of his former virile power or his dark, wavy hair. He slept now, his chest moving in rhythm with each life-giving breath.
It had been six months since Daniel’s stroke. He could get around better now but having my assistance made life easier for him. Being single and not having children, his busy family viewed me as the natural choice to come to his aid. I doubt my brother agreed.
When the youngest of his adult children, Evan, brought him home from the rehabilitation facility, Daniel’s eyes widened in disbelief when he saw me.
“Jennie, wh-what you doin’ here?” Daniel struggled to speak.
“Well, I came to help, of course. You don’t think I’d turn my back on my big brother do you? My childhood hero?” I quipped. His face flushed under his pallor. He and I alone knew the truth.
“We can’t thank you enough for your help with Dad,” Evan said. “With Mom gone now and all of us stationed out of the country, we just didn’t know how we would manage without your help. We’ve tried to make it easier by converting Dad’s downstairs office into a bedroom; no stairs and convenient to the bathroom,” Evan said with a smile. “It looks like Dad should gain most of his mobility back.” Daniel’s face lit up with Evan’s words.
It had been years since Daniel and I spent any time together. Our lives had gone in different directions; his to the foothills of the Rockies and mine to the West Coast. We had spent some family vacations together when Daniel’s kids were young but communication terminated ten years previously after a heart-rending confrontation between us.
Now as my brother’s caretaker, I administered his nighttime medications, tonight with one extra. It was growing late but I hesitated to leave him. As I watched his steady breathing, my mind wandered back to another place and time, to the people we used to be.
I remember regaining consciousness, lying naked prickled with goosebumps, on the bare linoleum floor. My tangled, dark blonde hair covered my face and I brushed it aside so I could see. The fading evening sunlight slanted through the window of the shabby room. My t-shirt, size 6X hand-me-down pants and floral panties were strewn around me. I lay there for a moment listening, getting my bearings and straining to catch any sounds. Was he coming back? I didn’t hear any movement in the house.
Our family lived in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. The ever-present exhaust and relentless screeching from the train yard at the end of the street were off-set by the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread from the commercial bakery two blocks down. On the nearest corner, train-hopping bums huddled around fires blazing in 50-gallon drums. My mother, vigilant for my safety, often cautioned me to cross on the opposite side of the street away from the bums.
My parent’s bedroom was on the first floor and there were three additional bedrooms on the second floor. My oldest sister, Angie, had one and my sister, Maggie, and I shared another. Daniel occupied the third. It had one door from the central hallway and another leading to the attic. There was a back stairway from the attic that led down to the kitchen.
Even though the attic was dim, it was warm and cozy. It was my favorite hideaway when I wasn’t outside playing with the neighborhood kids. The attic was my haven, my sanctuary, my escape into the world of storybook fantasies.
A shortcut through Daniel’s bedroom was the quickest route to the attic. The alternative was to go down the front stairs, through the living room, dining room and kitchen, then up the back stairway.
“Haven’t I warned you about staying out of here?” Daniel bellowed as he entered his room. I remember dashing to the attic door but wasn’t quite quick enough. Daniel grabbed me as I was half-way through and yanked me back into the room like a rag doll. I was scrawny but wiry and determined to break free. I tried to bite him, bucking and kicking, and prayed, Not again. Let me get away this time. I thrashed, frantic to escape. He just laughed. Tears of frustration rolled down my reddened cheeks. “Can I cry too?” he teased in a high-pitched, whiny, baby voice.
Daniel snatched me up and pitched me onto the floor. Ten years older, he outweighed me by at least 150 pounds. He put one grimy hand over my mouth, pinned my flailing arms with his other and sat on my chest. He reeked of gasoline and engine oil from his part-time job at the corner gas station. “Keep struggling little one,” he sneered, spittle flecking my face. “Just keep it up.” I heaved harder, gasping, in a hopeless fight for air.
All he needed to do was sit there weighing me down until all the air was expelled from my lungs. I knew what was likely to happen but I battled anyway, desperate to dislodge him. He waited. Then my world went black.
When I awoke, I wondered how long I had been lying there. I knew I needed to get away in case he came back. Cautiously, I got up and slipped my underwear and pants back on. There were footsteps and I froze. “You better not make trouble,” Daniel glared at me. “Remember, you’re kid #4. Mom and Dad didn’t want you when you were born and they don’t want you now. You’re just one more mouth to feed. Make trouble and they’ll get rid of you.” With a smirk he turned and left. I heard his footsteps on the stairs and the front screen door slam. Leaning on his bed, I wiped my face and pulled on my shirt. “One day, I swear, I’m gonna kill you.”
The seeming tranquility of my brother’s sick room stood in sharp contrast to the anguished memories of my childhood. The room’s honeyed light shed a glow across Daniel’s peaceful profile. In the breeze from the open window, the curtain sheers and my mind drifted, to ten years earlier, just after my 47th birthday. I had recently broken up with a man I had been seeing. My best friend, Karen, had flown in from Virginia to be with me.
“She just sits on the sofa in her pajamas staring into space. She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t eat. She’s practically comatose,” I overheard Karen explain to her husband on the phone. “No, they hadn’t been together long. From the picture on her refrigerator, he’s not her usual type at all. He’s stocky with dark, wavy hair. What’s really weird is the last time we talked, Jennie said she didn’t even like him that much. That’s why this just doesn’t make any sense.”
Karen ended the call and joined me in the living room. I sat with an afghan wrapped around me, cocooned into the corner of the sofa. “What can I do?” she asked concerned. The self-confident, buttoned-up woman Karen knew had vanished.
“Just stay with me,” I pleaded. “I don’t know what’s wrong and I’m scared. Please, I can’t be alone.”
My long-ago reverie skimmed ahead to the agonizing months after my breakdown. My psychologist and I were well into our two-times-per-week therapy sessions. My friend Karen had been right. My overreaction and depression didn’t add up; there was much more to it.
“When you sat on your sofa that week, what were you feeling?” my therapist asked me yet again. Silence suffused the room and several minutes passed as I sat reliving that time. When I finally spoke, it was in a barely audible, halting voice.
“It took everything I had just to breathe.”
Pandora’s box splintered and monstrous memories engulfed me.
Back in Daniel’s sick room, my brother no longer held any power. The December sky outside the house had turned inky. The wind had strengthened and streetlights cast tree shadows dancing across the lawn.
I gazed at Daniel. His chest lay still. The worn flannel blanket felt smooth in my hands as I tucked it under his chin and turned out the lamp. I stood and retied my robe. As I left, my slippers whispered across the bare linoleum floor.