Dad didn’t survive long enough to see my brother leave prison. Maybe it’s a good thing he died a week before his release. The last time Don would’ve seen him was ten years ago, before his incarceration. There would be no reconciliation. I kept thinking about that as I drove home along the misty morning highway, my newly freed brother Don beside me. Dad was gone, and now I had to rebuild my fractured relationship with my older brother.
The steering wheel felt warm and damp beneath my sweaty palms. My eyes kept flickering to the side, trying to catch glimpses of the hollow eyes and premature graying hair of Don, comparing his appearance now with the brother I knew when I was eighteen. He must be what, thirty-one, thirty-two now? The car was quiet, the only sound emanating from the fan as it blew hot air into our faces. Frowning, I flicked it off.
“So,” I said, my voice shaky in the new silence, “Well, I’m…”
“How was he, Mike?” Don said, his abrupt voice startling me, “How was Dad? You know, in the end.”
From the corner of my eye I could see Don’s head turn towards me, his intent gaze fixated on the side of my face. His worn hands formed tight, white knuckled fists on his knees. I stared straight ahead into the mist, watching the hulking silhouettes of barns and trees as they whizzed by.
“It was fast, quick. You know, these things can progress fast, and Dad was always…”
“No,” Don said, his eyes lowering as he unclenched his trembling hands, “No, Mike, I meant about me. How was he about me?”
I sunk into my chair. To tell the truth, this was also the first time I’ve seen Don since his incarceration. The manslaughter charge broke Dad’s heart; Dad threatened to disinherit me too if I visited him. What was I supposed to say to Don? Do I tell him that Dad resented him on his deathbed? Or am I supposed to lie? To Dad, Don died years before he himself did. I cleared my throat.
“He was sad he couldn’t see you free,” I said, not knowing if that was believable, “Dad regretted not visiting you, in the end. I do too.”
I wasn’t sure if what I said made any impact on Don, since he fell back into a pensive silence. In reality, Dad had remained silent about him even in the end. After hearing me, it’s possible that Don chose to believe Dad forgave him, rather than live the rest of his life feeling spurned. However, this possibility did not make me feel better. My new relationship with my brother had now begun with a lie.
“Listen, Mike, I know this is weird,” Don said, breaking the tension, “But can we swing by Dad’s now?”
A cold sweat started to creep down my back at the sound of Don’s request. There was nothing at Dad’s that he could possibly want. Dad didn’t leave anything behind for Don.
“Why do you want to go there?” I asked, glancing quickly to the side at Don’s face, attempting to understand what he was thinking.
“It’s the only home I knew before I went in,” he said, his voice now filled with conviction.
He turned and looked steadily into my eyes.
“It’s the place I thought about the most.”
“Okay, Don, we’ll go.”
I took the next exit off the highway. Dad lived in a little house in a suburb beside Vancouver, a town called Ladner. My brother and I lived there with Dad all our young lives. I never knew who our mother was, and Dad never spoke about her either. Don wasn’t the first person that Dad cut off.
I pulled up in front of Dad’s house just before noon. I parked the car and turned to see Don studying the house from the passenger seat. It was a one floor, unremarkable house. No lights penetrated from behind the drawn curtains, while no flowers decorated the unkempt lawn. The wind had scattered leaves all over the grass, and I could see that the gutters were clogged and overflowing with damp clusters of dead leaves. The white siding was moldy, and the bricks of the chimney were chipping off into a small pile at its base. To me it was an ugly house, but who could tell what Don was seeing. To him, this house was his childhood. This house was his freedom.
He got out of the car and crossed the lawn to the front door. I followed behind him, hunching my shoulders at the cold touch of the rain. Looking at Don standing up, I noticed for the first time his emaciated figure. I walked through the uncut grass and stood next to him before the peeling paint of the door.
“Is everything still inside?” Don asked, watching as I fumbled with my keychain.
“Yeah, yeah, I still haven’t figured out what to do with all his stuff,” I said, finding the proper key and unlocking the door.
Together we entered the musty, dark hallway of our old family home. I flipped the switch for the lone light on the wall, its dim luminosity appearing to form a weak halo in the still air. I couldn’t tell if this effect was from the dusty interior or from the cold mist that crept through the open door behind us. I closed the door, shutting out the stormy day.
On our right was Dad’s living room. I turned on the light for the old ceiling fan and entered the room behind my brother. Opposite us opened the black empty mouth of Dad’s fireplace, the mantle above it bare except for a dusty bottle containing a small wooden ship in it. Dad hated clutter, but he refused to throw out that ship-in-a-bottle. Don swore Dad had it even before he was born. Between us and the fireplace was a coffee table, with an untidy pile of Dad’s books. Beside this table, a faded leather couch backed onto the window opening on the front lawn.
“Well, here it is,” I said, watching Don as he walked further into the room, “Not much has changed, really…”
A sharp crack came from the floor, where a picture frame lay face down. Don had stepped on it unknowingly. He picked it up, taking care not to cut himself on the broken glass. After a moment of looking at it, his empty gaze stared up into me. The dim lighting of the room caused long shadows to form across the sunken features of his face. His mouth became a thin line as he slowly shook his head.
“What is it Don?” I said, nervously walking up beside him.
It was a picture of me, at my graduation from university when I was twenty-two. Beside me was Dad, his arm around my shoulders, a look of pride radiating from his face. Don let the frame fall back onto the floor. He crumpled onto the couch, burying his pale face into his hands. The weight of all that he missed, all that he lost, was too much for him to bear. It was overwhelming.
“Listen, Don, I’m sorry,” I said, sitting down next to him, “We shouldn’t have come here. You didn’t need to see this right now.”
I didn’t know what to say. I myself was still mourning Dad, yet here I was trying to comfort my brother, a brother deprived of his family for ten years. I had no idea what he was going through right now, or what to say to make it better. I didn’t know how to connect.
I idly moved the books on the table around, revealing the glossy cover of a photo album. Was Dad looking at pictures in the weeks before he died? I had an idea, and took the risk.
“Hey, look,” I said, nudging Don softly and retrieving the album, “Dad was looking at this.”
In silence, I opened the album and started flipping through the pages. Images of first days at school, first sporting events, and sunny days spent running around in Dad’s backyard greeted us. I felt the couch stop trembling with each turn of the page. I turned one more page and froze at the single large picture facing us. It was Don and I, age ten and six, with Dad standing beside a boat by a clear calm blue lake. We were all smiling at the big trout Dad had in his hands.
“Those days fishing,” Don said, his fingers touching the picture, “Mike, I thought about them a lot when I was inside.”
I looked over at my brother, noticing the flicker of a smile as he looked down at the page.
“I still have his boat, it’s at my place. I don’t know,” I said, a plan starting to enter my head, “We should take it out this weekend. Maybe even tomorrow.”
Don turned toward me, his hollow eyes shining with new light.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” he said, closing the album and placing it on the table, “I think I’m ready to go.”
We both stood and walked to the front door. I felt for the first time this morning that I could truly connect with my brother. Before we left, Don turned back to the living room, walked a few steps forward, and stopped. I noticed he was gazing hard at the photo album on the table.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked, my hand reaching out to his shoulder.
Don turned to look back at me. He noticed my hand and smiled.
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I will be.”