This story is about three of the people on this solid earth. This story is about them in the middle of September up until now, and it is about them before that time and after. It is about the people they knew or know or will know, too, and indirectly, it is about the ground beneath them. In fact, I don’t know what this story is about, and that is part of the story. One of the people you know: me. One of the people is my brother Charlie. The third person is a named Bob.
In the middle of September, I drove the five hours north from my Oregon home to a writers’ conference in Seattle. I had been working doggedly to polish the latest draft of my novel. At the office, I was working on three manuscripts on environmental and genetic effects on plant traits, but those would have to wait: at sixty-two, I’d never been to a writing conference and was eager to go. At home, I had finished a second pass at overhauling my daughter’s bedroom so that when I returned, I could set it up for exercise and crafts. When I was almost to the venue, I pulled over, put the address in my GPS, and continued, relieved to have a machine tell me where to go.
In the middle of September, my brother Charlie, sixty-three, came home from a long run in the Indiana woods. A senior manager and scientist at a medical equipment company in Indiana, Charlie had a busy job with his management, synthesis, internal reporting, and presentations to visitors, but he also squeezed in time for research—not part of his job description—and exercise–a constant part of his life. He had recently returned home from a meeting in which he presented work on the physics behind the formation of pressure wounds like bed sores, but now that he was home, he could run his familiar haunts, pound the trails, look for signs of animal life. Back in his empty house, he recorded his exercise on yet another line in a spiral notebook in the unbroken series of records he had kept since junior high.
In the middle of September, Bob and his wife settled around a table with other family members to celebrate his seventy-fourth birthday. Bob’s life was full of family and work—he still did substantial work as a civil rights lawyer in the Baltimore area. Particularly important at that moment was a pro bono case involving a man who had been imprisoned too long for a crime he had committed a lifetime ago. Bob pulled the wrapping paper off a small package. He rotated the cardboard box in his hands. He read the words 23andMe as his wife would have spoken up: “It’s a genetics test. I thought you could try it and see if you can turn up any relatives.” Bob would have closed his eyes, nodded with humility, then kissed his wife. “That’s a thoughtful gift,” he would have said.
~ ~ ~
In late September, Charlie called me from a path by a reservoir. “I just took an eighteen mile run. I could run for another hour. I decided I can do that now,” he said, referring to his comfort, finally, in the decision to finalize the divorce from his wife of four years. She was little involved in his life and most of the time lived elsewhere in the state. We talked about retirement. Where would he move in six or eight months when he stepped down from his job and became a part-time consultant? What else might he do? I talked about my enjoyment of non-science writing as a change from my career work.
A couple of days later he called from the same reservoir. “Oh, just saw two otters,” he interrupted himself. “Beautiful creatures.” Then he asked, “Remember what Dad said Uncle Mickey always said? ‘I wish I knew where I was going to die. Then I wouldn’t go there.’ ” We laughed at the snippet, which had probably been stated in the 1930s. We dragged up a few other ditties from relatives deceased and wondered at their longevity.
The next day was September 26. Charlie was hospitalized for a series of small strokes. He was released in three days, with the news that there had been surprisingly little brain damage, but there was still danger of clots from an unknown source. A few days later he checked in for abdominal pain. A scan showed masses that were suggestive of cancer. His diseased liver would have been the source of the clots. His next trip to the office was to HR and to his desk, which he cleaned. His work was over.
In the first half of October, the cancer was identified as pancreatic that had spread to his liver. His wife moved home. Our older brother, Rog, arrived for a visit as Charlie’s wife left for a week-long family function. Taking advantage of the quiet, my brothers drove to the reservoir where Charlie had so recently run. They talked as they picked up rocks and tried to skip them, but the rocks were sharp with fossils and did not skip well. They scanned for otters and beavers. Charlie marveled at the leaves that were now more pale gold than green.
In Oregon, I fell asleep with difficulty. I would wake up with peace that a moment later would be suffused with angst because something was terribly wrong because Charlie was terribly unwell. I tried to carry on. I bought three lilacs and planted them in deep holes in rocky ground. Lilacs reminded me of old places, old times. I had the thought that Mom, two years gone, would never have let that cancer come on. No, that thought was not fair. It was pancreatic cancer. Bad luck was what it was. Random was what it was. Random happens, get over it, I told myself.
At least Roger was there helping and listening, or doing whatever it was I was sure we needed to do.
And I had a job to do in Oregon related to Charlie’s disease: to talk to Dad, to help him make sense of the news. Dad is hard of hearing, so I gathered information, and filtered it very little because Dad always expects extreme honesty from us. He trusts that we will tell him what he needs to know. But little information came. Day after day, we knew little more. We would re-hash what we knew. Dad’s eyes would rim with shine, but he would say, “Charlie has a very good life. He has had a happy life and a good one. He still does.” He’d kiss me, and I’d feel I had mistaken the roles: Dad and I each had a job to do in Oregon: to be honest and talk with one another.
But by late October, it had been more than a month since Charlie had heard he had a terminal cancer, and yet he still had not started any treatment. As far as I knew, treatment had been offered, but paperwork had not yet cleared. How could everything take so long? I worried. Dad worried. I knew I had to go to Indiana to see Charlie, to learn more, to help, to do something somehow, to call home and tell Dad more.
Rog picked me up at the airport, briefed me about the certainties and uncertainties, areas of tranquility, and areas of distress. There wasn’t much to report, but he explained, with patience, that appointments had come at their scheduled pace. Results had trickled in. Charlie wanted us to stay in the house, but Rog prepared me: Charlie’s wife had hauled the guest mattresses to the basement. That was where I would stay.
It was an immediate comfort to see Charlie. He looked good and mostly acted well. But I didn’t have much access to him. He had his wife, some visiting friends, and a need for sleep. The basement was musty and moldy because no one had cleaned it since it had flooded. I washed the walls and vacuumed, feeling I was doing something. I made a casserole and brownies, first buying ingredients, then going to Goodwill for pans to cook them in.
On Friday, October 26th, two days after I arrived, Charlie had his first chemotherapy treatment. I bustled in after dropping Rog at the airport. Charlie and his wife were in a bay of their own. They sat quietly, Charlie in a recliner, his wife in a chair at his side, her hand on his leg. They faced a garden of lovely grasses, pebbles, and a pastel fall sky. My chair, a loaner from a nursing station desk, gave me a different view altogether. I faced Charlie and his wife, the equipment that monitored him and dripped into him, the rolling carts. Staff dashed in the corridor behind him, purposeful in their scrubs.
The talk in that bay was mostly to the medical personnel. It had the rhythm of a thesis defense: question (from Charlie); then pauses, assumptions laid out, and responses (from the nurse). Follow-up questions (from Charlie). A new line of questioning from a different angle. Then Charlie reviewed his schedule. On Monday he would get a port installed in his chest for future chemo treatments. He asked, would he would be sharp for Tuesday because Tuesday he and his wife would go to court. Their opposing lawyers had been putting together their cases for divorce for more than half a year. The nurse made no promises.
But on Saturday, Charlie felt unwell. Not horribly unwell, just low on energy. Old friends were calling, family was calling, and a few work friends, tentatively, were calling. He was stressed. Perhaps we had pressured him to try chemo; perhaps we pushed too hard. Many of the calls didn’t get to Charlie. His wife discouraged calls, sometimes quite actively. Some people called me. Outsiders, like I had been until recently, were confused. Why was treatment taking so long? Had he had second opinions? Was his wife going to stay? Were they getting divorced on Tuesday?
His wife, in her turmoil, had enough. She snapped. Anyone might have snapped. She really, really snapped. And that was her right. I became aware of my questions that had been subconscious. With his wife having returned, with neither of them in a state to talk about home repairs, obituaries, getting a yard service, or checking out hospices for when the time came, with them content to eat the frozen chicken paddies, popsicles, and fresh grapes they were used to, what did I expect I would accomplish? I could not have the quiet tête-à-tête’s with Charlie that Rog had had when Charlie’s wife was gone, when Charlie had felt a few weeks better. My timing was off, way off. My sense of purpose was senseless.
I would leave for four or five days. Come back briefly, stay in a hotel, get a rental car, then fly home. I told Charlie and his wife my plans. She said, “No, you don’t have to go, it’s up to you.” He said that too, but I could see they needed me gone.
~ ~ ~
It was still Saturday, October 27, three days after I had arrived.
At midnight I sat at my computer at Charlie’s home desk. Charlie and his wife were upstairs asleep. Bob, in Baltimore, was at his computer, palms sweating.
On chat, I told my daughter I wanted to leave Indiana, to visit her in Washington, DC for a few days. I assured her I wouldn’t expect much of her time. As a first term law student, she had little latitude to entertain me. She wrote that a visit was fine.
On Travelocity, I compared airfares. The best one would depart in ten or eleven hours. I made the reservation.
On AirBnB, I found a “garden apartment,” almost a basement, across the street from my daughter’s. I sent an inquiry. The owner approved.
On e-mail, I opened a new message from 23andMe. “Barbara, a relative has sent you a message,” it started. The relative’s message was, “Barbara, 23andMe indicates we have 804 relatives in common, but you are indicated as closest, as possibly my niece.” There were more words, polite, to test my willingness to engage. Of course I was willing to engage. I skipped to the name: Bob. A male.
My breath quickened. I had no unaccounted-for uncles, all uncles were dead, and none were named Bob. Mom was the youngest of eleven children, many of whom died in childhood. Her mother died when she was an infant, and Mom would have been ninety if she had still been alive.
I opened the 23&Me site. Bob and I shared twenty-nine percent of our DNA and only one copy of every sequence, not two. We had the same maternal haplotype. These traits ruled out every relationship except two. And Bob was not my uncle.
I wrote Bob my mother’s maiden name. Bob wrote me that an identical name was on his birth certificate. “I am rarely at a loss for words but must admit that I have found the past hour a bit awesome,” he wrote. Bob was my half-brother.
I woke up Charlie. The three of us—Charlie, Bob, and I–reveled in our separate awes. Charlie: “You’re losing a brother and getting another.” Bob: “I found my birth mother’s family.” Me: “I don’t think she could have done this. But it’s undeniable.”
~ ~ ~
Heidi from the book and the film was my image of Mom as a girl. She was smart, dutiful, pretty. She ran from place to place with a curtsy, fixing what needed fixing and leaving a trail of wholesome happiness. She had been shuffled from family to family and house to house in rural West Virginia. She was first raised by her oldest sister who had a baby Mom’s age. On weekends, Mom and her nephew walked the three miles from her sister’s farm to her father’s for a stay. When she was middle-school aged, she moved to a town where two other sisters had moved, one for college and one for high school. There, she stayed in a couple of boarding houses and then with at least one family; I don’t think those arrangements worked out well for her. She may have been fifteen when she and her sisters moved to Baltimore. She graduated from high school at a Baltimore area school at age sixteen. Here I had to revise my story because three months after graduation, my smart, dutiful, curtseying, giggling mother gave birth to Bob.
Like Mom, Bob grew up around Appalachia, but he now lived in Baltimore. His father moved him away from his first mother, and then he got a second mother. He grew up. Lots of things happened. But when he was twenty-seven, he saw his birth certificate for the first time and learned he was adopted. He revised his story: his first mother had been his second, his second had been his third. He read the names of his mother and father, and he imagined. Someone told him that his father was a GI who went to World War II and died there—Bob’s birth year was 1944. Someone told him that his birth mother had been a teacher in upstate New York. After forty-seven years of repeating stories someone had told him, Bob now had to revise his story again.
~ ~ ~
AT 11:44 am on Sunday morning, October 28, my plane landed at the Dulles International Airport. I stood. I walked off the plane. Waited for my gate-checked bag. Rolled it. Looked for a bathroom. Splashed my face, dried it, put on face lotion. Brushed my hair, pulled it back. Found a drinking fountain. Drank. Then I walked out of the concrete airport into the yellow air. At a little past noon, twelve hours after I learned that Bob existed, I shook his hand and stepped into his car.
~ ~ ~
What do I think about the ground below my house, below Charlie’s house, below the house Bob lives in? Nothing. I do not consider the ground below me. I do not consider that I depend on what is below me for anything. I don’t consider what the consequences would have been had it been molten lava, melting ice, or jagged rocks that spare me from injury only because a heavy blanket on top of them that has not eroded away. I don’t consider that the ground below me could hold relics, truffles, or substances that could transform the world. I don’t think about the ground below me: it is just there.
~ ~ ~
I met Bob several times over the next few days. He is a nice person, has a pleasant and interesting family. He leads what appears to be a laudable life that he seems to enjoy. I want to know him better. I had a good visit with my daughter. I froze food for her like I thought I would for Charlie. I walked with her to the metro in the mornings. We shared quick dinners and morning coffees.
Then I flew back to Indiana and saw Charlie again. Four or five days later, I realized that even though a few things were different, everything was still the same. Charlie is living. Living is an ongoing process, the same process he was engaged in before he got cancer. He is less uncertain now about the place where he will die. He and his wife stopped the divorce. She is back with all her energy. When Charlie enrolled in hospice care, he designated his wife as his hospice caregiver. Things different, things the same.
Bob is still busy with his work as a civil rights lawyer. Between appointments and hearings, I think he reads what we send him, including an autobiographical sketch Mom wrote. I think he looks at the few photos we e-mailed, asks if he might look like Mom (yes, he has a strong resemblance to her) or a young man who may be his biological father. Knowing her high school, he has been able to look for the yearbook. I imagine Bob has talked about what it means to have this new family. I imagine that his wife will have answered back, “Yes, this is interesting, this is good. But don’t forget, you grew up with a family. You share DNA with this one, but not much more. Or do you?” And I imagine Bob will have responded, “Thank you for grounding me again. This will be a journey. I don’t know all of what this means, but I am glad to start finding answers.”
I returned to Oregon. I returned to my papers at work and to my writing. I returned to Dad. Rog and I told him about Bob who he had not known about. Dad said it was remarkable that he could learn something new about his wife, and yet that nothing in his thinking about their love and their relationship had changed.
I had an urge to clean up, square up, finish up anything, something. I had an urge to do a jigsaw puzzle. I wanted to know what happened in Mom’s world in 1943 and 1944. I went to the photos, which I considered the accurate records of the past.
The photos were in disarray. There were boxes, boxes, and boxes of them, loose photos, sepia or black-and-white or faded color. Photos were mixed with letters and other objects like camera lenses and crayons, photos were curled back to front in their original yellow sleeves or tiny manila envelopes. Some had been ripped off black photo album paper and others were still affixed to it on ripped-out pages. I pored over the photos in my parents’ storage area and in our basement. There were too many; I couldn’t keep track. I brought the boxes from both storages to my daughter’s room that I had so triumphantly cleared. I set up file folders, and I filed, shuffled, compared. I began to identify people.
I saw Dad and Rog. I worked on my papers. I was concerned about Charlie. I drafted his obituary at his request. Dad, Rog, photos, my papers, Charlie. I wrote Bob or called him. I scanned photos and sent them to him. Worked on papers. Talked to my kids. Responded about Charlie to his friends and to family. Sorted photos. Sorted more.
The photos disappointed me. 1) They didn’t tell me dates or names, just clues at best. 2) They froze acts that may not have represented what the participants would have remembered. 3) They reflected the mood I had when I looked at them. Partial smiles, startled eyes, formal groupings with this person’s hands draped on that one, that one a little too far away. I’m in a lovey mood? They told me this person was flirting and those people were inadvertently mis-arranged. I’m feeling nasty? They told me that a brief smile was only for the camera and that the people could not stand close enough to be civil. And worst, 4) no one much cared about the photos, or so I felt. A lot of these photographed people had died, and there was no one living who would know their names. Charlie will die, as will I, and you, and everyone. Who was I curating the photos for? My children don’t ask what their ancestors looked like. What sort of legacy did those ancestors leave, if not documented in their photos that purported to show their actions, co-occurrences, and whereabouts? What legacy would Charlie leave? What legacy would I leave?
I was tired and in distress. I declared, “These photos are not our legacies. I should hope not.”
~ ~ ~
After Thanksgiving, I am in a lighter mood.
Bob had Thanksgiving dinner with his wife, extended family, and friends. Charlie had Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and friends from work. My daughter had Thanksgiving dinner with her boyfriend and his East Coast family. I had Thanksgiving dinner with my husband, father, brother Rog, son, and some of their spouses and partners and friends.
I am richer for my interactions in the present. I integrate the past, sometimes the very distant past. I am a living integration of the snippets from Uncle Mickey via Dad, the stories of Mom in a boarding house, the visits with my son and daughter, Dad’s reaction to his new step-son, and my reaction and Charlie’s and Rog’s to our half-brother Bob. Memory chains build forward from our earliest ancestors. Usually, I am unaware of what I am integrating, just as I am unaware of what I tread on. I tread on something that came before. If the ground were not beneath me, if my legacies were not here, I would not be here either.
A photo, an e-mail from 23andMe, a memory, or memento: they shove me toward clues of who I am, what I am, that I am. That I am connected to lives before, after, and around. That I am part of humanity. Some of humanity’s stories stay the same; others are being revised. By us, the living. The stories we revise are based on what came before. We are revising them in reaction to what comes now.
And what comes now are more of Charlie’s important days, Charlie’s strong love with his back-again wife, his time when he can connect his thoughts together. My time with family and work and writing. Bob’s answers and new questions. The whole ball of us—siblings, parents, spouses, new families, friends we remember, friends we forgot or who we have not yet met—all of us who tread on ground. That whole ball of us and the subtle legacies that have buoyed us to where we are, is all there is. All there is: all. All is a lot. We embrace each other: that is what people do.
Good job. Tough topic.
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Barb, I was literally just thinking of you and how your brother was doing. This is an incredible essay. What a ride you’ve been on.
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Thanks for thinking of us, Amy.
That article was amazing , your thoughts and emotions were beautifully expressed
It’s a difficult but interesting time of your life and you embrace with understanding and love
Lots of love Sue 💕
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Thanks so much, Sue. I appreciate your reading it. The process of writing and hopefully sharing helps me a lot. Lots of love back to you, Barb
Barb, what an incredible story! I am warmed by the love you all have for each other. Please give our love to everyone and know you’re all in our prayers. Love, Judy and Ed
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Beautifully written, Barb. So incredibly painful to read, knowing all the players (aside from Bob), and Charlie… I think the word “grace” applies to your words, your life, Charlie’s life… I wish I had known Charlie was going through this–I remember touching base with Rog this last summer asking about Charlie and the focus at that time was Charlie getting out of a toxic relationship. I saw the pictures y’all took with Charlie this last month and it’s so distressing to see his smile and attempts to make all around him feel okay only to know that in a few weeks he would be gone… Peace to you, Rog, and your Dad; there are no rest-in-peace kind of thoughts I can muster, as the world is a lesser place with Charlie gone. Rex