I became a writer in my late 20s, and through my writing I began to formulate my own ideas on how to live a life, often in contradiction to my brother's unbending, joyless life. My brother and I had fewer and fewer conversations. I now tried to avoid his calls, his constant attempts to grind me down to his will, and that's what it had become. A battle of wills. His maddeningly soothing voice, my furious anger, the receiver slammed down. Finally, he stopped calling, relieved, it seemed to me in my 30s, that he no longer had to fulfill the little charade of our brotherhood after all these years. God, how he must have hated always being the loving brother! How he must have hated the terrible pressure Dad, and I, unwittingly, burdened him with! How he must have hated … no, I will never believe that … how he must have resented me. Then, he had his nervous breakdown.
I was in my mid-30s, in a motel room in Orlando, Fla., with a woman who was not my wife, when my wife called to tell me the news. My brother was in a private sanitarium.
"Everyone's hysterical," she said. "Your father said it should have been you. They want you to come home and make it go away."
I flew home the next day and took a cab from the airport to the sanitarium. The cab drove up a long, winding driveway shaded by maples trees. I saw a picturesque pond with swans floating on it, then a vast, perfectly manicured green lawn. The sanitarium was set on a hill, a huge, white, old New England Colonial. I got out and went inside. While I waited for my brother's psychiatrist in his office, I thought to myself, all those years of unbending certitudes must have finally weighted him down. What I had admired so much as a boy, I realized now, had been for my brother an unbearable, debilitating cross he had to bear. It was my fault somehow. I should have always let him be right with me. Why did I have to argue with him, over what? I should have kept my thoughts to myself and just acquiesced to my brother's certitudes as I had as a boy.
The psychiatrist came into the office and sat down behind his desk. He was spectrally thin, with taut, pale skin and a Mephistophelian beard. "Someone has to sign these papers to commit him," he said. He pushed the papers toward me. "We can only keep him 10 days involuntarily. No one else in his family seems to want to take the responsibility."
"I'd like to see him first," I said. He looked annoyed.
"If you insist. But be prepared. He's not the brother you knew." He led me down a narrow hallway and ushered me into a bare room with a wooden floor covered with linoleum. He stayed at the door. "It's better if he doesn't see me," he said. "I seem to disturb him." He closed the door behind him and I waited. The room was completely bare. No plants, pictures on the wall, chairs, nothing. Another door opened and my brother entered the room. His eyes were glazed over as if he had been given a sedative. He saw me and smiled and held out his arms.
"Brother," he said.
"Brother," I said. He hugged me, and I smelled his smell, the smell of the brother I had once slept in the same bed with when I was a child and he was a man. He'd made me scratch his back while he told me stories about "Jimmy and the Ghost" until I fell asleep. The next morning, I asked him what had happened to Jimmy. "Wait until tonight," he said. "I'll tell you tonight." But the story never ended.
I began to cry. My brother gripped my shoulders in a vise-like grip and held me at arm's length.
"Why, Brother," he said. "What's wrong?"