Phyllis Brotherton has earned an Honorable Mention in Streetlight’s 2023 Essay/Memoir Contest
I carry my brother’s heart all the way to Salina, Kans. When we’re still an interminable hour away, his wife texts, “Hurry.”
My wife speeds the rented Traverse up I-35 North, the smoothest, blackest, flattest expanse of four-lane we’ve ever seen. The well-kept interstate, fresh asphalt, closely mown center medians, stretch before us in the 2 a.m. darkness. I imagine the SUV’s front wheels lifting off, separating from tarmac, rising up, flying over these final miles in minutes. Alas, we’re bound to the earth, to the laws of the universe, and no amount of imagination will get us there sooner.
I text back, ask what’s happening. Kenny’s second wife is frantic, cryptic, “He might not make it. They’re bringing in the defib.” Denise accelerates from seventy-five to eighty-five. Reaching into my right jean pocket, I squeeze the rose quartz heart snatched from a plate of stones on my desk, what seems ages ago, two flights, shuttle, rental car, drive, drive, drive. A lifetime in failing heart hours.
My baby brother of fifty-nine, in the throes of a massive heart attack, knows I’m coming, tries to hang on. This damn, desolate stretch of never-ending highway. The car reeks of adrenaline and fear. Please don’t die, please don’t die. I hold onto the heart in my hand, safe in my pocket, to maybe, magically, keep his fragile heart beating.
In intensive care, Kenny’s flat on his back, a position he and my late father, both big men, hated. An oxygen mask covers his face, his white hair slicked back with sweat. His heart heaves, as if it might burst right out of his chest, or this is how it seems to me; an alien being trying to break free. Kenny turns, “Hey, Sis.” I kiss his wet forehead and stretch my arms around his huge heft.
My brother survived that near fateful day in Salina, Kans., living another ten years, thanks to a heart surgeon’s deft hands and my brother’s resolve. He worked hard in the dog racing business he learned from our dad, both known for their expertise, ethics, track records, and humane treatment of their beloved dogs. Greyhound racing, an increasingly reviled profession, first slowly, now rapidly becoming extinct, was, between brief stints at other jobs, the only work my brother had ever known. He sometimes struggled, sometimes thrived, ate endless sushi, drank the best Scotch, loved to travel by train, deep sea fished like Hemingway, brought his first and second families together by sheer desire and will, was a merciless teaser, and toggled between cursing and laughing. People loved him. On rare vacations, he’d visit Whitefish, Mont., a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, where he fell in love with Main Street, and dreamed of retiring there.
Weary of the hot, humid Florida summers, one of the few remaining places where dog racing flourished, Kenny heeded his youngest daughter’s request to quit and moved back to Memphis. He landed a night shift at Amazon, though how he physically managed it, I cannot fathom; attended his son’s soccer games, treated his kids to what would be a last Bass Pro Shop, Big Cedar Lodge Christmas. One day I get the call I’d always dreaded. He is gone.
As my cousin angles her Subaru around a tight turn, my dad’s rose stone grave marker comes into view, its etched epitaph now visible, “He lives in our hearts.” The Atwood, Okla. cemetery seems unchanged in the forty-four years since Charles Brotherton died. Plastic flowers rustle in dusty stone vases and the white keys of a black piano-shaped gravestone nearby still wait to be played.
Two cars park behind us: Kenny’s two ex-wives, his three children (thirty-six, fifteen, and twelve), a step-daughter, two grandchildren and a son-in-law, quietly herding the little ones. Though I haven’t seen them in years, we hug, cry, and grieve the loss of this gentle man.
An out-of-the-blue spring north wind whips at meager coats, bare legs, and I think I can hear Daddy’s greyhounds howl in unison from the long-gone farm over the next hill. In 1978, the morning after Kenny reveals to our parents he’s leaving the dog business, Charlie collapses in the turnout pen, his tan toboggan clinging to his head.
As the graveyard wind stings my cheeks, I think I can still hear Mom’s screams, as she beats Daddy’s chest, “don’t die, dammit, don’t die,” while in the house I fumble directions to a 911 dispatcher, my toddler son crying for his grandpa at the back screen door. As a grown man, he tells me it remains his first memory, his first living nightmare. To help our mom, Kenny abandons plans to settle in another state with his girlfriend, abandons returning to college to become a teacher, and jumps back into the work he’s tried so hard to leave.
Shivering over my father’s grave and the open hole next to it where Kenny’s ashes will soon be buried, I feel older than the red dirt under my feet, guilty for outliving my brother. Just as our adult children are forever young in our eyes, the same goes for younger siblings, I think, babies we’re supposed to protect. Somehow, as the oldest and only daughter, the last one standing of our small family of four, I feel a failure, if only because I’m still breathing.
Kenny’s adult daughter opens a teakwood box of his ashes. I pull a gray felt pouch containing the rose quartz heart kept all these years, from my pocket, and a card where I poured my own heart onto paper. I place both in the box and close the lid, artifacts to be forever buried with him.
The north wind lays, if only for a moment.
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