September 29, 2004



My brother was twenty-five and taking six pills a day to keep him from having panic attacks or going crazy or something. Anti-depressants, tranquilizers, anti-psychotics. Medicines with long names I could never keep straight. The kind you see commercials for on TV that show someone running in a sunny field but don’t tell what they actually do.
He lived on his own for a year in a little suburb called Downers Grove. He rented a little one bedroom ranch that he probably paid too much for. We all should have known that living alone would be bad for him. He’d always been the kind of person that didn’t like to run out to White Hen for a gallon of milk by himself. Maybe we were all just too happy that someone was finally moving out of the house that was getting too small for my parents and their three sons in their twenties. We were all too old to be sharing bedrooms.
I always thought it was a nice place. I would have loved living there. One bed, one bath, living room/dinning room, kitchen, enclosed back porch, and a basement. Our parents’ house didn’t even have a basement. My mom made countless throw pillows and curtains to try to add a personal touch. Joe even set up the basement so his band could practice down there.
He was a grade school music teacher but he still not-so-secretly harbored dreams of touring with the band he’d been singing in since college. It probably didn’t help that they broke up a few months after he moved into the place because the drummer got married and one of the guitar players was playing in another band that was starting to become slightly successful. I found out from my mom months later that he had like five panic attacks the night they played their last show at a little coffee house called the Funky Java.
For months he’d been driving our family practitioner crazy with his hypochondriac tendencies. It started with a lump in his neck that he thought might be a tumor. Later he thought he was having a heart attack but it turned out that it was only a panic attack. I think that was his first. He had x-rays, CAT scans, MRIs, and a bunch of other tests but there was nothing physically wrong with him. I’d lost patience with it all by the time he called me one afternoon and mentioned that he woke up gasping for breath that morning. He was afraid he might have sleep apnea. He told me the next day that he tape recorded himself sleeping that night and didn’t hear any snoring when he played the tape back, so he ruled out that possibility on his own. My dad wished he could figure out a way to prevent him from being able to look up illnesses and ailments online.
I went to London for a month at the beginning of the summer and when I got back he had moved back into my parents’ house. (This wasn’t a surprise. His lease had expired and we knew he’d be moving back when it did.) While I was gone he had started daily group therapy. He spent six hours a day at what our brother Dave, who was three years older than me and three years younger than Joe, called “day camp.” My mom told me that while I was gone he’d even had trouble going to work. One morning he had to call his therapist from the car because he was in tears and couldn’t make himself get out and walk into the building.
My whole life people have always told me I look exactly like my brother. We have the same dark hair, brown eyes, fair skin, and freckles. They ignore the subtleties, like the fact that our noses are completely different shapes and our hair opposite textures. His is pointy, mine is broad. Mine is coarse, his is fine. Even now that I’m several inches taller and he has a beard, people still mistake us from a distance. I don’t think we look that much alike at all. At least no more than any other siblings.
For around a year he’d been dating a girl that was a year younger than me. That made her seven years his junior. She was one of his students when he student-taught and he gave her piano lessons for about a year. Nothing illegal or unethical happened. They didn’t begin seeing each other outside of the weekly lessons and the occasional school concert or play until she turned eighteen. We all suspected she had a crush on him though, especially my mother, based on the frequency with which he came home from their lessons with a plate of cookies or something like that. My mother in her unprofessional opinion thought that guilt about dating someone so much younger than himself might be part of Joe’s problem. We all like her though, and they both seemed happy so the difference in their ages didn’t really bother anyone. Being his younger brother I couldn’t let it go without the occasional cradle robber joke though.

I came home one around 2 o’clock one afternoon, I forget from where but it’s not important. They were napping on the couch in the living room like they’d been doing almost every afternoon since he finished group. She came over after she was done with her summer school classes at the community college and they would lay there sleeping or watching TV until she had to leave to go to work late in the afternoon.
On this particular day, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table, leaning against the wall with her foot up on the chair next to her. She had been having foot and back problems for months now and the doctors and physical therapists couldn’t locate the source. She was drinking a cup of coffee – my mother could drink coffee even in the middle of the hottest July day, something I will never understand – and flipping through the latest issue of the St. Anthony’s Messanger or the Joliet Catholic Explorer. When she heard me come through the backdoor into the laundry room she sighed. It was one of her sighs that she said meant nothing but always meant there was something bothering her.
I slid my shoes off without untying them, walked into the kitchen and grabbed a can of Diet Coke from the fridge. “Hi, Mom,” I said, bending down to kiss her on the cheek and tapping her foot to tell her to move it so I could sit down.
“Hi,” she said, her face displaying the truth behind the sigh.
“What’s up?” I asked, knowing that I would be getting myself into a long conversation either about her back pain or, more likely, my brother.
“Oh, nothing,” she answered, sighing again. “They’ve just been lying there all day again. They never do anything, just lie there on that couch all afternoon watching TV and sleeping. I don’t know how he expects to get any better if all he does all day is sleep.”
“Yeah.” I knew that there much more to come.
“He takes those pills, which I think they put him on too many of, and he just expects it to make everything all better. Like it’s some magic cure. He doesn’t want to actually have to do anything for himself. He just keeps going back to the doctors and they just keep increasing his dosages. They’ve got him all doped up on so many drugs that all he can do is lie around in our living room all day long.”
“He’s never wanted to have to do anything for himself though,” I remarked, trying to take an active role in the conversation.
“I don’t know why she stays with this depressed old man. How’s he going to function when he has to go back to work in the fall and deal with those kids again? It’s like he doesn’t want to face his problems or face reality so he just lies around all day sleeping. And he’s driving me crazy in the process.”
“I’ve found my patience with him has been very short lately,” I told her. “I’m just having a hard time feeling sympathy for him when he doesn’t seem to really want to do anything to make himself feel better.” I got up from the table and went to the sink to rinse out my empty can. I placed it on the counter next to the dish drainer with the other recyclables waiting to be taken outside on someone’s next trip out the backdoor. My mother just continued talking.
We talked for another half hour. She did most of the talking. She blamed the doctors for making him too dependent on medication. He told her the other day that he felt like she had unrealistically high moral standards and that they contributed to his problem. He said that because of some speech she gave him he never felt comfortable drinking or leading a “normal” social life in college. Our grandfather was an alcoholic and she just wanted us all to be aware of the danger she said. She gave Dave and I the same speech and it didn’t seem to have affected us this way. This part of the conversation intrigued me because she and I had never really talked about whether or not I drank. It seemed like we’d reached some sort of unspoken agreement just to leave the subject untouched. She told me stories about how he always feared change. How he cried when they rearranged the bedroom furniture when he was eighteen months old. He used to say goodbye to the furnace and the washer and dryer when they left the house. She just didn’t like the fact that he seemed to blame her. She knew that she yelled too much but she tried to be the best mother she could.
“You were a good mom,” I said, leaning forward to hug her. “You are a good mom.”
“Just promise me,” she said, “that if you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, you’ll wait till he’s over this. I can only handle one at a time.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “if I have a nervous breakdown, I’ll do it far away from here so you don’t have to worry about me.” I was half-joking but she didn’t see the humor.
“I will worry about you. I’ll always worry about you. I’m your mother, it’s my job.”
“Mom, I’m kidding.” I got up to leave the room. “I’ll be upstairs playing Playstation if you need me.”
“Wait, one more thing before you go,” she said. “Fill up my coffee.” She held out her white “Illinois Mom” mug. I took it from her and brought it over to the counter to fill up.
She looked into the mug when I handed it back to her. “Don’t skimp. A little more please, garcon.” I grabbed the pot off the counter and filled the cup the rest of the way and headed upstairs.

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