I pull the broom through the living room one more time. The old pendulum on the fireplace is still ticking steadily. Shadows run through the room: children playing in front of the window in the late summer evening light.
There were so many things in that house, now our attic is full of furniture and clutter, or mess actually. What is left here can go to the second hand shops. Valuables will only be divided after their death. Is the care over, or is it just starting now? Will I leave them in good hands? Who knows. They have become so vulnerable.
“And how did you become their ehm, main carer, because that is wat it is, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s only me. Of course my wife helps out, and my son, but it’s only me that’s left.”
“It just started with aches and pains, you know. Occasionally dropping one of the two off at the doctor’s when I had time. The next step was the GP’s suggestion to ‘maybe go in with them this time, because they might not understand everything’. Well, I guess if not me, then who else? And my parents never share much, so I thought it might be good to go in once.
Next was ‘Mister Hank, could yóu then possibly change the bandages?’. I know how to do that because Brad isn’t the best soccer player, so I’ve done his once or twice, ha ha!
Anyway, then it became ‘Sir, I think it would be wise to go to the neurologist appointment with your dad.’
‘Sir, what does your mother think of this?’
Well, mom wasn't happy. For years. I am actually not sure if she ever was.”
"Come here, I found it!"
Gently it glared between the leaves and the soil. The red was characteristic.
"Dave, come on!"
I squatted and waited, as if I had to give the knife time to appear in its entirety to me. I wiped the leaves away and picked up the pocket knife and let it roll into my hand.
David came running. "Wow that's it! Are we going to give it back?"
“Of course not, it’s mine now!”
I stare at the tissue box on the table. I can feel that she looks at me.
“Do you want to tell me what happened next?”
I take a sip of my tea. Tea. ‘Real men drink coffee’, my father always says.
I don’t want to talk. But I’ll try.
“So me and my brother played with the knife, that belonged to the boy who used to live next door. Then we fought.
I opened the knife, it was just teasing really.”
Should I continue? I take a deep breath.
“David tried to grab my wrist but he slipped and that is how it happened.”
“It’s okay.” She hands me the box of tissues.
I never cry. I did at his funeral, I did when I broke my elbow and I did when my son was born, but it is as if I have grown colder over time.
“What do you feel? Sadness?”
“I’m just angry… I think.”
“Angry at what?”
“I don’t know.”
I don’t feel like sharing my feelings anymore. I’ve even cried! I’m not used to it.
The next week we start were we left off. “Death. Unfairness. Maybe even life.”
She is silent. Words come out of my mouth without feeling embarrassed. I guess she knows how to get people to do that.
“Why do I live, already 42 years longer than he has.”
“Angry at the knife. Angry at that one moment. I have never set foot into another hospital after that, you know. Well, I did when Brad was born. And I have to now for my parents.”
“What about other feelings?”
“Dad, where would you like those frames that are on the table?”
“Where does mum want them?”
I am in the little kitchen in my father’s room in the retirement building, making him a coffee. I quickly throw the Earl Grey tea bag out of my cup and I hope he won’t find the box of tea bags that I just hid in a cupboard.
I take a sip of my pretend coffee. “Well, she will be visiting on Monday, in two days, so should we ask her then? We could just put them in a spot that you like, for now?”
It is hard to deal with parents being forced to ‘split up’. After almost 60 years of marriage, their health requires different care and despite the long calls, the letters, the Facebook group discussions, we couldn’t find a way to move them to the same care home. 60 years. They’ve built up a life, they were intertwined, they shared great things and sad things. They bickered and sat in silence but they couldn’t live without one another.
Dad doesn’t fully understand what is going on.
“Where has she gone?”
And I have to sometimes lie to not hurt him.
“She’s at ehm, that place at the beach, you know. Until Monday, dad!”
I wonder if he remembers what he has tried his whole life to forget.
“Did she take your brother?”
“Guilt.” She says.
It takes me the whole next session to learn that the other word that describes my feelings, is guilt.
How do I live with guilt about David’s death? The guilt of being the person that held the knife. The person that teased and played around, not meaning for anything to happen.
“If Brad hurts himself on the soccer field, in a game, do you feel guilty?”
“Well, not really. Especially not when I’m there to you know, help him after the game.”
“But you enrolled him in soccer.”
“But he wanted to play.”
I sip my tea. “I guess I had the knife, but he was the one wanting to come for it in the way he did.”
She smiles. “Look, it is hard to live on after an accident like that. But it was an accident. Of course you feel guilt, but there is also just plain bad luck in life and you cannot take responsibility for that.”
In the time that my parents lived at home, together, they wouldn’t mention my brother. Not the happy seven years that he was with us. Not the horrible accident that day. They did not share a tear or a smile. They didn’t want to or they couldn’t.
There was a box in a linen cupboard upstairs, covered under some pillow covers, that we all knew had some of his stuff in it. Not the knife of course. That particular drawer was used a lot. Mum kept all her sheets in it. How did she manage to see that box, even just the outline under the covers, practically daily, but never talk about it? Why did I have to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself: I would be the last person to mention Dave, because I was the one that was responsible for the knife. For the whole thing! I don’t want to upset them bringing up his name, they have suffered enough, but it feels somehow unfair.
Mum and dad kept to themselves, so that’s what I did too.
And now that box is upstairs. In my house. I put it there, but I haven’t told anyone. I hope mum and dad won’t notice. I don’t want them to see it anymore. I can’t throw it out, but it is a silent burden that is going to be carried around by either me or them, for God knows how long.
“Isn’t it sometimes right to be angry? Do you think your reasons are valid?”
The next session I discover that I not only feel guilty of the accident, but I also feel guilty about my anger. I am actually articulating anger towards my brother, and I never realised that a part of my anger was towards him. I feel so embarrassed... and guilty too.
“Valid? Of course not!”
Why had David not been more careful? Why had I had to be blamed for his stupid, clumsy, fatal try to get that knife? Why me? I am angry, but how could I?
“How can I be angry when I should be mourning?”
“Who says you should be mourning? It is 42 years ago, Hank..”
“Well, maybe not mourning, but I should be silent then, not angry.”
I fumble up the tissue in my somewhat sweaty hands.
“Yes. They are silent.”
“Why? Why do you think they won’t talk?”
“Because they blame me.”
“What if all they try with their silence, is to protect you?”
Dad has mentioned David a few times. The first time he did, I knew something had to be wrong. The Alzheimer’s was a logical step in his deterioration. Since I go to therapy, which was an agreement between me, Karen and even Brad, bless his sensitive heart, I struggle playing the dementia game with my parents.
The times that dad has brought him up, in a delusion, I want to talk about him. How I miss him. How I feel about it. I want to ask them things, because his name is mentioned again! But they need to be ready.
Weeks later. My sessions are almost finished and I am slowly coming to terms with my feelings. We are sitting in dad’s room. Mum, dad and I.
“Where do you keep it?” says mum.
“Well, your dad and I both had a look and none of us have it. Unless he forgot. Did you look for it Gary?”
“Yes dear, I told you I did.”
I am stunned. I sort of pretend not to know what they mean.
Are they talking about the box? Are they talking? Have they been searching for it? Does dad know what he’s talking about? What do I say?
“It is probably best that you keep it, we don’t want it to get lost.”
My heart races, this is my chance.
“Hank, we realise we both don’t have many clear moments. I kept a diary and read it to your dad the last few days. He remembers.”
“For now.” Dad says.
“We never told you… We have always forgiven you.”
So this is their chance too.
“And the box was our way of keeping David close, happy memories that we cherished every day. We just didn’t want you to think we’d blame you. We should have shared more, Hank.”
“Forgive us. Please forgive Dave, please forgive yourself, Hank.”
That box has never been a burden to them, I just believed it was. I will treasure it.
We are one step closer. Closure might be a while away, but we all can fogrive. Now we are free.