My older brother appeared much older than I remembered him.
We hugged. “It’s been a long time,” he whispered.
It had been three years. On my dad’s 70th birthday. As usual, he and I had nothing much to say to each other, that particular day.
What would we talk about during this visit, I wondered.
As my husband, Craig, and I followed my brother into the sitting area, I couldn’t help but notice the increasing spread of his waist line; his bald spot, no longer veiled by strands of dirty blond hair. Beneath a plain white t-shirt, his shoulders were a bit more hunched than I recalled, but that bouncy toe-walk hadn’t changed much since childhood.
I had the same walk. One of very few things we seemed to have in common.
He waved us to the chairs across from him. I took a deep breath.
“Well, this is it!,” he said, his self-deprecation instantly lightening the air around us.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Craig said, eliciting a welcome, albeit cagey, chuckle from somewhere deep inside my brother.
It had taken me a year and a half to process this place my brother now resided; to sit face-to-face with this almost stranger who left for art school some twenty-five years ago and barely looked back. Over the years, our communications had dwindled down to the “Happy Birthday” and “Merry Christmas” phone messages, which he rarely returned.
“How are you doing?” I asked, for lack of anything better to say.
He shrugged. “Alright.”
I tried to get comfortable in the lightly cushioned chair. I doubted I’d ever become comfortable with his new address: Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater.
Dave painted a picture—more vivid than the barricaded accounts repeated by my parents—of his case. Life inside. Coping with the unknown.
“I try to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But I have about five tunnels and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to look down.”
While his wife struggled to keep up with the mortgage payments and the wood-burning furnace, and his 15-year old son tried to make sense of it all, my brother struggled with his twenty-year sentence. The fact he would be eligible for parole after serving twelve offered little solace.
“I know I should be in here for something. What I did was wrong.”
Dave had gotten into a fight with a shady character and ended up with the upper hand. In self-defense, with a metal bar, Dave hit the character over the head. Fearful the character would pull a gun on him. “But I shouldn’t be in here for another eleven years. There’s another guy in here who tried to shoot one guy, but missed and killed someone else by accident. He’s only in here for eight.”
The character my brother injured ended up in the emergency room, not the morgue. And, according to reports, he was not even treated immediately, his wounds not warranting urgent attention.
Dave received the maximum fifteen years for attempted murder, but the judge tacked on an additional five because my brother did not have a record. Evidently, his clean record made the crime more heinous, somehow. Other things about the trial, the judge and my brother’s lawyer seemed questionable.
“I have learned to let go,” he said. I didn’t quite believe him.
In the weeks leading up to the visit, I had been struggling with what to do with my life.
Our son would be going into first grade next year giving me nothing but time. Should I give writing a fair chance? Of my many ideas, what should I write first? My mind spun in circles. Should I go back into freelance marketing, which would guarantee an income so we could not only catch up to our accumulated debt, but begin to save for our son’s education? Should I become certified as a personal trainer so I could make my own hours? I kept grasping at ideas, certain about none of them, floundering in self-doubt. Craig told me to relax then, finally, flung one of his sailing analogies my way: “You’re so used to gripping the tiller. Just let go. Trust the boat. It will always point into the wind.”
I looked into my brother’s eyes—once bright blue, now bloodshot and tainted with the grey of despondency—and saw him. Possibly for the first time. I felt his loss of freedom. It gripped me around the neck and practically shook me. It awoke me.
His new lawyer had just filed for an appeal.
“I may have some hard choices to make.” Dave said.
But his choices did not hold as much promise as my own. He could plead to something for less time. Go back on trial. Choices he would have to make if allowed to move forward with an appeal. If. If. If.
My choices were limitless. I realized how self-absorbed I had been about my own ‘struggle’ with what to do with my life. I deserved a hard kick in the ass.
The three hours flew by. We grew closer. It helped that, since his arrest, we had written to each other, exchanging memories and life experiences, building a foundation for a fresh relationship. Knowing the time had come to say good-bye, I fought back the tears.
“It’ll be okay,” my brother said.
We could not hug until we got to the ‘red carpet’, the designated area before the visitor’s vestibule—a kind of lock-down limbo zone between the visitors’ sitting area and the main lobby.
“Love you,” I said for the very first time ever.
After Craig hugged him, my brother whispered, “Love you guys.”
As Dave shuffled over to a different steel door, waiting for it to slide open so he could return to a place he thought he’d never know, Craig and I joined the other visitors packed inside the vestibule.
A couple times, I looked back and saw Dave looking at us with a half-smile. I could tell he was happy we came, but very sad to see us go. We waved to each other as the vestibule door slid closed. My brother’s image skewed behind the bullet-proof glass.
It was at that moment I let go and cried.
Craig led me through the lobby with its soaring ceilings. As we broke into the fresh air, I felt my heart break for my long lost brother. I gripped Craig’s hand as we descended the concrete stairs and began to think about when I could visit again.
More that I’ve written about my brother: