“You must be wondering about Bob,” my sister, Ruth said. I wasn’t. Unlike Ruth, who was older than our brother and a protective big sister, I was younger than Bob and felt differently about him. She said, “He called his kids to come and tell him goodbye. He’s getting last rites.”
I said, “Oh.” I knew he was in poor health, but I was in Vermont and out of contact with him, while Ruth as in Missouri near him.
Then she said, “Molly, I don’t know how to tell you this, so I’ll just say it. Bob had one final instruction – he told me and his kids that he didn’t want you at his memorial service. He said you ruined his life and left him penniless.”
“I don’t think his kids believe it, but he is their father.”
Memorial services were one of the few occasions when members of my family traveled to be together. As far as I knew, I was the first one ever banned by the deceased from participation. But it was alright. I would not have to go and act as if I felt a sense of loss.
When our mother was in her 80s and I was in my 50s, we had a candid discussion about abortion. She told me she had wept bitter tears when she’d learned she was pregnant with me, and that I might not exist if abortion had been legal at that time. She went on to say that toddler Bob had worn her out, to the point she thought she could not deal with another child. I knew she didn’t say this to hurt me, but rather to challenge my thinking about abortion, and there was no need for her to explain further about my brother.
I had heard many stories about little Bobby. At ten months, he walked before he had done much crawling. At 12 months, he pulled himself up onto a chair and was climbing onto the table where the cookie jar was kept when our mother stopped him. He pointed to the jar and said his first word, “Cookie.” By the time he was one and a half, he was out of control. Before long, Mom put a dog harness on him and attached it to a chain that she hooked to the clotheslines, so he could run up and down without supervision. Bobby quickly wore a path beneath it.
When he was three and a half, he disappeared. Mom looked everywhere and was joined by the neighbors, the police, and my father, who rushed home from work. Eventually, Bobby was found at the railroad station. He had walked five blocks from home to the railroad tracks, then followed them for two miles to the depot. When he arrived at the station, he told the railway workers he wanted to ride in a caboose. Fortunately, he was able to tell them his name and the street where he lived. Their call to the police brought Bobby home six hours after his disappearance. There was an article in the paper about it the next day, which embarrassed my mother greatly.
Although my parents were proud of Bobby’s quick learning abilities and his athleticism, he would not take orders and often defied them. The spankings he received did not change his behavior. Little was known at the time about hyperactive children. ADHD was an uncommon term, and Ritalin didn’t exist. With no child psychologists in our city, my parents didn’t know what to do about Bobby. They wondered if he was just too precocious for his own good.
I was nothing like Bobby. I crawled, walked, talked, and fed myself at the usual time for my age; and I was an obedient child. My mother’s angst about Bobby during her pregnancy with me had flowed through her blood into mine, informing me that I was not wanted. Once born, I did whatever I could to receive my parents’ love and to feel I belonged in the family. My insecurity made me compliant and amiable, while Bobby was confident, independent, and pugnacious. The contrast between us made my behavior seem better than it was and made Bobby’s behavior seem worse. For this, I became the target of his aggression.
Although I was not advanced like he was at three and a half, I have a memory from when I was that age. My parents and their four children – George, Ruthie, Bobby and I – drove in the family car to see a litter of puppies and pick one as our family pet. I recall how excited I was and how adorable the puppies were. Bob named the one we chose – Cleo Calamity Jane Collins.
As the product of a union between a dachshund and a cocker spaniel, Cleo grew to have short legs like a dachshund and a barrel body like a cocker, so her belly hung near to the ground. Bobby said she was ugly, a word he also used to describe me. When he kicked her and I pleaded, “Bobby, don’t,” he turned and kicked me.
I felt a stronger bond to Cleo than to anyone in my family. Although Mom said I was loved, I continued to feel unwanted. So, decades later, l was grateful when she told me she might have aborted me. It explained why I had felt like I didn’t belong in this world until I became independent at age 20.
Not long after we got Cleo, we also got a large swing set that included a tetter-totter. Bobby invited me to join him on it, but he was much heavier than I was, so after I sat on the end at ground level, he pulled the other end down, got on, and paused there, leaving me up in the air. Then he slid off his end, and I came crashing down, hitting my head on the metal handle bar I had been holding and screaming when I rubbed my forehead and saw my blood-covered hand.
When Mom came running outside, Bobby told her I had jumped off the teeter-totter. “Nuh-huh,” I protested, “I didn’t.”
“Mom told me to be brave. She took me inside, cleaned my face, put a bandage on my forehead, and said, “You’re a good girl.” It was the first of many times that Bob hurt me, and because these incidents confirmed my unwantedness, I choose to forget them.
Decades later when Mom was in her 90s, suffering from dementia, Bob’s resentment of me remained. When I visited her and gave her attention, Bob complained, “Stop being so nice to her. You’re making me look bad.” Those words almost brought me to tears, which I did not understand at the time, as my reaction was rooted in the forgotten past. It was a few years later, when I spent more time with Bob, that his behavior as an adult triggered my memories of his behavior as a child. Then, after Mom died, Bob tried to cheat me out of part of my inheritance, and I stood up and stopped him.
That must have been why he said I had left him penniless. He had told me he was in bad financial straits, and that had made no difference to me, because he had claimed before that he was broke and then purchased expensive items. He had for years spent his money unwisely and made costly decisions about the family business that impacted us all. He alone was to blame for his financial situation. Yet, at the end of his life, he blamed me for it just as I blamed him for his reckless choices.
What if I had not remembered the past and had not stood up to him? He would have had funds that should have been mine, and I probably would have suppressed that, too. Bob and I had a pattern to our interactions that had defined us both. We were deeply entwined with one another like two shifting halves of a whole – each of us feeling wounded by the other. If I had left the past buried, would what happened next have occurred?
In November of 2013, one week after my call with Ruth, I was at the rural health clinic where I volunteered, standing in the nurses’ station. I had just checked the clock – it was 1:15 – when a blinding light flashed inside my brain. Usually, this warned me that a migraine was coming on, but not this time, as the pain struck at the same instant as the light and with tremendous force. I staggered into a nurse’s desk, grabbed hold, and moaned.
“Are you okay?” a nurse said.
“My head’s splitting.” I’d had headaches off and on throughout my life, usually during difficult times, and never before like this.
“Here, sit down,” she said, steering me to a chair. The lights continued behind my closed eyes, and I still had an hour and 45 minutes to go on my shift. I needed to pick up and process the afternoon mail, deliver specimens to the lab, and complete anything else needed by patients and staff.
“Can you cure me?” I asked, hoping she would provide a fix I didn’t know.
“When I get a migraine,” she said, “I lie down in a quiet place to wait for it to pass.”
That treatment I knew well; “I’ve got work to do.”
“You need to go home and take care of yourself. I’ll let them know in the office.”
I took a couple of ibuprofens and sat in the waiting room until the lights – the migraine aura – ended and the intensity of the pain lessened. Then I drove home and went to bed. I was still in bed that evening when Ruth called. My head had calmed somewhat, and I thought the sound of her voice would cheer me. She said, “Bob passed away this afternoon at twelve-fifteen.”
The pressure in my head intensified. Had I heard correctly? “What time?”
“Oh my!” I managed to tell her about my migraine hitting at 1:15 in my time zone, the exact same moment Bob died in his time zone 1,500 miles away.
Ruth was silent, apparently as stunned as I was. Then she said, “I’m sorry we won’t be seeing each other.”
“I’m sorry about that. too.”
When we hung up, my heavy head sank into my pillow in excruciating pain. Blame had flashed faster than lightning and blasted my brain.
Molly Collins writes true, personal stories. She taught writing to high school and college students, then used her word skills to promote social justice. She has published stories in small literary magazines with one winning first place in a contest. “Eclipse Adventure” was recently translated into Bosnian for P.U.L.S.E. magazine.