For the past 15 years Memorial Day has been about my brother. Johnny didn't serve in the military. In fact, he was a draft dodger. He never registered for the draft and was a beneficiary of President Jimmy Carter's 1977 pardon. Other members of my family have served and still do serve in the military. When I was a child, I wrote pen pal letters to soldiers in Vietnam. As a young adult, I protested that war. I was horrified by Shock and Awe but admire the service of a cousin in Iraq. This mixed bag of experiences makes for a lot of healthy debate in my family, but it doesn't have anything to do with why I feel sad on Memorial Day. For six years before he died, my brother was on dialysis. His story could serve as one of those lack-of-health-insurance-horror stories that we hear a lot as President Obama formulates his health care plan. But that isn't on my agenda either, at least not today.
Today, it's about memory.
When I got the phone call from my father, saying that Johnny was dying, I understood what he meant. In a way, my brother had been dying for years. What my father meant was: this is it. He has only a few days. I called my mother and stepfather, and then I called my sisters. We all got busy making arrangements to fly to Fort Worth, Texas, where Johnny was hospitalized in a palliative care facility. The nurses there were more blunt: they called it the terminal ward.
Johnny had a great sense of humor, even as he died. He was genuinely funny and good-natured, but he was also an expert at using humor to disguise pain and sadness. And he was in fine form, entertaining us all as our hearts broke over and over again for the three days we were there waiting with him for death to arrive. He teased his 16-year-old son about the girl he was dating. He told corny jokes to his 13-year-old daughter, who became preoccupied with squirting cheese out of a can and serving it to us on crackers and arguing with her mother about whether or not she would be attending cheerleading camp later in the summer. At some point during those days that felt like one long unending day, Johnny told me that if I ever made any money writing about his life he wanted a10% cut. I took a dime out of my pocket and slapped it down on the table next to his bed. My uncle was horrified. He thought I was telling my brother that his life was worth a dollar. But Johnny got it. He knew I was saying that I didn't think I'd ever make much money as a writer. Self-deprecation is my brand of humor.
Johnny's last joke was one the terminal ward didn't appreciate. He wouldn't die. At least not on the doctor's timeline. The facility had a limit on the hours patients could spend dying in its care. When Johnny exceeded that limit, he had to go elsewhere. So he went home. His wife, a nurse, and his children met frequently with hospice workers to prepare for his death. Death piddled around, but eventually it came. My family spent a long story-filled Memorial Day weekend waiting for the holiday to end, for the preacher and mortician to get back to the small town where my brother lived. We had a funeral to hold.
As they always do for me, the voices of my family lingered. Cotton Candy, the story I wrote afterwards, came to me in the voice of my 13-year-old niece. It was published by Concho River Review, and later in an anthology published by Fort Concho Museum Press in San Angelo, Texas. My niece is now almost 30; her daughter is 6. She tells me that she reads the story over and over and that when her daughter is older, she will read it out loud to her. It is unlikely that I will be there when that happens because she lives in Texas, and I live in the Bay Area. But it doesn't matter. Her voice is one I will never stop hearing.