By Eliot Gregory
After so many years away, I was back in my hometown. I didn’t know if anyone would remember me. I sort of hoped they wouldn’t. I liked the idea of being a bit invisible.
This was where Bradley and I had grown up. We were fraternal twins and there could not have been two people in the world who were less alike than my brother and I. It often seemed like our birth and childhood had been a cosmic joke.
Bradley had been a football player in high school and he looked like it. At six foot two with eyes of blue he was the stereotypical heartthrob quarterback that everyone worshipped.
No one worshipped me. I was almost the exact opposite of my brother. I was tall, but not as tall as Bradley. I had a ruddy complexion with dishwater blonde hair. While Bradley was the picture of American masculinity, I was wispy and thin. Perhaps the biggest difference of all, at least to our parents, was that I was gay and he wasn’t.
As you might imagine, high school was not something I wished to prolong, whereas Bradley’s glory days were those between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was king of the varsity team. At the time, I was jealous of him for all the admiration he had, but as time went by, I watched how fervently he clung to those memories, as if time might possibly stand still and he could relive them again one day.
That never happened, of course, and everything else that came after it paled by comparison. None of his wives lived up to the girls he had dated in high school, even though at least two of them had been girls he had dated in high school. Eventually, even his children left him as he slipped into middle age and held on to the dreams of a boy.
Even though I had been only a shadow in his life when we were kids, it still hurt me in a primal way to see Bradley suffer as an adult. His failures led to addictions and, before it was all over, the failures won. They were larger and heavier than the few victories he’d had in his youth. I watched my brother give up. He stumbled down life’s road and stopped caring anymore about anything.
I would never have wanted that for him, not ever. But I’ll admit that, after all I had been through—none of which Bradley noticed or acknowledged—a part of me initially felt a bit justified when he came to me for money or needed help sobering up. I admit to feeling a twinge of justice that he had not had a completely charmed life.
The cool autumn air forced me back into the present. I felt a chill walking down the sidewalk. I was in my old neighborhood. The sun was just starting to set but the old-growth trees blocked what warmth might have lingered. I pulled my cardigan tighter across my chest and folded my arms to keep it there. It wasn’t lost on me that this might also be a way of protecting myself from the past.
The neighborhood hadn’t changed much in thirty years. The old homes were stately with beautiful lawns. Some even had the proverbial white picket fence. It was so perfect in some people’s view of perfection, but even as a small child I knew I would never fit into that particular view. I used to think that it was only me who was different, but I have lived long enough now to know that the lives of people – anywhere – are often not what they seemed to be.
Finally, I came to the house where Bradley and I had grown up. It had been repainted probably a half a dozen times since we had lived there and some of the trees had been replaced over the years, but otherwise, it was the same. Or, at least, it felt the same.
I thought back to the sign my dad had pounded into the front lawn boasting his son’s status as an all-star quarterback on the football team. How many Friday nights had we traveled to Bradley’s games and cheered him on?
My eyes lingered on the window that used to be my room. There were shutters now where there had once been curtains. My mother had sewn them by hand. I wondered if the built-in desk was still there. I had logged so many hours at that desk, studying for tests and memorizing lines for the plays I was in. It’s how I earned a scholarship to the school that set me on the path I had followed for the last 25 years. I tried not to think about the disappointment of the boy who had sat at that desk, hoping that maybe this time his parents would show up to the play he was lead in, hoping for the kind of celebration Bradley got when he brought home another victory.
These days I was proud of what I had accomplished, proud of the love and acceptance I had in my life. I could see, though, why Bradley had clung so much to his time living in that house. He had the love and acceptance then that it took me a lifetime to discover. There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents might have been happier if I had not been a member of their family. So, while Bradley stayed locked in the past, I ran as fast as I could toward a future that might be different from what I had known as a child.
A car pulled into the drive across the street and it woke me from my thoughts. I moved on. I didn’t care to be questioned by one of the residents of the neighborhood.
I’m not sure why my feet took me past the old church I had attended as a child, but I did feel drawn there. Church was no longer a part of my life. I came out when I was in my twenties and was told I no longer had a place there. By then, it wasn’t much of a shock and, in some ways, was a little bit of a relief. I was released to go find community with people who would love me for who I was. In my heart, I knew what drew me there now wasn’t the church. It was the cemetery where my parents and Bradley were buried.
I walked under the archway at the entrance to the cemetery, and headed down a small pathway to the family plot. My parents lay side by side under the double gravestone. I ran my fingers over the chiseled names and dates. My mother had purchased the tombstone after my father died not long after Bradley and I had graduated high school. Mother’s gravestone sat for over twenty years unclaimed. Her name and birthdate had been there but there was nothing after the little dash.
Mother died less than a year after Bradley killed himself. Even standing there alone, I wanted to use euphemisms when I thought about Bradley’s death, but the truth was the truth.
All the years of hard living took a toll on him. He hadn’t thought about what he might do after high school. I guess he thought it would always be like that.
He was diagnosed with Type II diabetes when he was in his thirties and it was like nothing to him. I can still see him sitting at Mom’s thanksgiving feast asking if he could have another piece of pecan pie. Then the drugs and alcohol caught up to him. He had a stroke at forty that miraculously didn’t take his life but it left him limping and one side of his face was always a little slower to react than the other.
A few years back, he had confided that he had stopped taking all of his medications. He wasn’t going to the doctor anymore. He was tired of it all. I tried to rally him, to give him reasons to live, but nothing worked.
Now – when I think about it – I wonder why I didn’t jump up and go find his medications and make him swallow them. The truth is, he wouldn’t have done it, and, toward the end, he was just unhinged enough to say I tried to kill him.
By the summer after his stroke, he was in a wheelchair, but not the one he wanted. He was so angry about everything by then, and I can’t say that I blame him. But he wanted to blame me.
“If only I had the motorized wheelchair,” I heard him saying. “I wouldn’t have to rely on you.”
He had ordered one in the spring and by summer it still hadn’t come. He was convinced that was the only thing that would keep him going, and he blamed me because I had not yet called the company to find out what was going on.
I couldn’t get the company to move any faster on the wheelchair, so I tried to be there in other ways. It was no use. When I took him for a leisurely stroll in a park near his house, he screamed the entire time. He accused me of trying to dump him out of his wheelchair and kill him. I’ll be honest. The more he kept on about this, the harder it was for me not to just dump him out of his wheelchair and go on with things.
And then there was the diagnosis of cancer. His dentist found the tumor under his tongue. By then, though, it had invaded his jawbone. I tried not to imagine what he might look like after that surgery.
Surgery couldn’t happen, though. The doctors called Mother and I as next of kin to be present when they broke the news.
“This is the worst case of cirrhosis of the liver I have ever seen,” they said. “His heart is enlarged and the cancer has spread to his lungs.” They couldn’t do surgery, not with all of that.
We sat there in that little room after the doctors left. I remember searching my mind for something to say that would be comforting, but there was nothing. I just looked up at him, into those bloodshot, empty eyes. He was broken.
He had enough pills and things to keep the pain at bay that it would have killed a horse to take them all at once. As it was, Bradley was halfway gone already, so I can’t imagine that it took long for him to go after he swallowed the whole bottle. I try not to think of it, what his last moments were like, but when I do, I realize that it was really his last years that were the worst. He hated his life.
There are questions I could never answer. My poor mother followed Bradley to the grave soon after his death. She just didn’t have the will to go on and I was definitely not enough to keep her here.