My brother was dying.
Not in the abstract everybody is going to die someday way, but in the lying on a nursing home bed, every breath may be his last way.
Still, he had a good life. Living to be seventy six, married forty two years before his wife passed, three children, no druggies or miserable human beings in the bunch.
His oldest daughter was killed in an auto accident when he she was fifty one, his son was a middle manager living out West, his youngest daughter was in Alaska.
The only family he had left locally was me, his youngest brother, twelve years his junior.
I was an "oops" baby, surprising everyone. My dad passed when I was eight, and Don stepped in, becoming a surrogate father. Despite our ages we were as close as brothers could be.
I followed him around like a puppy. One of my finest memories is going out after church Sundays and helping clean his car, one of those hot rods from the sixties, and afterwards getting a pint of chocolate milk and a cake from the store.
I was five eight, slender, when I reached my adult size, he was six three and weighted about two fifty. I took after mom, he took after dad. He had his jet black hair, I had fine blond locks that I wore long, after the fashion of the time. He was 'big dude' and I was 'little hippie'. We argued over politics constantly, but in good fun.
It was lung cancer, a side effect of smoking two or more packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes a day for over forty years. He blamed air pollution.
He lay there, rasping, as I went to check on him before going home for the night.
I was director of nursing at the rest home he was in. Usually I worked the day shift, but it was Christmas Eve, and I always worked the afternoon shift to give our younger nurses time with their families. I also worked Christmas, coming in at ten for the same reason. We had an empty nest, my wife and I, and she understood, God bless her.
I looked at the small, eighteen inch tree I had found at a discount store and put on his night stand. The small strand of lights gave off a feeble glow. Checking his chart, I glanced at the night nurse, she shook her head and patted my hand. I stepped out and called my wife.
Our daughter and her family had come in the day before, she and the three grandchildren were putting finishing touches on the holiday decorations.
"Hi honey, it's me. I may be a little late tonight."
The line was silent for a minute, before she said in a sad voice, "how long?"
I knew she didn't mean how long before I came home, but how much longer did I think he was going to last.
"Call if you need me. Tell him I love him."
She had always liked my brother. I heard a small sob as she hung up.
I went back in the room and just sat quietly, watching him and remembering good times.
He woke slowly, looking around.
"Damn, I thought you were a vulture there for a minute. What the hell are you doing here this late? Go home. Be with your family."
"They're all asleep. I was running late."
I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes until Christmas.
"It's almost Christmas, thought I'd hang around with you, make sure I get my present. I saw you making eyes at your nurse, you'll probably give it to her if I'm not here."
He tried to laugh but it came out as a rasping cough. I gave him some ice water. When the coughing subsided he grinned.
"Why would I do that? It would make me look like a cheapskate."
There were two small packages under the miniature tree. We both knew what they were without looking.
It was a tradition going back to our youth. Money was often tight for a single mom. She made sure we got something, but there was often no money for the siblings to buy presents with. After a few years, Don and our oldest sister would slip us a few dollars to buy something for our mom and each other.
He used to go on and on about how much he loved chocolate covered cherries, but they had to be Queen Anne, nothing else would do. They happened to also be the cheapest. I think back then they were like fifty nine cents. My sister and I would always get him a box each, and he would make a production out of eating them, and pretending he didn't want to share. I loved Junior Mints, so every year he gave me a box.
As we got older and could afford things, the presents would be more expensive, but every year without fail we could each look forward to a box of our favorite candy. We had given each other a box for the last fifty five years.
So underneath that pitiful excuse of a tree were two brightly wrapped boxes, Queen Anne cherries and Junior Mints.
We opened them up, pretending to be surprised. He put them on his stand, sighing.
"Looks like I'm gonna check out on you, hippie."
I put my hand on his, probably the most intimate touch I had ever given him.
"Hold on a little longer, dude. Your kids will be here tomorrow."
"Tell them I love 'em, and I'm sorry I couldn't wait. I feel like the Silver Angel will be here soon. Reckon that nonsense is true?"
I laughed softly.
"If you can keep a secret, I'll tell you a story. I know the Silver Angel personally. So do you. It's somebody you already love."
I was hoping if I told the tale it would keep his interest, and maybe he would hold on for a bit longer.
I could see his interest.
I fluffed up his pillow, had him sit up a little straighter.
"You remember when I got back from the service?"
It was 1970.
I had just got back from a two year Southeast Asian vacation courtesy of my uncle. It sucked.
Two tours. I never got shot, never shot anybody. I was a medic. I spent my time holding scared and dying kids my age, and trying to keep them alive.
I got a unit citation, a Good Conduct Medal, and an honorable discharge.
I took the GI benefits and went back to nursing school. I had dropped out when I ran out of money, making me eligible for the draft. My lottery number was nineteen out of thirty. I was screwed. So I joined up, actually getting a recruiter with some sense. Seeing my year of nurse training, he actually got me assigned to the medical corp. I breezed through medic training, I had already covered most of it in nursing school.
As my schooling progressed, I qualified as a certified nursing assistant, then a practical nurse, before getting my degree and becoming a registered nurse.
I spent many years as an emergency room nurse. The pay was good, and no what matter came through those doors, I had already seen worse.
My mom was working at the rest home, she and the owner had been best friends in school.
"Remember the Queen family estate fight?"
My brother grunted.
"Yeah, one wife against the ex wife, right?"
"Exactly. Nobody could find his will, and then the ex came up with the old will, before he got remarried. It was turning into an ugly court battle. What you, and nobody else except me until now, knew was how it got resolved."
"Eric Queen was successful farmer, owning over four hundred acres that had been in his family for generations."
"He had two families, the first with his ex wife, two boys. He had three with his second wife, two boys and a girl. Remember?"
"His first wife was very attractive. So attractive in fact, that she felt entitled. Secretly she felt like she was doing Eric a fa"
"But, he was a very successful farmer, and was richer than she knew. Even then, he was worth several million. Of course, it was tied up in maintaining the land and equipment, so very little of it was liquid.""They lived in the ancestral home, a huge, two story farmhouse. She hated it, telling him they needed a newer, modern home. He was stubborn, saying if it was good enough for his great grandfather, it was good enough for him. It was a constant bone of contention."
"In their second year, she had their first son, twenty months later she had their second. He wanted a large family, but she thought two was enough, and secretly had her tubes tied, telling him the last child had messed up her uterus and there would be no more. He knew nothing about female anatomy, and didn't think she would lie to him, so he accepted it."
"When the oldest was around ten, she embarked on an affair with her doctor. He was also married, with four children."
"They got careless, and his wife had him watched. Eric didn't know a thing about it until the divorce action, when she was named as the reason for the breakup."
"Edwina, Eric's wife, denied it right up until the photos came to light. Then it was all over but the name calling and custody fight. And there was a lot of name calling."
"Forty years ago infidelity was a much weightier factor in divorces, and she got very little. Child support, a small cash settlement, and alimony for a year. Many thought she got much more than she deserved."
"She begged him for another chance, but he was adamant. He no longer trusted her, so how could he love her. They may have had a chance at reconciliation until he found out she had her tubes tied."
""The doctor let the information slip out of spite.He didn't lose his medical license, but it was a close thing. The medical board let him keep his it, mostly so he could support his children. He got raped in the divorce."
"When Eric found out she had 'gotten fixed' without his knowledge, it killed what little chance she had of getting him back."
"It turned her into a bitter, hard woman. She played games with him, denying him the children as often as possible, asking for more money, saying the children needed things she couldn't provide. He tolerated it for a little before he got his lawyer to send her a letter. If she didn't stop, he would take her back to court and go for full custody, limiting her access to them severely. She smartened up and did her best to get along, even having him join her for childhood events like plays and sports activities."
"Her plan was to make him forget the past, to see she had changed and deserved another chance."
I paused in my narration, checking to see if he was still awake and with me.
He rasped, asked for more ice water.
"Damn, hippie, at the rate you're going, it'll be next Christmas before you get to the point. Step it up, I'm kind of on a schedule here."
I smiled for the first time. He was looking a little better. I had him hooked.
"Okay, okay. I have to tell it this way for you to get the full effect, but I'll move it along."
"As I said, Edwina, his first wife, was working on a reconciliation and it looked like it might be happening, when something unexpected occurred."
"Eric fell in love with someone else. He wasn't looking for love, he was actually starting to forgive Edwina, when he met Sarah."
"She worked for the accountant who handled his farm business and her boss was getting on in years, so he started dividing up his most lucrative accounts to the employees he could trust. They did the actual work, he gave it an overview, asked questions, and generally rubber stamped their work."
"Sarah was sharp, she kept up with all tax changes and laws that could effect the businesses her clients had. She found several ways he could save a good bit of money, all legally, and recommended he make changes. He was very impressed."
"Sarah wasn't nearly as pretty as Edwina, but her personality and loving nature more than made up for looks. Eric slowly fell in love with her. Business lunches turned into dinner dates, they even started going to church together."
"Before Edwina had a chance to react, she was history. Again. When the engagement announcement came out in the paper, she screamed in rage and cried in pain. Her heart turned to stone and she vowed revenge against a woman she barely knew, if it took the rest of her life."
"Eric had three more children with Sarah, two more boys and a girl."
"Sarah tried over the years to forge a truce with Edwina for the sake of the families, but was rebuffed every time. After a while she gave up, concentrating on making his two older children part of their family when they had them. Edwina had tried for awhile to poison any type of relationship between the half siblings, but the kind nature of Sarah won out, and the children at least made peace and got along."
"Edwina once became enraged when her younger son told a friend that his "baby sister" had won the elementary school spelling bee, and he was proud of how smart she was. She tried to berate him afterwards, but her oldest defended him."
"By now the boys were in their late teens. The oldest told her even though she wasn't related by blood, they were, and it was through no fault of the children that things were like they were. They had accepted them, and though it wasn't cool for a teenage boy to say love, he let his mom know they cared for their half siblings."
"Edwina took it as another way Sarah was easing her out of the family."
"Then something extraordinary happened. Edwina fell in love and married. Older, she was still an attractive woman. He was handsome, kind to her kids, and was attentive to her needs."
"He sold real estate for his uncle. It was the biggest agency in the county. The economy was booming back then, so he made good money."
"She was very happy for awhile. She even made peace with Sarah, asking if since the boys were going to be groomsmen if she minded that their sister be the flower girl. Sarah actually hugged her and thanked her for her thoughtfulness."
"Eric and his family attended the wedding. She was touched when Eric and Sarah gave her the deed to two acres of some property he had on the other side of the county. It was a spot she had often admired. They built a nice house on the slight rise, with a well landscaped yard sloping down to the highway. She was finally happy again, for about five years."
"The economy slowed. Remember that? It was the early eighties. Her husband had to spend more time at work to make a good living. Edwina hated the time he spent away from her, but knew it was for the benefit of the family, so she dealt with it. Both her sons were gone by then, off to college. Eric paid most of the expenses, so she made sure their clothes, car insurance, and incidental financial needs were met. She had taken a job as a secretary for a local law firm, so the cost wouldn't hurt their lifestyle. The husband objected at first, but soon acknowledged the wisdom behind it. Besides, she was always home before he was, with dinner almost done."
"Sometimes when he worked on Saturdays, she would call his office for his location, cell phones were just becoming available then, and were very expensive. She would pack a picnic, wait outside the house he was showing, and surprise him. When he was done with the customer, they would eat together, and he would go on to another appointment with a kiss and a full stomach."
"That particular Saturday he was showing his most expensive listing. They needed the commission, things were a little tight. She waited about an hour before giving up and going in, she thought sure he had the sale. The door was unlocked, she was just going to stick her head in and let him know she had his lunch."
"In that house you could see straight through to the kitchen. The house had no furniture, so her husband was making do. He had the customer perched on the kitchen counter, his pants to the floor. Her panties were dangling off one ankle, and she was very vocal."
"It shattered her. She managed to hurl the picnic basket she still had in her hands at them, with great accuracy. The basket hit his shoulder, bounced into the client, and dumped potato salad and sweet tea all over her."
"He didn't make the sale. If his uncle hadn't owned the company he would have been out of a job. As it was, after it got out and he was going through his divorce, he had trouble showing houses to anyone but men or couples. No one would let him show a house to a woman alone."
"The customer was married, to a very well to do man. He destroyed her in his divorce, he even had Edwina as a witness. They had four children, and she got custody, barely, but their lifestyle was nowhere near what she had. The children resented it and her, and each moved in with their father as soon as they got old enough to make the decision. When the last left her, she moved out of state."
"Edwina got her house, but she also got most of the bills. She was in danger of foreclosure, when the bank offered to refinance the loan, lowering her payment. She didn't know it, but Eric had privately guaranteed the loan to make it happen. His reasoning was his sons had to have a home to come back to. Sarah approved."
"I stopped at a country store while the divorces were going on, and heard the old guys that always seemed to sit around places like that talking. It was odd to hear an old farmer use the word karma"
"Bad karma. She got done to her what she did to Eric. What goes around comes around. Always has, always will."
I stopped for a minute, thinking my brother had slipped off into sleep. He roused himself, asked for more ice water, and bitched at me before he put his oxygen mask back on.
"Is there a point to this shit? I have yet to hear about the Silver Angel. Remember her? The point of this story? Get on with it, hippie."
I smiled. It was now close to two. His oldest was getting in just before four, and I had left a text for my wife to collect him and bring him straight here.
He was going to get to see at least one of his children and some of his grandchildren, if I could get him to hold on for three more hours.
"Edwina turned her bitterness and rage back to Sarah. The guarded friendship was gone. Edwina fixated on the fact that if Sarah hadn't stolen Eric from her, she would have back with him and never married the jerk she wasted six years on."
"What really burned her up was the fact that even though she had asked Eric for years to get out of that creaky old farmhouse and build a new house, he wouldn't, then turned around and built one for Sarah just before her youngest went to college."
"Again, she had no knowledge that Sarah cried when they found out that it was so damaged by termites it was deemed unlivable. She loved the old house, full of history and memories. They built a nice four bedroom ranch, but she never really thought of it as her house."
"Years went by, like they have to. Edwina, Sarah, and Eric got older.Sarah was sixty seven, Edwina was seventy one, and Eric had just celebrated his seventy third birthday, when he had a stroke."
"It wasn't too bad, but it led to a couple more, and soon he was in a nursing home. This nursing home. Dad had been a close friend of Eric, having worked on the farm for him while in his teens and during college. Unfortunately, none of his children had inherited the farming gene, so our father got his wisdom and take on life imprinted on him. Mom often said if it hadn't been for Eric, he wouldn't have turned into half the man he became."
"So she had a soft spot for him, checking on him far beyond the call of duty. He was not having a peaceful twilight."
"Remember when the courthouse burned down in sixty-eight? It happened right after I went into the service. Burnt to the ground, quick. They should have rebuilt years ago, but it was in the register of historic buildings, and they just couldn't make themselves do it."
He nodded, mumbling through his mask. He lifted it up.
"Yeah, I remember. The insurance wouldn't pay for it because they didn't install the sprinkler system they were supposed to. The county sued, saying being a historic building they couldn't touch it, federal law. They ended up settling for half."
"Well. remember, that was BCE."
Before Computer Era. Everything was still on paper and microfilm. It all burned up. It was a hell of a mess."
"Luckily, most people still had their birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, and wills. The county rerecorded as many as possible, and used hospital records, lawyer records, even family bibles to try and complete the database."
"Eric figured out early on none of his kids wanted to be farmers. His oldest son became an accountant, which angered Edwina, especially when he had Sarah help him during tax season. The other became an engineer, specializing in bridges and roads. His work took him all over the world, and he took his family with him as often as he could."
"Of his three with Sarah, one opted for the military instead of college, but when his hitch was up, he used the GI bill to finance part of his education, with his parents furnishing the rest. He became a city manager for a small town not far away. The middle child, another boy, became a middle manager in a textile firm. This was before everything went to China. The daughter went to college, became a paralegal for a law firm in the same town her brother managed, and ended up marrying a lawyer."
"Before he went into the nursing home he sold off a hundred acres, including the old house, to a developer. They already had the lots and streets laid out and marked off."
"His children and Both Edwina and Sarah made sure someone visited him often. He was failing, everyone knew it wouldn't be long."
"Seeing Sarah holding Eric and crying brought back many of Edwina's bitter memories."
"Then something happened that threw the whole family into turmoil."
"Eric wasn't a strictly religious man, but he went to church often, usually to please Sarah. Facing his own mortality, he started paying a little more attention to the sermons. The preacher would visit often, talking about the value of community and the good Samaritan. They were pretty good friends by then, so Eric told him if he had something to say, spit it out."
"He figured he wanted money, but instead he asked if he would set aside an acre for a community garden, to help the less fortunate of the congregation and the county raise their own food."
"He gave him five, and supervised the garden, giving advice and teaching. He said he would always be grateful for the opportunity to be useful again. He and the preacher got interviewed by the local paper, and it got picked up nationally, starting a movement."