Nick and I are in the kitchen, cooking together; it must be pizza night or burrito night. My phone rings and as usual, I can’t find it; I’m always putting it down and walking away from it. Nick hands it to me and as I answer it, I walk down the hall, away from the kitchen noise. It’s Jerome and I can’t understand what he’s saying. His accent and my hearing impairment combine to make a joke of the moment. I hear Jerome clearly when he says, “Oh, you’re not gonna like this.” Then he says, “Dan had a heart attack.” Dan? My ex-husband? What? “No, JOHN. John had a heart attack.” Who the hell is John and why do I care? Jerome coughs and says clearly, “SEAN had a heart attack. He had two. He didn’t make it.”
“My BROTHER? MY BROTHER?” I’m shouting and walking back to the kitchen, back to Nick. Jerome says Sean came over because he was feeling sick; he wanted to lay down in his old bedroom. Jerome says Sean was dirty; he was homeless, you know. WHAT? No, I didn’t know. I’m almost 900 miles away. Jerome didn’t want Sean laying in his bed, because he was homeless and dirty so he told Sean to lay down on the living room floor. Sean told Jerome if he got down on the floor he wasn’t sure he could get back up.
Jerome says he took Sean to the hospital and Joyce stayed home because she was sick you know. No. Again, I don’t know. But I also don’t care. Joyce is always sick and it’s usually not real. Jerome says he got Sean checked in to the hospital and left because he’d parked in a No Parking Zone. Sean had two heart attacks and died. He was using meth, you know.
FOR FUCK’S SAKE, NO. I DON’T KNOW. I AM NINE HUNDRED MILES AWAY. YOU PEOPLE WON’T TEXT OR EMAIL, I DON’T TALK ON THE PHONE. HOW THE FUCK WOULD I KNOW ANY OF THIS?
I ask Jerome when the funeral is. I can hear Joyce in the background, but she never asks for the phone. I tell Jerome I will be there for the funeral and hang up. Nick has already texted Monica and she calls almost as soon as I’m off the phone. She tells me to let her know when I will be in Minot and she’ll book a room for me at a hotel and pay for it so I don’t have to stay with Joyce and Jerome. She asks if I need her to buy the plane ticket, but I have my mask money. She asks if I want her to come. I ask her if she wants to and she says not really, but she will if I need her to. I tell her I’ll see if Kelsie will be there.
Kelsie is already texting me to see if I’m coming. I contact Sean’s daughter Samantha to find out what I can do. She asks me for pictures of Sean and what his favorite songs were. She asks me for names to put in the program. She says she’s not putting AJ in as Sean’s sister because he hated that. AJ is Sean’s sister’s child. I agree; I tell her that is some Joyce bullshit that Sean and I hated. TONIA was our sister. Samantha asks me to speak at the funeral.
I text Ronnie and Ruth and Janet and tell them I’m coming home because Sean has died. Ruth says she’s coming with me to the funeral. I make my plane reservations and text Monica to tell her that I will be with Ruth and Kelsie so I will be fine. Samantha texts me to say that Joyce and Jerome have arrived at Amy’s house to ‘help’ with the arrangements. Joyce has changed AJ in the program. Instead of being listed as Sean’s nephew, Joyce has listed AJ as Sean’s sister.
I say that’s ridiculous and presumptuous. If anything AJ should be listed as Sean’s brother, but he’s NOT. He’s Sean’s nephew. Samantha says she knows; she herself is dating a trans man. But she doesn’t have the energy to fight Joyce. I understand. But I’m pissed. When I text Kelsie, she’s pissed too. I want to know why Joyce insists on erasing my sister, erasing Kelsie’s mother. I ask Kelsie if she’s my sister, too. She assures me she’s my niece.
I write Sean’s elegy and send it to Monica to make sure it makes sense. We write some non-confrontational responses for me to use when Joyce comments on my weight. Or if Joyce wants to drone on about AJ. Or if she decides to talk about Tonia. I practice these responses while I fly home.
Once I’m in my hotel in Minot, I text Samantha to tell her she can come get the pictures. When she and her boyfriend arrive, I ask her if she knows what happened to Sean. She says Sean lost his job because of the drugs and then he lost his house. He went over to Joyce and Jerome’s because he was feeling sick. Samantha says Jerome dropped Sean at the hospital and left him there and sometime very soon after that Sean had his first heart attack. They got him back and he was alive, in the ICU, being monitored. About a day later, Sean had the second heart attack and they couldn’t get him back.
The only contact information the hospital had for Sean was Tammy, who he’d divorced 20 years ago. So they called her. Tammy called her and Sean’s son Brad and told him Sean was gone. Brad called Samantha. Jerome left Sean in the hospital and didn’t even leave his name and number. Then he and Joyce left Sean there in the hospital and never went back to check on him. They never called the hospital. They never called Amy. They never called Brad. Or Samantha. Or Stefany. Or me.
They left him there alone. Sick. In pain. Never checked up on him. Never called a single soul to tell them Sean was in the hospital. He died all alone.
Samantha and her young man leave and I close the door behind them. I walk back toward the bed. My knees buckle and I find myself on my hands and knees on the floor, sobbing. I cried for Tonia, but in my silent way, without sobbing. I cried silently for Jerome Michael. I wept rivers of tears over Bram, soundlessly. I am on the floor of a hotel room, all alone, and I’m wailing. I wail for Bram, my love, my strength, my calm. I wail for Tonia, once my very best friend in the whole world, who died for lack of love, a virtual stranger to me. I wail for Jerome Michael, so optimistic until he just couldn’t do it any more. And I wail for Sean, the lonely lost boy, left alone in a hospital room for almost three days, waiting for someone to show up. I wail in agony and I hope my poor brother never woke up after the first heart attack. I pray to a god I don’t believe in that my broken little brother, who believed he wasn’t worthy of love, was not awake for two days, alone in the hospital, waiting for people who never came. I beg the universe to tell me that Sean’s last thoughts were not that he was right all along; no one loved him.
I’m sobbing so hard I can’t breathe; I think I may choke. I wonder why no one has called the front desk to complain about the noise. I lay my forehead down on the floor and I cry.
Then I get up and blow my nose and wash my face and put a cold cloth on my eyes so they won’t be swollen in the morning. I call Ruth and she comes to get me.
Ruth takes me to the funeral in the morning. We look for breakfast, but no one is serving breakfast so we stop for smokes and cokes. We smoke in the funeral home parking lot before Ruth follows me inside. I see Joyce and Jerome immediately, sitting with Bonnie, AJ and his ‘wife’ standing behind them. I nod to everyone and go over to Bonnie and give her a hug. I’m not sure she recognizes me. I stroke her hair and tell her it’s amazing: not one strand of grey–it’s still so black it’s almost blue.
Joyce tells me Bonnie’s hair is beautiful, especially compared to her own hair. Joyce claims she’s had covid twice and all it did was make her hair fall out. I look at her, expressionless. Her hair is as full as it’s always been. Of course. Kelsie arrives and we go into the other room to see Sean. Joyce has bitched for years that Sean and I look just like Larry. The last time I saw Sean, I thought he looked just like Richie. I look down at him now and I see Nita. Richie’s still there, but I can see Nita. I stroke his hair and tell him I’m sorry and that I love him.
When I go back out into the other room, I see Larry has arrived. He looks at me with giant sad puppy dog eyes. His replacement son is with him. I let my eyes scan past them and I go sit with Ruth and Kelsie. I keep waiting for the funeral to start and nothing’s happening. Finally Samantha comes to me and asks me to speak. I’m the officiant. I wish I’d known; I would’ve written a longer speech and talked more about being Sean’s sister, and what a loving, good man he was.
I stand up and move to the center of the room, clear my throat, still raw from sobbing last night. I introduce myself and start speaking. I’m a teacher, an actor; I make eye contact with the room as I talk. I look at Joyce and she’s mouthing to me to speak up, unable to keep herself from criticizing even at this moment. I raise my voice and tell the mourners there’s a mistake in the program: AJ is not my sister or Sean’s sister. AJ is my sister Tonia’s child. Sean, Tonia, and I grew up together; at one time we were Buddy, Pal and Friend.
I tell everyone that my memory is spotty; that I have forgotten things I couldn’t bear to face. But Sean remembered everything that ever happened to us and that was his downfall. He couldn’t forget and he tried to self medicate. I look at Larry and say that Buddy, Pal, and Friend were ripped apart one sunny Florida afternoon. I tell Brad, Samantha, and Stefany that Sean loved them, that he thought they were the best things he’d ever done. I tell everyone Sean had reasons to be difficult but he’s at peace now.
Jerome kneels in front of me and says something. Ruth hears, “That was nice.” Kelsie hears, “That wasn’t nice.” Before I can ask him to repeat himself, he starts talking about Joyce’s covid-related hair loss and I tune him out. Other people come up to say other things. When there’s a lull, Ruth takes me and Kelsie outside for a smoke. While we’re outside, she asks if we want to go back in or go get lunch. Oh Ruth! How I love you! I’d ask you to marry me in a heartbeat if we weren’t both straight. We go get lunch.
I leave Minot without speaking to anyone else in my family.
When I get home I write to Larry and tell him he and Lynne are responsible for Tonia and Sean’s deaths, and he shares that blame with Joyce and Jerome. I tell him I’m glad Lynne is dead and I wish I could afford to buy a plane ticket so I could fly down and dance on her grave. I tell him I hope Tonia and Sean haunt him until the day he dies.
Joyce doesn’t call me at Christmas.