I am watching my brother hold the face of his seventeen year old black lab while the vet injects his animal with an algae green liquid that will take Rocco away and leave Brian completely alone. After we stay in this cold room too long and snot through too many Kleenex, we walk back to my car and sit. We sit and he cries so hard and so desperately that it seems almost physically dangerous.
Dogs are put to sleep all the time. People lose dogs. Dogs don’t live long, they die...all the time. This I know, we both know, but all those sleeping dogs are not Rocco and their masters aren’t my forty-six year old brother Brian. I close my eyes and let my head fall against the seat rest; he slowly says my name and I nod as he does because I know what he will say next.
At the beginning of this same sunny August day, Brian pulls his white ladder-topped work van into my driveway and is out and at the back door fast. He calls in and asks me to come outside. I find him pacing the garage, taking his backward-facing filthy baseball cap off and putting it on, taking and putting. His eyes are crazed...guilty and angry and scared and mean and more angry and brilliantly blue. I act bored....and I am acting.
“I think I might be going to jail today...so, I’m going to put a fucking bullet in my head instead....I just want you to know that that is exactly what I am fucking going to do today - now - I swear, I’m done.”
Ten minutes earlier I am rinsing ketchup from lunch plates asking my sweaty thirteen year old son to get off of his I-Thing and in the shower...for the third time. In fifteen minutes I am suppose to be driving my clean compliant son to an appointment where I will sit in an orderly waiting room and read People Magazine while the orthodontist reapplies the braces which keep pinging off my Starburst eating son’s teeth. No jail, no bullets, no crazy....just a quick fix from the teeth guy.
I ask him what happened and why he’s thinks he’s going to jail which sets off his ramped-up version of what someone else f-ing did to him....again, it’s somebody else’s fault.
When they notice his truck in the driveway, both my kids come cranking out the back door. JJ I’m sure for a smack-talking game of HORSE and Anna just to be tossed around and told how beautiful and funny and wacky she is because on a good day, that’s what happens when Uncle Brian stops over. He’s the brightest and funniest of all their visitors...the one who plays tickle monster and doesn’t stop after a short time like most adults would....who teases and wrestles and won’t ever leave without saying something like, “Well guys, ever since she was a little girl your mom just haaas to have a goodbye kiss from me and, I don’t want to make her mad so pucker up Sis”...the one who above all else will not disappoint them.
Now, this day, even though I half smile at them as they approach, because again...I am acting, they know. Today, Brian can’t hide the shitty madness that races around in his eyes and so, they sidestep their greeting and go back in the house. Anna actually skips back humming because now, she is acting too - she doesn’t want Uncle Brian to see that she knows he might be a bad dude.
I was a sophmore in highschool and imitating my way toward being very cool when he was an extremely fresh freshman with a bowl-haircut and highwater pants...the underdog, the down-trodden, timid and sad. Four years later, by the time he doesn’t graduate high school, he is Judd Nelson’s John Bender of The Breakfast Club.
And then, I am off at college, he is just off being gone. Missing to an apartment with a group of guys none of us know. I go to pick him up the morning of my grandfather’s funeral. The house is exactly what it could only be - weeds instead of a lawn, blankets instead of drapes, front door hanging open instead of locked, smells of liquor instead of a breakfast, bodies sleeping on couches and floors instead of in beds. I call out his name and some body points to a back bedroom. When Brian notices me he rocks himself to his feet laughing and says, “Holy crap Neen, what are you doing here?” He has 8 additional inches of hair and a black bandana skull-cap tied around his head just above his caribbean blue eyes. He keeps laughing a Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker laugh. He puts on someone else’s clothes and follows me to my car. I cry all the way to the funeral begging him to move out of this house, to get a job and to fix his life. He chain smokes and tells me that it’s not f-ing worth it.
That chunk of years I lend him money and my car, sit with him at court dates, fight a knife away from his girlfriend, clean his house weekly, write letters on his behalf to landlords, probation officers and employers. I aid and abet. I am my brother’s keeper.
July of 1997 he stands up in my wedding looking like Ben Affleck and drawing a circle of relatives and single girls to him. Hopeful people who know of his “struggles” are practically chanting their blessings on him, everyone giddy to see him so clean and so haircutted. He does this often, does a Superman on us from Kid Rock to The Bachelor (pick any season.) And then here come the hopeful...praising him for he has changed; I am always one of them. I am never not one of them.
I work hard for a very long time to help and fix, hoping that he will finally learn a ‘lesson’ but I learn that for him, lessons are for children and as a child he learned plenty. He learned that a father doesn’t necessarily stop drinking and stay and that a stepfather can set you to stand bare-footed in the nighttime snow and drop-kick you off the porch if you try to scramble your little 5 year-old self to warmth and that whole patches of your hair do come out if pulled hard enough and that the inside of a tiny broom closet gets crazy scary after hours in the unbending blackness. He got it....love is conditional, honesty brutal, anger dangerous, embarrassment painful, home a fallacy. And now he’s in my garage with his explosive head in his hands telling me once again how he hates his f-ing life...how this is the end and how he wants out.
And so I tell him that I will help him in only one way. I will take him now and drive him to a treatment hospital.
One year before I got married, Brian bought a puppy. Rocco has been at his knee since--with him on every job site, rooted near the foot of his ladder, glancing up and down and following back and forth to the supply pile....always always with his loyal eyes on Brian while he strips and replaces the siding off of hundreds of houses. Their partnership is unconditional, safe, comforting and real. Their partnership is the reason Brian tells me today that he cannot check himself in. But, Rocco is ancient-old in dog-years and I know that Brian has to carry him in and out of the house so that he can go to the bathroom and that he lies on a blanket waiting for Brian to come home and that this is all he does these days.
And today I am hitting this panicky desperate man head on. I tell him that we will go now and get Rocco and take him to be put to sleep and that then I will drive him to a place, a program...the only solution. He cracks like a little boy and chokes out the first honest words he has spoken today, “I can’t, I don’t want to be alone...” He sobs scary-like and the floor of my stomach pitches and rocks and now I am really really acting when I calmly say, “Alone or dead. You choose.”
I walk into my house, put my head in my hands and I wait.
“Let’s go get Rocco” he says to me through the kitchen window.
And now, we have done it. I drove him home, he scooped up Rocco, his tail wagging in the scaffold of Brian’s arms - they laid together in the back of my car on the way to the Humane Society. I drove directly there. He held his loyal face, and felt him die and now we are back in my car and Brian is slowly saying my name and I am nodding because, I know.
“Denise, I can’t go today....I need a week to get my shit in order....I’m in the middle of a job and I need this builder...I’ll lose my business. I just need a week; I’ll start fresh next week.” I am nodding as I creep out of the Humane Society parking lot to drive back to my home, to my kids where I’ll push this damage down deep where it was before he showed up this morning.
Rest In Peace Rocco.