by Douglas Light
“Like my hair?” my brother Brad asks, standing under the funeral home awning. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen him, five since we’ve talked. He smokes a cigarette while holding two bottles of Mountain Dew. An uneven shag of dark and gray, his hair is thick except for a small bald spot. He looks awful: his two front teeth lost to decay and his glasses missing the right stem.
Indianapolis. Monday. December 22. The shortest day of the year. I’d been here the week prior for the funeral of a friend. Now I’m back for the funeral of my grandfather.
I give my brother an awkward hug. Playing, eating, fighting. Siblings spend more time together as children than they do with their parents. Yet totaled up, the hours Brad and I were awake, interacting and physically in each other’s company is less than 33,000—less than four full cycles around the sun.
“You take a cab?” I ask. Aside from my rental, there is only one other car in the lot, a gold Cadillac in good condition.
My brother stocks groceries for a living, the graveyard shift. He lost his license years ago to traffic tickets and hitting a pedestrian. The pedestrian walked away from the scene.
The Cadillac is not my brother’s.
“Randy drove me.” He laughs, though nothing was funny. “Remember how long my hair used to be?” Turning, he touches the middle of his back. “Down to here. Mom and Dad hated it.” Short barbs of hair cling to his face. He’d just cut it himself, earlier this morning. “We’ll see what they say now.”
“Denise’s boyfriend,” he says.
I lift my chin—a nod—but don’t pursue with questions.
Denise. His ex-girlfriend. He’d lived with her for nearly twelve years, paid the rent and helped raise her three girls from two different fathers. They’d met working at a 7-Eleven. She slapped him in the ass with a carton of cigarettes and told him he should smile.
He smiled—he had all his teeth then—and they fell into a relationship.
I look out into the rain-glistened parking lot. At 2:30 a.m. this morning, I caught a SuperShuttle van from Harlem to Newark for a flight to Detroit. Layover. A delay due to weather. A short flight to Indianapolis. Finally, a rental car and a fifty-minute drive to the funeral parlor. A long day for a quick trip. Already I’m exhausted and I haven’t even started. Not really.
The air, sharp and cold, slips through my suit jacket and bites my skin. I should go in but don’t want to go inside. Not yet. Inside is the realness of it all: the end of my grandfather.
Brad lights another cigarette off the embers of his last, flicks the dying butt into parking lot. It sparks mildly then dies. “Supposed to get down to freezing later,” he says, snapping the buttons on his jacket closed. “Windchill in the negatives.”
I check the time. It’s whispering toward noon. I motion to his Mountain Dews. “I can put those in my car, if you want?”
“I need them. To get through this.” He adjusts his broken glasses, the lenses ambered from years of smoke. “Remember 9/11?” he says.
I can escape, I think. I can hand Brad whatever money is in my pocket, walk to my rental car, and head back to the airport. Leave before anyone else arrives. End this before it even begins. “What do you mean?” I say, feeling the cash in my pocket. A hundred, a hundred and twenty. I can’t remember how much I have.
“I was the one who got through to you, remember?” he says. “On 9/11. Mom and Dad kept trying to call, but I was the one whose phone worked.”
Blocks from the epicenter that day, I had witnessed the event unfold in real time. Of all the memories that crowd my mind, Brad’s call is not one of them.
Yet that moment, that call, remains for him. Fifteen years later, that’s what he remembers of that day.
A car pulls into the lot, followed by another. My uncle and aunt and my parents.
Brad pulls deeply on his cigarette, trying to finish it off quickly. “Man, grandpa,” he says, smoke pluming through his nose. “This is sad.”
I study my brother. “Yeah,” I say. “It is.”
Thirteen hours per week—the average amount of time a mother spends on caring for her child. That’s 676 hours a year, or 12,168 hours total by the time the child reaches the age of eighteen. A year and a half, all in.
For fathers, it’s even less.
Brad is adopted.
Born to a 13-year-old mother, the two share the same birthday, December 28. His father is his mother’s brother, making Brad’s uncle and father one and the same.
Taken by the state, Brad lived with a foster family for the first seven months of his life. Then my parents welcomed him to our family. For good. A forever home.
I was four years old at the time, my sister seven. All I knew was that I had a new brother.
My parents knew more, knew Brad’s family history and the fact that his atrial septal defect—the hole in his heart—meant he had little chance of living beyond childhood.
“We had our eyes open with Brad,” my father once told me. “Which isn’t to say we knew what we were getting into.”
When we all went to church as a full family for the first time, the pastor pulled my mother aside. “Beautiful boy,” he said. But he was confused. Why adopt? “Are you unable to have more children of your own?”
No, my mother said. She could still have children. But she and my father had decided that adopting a child was the right thing to do.
The pastor ran his hand lightly over Brad’s head. “God decides what is right,” he said. “Not you.”
It was the last Sunday we went to that church.
Connersville, Indiana. The town, once known as Little Detroit for all the auto parts it made, holds few claims to fame: the inventor of Sudoko was born there, and the high school basketball team twice won the state championship.
It’s where my grandfather spent a good part of his 97 years of life.
An entrepreneur, he tried his hand at quite a few things. But it was with a small factory that he found success. Recalibrating machines that once formed door handles and dashboards, he tapped into a $15 billion industry, one that weathered economic downturns.
He manufactured coffins.
My parents. My sister and her two girls. My uncle and aunt. It’s an assembly line of greetings in the funeral home parking lot.
I carry in a box of photos and memorabilia of my grandfather. My uncle brings in two pies: one cherry, one apple. “It’s for afterward,” he says. “A commemoration.”
My grandfather loved to bake, was even featured in a magazine for his skills. Pie was his favorite.
My mother hugs me tightly. A tiny woman, she’d gotten smaller over the years due to a brutal car wreck she and my father had survived and the rheumatoid arthritis that has chewed away at the cartilage buffering her bones. “We’re so proud of you,” she says.
She looks around the room. Her entire family is here, the remaining members. The carpet is a muted moss-green, the wallpaper a sun-bleached beige. Tones of earth. For which we all return. She takes my hand in hers. It trembles. “This is nice,” she says. “Everyone together like this.”
People I’ve known for years are often surprised to learn I even have a brother. I don’t speak of him often. Talking of him means answering questions, which forces me to examine myself and our relationship. It means stirring a caldron of conflicting emotions.
Speaking of my brother means having to accept the fact that things often end without closure. It means having to accept the fact that reasons don’t always exist.
The last time I saw Brad, which was ten years ago, he had a nail embedded in his front left tire. He was driving without a license.
I was in Indianapolis for the day, drove out to Wanamaker, Indiana, where Brad lived, to take him to lunch. He ordered far too much food. He didn’t finish half of it. And he didn’t want to take the leftovers home. It was something he’d done for as long as I could remember. It angered my folks to no end. “Order one thing,” they’d tell him. “If you’re hungry afterward, you can order more.”
“But I’m hungry now,” he’d say and double his order.
I motioned to his tire. “Let’s take the car in, get the tire fixed,” I said and offered to pay.
He’d been using Fix-a-Flat, filling the tire with a can every couple of days. “I’ve got to get to work,” he said.
It was two p.m. He didn’t go in until seven.
“You should come to New York, visit me,” I said.
“I’ll check with Denise.”
“The offer is for you,” I said. I had never been a fan of Denise, no fan of the way she had treated him. Twice she’d left him, returning weeks later in need of money, in need of a place to stay. “I’ll pay for your flight,” I said. “You can stay with me.”
He tapped the wounded tire with the toe of his shoe. “I’ll check,” he said and lit a cigarette.
“It’s his teeth,” my mother said.
August 2005. I was visiting my folks in Memphis. “Who are we talking about?” I asked, easing the car into the garage until the windshield met the tennis ball strung from the ceiling. Perfect, my father had written in red Sharpy on fuzzy yellow ball. I’d driven all of ten feet, my mother switching seats with me in the driveway. She didn’t like pulling the car in.
“Your brother Brad. It’s why he had the issue.”
I turned the engine off. “His heart attack, you mean.” Brad had been raced to the hospital with chest pains. Thirty-three years old, he was the same age Christ died.
Brad didn’t die. He was released the next day with multiple prescriptions and stern warnings: stop smoking, eat better, start exercising.
“He doesn’t take care of his teeth. The front are black with cavities. That’s what’s causing him heart problems,” she said. “We offered to pay for a dentist.”
“We’re waiting to hear from him,” she said. “He won’t return our calls.”
It was three months before they heard from him again.
The L-shaped room holds up to sixty people. My uncle and I set up chairs for fifteen. A small memorial gathering for the immediate family.
A projector shoots images onto a screen. My grandfather and grandmother on their trip to Egypt. My grandfather at work on a project. My grandfather holding me at my uncle and aunt’s wedding. Three years old, I’d been the ring bearer. My tiny tuxedo was basically a jumpsuit with a clip-on bow tie. At the reception, my fast-dance/slow-dance was a hit. Bouncing from foot to foot in rhythm to the music, I’d then manically run in place for a few seconds.
My memories of then aren’t built on the actual event. They’re based on photos and stories from my folks and others. Vibrant and distorted, they’re memories of memories.
When we finish with the chairs, I ask my uncle, “So where’s grandpa?”
He eyes me hard.
“I mean the casket.” The graveyard, the burial—all questions I’d neglected to ask in the days leading up to now.
My uncle smooths his tie. “He was cremated,” he says.
My uncle speaks first, recounting my grandfather’s life, how his determination drove his success. “His one regret, if he had one,” he says, “was not finishing college.”
I speak next.
“I’ve written down a couple of things that made grandpa great,” I say, and then unfurl a six foot long scroll. It gets a laugh.
I’ve practiced what I’d say, gotten down to the point where I can recite it by heart. But a few words in, my voice breaks.
I pause, my eyes pooling.
I glance down at my notes on how my grandfather had let me drive a forklift when I was 11. How he’d let me drive his 1967 convertible Corvair when I was 14. How he’d taken me for a tour of the farm he grew up on in Greencastle, Indiana. “No electricity,” he said. “The whole place was lit by natural gas.”
The copper pipes, he explained, lay exposed in an open, shallow trough that ran alongside the dirt road. “Winters, they’d freeze,” he said. “My job was to walk the lines, find the problem and fix it.”
How? I had asked.
“By lighting a small bit of hay under the pipe, melting the ice.”
From him, I learned that no American president has ever been born in Indiana. Benjamin Harrison was the closest, having spent a good part of his life as a minister in Indianapolis, but he was born in West Bend, Ohio.
Vice presidents were another thing. Schuyler Colfax, Charles W. Fairbanks, Thomas R. Marshall, and Dan Quayle. Indiana reared vice presidents. Only New York had more.
From my grandfather, I learned that nearly half of all American caskets are manufactured in Indiana. It’s the coffin capital of the world.
But looking at my notes, I realize that my words aren’t about my grandfather. They’re not for him. They’re about me, for me.
Memorials aren’t for the deceased. They’re for those left behind. For those who have to continue on.
I’ve failed Brad. There is more I could have done, more I can do.
But then Brad has failed the entire family—and himself. He had all the opportunities my sister and I had. He had more. Yet he’s turned out so differently.
If nurture trumped nature, Brad would be in a far better place than he is now. He’d have his teeth. He’d have finished college. He wouldn’t have gotten fired from 7-Eleven for stealing. He’d never have stolen—or taken a job at 7-Eleven. He’d have understood that qualifying for a mortgage and being able to pay a mortgage are two distinct things. He wouldn’t have lost his home to foreclosure. And he wouldn’t have had a heart attack.
But nature far outweighs nurture for Brad. His birth parents had burdened him with attributes he was unable to rise above. They’d bequeathed upon him with challenges he could never overcome.
The pies are cut. The coffee is poured. Condolences are exchanged.
My grandfather is now a memory.
Across the room, my father lectures Brad on something. His frustration is palpable. Brad shakes his head between sips of Mountain Dew as though to say I’ve got this; I got it.
“It breaks my heart,” I say to my sister.
“Grandpa?” my sister asks.
“Brad,” I say. “It’s not that he won’t ask for help. It’s that he doesn’t even realize he needs it.”
My time is short, my flight leaving in less than three hours. I pull Brad aside, give him a hug. I can’t let a decade pass without my seeing him again. “I’ll call you,” I say. “We’ll make plans.”
“Okay,” he says. His look says Why?
“What do you need?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean—” I break off. “I mean whatever. Cash, help finding a better job. Whatever you need.”
Brad laughs. “I don’t know what you mean.”
I had rented the car for a day. I drop it off after seven hours. Already, the sun is setting.
My phone chimes. A text from my sister. Brad is fine, she writes.
I cross the parking garage to the terminal, a sharp breeze cutting me. He could be doing better, I reply.
Brad has a job, my sister texts.
He has a shit job, I write. He has no front teeth.
It’s 36 degrees out but seems far colder. Wind chill—a formula that vaguely determines the rate of heat loss from our bodies. It’s what the temperature feels like to our skin. But wind chill is not the true temperature. It doesn’t impact a thermometer’s mercury. It’s not real.
But he’s happy, my sister writes. Brad is happy. That’s what matters.
Douglas Light is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. He co-wrote The Trouble with Bliss, the screen adaptation of his debut novel East Fifth Bliss. The film stars Brie Larson, Michael C. Hall, Peter Fonda, and Lucy Liu. He received the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for his story collection Girls in Trouble. His second story collection, Blood Stories, was published in 2015. His writing has received an O. Henry Prize and two NoMAA/JPMorgan Chase grants. For more, visit: www.douglaslight.com.