Ashes in a Jar
Robert C. Taylor
I once asked my granddaughter if she could describe the color blue and she said, “Blue means sad.“ The memories I am going to try and put into words, or rather the mood they invoke, is going to be a lot like attempting to describe the color blue.
I have been thinking a lot lately, about my brother. Being my elder by a year and a half, Jack and I were exact opposites of what one would describe as two peas in a pod. We were nothing alike, and were never close, as you would expect brothers to be. During our growing up years, Jack had his friends, and I had mine. We ran in different circles, I guess is a good way to describe it. The differences went deeper, however, than me just being the little imp of a brother. The way he treated and talked to our parents, for instance, the ten dollar pistol he sold our dad for fifty bucks, telling him it would retail for four hundred. And the alleged diamond ring he gave Mom, a piece of glass that my dad tried to pawn behind Mom’s back, and couldn’t even get ten dollars for. And through all of that, our parents placed him on a pedestal, a model son who could do no wrong.
There’s a saying I have quoted so many times, to just about all my friends, and my wife and kids. It goes like this; there’s one good thing they can say about me at my funeral; I had a brother who was worse.
While I never claimed to be perfect, or anywhere close for that matter, any time I started feeling down on myself I would just compare myself to Jack, and I always came out on top. Jack was kicked out of college for being drunk and disorderly, while I stayed in school and completed my education. I treated and talked to my parents with respect. Jack talked to them and treated them like they were dirt. Jack went through four divorces, while I only suffered through one. Jack deserted his fourth wife and his ten year old daughter, and ran off with a woman he met at work, who became his fifth wife. I raised my children and step children until they reached adulthood. Jack became an alcoholic and was seriously into drugs, while I drank socially and never tried any drug stronger than pot.
The only thing Jack and I had in common was that we both loved golf. When he moved to Florida, we would see each other maybe every five years or so, and every time he visited Texas or I visited Florida, we would play golf together, even in the winter. I always dreaded those outings. Jack would brag through the entire round about his job, how much more money he made. How he owned the largest house, and drove the more expensive cars. I should get into this business or that, he would tell me, and stop wasting my time working in a nowhere job.
In 1991 Jack and his wife Kathy came to visit, and informed us they were moving back to North Texas. It was in January, and of course we had to play golf, the fact that it was 36 degrees, windy, and drizzling rain notwithstanding. During our miserable round, Jack said something that took me by surprise. “We’re not getting any younger, Bobby. We’re both getting gray headed. We need to spend time together, be a family, and do more together than just play golf.”
I did not respond to the remark, just changed the subject and started talking about golf. Basically, he offered me an olive branch, so to speak, and I cast it aside. Though I didn’t say it, I was thinking, I don’t need a big brother now. I needed one all those years we were growing up apart.
So, Jack and Kathy moved to Fort Worth, Roberta and I moved to Granbury, forty miles away, and as the years passed we saw each other less often than when he lived in Florida. On every holiday, and on Jack’s birthday, Roberta would say, “you need to call your brother.” I always dreaded making those calls. Every holiday I would think, maybe this time we’ll talk about something besides golf. I wanted to talk about feelings, family matters, the past, but it never happened.
In 2012, Jack was diagnosed with alcohol induced Alzheimer’s. His mind and body deteriorated rapidly. The doctor said if he continued to drink he would not last a year.
One day Kathy asked me if I would stay with Jack for three days while she visited one of her sons in another state. I agreed to do her the favor, although I dreaded it to the utmost. It turned out to be worse than I had even imagined. I attempted to talk to him about the past, but he remembered nothing, and nobody. He asked me once, “who is that lady who’s always sitting in the recliner? He was referring to Kathy, his wife.
The second day of my visit Jack took me out to the garage and showed me his collection of golf clubs, several sets all mixed together, including the set he used back in our college days, which were antiques and probably worth a great deal of money to a collector. He told me he would sell me all of them, more than forty clubs, for six dollars. He informed me he knew he would never play another round of golf. I paid him his six bucks, then gave him a ride to the store to buy a six pack of Budweiser.
In April of 2013 I had failed to charge my cell phone and it was dead for several days. One night I plugged it into the charger and the next morning I checked the messages, discovering a voice mail from Kathy, informing me that if I wanted to see my brother I better come soon because he was fading fast. I immediately called her and told her we would come as soon as Roberta woke up.
“No need to come now,” she said, “he passed away ten days ago.” She said she called our house phone, my cell, and Roberta’s cell several times and left messages but we never responded. I checked all three phones and the only message was the voice mail I read that morning, and my phone doesn’t give the date of a voice mail. She said they had a memorial service for him and he was cremated.
At first I was angry with Kathy. She had lied about trying to get hold of me all those times. But after I hung up, I sat there in my recliner and replayed in my mind all the bad things I had told my wife, my children and everybody, about Jack. I recalled a man who I considered very wise saying; “I treat everybody according to how they treat me. If they’re nice and polite to me, then I consider them a friend.” With those words playing in my head, I sat there and replayed my life like a tape recording, searching for even one negative word or sentence Jack ever said about me, other than I needed to better my situation. I couldn’t find one. I recalled other people over the years telling me that Jack had nothing but good to say about his little brother.
The Bible story came to mind, where they brought the woman to Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery. “What should we do with her?” they asked.
Jesus rose up from where he had been writing in the dirt and said, “let he that is without sin among you cast the first stone.” Through tears of regret I thought to myself, who was I during all those years to have judged my brother? How did I, considering all the bad things I had done, mistakes I had made, have the right to paint him as the bad guy to everyone I knew? I recalled the olive branch he had offered so many years before, the one I cast aside. I had missed the memorial service, but the truth is I didn’t deserve to be there.
We had a garage sale, and I put the golf clubs Jack sold me on one of the tables, including the antique ones. A man asked what I’d take for all forty of them. “How about six bucks?” I said, and he bought the clubs.
Over the years I continued feeling guilt, for the negative things I had said about my brother, about missing his memorial service, and about how I rejected the olive branch he offered during that miserable golf game. For sure an apology is in order, but how do you say I’m sorry to ashes in a jar?
Writers’ workshop and writing group