Dancing with my Brother
by Katherine Flannery Dering
I had three brothers, but I never danced with any of them—except in silly, everyone-jumping-around-sessions of doing the Mouse with Soupy Sales. Not even at a wedding. But that changed a couple of weeks before my youngest brother died.
I grew up the second of ten children back in the 60’s, where being an older daughter in a nearly broke, large Irish Catholic family was a sentence to servitude. I faced endless hours of folding cloth diapers and putting little ones to bed, in addition to the obligatory vacuuming, peeling potatoes and doing mounds of dishes every day. I chafed at the way we older girls were singled out for endless chores, while my brothers seemed to have a free ride. My youngest brother, Paul, was eighth of the ten kids, a loving little boy who was not even in kindergarten yet when I left home.
After high school I escaped to a little college upstate, where I was freed from domestic servitude, and I didn’t miss my family responsibilities at all. The little kids—Paul, Ilene, Julie—all welcomed me home when I visited at Christmas and Easter, but we were never close. I was more like a visiting aunt to them. “Kathy’s home! Kathy’s home!” they’d screech with glee. After grad school, I got married and moved to another state, and I hardly saw any of my siblings till I moved back home 15 years later, after my divorce.
The family I moved back to was nothing like the one I had left. Most of the other older siblings had also moved away, and even some of the little kids had married and moved out. All except Paul; he was in the hospital. And there were no stitches or other quick fixes for what ailed him; he had schizophrenia. He had suffered his first psychotic episode at 16, and had never had any appreciable understanding of the world since.
This was no sit-com-funny mental illness. Paul was very delusional and, at times, could be violent. He threatened to rape my daughter one day, and made many inappropriate sexual comments to me. He often smelled of B.O. or stale urine; on more than one occasion we were forced to make him shower and change into clean clothes before he could sit down for a holiday dinner. I was happy to let my parents be in charge of visits and managing his behavior. Still we tried to make him feel part of the family: we all hoped that one day researchers would discover a cure.
Once our parents died, we siblings took turns visiting him at the psychiatric hospital, and continued bringing him to our homes for holiday dinners. When he was released—despite his severe delusions—during the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1990’s, we did our best to try to keep him out of trouble. He cycled in and out of poorly managed “adult homes”—little more than mental institutions without any medical personnel—and into psych wards, where he was committed for stabilization when he went off his meds. On good days, he was working undercover for the FBI, or was Clint Eastwood, relaxing after filming his last Dirty Harry movie. On bad days, a different kind of delusional, he was sure he had been scalped, or that someone had blown his head off.
The other nine of us were living our lives, succeeding (or not) at our jobs and raising our children. But Paul seemed in some sort of Limbo, never better, never much worse, living a half-life.
By 2007 he had developed an insistent cough and fever but had received only desultory medical attention; overworked clinic doctors had treated him repeatedly for pneumonia, but the chest discomfort kept returning. It turned out to be lung cancer. Our little sisters Ilene and Julie got him admitted to a nice nursing home, and another sister, Monica, and I agreed to take turns escorting him to his oncology appointments. (His doctor was afraid of him, and wanted one of us there with him at all times.) Paul’s cancer was not treatable by surgery, so we went through months and months of chemo and radiation. Out-of-town siblings visited when they could.
By now I was 60 and semi-retired, and Paul was 48. Before the cancer, I had never really gotten to know him as a person. He was so little when I moved away, and when I moved back east he was hospitalized and pretty incoherent. As the days and weeks of his treatments went by, though, I found that the sweetness I’d seen in him when he was little was still there, under his confused verbal mish-mosh. And with the friendly, hands-on care he was getting at the nursing home, he seemed more alert and connected than I’d seen him in years. The youngest patient by far in his nursing home, he had been nick-named the governor, for his tendency to shake hands and start conversations with everyone in the place.
For nine months, I began my days either sending or checking emails, as my siblings and I sent out an email to everyone anytime one of us saw Paul, to make sure we all knew what was going on. Who had visited him yesterday? How was he? Patrick had taken him out after work for a pizza. Ilene had taken him bowling. Where did Monica take him for lunch? Did he eat anything or just push the food around? Had the doctors said anything new? Anything the next person should know before they headed over to Westledge, Paul’s nursing home? I hadn’t talked with my siblings this much since we lived together as children.
On one of our sister Grace’s visits from California, she gave Paul a fake Navajo blanket and a necklace of piñon nut beads. Monica gave him a Stevie Wonder CD for Christmas. The necklace disappeared one day, but Paul sat on the blanket and played the CD over and over again on the DVD player his twin sister, Ilene gave him.
“What’s your favorite Stevie song?” I asked Paul as we were driving back to Westledge after a radiation appointment one day. His Stevie was playing on the car CD player. He snapped his fingers and bopped his head and shoulders. “For once in my life I have someone who needs me...” he sang, then stopped. “No one has ever needed me,” he confided, “But you don’t have to worry, Kathy, I need you. I need all of you.” He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.
When we got back to his room, we started up the Stevie again on his DVD player. I didn’t know how to work it, but Paul did. We listened for a bit, and then I got up, took Paul by the hand and pulled him into the middle of the room, coaching him into dancing a sort of Lindy with me.
He smiled as I showed him how to make a bridge with his arm and twirl me under it. “For as long as I know I have love I can make it...” we sang along as we danced. But then he stopped, gasping for breath, and held his hand to his chest.
I eased him onto the bed, and we sat and held hands as we listened to the music quietly for a while. Then I kissed him on the forehead and left.
* * *
That was the one and only time I ever danced with my brother. By the next week, he was having trouble walking. At the oncologist’s recommendation, we signed the papers to get him hospice care. The doctors stopped treatments. From here out we would just try to keep him comfortable.
For nine months my sister Monica and I had traded off nursing duties; I’d spent three or four days a week ferrying him to and from medical appointments. And now we were coming to the end. We visited, but there were no doctors to see, just the diner or a drive.
* * *
It was two weeks later. Paul was dying. I worked part time, and I had been busy most of the day, but I stopped quickly at home, picked up some leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes and hurried to Paul’s nursing home. I was always looking for meals appropriate for someone with no teeth.
This night, I found him sitting with two of the aides and a tiny, mute old woman in the TV room. “Kathy!” he said, and tried to rise from his wheel chair and almost fell.
“Whoa,” his aide, Jonathan said, catching him and helping him into his wheelchair. “Let’s get you set up back in your bed so you can visit with your sister.” The other aide waved and stayed with the tiny old lady. Jonathan wheeled Paul down the hall, helped him walk a step or two, then practically lifted him into his bed.
“My man!” Paul said, coughing, and they high-fived.
Paul looked down at his hands, limp in his lap, trying to catch his breath. I knew a priest had been by the day before and had given him the last rites. Finally, Paul almost whispered, “I’m dying, aren’t I?” When I didn’t answer he looked up.
We sat quietly. I helped him read a few pages of his favorite book, a junior edition of Last of the Mohicans. His hands didn’t work right, so I perched on the bed near his pillows and turned the pages for him, like I used to do when I read to the little kids before bed.
Dings of call buttons sounded the nursing home chorus. The old man across the hall moaned. Paul asked me to set up his favorite James Bond movie on his DVD player, the Roger Moore James Bond, “the one I starred in,” he said.
When Paul drifted off to sleep, I slipped away, leaving Jonathan in charge.
* * *
I was late leaving my house for the nursing home the next day. When the phone rang, I saw Westledge on the caller ID and hoped it wasn’t an emergency.
“I have some sad news,” the nurse said.
I held my breath.
“Your brother passed away a few minutes ago. I’m so sorry.”
“I should have been there,” I said. I was kicking myself.
“No. Don’t worry,“ she said. “You and your sisters were wonderful with him. He wasn’t alone. Two of us stayed with him. I held his hand till the end.”
I was glad for that. And as the days have passed, I’ve realized that Paul was wrong about no one needing him. I realize that I had needed him. I still do.
Katherine Flannery Dering
Katherine Flannery Dering’s memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle, deals with caring for her brother. Her poetry chapbook, Aftermath, will be released fall, 2018. She holds an MFA from Manhattanville College and serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series. Visit her website at katherineflannerydering.com.