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And there goes Mike

My wife Stephanie had a younger brother, but they never got along. Mike was two years younger than Steph, and she told me that from the time he first learned to speak, virtually his only words for her were taunts and insults.

That sounds like the normal behavior you'd expect from a bratty baby brother, but as described by Steph, it was relentless, all through their childhood and even after she'd gone away to college.

"Everything he said and did was either explicitly mean or had an undertone of meanness," Steph told me. "It was never 'Good morning', it was 'Good morning, Fatso.' As Mom was taking a picture of me in my prom dress, he said, 'Ugly dress, ugly girl,' and he wasn't kidding around. He was always like that. Mike has never said a kind word to me in his life," she told me. "Never. Not once."

When she said it, I wondered, was it an exaggeration? Steph wasn't prone to hyperbole, but she was sensitive — perhaps overly sensitive. Maybe after too many mean remarks from little-kid Mike, not-much-bigger-kid Steph remembered the worst moments the clearest, and had forgotten the better moments. Right?

♦ ♦ ♦

So I wasn't sure what to expect, the first time I met Mike. It was the early 2000s, and Steph and I were among dozens who'd been invited to the 80th birthday celebration for Steph and Mike's grandmother. We'd flown in from our home in San Francisco, and Steph's family is big, so they'd rented convention space at a hotel.

When Mike arrived at the shindig and saw Stephanie and I, he approached without a smile and simply said, "Stephanie." It was a monotone, emotionless as Spock. No hug, not even a handshake, though this was the first time they'd seen each other in at least a year. 

Stephanie introduced me, and Mike shook my hand, but he didn't say anything and sort of smirked, then promptly excused himself and walked away.

Steph translated the smirk as, "Yup, she married a fat guy." If that's what he meant, well, he wasn't wrong, but it was a fucked-up introduction to my brother-in-law.

At dinner that evening, Grandma's family and friends took half the hotel's dining room, and Mike sat across the table but two or three chairs away from Steph and I. We each tried talking with him, and he gave brief responses, but mostly we got nods or the palms-up hand, universal symbol for "Not now," while he spoke with others.

And OK, it's a family reunion. There were lots of people Mike hadn't seen for a long while. But his sister was one of those people, and he never found a moment to talk with her.

♦ ♦ ♦

A few years later we spent several days together, the five of us — Stephanie and I, her brother Mike, and their parents. It was Christmas in Phoenix, where my wife had extended family. It was 85° and sweaty, but that's why they call it the Valley of the Sun.

We had a good time. I remember visiting a rocky place out in the wilderness (probably a state or national park) where I had a long and pleasant conversation with my in-laws. Mike was there too, but had nothing to say.

The in-laws had rented an entire house we all shared, and we only had one rented car, so Mike was with us almost everywhere. Over that week, Steph and her brother had a few minor disagreements, about where we'd eat dinner or what excursions to take around the city. At one point he lost his temper about something, but I don't remember what, and it wasn't aimed at Stephanie.

With five of us in such close proximity, though, bumping elbows and eating meals together for a week, there should have been at least a few conversations with Mike. There weren't. Stephanie spoke with him more than I did — words and sentences, occasionally paragraphs, but his replies were invariably quick and curt, and after a few days she stopped trying. 

I never saw Mike's overt meanness that Steph had told me about, but he seemed more like a hostile witness than family. There was never any indication of affection toward her, or giving a damn. He simply seemed … uninterested. Mike's behavior was what you'd expect from a sulky teenage boy — but he was 28 years old.

On our way home to San Francisco, Stephanie was glum about her brother. "He was so distant," she said, "even though he was right there."

Maybe Mike had some personal issues on his mind? Maybe Christmas away from home had made him cranky? We tried to guess what was going on in his head, but we had no real theories.

Well, my wife had one theory: "Maybe my brother's just an asshole."

After a week thinking it over, Stephanie wrote him a short but heartfelt letter, asking why he'd always been so cold to her, and asking if he loved her in any way.

There was no reply, though a few months later, their mother told us that Mike had mentioned receiving "a weird letter from Stephanie." 

She stopped sending him Christmas or birthday cards, and mostly stopped inquiring about Mike with her parents. She'd closed the curtains. Direct quote from Stephanie: "As far as I'm concerned, I'm an only child."

It took her 30 years to reach that point. Steph was a very patient woman. We never heard from him again, and the last time she saw her brother was that Christmas in Arizona.

♦ ♦ ♦

Five years ago, Stephanie died. It was kidney disease that took her, and that's a slow, unpleasant way to go, with dialysis and other indignities. She handled it with more courage and decorum and dignity than I could've.

After her death, there were condolences even from old friends of Steph that I'd never met. Never heard anything from Mike, though.

When I wrote Stephanie's obituary for the local newspaper, I remembered what she'd said, and honored it — there was no mention of a brother among her survivors. As you wish, my love.

♦ ♦ ♦

Occasionally after Steph's death, her parents and I had lunch or dinner together, and at one lunch a couple of years later, they told me that her brother had been having health issues. He'd been hospitalized for 'tests'.

Stephanie was a much better person than I've ever been, and she's with me always. I still look to her for advice. She'd gone completely no-contact with Mike until she died, but when her brother was seriously ill, I wondered, what would Stephanie do?

And I knew what she would do, so I got his address from her parents, bought a Hallmark card, and sent it with a short note:

Mike — We don't know each other well, but I'm Stephanie's widow. She told me that you two weren't close, but she loved you. If she was still with us she'd be on your side, 100%. We both want you to get better and be healthy. —Steph & Doug

Stephanie would've picked a better card and written better words than mine, but we would've agreed about sending it. If she'd been alive and her health permitted it, I'm sure she would have flown to Denver to visit him in the hospital. There's a time for grudges, and a time for forgiveness.

Mike replied to me, with a note equally short, but kind. Yet his note didn't mention Stephanie.

Later came the diagnosis — kidney disease. After that, I heard occasional updates on Mike's health from his parents, and he seemed to be doing OK, or as OK as possible while undergoing dialysis.

This morning came an email from his parents, telling me Mike died two weeks ago, 'suddenly' and 'at home', which adds up to suicide, I'm sure.

That's understandable. Dialysis is a horrible things, and it leaves you weak and miserable, three days a week. My wife said several times, she couldn't have done dialysis without me to come home to.

Mike never married, and rotated through girlfriends every few years. He lived in New Mexico, alone, where he was an artist and art teacher. I've seen some of his artwork on the wall at his parent's home, and I'll confess I don't understand it, but that's not an insult; there's plenty of art I don't understand, often displayed in museums and at galleries.

Beyond that, I never knew the guy. Only met him twice. All I really know about Mike is that he and Stephanie weren't close.

But that's enough to know everything about Mike.

I think the world, the sun and stars, the universe of my late wife, Stephanie. She's my favorite human, ever, by quite a margin, and it's beyond comprehension how anyone could know her, yet be disinterested.

So I'm certain my wife was right, and Mike truly was an asshole through and through.

11/10/2023   

3 comments:

  1. Almost nothing any individual does is of more than fleeting importance. On a long enough time scale, all of us are nothing. The ONLY purpose any of us have is to make the experience of life some tiny amount less awful for the people around us. In other words, yes, your brother-in-law was an asshole.

    ReplyDelete
  2. When I saw the title and the graphic, I thought you meant Mike PENCE...because that makes sense too.

    ReplyDelete

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