My brother’s keeper

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Our house phone number is one digit different from a pizza place and one other digit removed from a doctor’s office. Drunks call late at night wanting pizza. Sometimes I take their orders, telling them that tonight, just tonight, the pizza’s free! And we’re giving away beer! And it’ll be right over! On a few occasions I’ve dispensed medical advice.

Alas, most often when the house phone rings someone is trying to sell me something I do not need. So I rarely pick up. But this night the phone rings and rings and for some odd reason I answer it.

My brother in Maine has had a stroke.

A stroke?

I have two brothers. Both younger. Irish triplets. Born within a few years of each other. We are not close and our late father would tell you we have spent our entire lives arguing or one-upping each other. But we remain fiercely loyal in some weird tribal way. We do not hug, but we do not let each other down. 

My brother is all alone. He is not married. He moved home to Maine after years of living in New York City. He lives on an island. Alone. He has no one else.

Centuries of Irish-Catholic guilt and remorse kick in. I can distinctly hear my long- dead mother who shortly before she died made me promise that I would look after my brother.

I get on the next plane, fly to Portland, then rent a car and drive 60 miles to the state capital of Augusta, one of Maine’s grimmest ex-mill towns. The main drag into town from the interstate is a gauntlet of the worst America has to offer. The storefronts in the old business district are mostly empty. The people wandering the streets appear to be meth addicts. It’s swell to be home! (I am actually from an even grimmer mill town about 20 miles upriver.)

Tourists think Maine is some sort of country-of-the-pointed-firs rockbound coast theme park. Vacationland! That’s the state’s annoying nickname. But most of Maine consists of abandoned mill towns, trailer parks and houses that have not been painted in forever. The old joke was that if people could buy bus tickets with food stamps whole counties would be evacuated.

Leave it to my brother to have a stroke while on a business trip in Augusta. Why not have a stroke in Portland? Portland is a very hip town. Brother lives nearby in Casco Bay. Better hospital! Excellent restaurants! Good coffee bars! 

I am anxious driving up from the coast across the rolling fields of all the little towns that I know so well. Many thoughts race through my head about things said and done, or things not said and done. Thoughts about my long-dead parents. I pass the first newspaper that I worked at, now defunct. I feel old.

I figure a bowl of good fish chowder at the Wild Oats bakery in Brunswick will not hurt. I have an oatmeal cookie, too, to keep my strength up.

I arrive at the Augusta hospital just after noon. It looks like a hospital in a Stephen King horror film. Terrible hospital smells. Weird greenish lighting. Every TV blaring. Walking down the corridor, I hear shouting. Voices in confusion. More shouting. Is this a Code Blue? Has the crash cart been summoned? Are these my brother’s final moments? Maybe I shouldn’t have stopped for that bowl of chowder.

No, my brother is actually screaming at the nurses. His coffee is cold. 

I know instantly that he will live.

All tragedy becomes comedy and sometimes I suppose it works the other way, too. As I tell my other brother, there’s good news and bad news. What’s the good news, he asks? The good news is that our brother has had a stroke but it’s very mild and he’ll live. 

And the bad news? Our brother has had a stroke but it’s very mild and he’ll live.

Both of my brothers think that’s hilarious. But that’s because we can hear our mother tell that joke. And no woman ever cast a colder eye on life and on death than she. We are our Mother’s boys. She is gone but we keep the home fires burning.

In truth, we did not have good role models for being brothers. My father and his brother were a brother act that was better than Cain and Abel. They were business partners for 40 years. But at the end of their lives they spoke only through their lawyers. 

I want very much to be my brother’s keeper. And the staff at the hospital wants that very much, too. They want to get rid of him. So I take him back to the island. Actually, he insists on driving his own car because when you’ve been hospitalized with a stroke you do just what you feel like doing. 

After a couple days of brotherly love, I return to Baltimore. Two days after I get home, I call to check up on him. Something I say ticks him off and he slams down the phone. He’s obviously made a full recovery. 

Whoever said that all men should live as brothers never had a brother.

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