My foggy brain carries me downstairs and into the kitchen just behind the old dog. I wrench open the backdoor and she spills into the yard, scampering down the stairs. I stand staring outward, trying to remember the day, the year, my name. But I turn to the fridge anyway and soon, I’m cracking eggs into a bowl.
When I get to the step of pouring yesterday’s leftover coffee into a crystal mug bound for the microwave I pause to think about my baby brother.
I can’t recall the date on his headstone. It might be 14 June 1997. It might be 20 June 1997. Either way, he left us twenty years ago this month. I’ve been mourning him for the last three weeks — secretly, like an abandoned lover yearns for the absent smile.
A repeat This American Life on NPR about suicide reminded me of the conversation that I had with Steve after his penultimate suicide attempt. We stood at a bar in Webster Groves, quiet amid the cousins and our siblings. I asked him why he called 911 to save himself when he awakened from his overdose with failed kidneys. His long look preceded his response: I wanted to stop the pain, not worsen it.
Maybe I’ve told you that story before now. Maybe I tell it every year, every June, not just on the twentieth anniversary of his passing.
When I called St. Louis that June to tell my nephew’s mother that he had safely arrived on the train for his annual summer visit, my sister-in-law choked out two words: Call Mark. My brother. I snapped: Was it Stephen or Kevin? The two brothers whom no one expected to live. Just call Mark, she sobbed. I knew someone had died. I assumed that the death had been violent, probably self-inflicted.
I told my nephew and my son, whose ages spanned a decade of disparate abilities to understand. Nick fell into desolation. My son, Patrick, looked serious for age five. Then he asked, Uncle Steve is the one who gave me the alien catcher for Christmas? He’s the black-shirt Uncle?
Yes. He’s the uncle who gave you the alien catcher on Christmas, wearing a black shirt, sitting on the couch with you and Whitney because that’s what uncles do. They throw their little nieces and nephews high in the air and tumble them on couches. They give the coolest presents. They wear the fancy shirts and smoke cigarettes and let you sip their beer behind your mother’s back.
Your mother, who would forgive him almost anything.
I think it was that same Christmas that Steve and I went shopping at Union Station in St. Louis while some aunt watched my son. We strolled on the mezzanine and got a drink at a bar overlooking the crowds of shoppers. Steve bought a pair of socks for himself. I remember those damn socks cost about fifteen bucks and I felt a serious gut kick. How can somebody spend so much money on socks? I filled a shopping bag with presents for the cousins while he carried a little plastic sack with an elegant pair of socks for himself.
But by Christmas morning, I saw that he had already gotten a boatload of toys for his nieces and nephews. He sat amid he rubble of wrapping paper and showed my son how to assemble the alien catcher. I remembered the year that my siblings all went to see Alien on Christmas Eve. I huddled in Steve’s shoulder when that jumpy thing shot out of the man’s chest. He laughed and told me I was a pussy. My sister Ann scolded us. She said, Be quiet, that people were watching the movie and we should settle down. Steve reached over and ruffled her hair and she sighed, Oh Steve!
We all laughed. The people in front of us told us all to shut up. Some one, maybe Steve, stuck out their tongue. But we settled down.
As I recall my brother’s birth on Christmas, my parents intended to name him “Christopher” or “Christian”. But they settled on “Stephen”, because with his birth, we had the same number of boys as girls, and “Stephen made everything even”. The year he died, we became odd again, seven of us: Three boys, four girls. I felt a kind of desolation that I imagine people feel when they lose a hand.
When Patrick was about three, we visited a friend’s church on Christmas Day. A lady leaned down and asked him if he knew whose birthday it was. Oh yes, he announced. It’s Uncle Steve’s birthday!
My little heathen got it right. I’m sure I’ve told you that story before now; haven’t I? But it’s a good one. A good story about a good guy, who lived fast, loved hard, and died too young.