Sometime in the late 1980’s, somewhere along the shoulder of Route 376 East in Pittsburgh, four people stand around a wrecked car. I am one of them. My friend Heather, my dad, and his brother Albert are the others. We have just been to a Pittsburgh Pirates game. None of us are hurt, the car is entirely drivable, and Heather and I have concert tickets for later and are anxious to be on our way. The police have come and logged their report. It seems we are about to be set free. Until:
Police Officer: So, you’re sure you’re all right? No injuries? No pain?
Dad: Huh . . . now that you mention it. Does my neck hurt? [he feels his neck with his hand, as if this makes any sense whatsoever.]
Uncle Albert: Who are you asking, Ej? We don’t know about your neck. Does it hurt, or what?
Dad: [twisting his head all around quite freely] I don’t know! It might hurt. Or what if it hurts later? I can’t tell.
Me: DAD. It either hurts or it doesn’t.
Dad: Well, then it does, I guess. Wait, does it?
Me: OH MY GOD.
Heather: [remains polite.]
Uncle Albert: Jesus Christ, Ej . . . you’re the only person I know who can’t tell if his own goddamn neck hurts him or not.
Me: IT IS NOT FUNNY WE HAVE A CONCERT TO GO TO WE NEED TO GET HOME.
Dad: [to police officer] Well, can I call you later if I decide it hurts?
Police Officer: Me, personally?
And so on.
The remarkable thing about this day to me, other than Heather and my rather stunning lack of concern for anything except our future musical entertainment, is that it perfectly represented a typical scene between my dad and his brother. Dad was the uncertain, impressionable little brother, Uncle Albert the one telling him how things needed to be. Not that my dad ever seemed to mind. “Sure, Al,” he’d say, upon being told to “put the goddamned saw down and let me do it.”
“Albert says we need to,” he’d tell my mother, while sledgehammering the shit out of their bathroom. Or, “Albert wants it this way,” he’d say, while trying real hard to learn the proper plastering technique for our basement walls.
“My deepest sympathy,” he said to Uncle Albert, when their brother Ben died.
“Ej,” said Uncle Albert. “He was your brother too.”
As for me, I always liked being around the two of them, primarily because you almost never had to talk if you didn’t want to. Which is not to say that we enjoyed frequent stretches of companionable silence. On the contrary, what I mean is that in the company of my dad and Uncle Albert, all speaking parts were accounted for. This was how they got along. Noise.
I mostly knew this thanks to the seven thousand or so Pirates games I’d attended with them, prior to the day of The Wreck. Pirate games were a big thing for us, the two of them Jesus Christ- and goddammit-ing through nine innings while I sat between them, reading and re-reading my program.
“Christ, Ej, look at that guy. He’s pretty goddamn short for a first baseman.”
“Who, him? He’s taller than me, what do you mean?”
“I hope he’s taller than you! What are you, five foot two? Three? Mis, how tall is your dad, huh?”
“I don’t – ”
“I’m five foot eight, you asshole.”
“And still too goddamn short to play first base. Am I right, Mis?”
And so on.
Of course, that was all a long time ago. Uncle Al is now 84, my dad is nearly 80. Uncle Al is easily as healthy as me. My dad is too, aside from the Alzheimer’s disease.
One true fact about Alzheimer’s Disease – it kind of changes the dynamic.
And so now here we were, Uncle Albert and I, going to visit my dad/his little brother at the nursing home. On the way there Uncle Al has asked me, “Do you think this place is good for him, Mis?” And I have told him, “I don’t know.” Because I don’t. Because, does anyone, ever?
The good news is that my dad is awake when we get there, or at least, sitting upright in the TV room and not laying in his bed. “Oh, hey,” he says, when he sees his brother and me. “What are you doing here?”
“We came to see you,” says Uncle Albert. “How are they treating you, huh? How do you like this place?”
“Yeah . . . it’s good,” says my dad. “Good. I was just . . . you know. I don’t know what I was doing.”
Here, with another visitor, a moment of awkward silence might ensue; not so Uncle Al. He is happy to jump right into the realm of the impossible Alzheimer conversation. God love him.
“You look good, Ej,” he says now, very kindly, because the truth is my dad is kind of a mess on this particular day. His hair is way too long, his glasses are lost, and he hasn’t shaved in days. Plus, he’s missing two teeth, which has been true for quite a while but still doesn’t do much to improve the overall effect.
“Yeah, thanks,” says my dad, adjusting the baseball cap which he rarely takes off. “I was just, you know. Sitting here.”
Uncle Al looks pained, but keeps going, keeps talking and engaging my dad in a way that I never do. I don’t think I can. It’s just something between them, I guess, and it’s clear to me that though he may be somewhat nervous and almost entirely clueless, my dad is happy to be the object of someone’s attention. To be a central part of a conversation, even if he has no idea how it’s supposed to go. To be talking with his brother.
My own kids, brothers at the current ages of six and eight, are friends only at my most optimistic moments. They get along, about half the time. They also fight, argue, brawl, and use the term “arch nemesis” correctly, in reference to each other. I really kind of desperately hope that they will grow up to be real friends, drinking buddies, each the other’s best man. I hope they will take their children to Pirates games together. I rarely consider the “nursing home pals” scenario.
“Yeah, you remember that, Ej?” says Uncle Albert now. “You remember playing the trumpet?”
“Trumpet?” says my dad, and then stares into the distance for a moment. Or more.
“You were good,” Uncle Al tells him. “You were in a band.”
“Yeah,” says my dad, vaguely. Then, “Your hair – “ he points at his brother’s head – “It looks nice. You got a lot of hair. More than me, haha.”
He’s been saying this forever. It’s kind of amazing, the random things he holds on to. And I know a time will come where he will no longer say it, when he will forgot his brother altogether, but for now, it’s still there. Whatever it is. Maybe it’s a brother thing. I hope it’s a brother thing.
I can’t imagine, nor do I have any reason to imagine, my own kids at these advanced ages.
Still, I really, really hope it’s a brother thing.