DATELINE…Upstate NY. Couple days after Thanksgiving ‘07
“Gum. Where you at?”
“Marshalls. What up.”
I shift my phone from one hand to the other, juggling it with my bag and small handful of things. Despite the Black Friday pillage a few days before, I manage to find a generous offering of my beloved CK panties.
“What time you leave?”
“Flight’s at 5 or 6 or something. You know I don’t know,” I laugh. I’d only seen my brother on Thanksgiving Day, and this is his goodbye call. He had called me the night before, teasing me because I was downtown at my favorite coffee shop, where he insisted “No Coloreds Allowed.”
With a flight to catch, and my nephew needing a ride from school within the hour, I’m in a rush. But I browse leisurely as I chit chat with The Boss of Me, as I affectionately refer to my big brother.
“I gotta tell you something.”
Though the phrase is preceded by what I imagine was a deep breath, there is no pause between sentences. But when you hear these words uttered, your brain switches to autosurvival mode, and stops time on your behalf. Allows you to catch a deep breath of your own. So as he speaks on, my feet stop moving at precisely the moment my racing heart refuses to.
“I gotta tell you something so I’m just gonna say it. I have cancer,” is how he actually says it in real time.
“Okay,” is my response, rendered in my own time.
“I started playing ball again, and I just started feeling funny. So I went to my doctor and she was like, 'it’s probably just your body telling you you’re getting older. Take some aspirin.' But I was like, no, I know how my body is supposed to feel. So I switched doctors and new patients are required to do blood work. So they saw something they didn’t like…”
Now I’m pacing.
“So they ran the tests and told me.”
“Where is it?” I ask, now rummaging through the Kenneth Cole computer bags.
“It’s in my blood and it's called...”
I can’t see the price tags. I don’t have on my glasses, but I don’t think they were prescribed to correct the blur from sudden tears anyway.
“I found out on my birthday of all damn days. Basically, I have to take medication for the rest of my life and obviously get regular check ups…”
“37 years ago, you came into the world on the wrong foot. Life’s a breach!! Happy Birthday!”
I sent him that text on his birthday, just a week earlier, and he never responded. Didn’t pick up when I called either.
“And I can’t play ball anymore. Can’t whup Miles’ ass on the court like I do his brother. And no, the kids don’t know.”
I suddenly remember my nephew who will soon be outside his school looking for my car to pull up. I shift my phone to the other hand, now piled high with things I didn’t realize I had picked up within the past four minutes. And I remember that my brother is a dad.
“If there’s one lesson I learned from Daddy it’s to always get a second opinion.”
Our dad took his last deep breath just three years and two months prior. Or I should say the venerable villain, cancer, took it without our permission.
“I need you not to do that.” He can hear me crying. I wonder suddenly if the security cameras have me in focus, racing mindlessly through narrow aisles not intended for shoppers, dumping miscellaneous items in random bins and racks.
“It’s gonna be fine. I’ve been wanting to tell you since you got home, but Ant picked you up from the airport…”
It occurs to me just now that when I walked into my parents’ house on Thanksgiving Day with two big bottles, my brother took the glass I poured only after I had mocked him relentlessly for refusing. Said he had a doctor’s appointment the next morning, to which I said, “All the more reason to drink.”
“And that’s why I called you last night. But now that I’ve told you, Mommy can stop worrying and she can talk to you about it.”
My poor mother. Having to hear this shit again. This time from the son who always took after his father.
“Quit crying. It’s gonna be fine. I need all positives, aight?”
“You gonna be ok?”
“Uh huh.” Whatever. We’ve made a living lying to each other. I’m hoping I’m the only one with no regard for truth this time.
“Ok. Don’t miss your flight, loser.”
“Yup. Love you,” I say, wandering around the houseware section. I've seen this movie before. I know the ending. The villain leaves, but always comes back.
“Love you, too. Peace.”
But of course what I heard was the hello of a Goodbye Call.