“I owe this man a lot,” my father said as we drove to pick up my uncle Timmy at the airport, after I asked him if it was any different having a sibling when you’re an adult or did it feel the same? We were traveling companions on a Sunday morning. I felt loose-limbed and spirited. One-on-one time in a car was rare for us. Normally we rolled as a trio and there wasn’t somewhere for me and my father to be that wouldn’t have included my mother. But those trips to the airport were different.
The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” always seemed to come on the radio, which was our favorite song, from a singing standpoint, because I’d do the “you say goodbye” bit and my dad jumped in with “and I say hello.” Paul McCartney sang both parts of the line on the record, but I liked how my dad and I just naturally understood to divvy it up. I’d even think maybe the Beatles should have tried it our way.
My father didn’t call Timmy his brother on those rides. Or, “your uncle.” Was always, “this man,” as if my father were pushing for a grander scale than mere siblings. But he could have been talking to himself. I never thought, “here is where I reply.”
The one interposition I’d wish to make would be to say, “I owe you a lot.” Encode a message in those words that he would know and understand, silently thank me for, but also be aware that that is not why I said them.
My dad used to have another family. Another girl. She’d have been my sister. Was my sister. My sister died before I was born, and my dad and my sister’s mom died a while after that, which is how my mom first explained it to me. Sounded more like a fairy tale, because they weren’t really dead.
My dad couldn’t live, is what I was supposed to understand. Couldn’t take care of himself because he didn’t want to. And he went to stay with my uncle Timmy, who had his own wife back then, because that was before Timmy drank and he had to come to visit us for help like my dad had gone to him.
“What can I do?” I’d ask mom, when it was time for a Timmy visit. A phone call would have come in. My father had spoken into the receiver in the tones of early morning, even though it was sometime in the night. It was always night when the word became official.
“Right, Tim. Use the card. No. Of course. Maxie and me and will be there.”
Those conversations were inevitably in earshot, it seemed. Or else perhaps I just walked towards them as they were unfolding. If I was bouncing a ball, I stopped bouncing it. If I had milk in my mouth, it stayed there for an extra few seconds before I swallowed, and I could feel the difference of its warmer temperature against my ribs when the liquid finally went down.
I pretended to be a doctor a lot, and had my mom said, “Timmy could use a check-up,” I’d have rocketed into action once we had him back at the house. Got my toy medical kit and tapped his knee with a plastic hammer, told him to open his mouth so I could look down his throat with a flashlight, then prescribed a Popsicle. When in doubt, write a Popsicle scrip.
She’d say, “Just be you,” and I’d give my dad a look like, “Is this lady serious?” and I knew from how he looked at my mom that she was.
I wouldn’t let Timmy out of my site as I did my part of our familial togetherness and the being of me, the funny phrase I’d use in my own thoughts. We watched basketball and high-fived in the family room. He was an ace with numbers and I even liked my math homework when we did it together. I knew not to tell either of my parents that I never wanted him to leave, because I did want him to leave when he wanted to, which I figured is what my dad had once done. That’s why we had our family. It was even why I had me.
I had this fantasy, or maybe it was a dream—I wasn’t sure what term to use—where my dad would have found a way to meet my mom, and for me to come into their lives. No matter what. The coming. The going. The ferrying. I knew it wasn’t true, but I didn’t totally know it wasn’t true. That was the dream. If he had to leave someone else. Other people. Somewhere else. Leave my sister. And if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have been happy. I hated myself when I realized what I’d been thinking. Because I didn’t want anyone to be hurt. Not her. Not my dad like had been. I’d thank God that he had Timmy.
Each time Timmy came, I’d thank God that he had us. Especially now that he didn’t have a wife. She’d helped my dad as well. Was just as big a part of it according to my mom who was my primary source regarding my dad and who he had once been. But he drank her away. Timmy did, that is. I heard my mom use those words, and I couldn’t understand. Figured it was an expression adults used. Like “down payment,” and “power of attorney.”
We’d only have Timmy for a few days because he’d give in again, which was the official term of the house. I didn’t know what went on when I was at school, only that the three of them were in the house together. Those were the days my dad took off work and I don’t think he budgeted for future days, what he’d do then, because a Timmy visit was an evanescent entity that I’d try to classify from the start as the positive form of a passing.
I’d want to regard it as the dawn, or the tree on Christmas morning in that final second, after all of the weeks of anticipation, before you see it. It’s a precious second, and it’s the last of its kind you’ll have for a year. Would you even want it to be extended? Or is what matters that a version comes again? Until it doesn’t. But you have children, and that second is felt through them.
My sister had four Christmases. I figured she would have remembered one, and I wasn’t sure if it was better to hope she was kind of blasé about it, or it was the best morning anyone ever had. My reservation was for my father, who would have remembered the full quartet. Who would have had those seconds again with me, through me, only they wouldn’t have been seconds, nor measurable by time, and that’s I how I tried to look at the visits from my uncle, so long as they continued to come and were happier for him—or maybe easier is the word—than those immeasurable seconds were for my father.
I asked my mother if Timmy could die, and she said that anyone who opens their eyes on any given day can die, which struck me as a spooky thing to say to a kid, as if she’d lifted the line from the Brothers Grimm. Mamma Grimm, presiding over the roost. Teaching the siblings. But she added, “And it’s another chance to live.”
When my mother’s mother died, she was crushed. My dad had shown me how to gut a fish not long before, and in our basement we’d turned a freshly landed, coruscating rainbow trout into a bleeding, dripping mess, the belly hung open in such a way that I hadn’t even laughed as my father said, “From mouth to anus," before making his one, smooth slice. Those were travel words—mouth to anus. A journey along the course of a body and of a life. Stem to stern. To and fro. Was and is. Fetch and ferry.
My mother reminded me of that trout, its entrails like so many tails that had been there all along, only now you could see them, with this untucking that had come from the hand of another, but still beautiful, reflecting and transforming the light of the funeral parlor that put me in mind of the nurse’s office at school. I hadn’t seen her cry until then, but my dad must have known what was coming, because when we got to the funeral home, before any friends and family, he took her up to the casket. I was kind of left to fend for myself as I followed, which surprised me. That I should be trusted that way. Or thought strong enough that way. But there was Timmy, who held my shoulders from behind, stopped them from doing what I was certain they’d otherwise do and drift into the far corners of the room. And it wasn’t because of anything else save that one particular man who held them for me. Or so I decided to know.