Today would've been my brother's 56th birthday. He died on March 15, 2011. I wrote this short story a few months' after.
My Kid Brother
by Maura Stone
Matt, sixteen months my junior, aglow with flashing black eyes and curly black hair, was my dark reflection. We had similar facial features, but he inherited mom’s dark complexion and attributes whereas I favored dad’s Nordic side. Due to the proximity of our ages, Matt and I were inseparable. In other words, we were each others’ constant companions, like it or not.
At an early age, Matt developed fixations; once he caught onto a topic, he rarely let go. Like his love for Heinlein science fiction books, the only books he ever read. But that was innocuous. The real fun began one afternoon when he walked around the house in a somnambulist state declaring, “My feet are larger than Russia.” Alarmed, my mother attempted to wake him up. Having had no success, she shepherded him to his bedroom, helped him undress and tucked him in.
Soon after, he underwent a stream of repetitive incidents, each one weirder than the one before. Desperate, my parents chauffeured him weekly to a therapist. Outside the fortune the shrink raked in from their life savings, a financial windfall he didn’t merit, he didn’t cast any light on Matt’s behavior; behavior that defied description, behavior that worsened day by day. Instead, he laid the blame at them. Brokenhearted, my parents had no idea how to help their little boy, so brilliant in intellect with an IQ veering over the genius score, so blindingly funny with a sharp wit and great sense of humor.
Not too long after, those therapy sessions succeeded in producing an outward manifestation of Matt’s anti–social tendencies. At school, he became disruptive and instigated fights. Once, he tossed library tables and chairs across the room from pent–up frustration. The principal called my mother into his office.
Mom eagerly came to her son’s defense. “Do something with your curriculum. He’s bored,” she explained, “if you only allowed him to skip a few grades, none of this would occur.” It seemed easier to deflect rather than address an issue without any explanation or resolution in sight.
Things also changed at home. My mother escaped at any given second to plop in front of a blasting tv and my father holed up the moment he step foot in the house in a gelid bedroom than interact with his children. Not to mention the three feral dogs destroying the house, thanks to my uncle.
The dogs were gifts from my Uncle Kingston. He initially bought a miniature schnauzer. His wife didn’t like the breed so he dumped it on us. A year later, he purchased an airedale. That animal, as well, found his way to our little home. Precisely one year afterwards, a rottweiler joined the herd. My mother finally put her foot down.
“King,” she said, “you buy another dog and I’ll put a bullet in your skull.”
That did the trick; he never purchased another dog. However, by this time, my poor mother was overwhelmed with three untrained beasts. As well as the realization that something wasn’t right with her son.
Back when I was seven, Matt, a mere five and a half, hadn’t yet openly exhibited all those peccadillos that scarred him throughout his life. He was my infuriating pesky kid brother. One day, he scared the bejesus out of me in the hallway of our winter house — a dark and creepy place no matter the time of day with or without lighting — the sole access to our bedrooms and bathroom. Even though I never put much conscious thought to the looming shadows, my pace always quickened when I walked down that corridor.
Innocently enough, I exited the bathroom when Matt jumped from the abyss, quietly saying, “Boo!” I shrieked to high heaven, feeling my heart depart from my flat–chested child body.
From the den, my mother screamed, “Knock it off you two!” disrupting the dogs’ sleep. Disgruntled, they then acted up, growling and yapping at each other. Mom directed her shouts to them, “Get outta here, you mutts!”
In the hallway, I waited for my heartbeat to slow while my brother giggled. “That’s not funny,” I said.
“Yes it is!” and he giggled again. “You saw me! How could you be scared?” Matt found the absurdity hysterical.
Annoyed, I punched him on the arm. He punched me back. We exchanged a few more until I yelled, “Moooooommmmm!”
From the den, she screamed, “Maura, knock it off. Or I’m going to send in your father!”
That statement made us pause. It wasn’t the threat involved; it was the logistics. Only a few feet away from us, locked behind closed doors in the master bedroom, slept my father. He rose at dawn to get to work very early in the morning. He had the air conditioner on full volume, the 1960’s version of white noise, oblivious to the fact that his dear children pummeled each other to death almost in front of his door.
I never understood back then why the man kept that air conditioner on all year round. I also didn’t understand how mom could tolerate that frigid room; it was brutal inside. One evening in winter, I walked past his snoring supine body, and turned it off. He promptly woke up.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Dad, it’s freezing in here. Why don’t you just open a window and save money?” To cut back on high electric bills, Dad turned off lights while I sat reading. Bills he ran up with his incessant air conditioning.
“Are you crazy? It’s cold outside!” he yelled. “Turn it back on!”
From the den, the dogs ran pell–mell into the living room, nipping and gnashing at each other, smacking into antique furniture, clawing through expensive wall–to–wall carpeting. In the corridor, Matt and I picked up from where we left off, punching and shouting. This time, Mom yelled her menacing, “If I have to go over there…” and we broke off hostilities.
That threat was a probable cause of action. My mother wielded a mean hair brush — in those days parents had an arsenal of both physical and emotional abuse with which to discipline their children — and, at times, a belt which she flicked with expertise at our arms and buttocks. Her preference, however, was a stick with one nail, a joke Mom maintained for over twenty years.
In a hushed voice, I whispered to Matt, “Don’t ever do that again.”
“Make me stop,” he taunted, “it’s not like you didn’t know I was there!” and burst out in a peel of laughter.
Frustrated, I scooted into my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. The next morning, after I exited the bathroom, I leapt from my brother’s calm voice, “Boo!”
“Mom! Tell him to stop!” I shouted, half out of my mind. At this point, Matt could barely breathe from riotous laughter.
From the kitchen, my mother warned, “Knock it off you two and get in here for breakfast.”
Matt and I made our way, slyly punching each other while stepping over the dogs milling in the kitchen awaiting their breakfast.
At this point, I knew my brother would never stop. Every day he lurked in that corridor, lying in ambush. Even though I knew he staked out a spot, that knowledge, plus knowing how I reacted, made it worse for me. For some reason, he always caught me off guard. Even when I looked dead center at him.
After a few weeks in anticipation of being scared, I, in turn, transferred that fear to what I was doing inside the bathroom, destroying my stomach, intestines and bowels, creating a stress–ridden spastic colon. Dread and foreboding became a familiar sentiment.
Suffering discomfort from an irritated bowel was minor as opposed to suffering pain when my heart emerged from my chest. To avoid Matt, I timed my potty duty trips the moment he left the house to visit his best friend next door. It never dawned on me, though, that he could see the bathroom light from Joey’s bedroom a mere ten feet away. Right on schedule, he scooted back into the house, taking position. Relieved, I left the bathroom and levitated when, from the darkness of the hallway a calm voice said, “Boo.” Witnessing my reaction, he followed up with a high–pitched maniacal laugh, falling to his knees in giddiness.
Besides this hobby, Matt and I spent hours going back and forth topping each other with bad jokes and puns. The flow of our interactions reached a certain cadence, a rhythm that beat like a steady drum. His pal, Joey, joined in. I left them alone as they achieved levels of absurdity I couldn’t possibly comprehend. This was the Matt I enjoyed the most; even at a young age, he had a superbly developed sense of humor and impeccable timing.
Customarily, the family spent summers at a compound upstate New York. There were two houses: one for my uncle, Kingston, his bitter dog–hating wife and her two gorgeous and self–absorbed teen–aged daughters who he adopted years earlier; and the other for us, a young family with a pack of savage dogs from you–know–who.
That summer, I looked forward to staying at our house with a bathroom in full view. No shadows from which my brother could emerge. But, Matt had another card up his sleeve.
The lock in the bathroom consisted of a simple hook and eye latch. Seated on the toilet, I watched in horror while the bathroom doorknob twisted. Suddenly, the door popped open a sliver, wide enough to insert a yellow pencil. Captivated, I followed its slow and steady ascendant movement until it arrived at the latch. For only a moment the pencil hovered. Then, with one swift upward thrust, the pencil smacked the hook out from the latch and the door opened inwards.
I wailed, “MOM! Get Matt outta here!” There was no response to my frantic cries of help. Which was peculiar given I heard her talking to my father. Of course, my mother suffered from Jewish selective hearing, or perhaps a moue of deafness due to the tv volume. Or perhaps she’d had enough of our shenanigans.
Stuck on the bowl, I had no other recourse, but to suffer humiliation at my brother’s hands. Instead of entering, he shoved the three dogs inside, rapidly shutting the door firmly behind them. The dogs hated each other and, in the confines of the small bathroom, barked, growled and nipped at one another. Sometimes they got a nip in me. Mostly, their tails smacked me, hard thuds against my shins. The littlest one of all, Fuji, jumped onto my lap to kiss my face. Not quite the interaction I wanted to have while moving my bowels.
The rest of the family, relieved to have peace and quiet during the dogs’ absence, refused to intervene on my behalf. Needless to say, I was traumatized from this activity. That repeated itself ad nauseum throughout the summer.
Several years later, as suddenly as Matt started this nonsense, he stopped. Even so, he left an indelible mark that haunts me to today. I developed some very curious bathroom habits; the only one I can publicly discuss is peering behind bathroom curtains each time I enter the loo. It was also determined that I’m the only one in the family to suffer from a spastic colon, or irritable bowel syndrome.
“Where in the world did you get that from?” inquired my puzzled mother.
“Where were you all those years during my childhood?” I retorted.
For most of our adult lives Matt and I kept apart due to a genetic trait we shared, called “Bear a Grudge for All of Eternity.” It seemed generational: my father and uncle had a falling out that lasted thirty years. And their father had the same with his brothers which lasted his lifetime. It was only through Matt’s efforts that we reunited in middle–age when he, diagnosed in the latter part of pulmonary disease, contacted me to mend bridges. It took a lot, but miraculously we created a sibling relationship which would never have existed had we been in touch all those years.
Subsequently, we chatted online mostly every day about our lives and current affairs. Even though Matt was an aeronautical engineer, as a hobby he developed into an astute political analyst known to many in the field. One positive attribute with Asperger’s is intense focus and scrutiny. Yes, Asperger’s Syndrome. He confessed that things got easier for him once diagnosed. At least he got an answer as to why he was so different, so socially inept and so out of sync with the world. Perhaps it was that knowledge, perhaps it was his illness, but Matt didn’t seem off any more; he was wise beyond belief with a depth from introspective reflection.
It didn’t take long for our chatter, especially through IMs, to fall back into the cadence and pattern established as children. Matt resurrected old jokes and we created new ones. We went back and forth for hours, stopping only for food and toilet breaks. I never felt more thoroughly intellectually engaged in my life as I tried to top my brother, the master of humor, wit and absurdity.
Funny enough, he and Joey, his childhood friend and our former neighbor, spoke at least a dozen times every day for over forty years. They, as well, maintained their strange sense of humor that no one else managed to understand.
Knowing he was terminally ill, I wanted to visit, but Matt resisted.
“I want you to remember me as I used to be — young, vibrant and healthy,” he said while fidgeting in front of his computer.
“Matt,” I patiently said, “I’m watching you on webcam!” I wagged a finger at him in front of my laptop.
“Only my face,” he said and winked, “like you, I didn’t wrinkle.” On a more serious note, he added, “I don’t want you to see my broken down body.”
Out of nowhere, I reminded him, “Do you remember how you used to lie in wait for me to leave the bathroom?”
He couldn’t stop laughing. “Yeah, what the hell was wrong with you, Maura? You knew I was there! Why were you always surprised?” He roared. “If I had a nickel for every time you jumped outta your skin! How about those times when I shoved the dogs in with you?”
I groaned. “Every time I saw that pencil, I knew I was doomed!”
That was the last conversation we had. Matt’s immune system shut down the very next day and he wound up on a ventilator for a month. When they took him off, my sister–in–law, Kay, phoned me.
“Matt’s not doing well. Please talk to him.” She put the phone against his face.
I said, “Matt, I love you,” and heard him gasp, “Love you.” And then he died.
In more ways than one the old adage, “Youth is wasted on the young,” comes to mind. It took a lifetime to realize that Matt was the only person who really knew me. Who unconditionally accepted and loved me, a truly great and tremendous gift from a person contending with Asperger’s. And the knowledge that I never loved anyone the way I love my brother, an intrinsic love so deep it's embedded in my cellular structure. With his death, the finality of our relationship, the doors to my past closed and my future something I no longer look forward to, bereft of his presence.
Wherever Matt is, whatever dimension in the next chapter of here-after, I wish he experiences his eternity as a young boy with unruly hair and wild laughter, doubling over in piques of joy over the absurdity of a comic situation.