A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born. ~David Sedaris, “Now We Are Five”
Today marks four months since my brother died. I hate that word. Died. It’s so final. I’ve taken to saying “passed away” because it doesn’t sound so dooming. So, “it’s over.” I can escape the truth of it for a little while. Until I see a picture of him, like I did a little while ago as I was cleaning my room, and saw the picture I put up on my all-things-memoir bookshelf. A picture of the three of us: me, my brother and my sister. It’s only two of us now.
I texted my sister just that the other day. “It’s two of us now.” I started crying the minute I wrote “two.” There should still be three of us. I want to still say “I am the youngest of three.” I don’t want to have to add, “but the oldest, my brother, died.”
I realized while writing this memoir that I don’t have many childhood memories of my brother Juan Carlos. Maybe it’s because of the way memory works—you remember the trauma, the pain. What I remember of my brother is an overwhelming feeling of love—loving him and being loved by him. I remember us getting in trouble often together because we were so mischievous and inquietos. I remember fighting for him when people messed with him. I remember when I came home from second grade and told him I was being bullied. He smiled and mushed me. He knew that would set me off. I came at him, all fists and flared nostrils. “Like that,” he said. “When they mess with you, you go at them like that.”
Recently, I saw someone who I attended the ABC Program with in Wellesley, Massachusetts. She started the program when I was a sophomore so we spent three years together in that school. When she gave me condolences for the loss of my brother, she confessed, “I didn’t know you had a brother. The only one you talked about was your sister and what a bitch she was to you.”
I have so many memories of my sister and how malicious she was. It was my sister Dee who stressed me out, who made me feel unloved and unwanted. She was such a bitch.
In my earliest memory of us, we are sitting in Millie’s station wagon, the one with the wood paneling on the side. I am four and she is six (my sister is a year and nine months older). It’s just the two of us in the car. We’re waiting for someone, mom and Millie I’m sure. I don’t know where Carlos is. We’re arguing about something and I cursed at her. I can’t remember what I said exactly but I know the f-bomb and b-word were somewhere in there. She gasped and gave me the “I’m telling mom” look. But then her face changed. “Say that again.” I shook my head. I knew my sister well enough to know I couldn’t trust her. Still, I wanted that close big-sister-little-sister relationship. I wanted us to be close the way me and Carlos were. I wanted her to do my hair and play dolls with me. I wanted her to show me off to her friends. But Dee was the opposite of the sister I wanted her to be.
I never wanted to believe my sister would set me up, though she often did. I wanted to believe that one day she’d come to her senses and would realize that I was her little sister and she should look out for me. I don’t know why I trusted her that day. I repeated what I said, f-bomb and b-word included. Her face changed real quick. She got that I-got-you-now smile across her face that I was all too familiar with. As soon as mom got in the car, Dee started crying and told her what I’d said. Dee could cry on cue. She said I’d made her feel bad and that I cursed at her the entire time mom wasn’t in the car with us. I got backhanded from the front seat and mom washed my mouth out with Ivory soap when we got home. To this day I can’t smell that damn soap without thinking of that day.
But if I had to describe my relationship with my sister, I’d tell you the story I’ve titled “Dirty Feet.” Growing up, we (my brother, my sister and I) shared a small room, the third room of the four room railroad style apartment Mom still lives in in Bushwick. The room is tiny so there was only space for the bunk bed against one wall and two bureaus that ran parallel to the bed. There was just enough space in the middle to fit a roll out cot that I slept on. Dee got the top bunk because she was the oldest girl (she got seniority in most things, I must say) while my brother got the bottom bunk.
My sister walked around the house barefoot all day, and when I opened my bed, she’d climb up to her top bunk and would sacudir her feet on my head. I can’t say she did it every night. I can’t say how many times she did it. What I can say is that when I think of our childhood, my memory goes to the smirk on her face while she was wiping her feet on me.
Despite having so many memories of my childhood with my sister, I don’t write much about her because we were never close. We still aren’t. It wasn’t until September 11th, 2001, when the towers came down, that my sister apologized for being such a bitch to me while we were kids. Mom had convinced everyone that I worked in the World Trade Center when the truth was that I worked all the way up on 57th and 11th Avenue.
During my brother’s memorial, my sister confessed that she felt guilty that she didn’t have a close relationship with him. “I tried to forgive him but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.” She only went to see him a handful of times in the hospital.
When my sister got married a few years ago in a backyard wedding, my brother stole money from her gift bag. My sister never forgave him.
Carlos stole money from all of us at one point or another during his fifteen year addiction. He stole appliances and stereo systems. One time he even stole a case of Ensures from my mother’s house. Carlos did what he had to do for his next hit. He wrote about it in the writings he left behind:
I’ve been to numerous programs, get out, stay clean for at least a year and then I put myself in a situation for that to happen, so basically I’ve sabotaged my own recovery… Drug addicts will cry, scream, lie, cheat, whatever is necessary to get that next hit. Chronic addiction is NO fucking joke, it’s like needing air in your lungs, blood in your veins, food in your stomach, water for your body. It’s a ball and chain that is difficult to detach. You would do, say anything to get your next fix. The more you have, the more you want. Once your mind has made the decision to go on a Mission, there is no one or anything that can get in your way. (One is too many and two is never enough.) ~ Juan Carlos Moncada, March 2013
Still, no matter what my brother did or how he manipulated and lied and stole, we all eventually forgave him. Everyone except my sister.
We got the news on Thursday, June 20th. My mother called me that morning and told me that my brother called her crying. He was crying so hard that she could barely understand him. She couldn’t make it to the hospital until that evening. I was the one who went in the afternoons. I want to say that he hugged me tighter than usual, that he was distant or distracted, but I can’t say I remember him being any different than his usual self. We shared the salad and natural juice I brought, and he avoided my questioning. “What’s up? What did the doctors say?”
“They can’t do the operation, sis.” Carlos needed open heart surgery to replace two valves in his heart.
“Okay. Then they’ll treat it with medication. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.”
Carlos stared out the window. In the room he’d been in, he had a gorgeous view of the East River. In this room, he faced a wall that was painted with bright geometric shapes.
“What else did they say, bro?”
“Nothing. Let’s just wait until the doctors get here.”
I waited for hours. When I told my brother I had to take Vasia to dance class, he looked at me and said, “Can you wait for the doctors?”
Something told me to stay. I’m glad I did.
I knew something was up when the doctors told us we could meet in another room and that I could leave Vasia with the nurse. “Don’t worry, she’ll watch her.” A smiling nurse walked in, her hands full with coloring books and crayons and fruit.
I helped my brother walk to the conference room. By that time his feet and legs were so swollen, he had trouble walking. My mom and I exchanged worried glances.
A team of doctors, two cardiac surgeons, my brother’s infectious disease doctor and his psychologist, told us that two teams of surgeons, a team at Cornel and another at Columbia Presbyterian, decided that the surgery was impossible. Even if my brother survived the surgery, his liver was so weak from years of drug abuse, he’d never survive the recovery. He was already on the strongest heart medication they had and his heart was still failing. They gave him a few weeks to a few months to live.
We all fell apart. Me, my mother and my brother collapsed into eachother’s arms. The first thing my brother said to me was: “Sis, Dee. You have to call Dee.”
I called my sister that night. She went to the hospital to see him that Saturday. He made her promise that she would work on her relationship with mom. And he apologized. He blubbered and apologized for all he did. For his stealing and lying and fucking up. They held eachother. And, still, my sister didn’t forgive him.
He died not 48 hours later, in the early morning hours of June 24th.
When we were kids, my brother would tuck us in, then he’d go tell my mother, “Arrope a mis hermanas, mami.” My brother was the first one I told when I got my period. He was the first one I told about my crush on my first love, Ruben. I told him when I lost my virginity and he was the first one in my family that I told about what I was writing.
I spent a year avoiding my brother, from December 2011 to December of 2012. I was angry and hurt, but I stayed away more than anything because I couldn’t watch him kill himself. I was always weak with my brother. I knew that beneath the ugliness that the drugs brought out of him was one of the most genuine and beautiful and giving hearts I’ve ever known.
Sometimes I think my grief is too big. It’s too much. I don’t want to be around people. I just want to hole up and be sad. I don’t want anyone to pity me. I just want to miss my brother and ask God, “Why? Why? Why?” I want to know why God didn’t protect him. Why couldn’t God help him get over his pain? Why couldn’t God keep him away from drugs? Why couldn’t God help him recover and stay clean? Why was my brother so weak? Why couldn’t my brother be the strong, impervious, super-human-can’t-do-no-wrong person he was when we were kids and I looked to him for all things true and loving? I know there are no answers to this. I know this isn’t logical. I know I’ll never get these answers but still, I want to ask them, to release myself of it. To somehow expunge or exorcise or release its weight off of me. To assuage the grief and the guilt and the what-the-fuck of it all.
I remember my sister Cynthia’s words that day four months ago when I complained that I was having trouble writing, that it made no sense, it was jagged and uneven, it was like staccato, a clave without a rhythm. “Maybe it’s not supposed to make sense, sis. Grief don’t make sense. That’s why jazz fucked up the world, because it was the grief of a people.”
I don’t write a lot about my sister because the truth is we were never close. We still aren’t. It wasn’t until I left to boarding school that she finally showed me she loved me. She cried when they dropped me off and gave me her square toed-shoes that I pined over. I wore those shoes out though they gave me some serious blisters that first day I walked to school in my purple and green plaid skirt with the matching green shirt with the plaid trimmed collar, which I buttoned all the way up to the last button because I so wanted to look scholarly and “boarding school girl like,” whatever that means. In my mind, I was Joe from The Facts of Life, though I wasn’t from the Bronx, I was tough like her and, like her, eventually I’d fit right in. Boy was I wrong.
It didn’t come out until adulthood that it was her who did all those things I was blamed for, like when she started throwing the food she didn’t want behind the oven so mom wondered why we always got those cat size rats in the house and when she finally moved the oven, she realized why when she saw the pile of food, about a feet and a half high, that had been thrown back there. Dee said it was me and Carlos and mom believed her. Mom always believed her because Dee was quiet and monga and sneaky and manipulative so mom said, “I never would have believed it.”
So when I say that it’s just the two of us, my insides cave. I think about how my brother. I think about the love we shared. How close we were. And I ache because he’s gone. So this is how I keep him close. This is how I honor him. I write about him, about us. I remember.