He was Already Up To H-O-R-S…When His Little Sister Swooshed in the Winning Basket
Over 20 years have passed since my brother and I played basketball together like we used to in our suburban backyard in Castro Valley. “Horse” and “Around the World” were our games of choice; I was never good enough to go one-on-one with him.
It was always a drag if the ball hit the edge of the retaining wall at just the right angle, as it would ricochet with such force across the yard, down a slope, and into some damn sticky juniper or prickly holly bush. As the little sister, I would have to retrieve it. When I started to refuse to run after ALL of the rebounds was about the time we stopped playing altogether.
Although I kick his butt more than once this afternoon, I admit it, I think about losing the next round.
It is hard for me to look at his gaunt face; he’s so skinny now, his jeans seem to cover sticks. His struggle with diabetes has left him looking like someone 47 going on 60. His face reminds me of all the bad things that have happened to him. How his lifestyle and eventually his unwillingness to deal with his disease, compounded into his loss of everything: his job, his home, his health, and his spirit.
I am embarrassed when he stumbles after the ball as it rolls down our court; I laugh nervously and run after it myself the next time, just like old times. I feel guilty for making some outrageous baskets outside the key, for feeling so strong, so alive, the healthiest I have been in years, just 16 months younger than he is.
So yeah, I think about losing the next game.
Instead, I challenge him to another match the next time I see him. I know, realistically, that there might not be a next time.
Just because I have seen him more consistently in the last four months than I have in the last five years, I’m not convinced. He might get sick again as he just told me he stopped taking his insulin for the umpteenth time. He might close himself off again. I don’t know.
I can only look at this day as a gift. Nothing more.
Today we talk about things we never have talked about before. Our conversations in the past have either been desperate or he is angry with me. Or he will manically joke non-stop. Today though, we talk about how my dad comes to us when we are sleeping; he’s been gone since we were young teenagers. Our interpretations of him are so very different, but it is still our same dad. I tell my brother that somehow I know it isn’t a dream, that he is visiting me. It is not my mind conjuring him up. He doesn’t laugh at my belief.
My brother is the only one left in the world who shares memories of my father — everyone else that knew him is gone, besides three older cousins I rarely talk to. Our conversation also leads to our mom Maggie and how daily we think of things we can’t wait to tell her until it hits us. She’s been gone over a year now; she’s not inside my house reading or just a call away.
My throat feels constricted the entire time the basketball bounces dangerously near neighbors’ cars. We keep our hands warm by vigorously rubbing them, as it is barely 38 degrees outside in the court, but I’d rather be out here than anywhere else. There is a ballooning feeling in my chest — I feel overwhelmed, I feel like I might start crying. I feel so very grateful to finally talk about my dad, our dad. Even the people that love me the most, my husband and my oldest friends, never met him. I feel in awe of this moment.
While I savor this, there is also a nagging tick at the back of my brain that I try to push away. God knows what my face is reflecting. I resent him. There is a part of me that hasn’t liked him for a long, long time. I’m angry too. My mom should have seen us playing basketball together; it would have given her joy sitting there on the bench watching us. Why couldn’t he have come around more before she died? Why did he keep her waiting for weeks at a time, sick with worry? She died seeing her son a desperate man. She died leaving me with a flailing man used to her financial support.
There is a part of me that is fearful and suspicious of this afternoon — that it is too good to be true. Since his appearances during the holidays this past year — after so many disappointing no-shows, he’s actually said “yes” to monthly, impromptu “dinner and a movie” invitations at my house. I smile thinking about how much we annoy the hell out of my husband as we both comment incessantly during the flick. Brother and sister feeding off each other. I wouldn’t normally do it, but it is fun, me and my brother teaming up. I think this is how other siblings are together, right? Maybe I’m high on the “novelty” of something that resembles, what I think is, a normal brother-sister relationship.
Will my gut ever not clench when an unknown number from a pay phone comes up on my phone? Will I always assume he is calling in desperation, in sickness, in need, in anger? Will there always be a part of me that won’t want to pick up the phone? Lately he has called just to check in and it throws off my guard.
During this afternoon of pretty lame dribbling, illegal traveling, actions that barely resemble layups, and talk of our 8th grade basketball team glories at Our Lady of Grace, I forget it was only last October that I had failed him again somehow and that he wanted nothing to do with me. That I have everything and he has nothing.
It is hard not to feel guilty that I’m happy. That I’m healthy. That I feel blessed. To take credit that my choices have got me to where I am and yeah, where I haven’t made it yet.
Then why is it so hard for me to accept that it has been his own choices that have delivered him to his current place?
I have relapsed several times throughout the years, to the dismay of my husband and my closest friends, forgetting that his life isn’t the result of what I have done or not done for him.
That his life is not a reflection of my sisterly love and support, or at times, misguided enabling.
My mom used to tell me that “she prayed she would win a million dollars so my brother would be set up for a better life.” But we both knew that it wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about us. Me, you, and yeah, my brother — we only have control over how we deal with things that come our way, or the things that we make come our way. Individually, we are only going to do what we want to do. Really, nothing more.
Just like the visits from my father, and now my mother, when I close my eyes, I can only look at this day with my brother as a gift. A pretty special gift. But really, nothing more.