Our overhead bins were filled with so many gifts from Mr. Duncan’s store that a man yelled at the flight attendant for letting us use up four two rows past our allotted space. She ignored his complaints and asked to check his bags. “My parents had five kids, too,” she said to my mother, who had spent so much of the past two in a state of panic that her eyes had become permanently widened. People said she looked as if she were in a constant state of disbelief, but it was actually the opposite. My mother believed almost anything after that trip. Her eyes were wide not out of shock, but out of preparedness. Even what happened next didn’t seem to phase her.
I got back from the restroom and found Buzz messing with my TalkBoy in the aisle seat. Megan was asleep against the window. “Batteries are dead again,” he told me with a smirk.”Have fun in the middle seat.” I went through at least four AA’s a day, and Buzz uncharacteristically offered to grab me a new set from a shoebox I kept them in. He stood up and opened the overhead bin. The angry man scoffed. What’s funny is that I remember that scoff more clearly than I remember the thud and commotion that followed. Dad screamed. I’d never heard him scream before. Mom grabbed me and stayed calm. By the time we made the emergency landing and took Buzz to the hospital, she barely said a word. Still wide-eyed. Still unsurprised. “This is what life is now,” she whispered to me in the waiting room.
Buzz had stage four brain cancer. A few weeks left, they said. Maybe months. We left all of Mr. Duncan’s gifts in Cleveland. Donated them to the children’s wing. I kept the TalkBoy, but never changed the batteries. Buzz was dead six days later.
After the funeral, nothing really changed. Maybe that was the problem. No one dealt with any of it. Mom and dad still worked 13-hour days. Megan and Linnie and Jeff still treated me like garbage. I moved up to the third floor to get away from their poisonous consistency. They lived in the past to avoid confronting the future, and I did nothing but plan for it.
Megan graduated the following year. Went to U of C. Majored in journalism. Married one of her professors. Worked for the Sun-Times until 2011. I don’t know what she’s up to now but I’m sure she’s doing fine.
Jeff moved to New York. Went to UCLA. Became a comedian. He tours occasionally. He’s one of those consistently busy comics with a solid fan base and health insurance and Twitter followers. We email sometimes.
Linnie moved to Europe after high school. I haven’t seen her in 12 years. I follow her on Instagram. She has a greyhound.
After high school, I moved to New York. NYU undergrad. Med school at Columbia. Oncology. I’ve lived in the Upper West Side for 20 years. Have a kid. Her name’s Brenda. She’s 8. Whip-smart. I’ve got full custody because her mother didn’t care. We never got married. She lives in New Mexico.
Mom died of a heart attack last week, so we all went back to Illinois for the funeral. We buried her next to Buzz. I cried because I didn’t call her enough. Dad’s OK. He’s active enough. Jogs every other day. Driving range most morning. Goes on weekend trips with the guys.
Before heading back to O’Hare, I took Brenda up to see my old bedroom. The third floor. It was exactly as I’d left it, except for one thing – a TalkBoy on my nightstand. I can’t imagine what box it ended up in, but Mom found it. There was a pink Post-it on the speaker. “You should have asked me for batteries. Love, Mom.” Her cursive was perfect.
I pressed play and heard Buzz’s voice and the white noise of a jet engine.
“I don’t mean all that shit, Kev. I don’t know why I do it. I wish I were as smart as you. I love you, man.”
He would’ve been 38 today.