Among my brothers and sisters we don’t send cards on birthdays, but we always try to make time to call — to talk and listen, even if for only a few minutes. These moments are often forgotten but not the sound and warmth of the voice.
It was my birthday in the middle of the month and I heard from my family, but not from Paul. He and I had talked a couple of weeks before on the phone and it ended badly. He told me he’d lost balance coming out of Target and fell. A couple of people helped him to his car.
I was worried. “Give someone nearby your phone number.”
He became angry at me, cut short and hung up. I texted him a few times. He didn’t reply.
Late on my birthday when I was out Paul called and left a couple of garbled attempts. “Ha– bir—day.” Twice he called.
I heard those drunken sounds. They were an attempt, I thought, and I should accept them as a bit of honest love with the warmth he had left in him, under that thick fog of alcohol. I almost wanted to keep them, to record them, but I didn’t.
A few days later our sister called and said Paul was in terrible shape. Long ago a pipe had broken at his little home —he kept saying he would fix it but never did — and every so often he had been going to her place to shower and shave. But he hadn’t been coming. In talking with her I decided to go there — a four-hour drive — and see if the two of us could get him into rehab.
I arrived and picked up my sister for the cross-town drive to Paul’s. We got out and she stepped up to Paul’s window, a four-inch opening for ventilation. She asked if he would come to take a shower. He said he didn’t want to after all.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
I stepped up to the window and she stepped back. Paul’s little Terrier dog was right there, frantic to get out and frantic for attention. I put my hand up and the dog licked and whined and scratched. Paul was lying about ten feet away in the dark on his couch. There were flies and the smell I won’t forget — fast-food, cigarette butts, dog-shit, laced with stale alcohol and mold.
I said, “Can you come to the front door, brother? I want to see you and give you a hug.”
“You see me,” he said. “I don’t want a hug.”
“I can’t see you in the dark. Come to the door.”
“No, I didn’t ask you to come here. Go away.”
“Oh, I think you were asking.” I was thinking of this garbled birthday message. But he was not buying any of that now. He called it out. It was a lie and he never asked. As I repeated, asking him to come to the door, he started getting angry and called me a bully and then a fucking sonovabitch. He said our older brother never bullied him but was always cordial on the phone.
This went back and forth, my plain request and his angry swearing. I thought he might become angry enough to get off the couch and go to the door to tell me off to my face. It was my fantasy in that moment — my asking for a hug and his obscenities. He did try but couldn’t quite rise from the couch. I stayed at that window talking with him ten feet away in the dark — and the little Terrier sniveling and licking and scratching. My hand bled from a couple of scratches. I was trying to make something happen that would change the scene.
But I got the picture. Paul wasn’t there at all. I was talking to his addiction, which had him wrapped up in its own reasoning. Don’t listen to him out there. He is nothing to you. They are all nothing. I alone will give you the calm you crave, the calm of oblivion, without troubles. I am all the reason you need.
So I let Paul go and drove home again. We heard he died ten days later. I didn’t really need to record the birthday message he’d left the month before. It is still here in the back of my mind, with all the warmth he could muster at that moment.