Call Me Ishmael
Take the first sentence from your favorite book and make it the first sentence of your post.
Thanks for the great idea, Spencer.
Three days before her death, my mother told me — these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close — that my brother was still alive (“Gone for Good” by Harlen Coben). What the heck? I had two brothers and they were both still alive, albeit in mediocre health, but still living and breathing according to my cell phone. Her two strokes had left her unable to speak, and yet there was that sentence clear as day, “your brother is still alive.”
I didn’t tell anyone this at the time, and Mom died soon afterwards. It made me think about my mother and father and how, when I was little, my brother had told me I had a father named Ousmane. Ousmane, as it was, was the cook in our house in Nigeria.
“Do you remember when you told me that my father was Ousmane?” I asked my brother.
“Uh, no…” he looked at me, quirking his eyebrows.
There was a man in Mom’s life, that was no secret except possibly to Dad. But Mom spend a lot of time with this man in Okinawa where my father was stationed on an Air Force Base during the Vietnam War and Mom was working as a nurse at the Army hospital. The man was a soldier from Hawaii, where both of my parents had been born and raised, and the three of them played golf together. I remember Mom and him going on long walks together. As a 9 year old I didn’t think “affair”, Dad was never very gentle or one to have conversations with Mom, and I didn’t begrudge her having a real friend.
But there was a dark night one night. Mom and Dad were arguing about something, I have no idea what. Dad got a fly swatter from somewhere and began whipping Mom, My younger brother screamed for Dad to stop. Mom and Dad both left the house. Mom came back later, drunk as a skunk, crying about her children, and we had to run across the street and beg a neighbor to help us with her. I never knew what the argument was about, but Dad was gone all night and Mom didn’t speak to Dad for a long long time afterwards. I remember his meek apology, probably the only apology Dad ever gave anyone in his entire life. I don’t remember whether Mom accepted it or not.
Maybe that argument was related to this, maybe not. Maybe Mom just hadn’t cooked his steak perfectly. I just know that I never understood the root cause of this particular Dad tantrum. Usually it was directed at my brother. That night Mom was the lucky recipient, and now I wonder what caused it.
Mom was to be buried in Hawaii, next to Dad. While I was in Hawaii, I looked up this soldier that my parents knew. Mom had stayed in touch with him her entire life — until she stopped being able to communicate. I went to visit him and his family and told him that Mom had died. As it turns out his wife had died too. She had been sick and in pain for a very long time. I sat with him a while as he served me tea and cookies.
“Did you and Mom ever have an affair?” I asked after a pause in the pleasantries. “Mom says I have a brother that’s still alive and I don’t know what brother she’s talking about. Both of my brothers are already alive.”
He looked down at his cup and ran his fingers over the top of it idly. His mind was back 50 years in the days when he was young and handsome and uniformed and Mom was beautiful.
“I did love your mother. I loved your mother deeply. Nothing untoward ever happened, though, except one time we were taking a walk together and I couldn’t help but kiss her, but it went no farther than that. Do you remember the day you were waiting for us in the car? We heard you calling and then came back to the car. Nothing else ever happened. I was friends with your father too, you see. Your mother was not mine to have.”
I nodded. He had three gorgeous daughters by his wife, and no sons.
I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere out in this world is a man who is around my age give or take, who has some uncanny similarities to my mother. No doubt this man’s father would have been someone who held my mother at one time and gave her warmth and gentleness and listened to her stories. He was probably her one haven in the world she lived in. It was a world of war and nursing a never ending stream of injured soldiers, and every day she came home to three arguing children and a sullen, bitter husband.
I would like to meet this brother, if he exists, and ask him about his father and the few moment of happiness that he probably gave my mother.