When I think of my younger brother, I picture him when he was just a little kid, no more than ten or eleven years old. Back then, he had long straight blonde hair and a gentle round face with defined dimples when he smiled, which was often, even when he was trying not to. Always, in my mind, it is the face of a child. He didn’t start putting gel in his hair or getting into shape until his late teens.
Even in those early days, he was already much stronger than me, despite being three years younger. I remember we would fight about everything and Cooper would always win through force. I would call our prior relationship a hateful one if we hadn’t been eight and eleven years old. He was just my loud and selfish younger brother. On camping trips with my parents to Maine, he would find a way to complain about conceivably everything, or at least that’s how I remember him. Whenever I would beat him at a game we played on the hand-me-down Nintendo machine given to us by my father’s half-brother Andrew who we called “The A-Man”, Cooper would always hit me or scratch at my wrists with his fingernails.
My father would always be furious when Cooper and I fought, especially when we would strike at one another with unsure fists. I remember his voice would roar above everything else. My father as a younger man always stands out as being much louder than he is now. It seemed in my mind that he was only there to yell at us when we were children. But I don’t remember any anger, rather just the noise. But when my father was quiet, he would sit us both down and tell us that as brothers, we were all that we would have when he and my mother were gone. He never went into specifics about that last part, but I knew it was hard for me, especially then, to think about losing one of my parents.
Cooper proved to be even more insecure when it came to the possible disappearance of one of our parents. I remember he would often come home from school crying from fear that they wouldn’t be there when he got back, that they might vanish without a trace. The genesis of this fear was probably my fault. I had mindlessly shared with him the plot the novel “Homecoming” by Cynthia Voigt, which I’d been assigned to read in the 5th grade. The story is that of an enigmatic mother abandoned her three children in a parking lot somewhere in Connecticut. The siblings, fearful of being separated in foster care, begin an odyssey to find their closest living relative. This work of children’s fiction seems to have gotten under the skin of my brother. The school office would call with Cooper in tears, fearful that our mother or father had vanished into thin air or abandoned him. I explained to him numerous times it was just a book, but he couldn’t believe me, such was his head space. It was worse whenever it rained, as if in Cooper’s brain, the whole of the air was conspiring against him.
Paranoia surrounding abandonment was just one of many little quirks that Cooper and I had as children. I had a habit of rocking myself to sleep at night until I was about eleven years old. Cooper often slept in my parents’ bed till he reached the same age. I used to get stomach cramps when I was nervous, which probably contributed slightly to my attitude of social isolationism later in life. Cooper said he felt “shy.” It wasn’t till he was eleven that anyone figured out what this meant.
It was my father, the doctor, who noticed first. Cooper was walking down a hallway and suddenly froze mid stride for a moment, like someone hitting the pause button on a remote by mistake. My father sneaked Cooper in through the back entrance of the local hospital for a CT early one morning. I can only imagine the scene when it was discovered there was a grape-sized tumor growing in the side of my younger brother’s head. “Shy” had meant seizures. He’d been having them all his life. That was just the word he’d chosen to describe the feeling when he first learned any words at all. In my brother’s head, that was his normal. How could a child have known anything was wrong?
I was eleven when my brother was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital. I don’t know a lot of what happened to him then. All I remember was coming home from school, my mother telling me that something had happened to Cooper, and that dad was taking care of him. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was most upset that I didn’t get to see my father for a week or so.
As an older child and then almost a teenager, my fear of my father had become a want for admiration and friendship. He now seemed like the “cool” dad to me, and I looked up to his face defined by a carefully managed stubble and a youthful eye. In the morning before school, in order to wake me and my brother up, my father would sing in a deep bellowing voice a verse he’d learned from his grandfather. “RISE AND SHINE AND GIVE GOD YOUR GLORY GLORY!” would billow throughout the old farmhouse. My mother was the strict parent in those days. In my mind, I think having to do extra chores around the house for a week was the worst part of the days when my father and brother were up at the hospital in Boston. To me, the city and its hospital wards seemed unreal and unimaginable. How could there be world outside of my middle school, let alone my home town? That was normal to me. I had no other way to think of my life then.
I don’t remember a lot from my middle school days. It’s a classroom mural of assorted scenes of pacing around the playground with my group of school friends, only some of whom I remember the names of. Chief among those I remember was Jackson, who lived across the street from the school so he didn’t have to take the bus. The other I remember well, though I don’t really know why, was Ben, who had blonde hair that fell about his face and glasses. For all my hyper focus on my little life as a child in those years before I was a proper teenager, very little survives.
Those dreams of recess exist in my head like smoke and endless summer. But I think that dream was closed for good when I saw my brother in his hospital bed for the first time after the thirteen-hour surgery to remove his tumor. He was in bed on Oxycodone. I remember there were balloons, flowers, and chocolate sent by various extended family, and that Cooper could barely recognize me or even speak because of heavy painkillers and anti-seizure medication. He just stared silently at me. Half his head was shaved, and I could see from beneath a white padded bandage on the right side of his head the beginnings of a cross stitched seam which was a strange shade of pink where the skin had been pulled taught and cross itched like the pieces of a quilt. His back was riddled with bandages blooming red from the bedsores underneath. The realization came slowly to me over the course of several minutes and reached its peak while I was walking through the hospital food court with my older cousins who’d also come to visit Cooper. It was more than likely that my younger brother would have died.
But Cooper didn’t die, and he went on in the following years to play the role of a melding younger brother in his older sibling’s fragile ego-centric social sphere. For a long while it seemed as if nothing had happened. Cooper suffered a cut to his vision in one eye due to brain damage from the surgery, which I could imagine but not understand. His seizures continued, but less frequently, and they never got worse then they had been. In my life, where there had been friends and recess, was now the insecurities and inconsequential concerns of junior high school and then high school, but it was still a dream-like haze in retrospect that can only exist in one’s memory of childhood. Cooper was still my argumentative kid brother, though noticeably a lot quieter than he had been. Now there was a limit it seemed. There was a seam in his character, and it could be torn if he pushed too hard. Before, his power to resist any authority was limitless, but now all he could do was withdraw. I saw it most in his conflicts with my father, when after shouting at one another, Cooper would become deadly quiet, and there would be no progress in either direction. This frustrated my father endlessly, and as Cooper climbed into his teen years, he became better and better at achieving such victories through a silent withdrawal. These were normal arguments between a father and son though. For the family, the larger nightmare was over.
When I was seventeen I suffered a brain aneurysm. I didn’t know it right away. I’d never experienced a brain aneurysm, and for all the words I’d learned, I had nothing to explain the amalgamation of signals that meant something was deadly wrong. My head pulsed with the worst pain of my life, as if with each beating of my heart an iron rod was being pushed against the inside of my skull. This became more pronounced when I closed my eyes or tried to sleep. At the base of my skull at back of my neck there was a similar pulsing ache whose pain was so foreign to me that it made me feel sick. This, I later learned from a doctor, was the result of irritation caused by blood mixing with my spinal fluid.
The final and most important sign, which I was most unable to describe to anyone, was a ghost in my vision. I couldn’t find the words to describe it then, but from subsequent optometrist mapping, I have learned that the top left quadrant of my peripheral vision gone due to the damage done to that region of my brain. However, it’s not as if suddenly part of the TV screen your eyes project into your brain goes dark. Rather, the information is crumbled, and the brain compensates, making due with the static as best it can, and the result is a phantom of what should normally be there. Only when I purposely wave a finger in that quadrant of my vision am I able to accurately see that despite my 20:20 vision and undamaged eyes, my brain no longer understands the signals from that spot. There is simply nothing there.
The day I had my stroke, my parents, my brother, and I went out for Chinese food at the cheap Asian restaurant we used to go to for birthday dinners as a family. In the backseat darkness of the car, when no one was looking, I would shake my head quietly but vigorously, as if somehow I might snap back into place whatever circuit or solder joint had come loose in me. Half way through the meal, I found myself sitting in the stall of the bathroom, watching strange shapes move across my vision as if photons from the florescent lighting had suddenly revealed themselves to me.
That night when I put my head down to sleep, the now haunting pulsing of the metal rod against the inside of my skull kept me awake all night. In the morning, my father woke up at at 5 a.m, and found me furiously drinking glass after glass of water in the kitchen. I’d always been told as a child to drink water if I had a headache. My father later told me that’s when he knew something was wrong, but at the time he never let on. Under the guise of putting my fears to rest, he took me to the back entrance of the hospital for a CT scan. On the drive there through the grey dawn of the morning, I joked about how strange it was to be retracing the same steps he’d made with Cooper years earlier. In the hospital I chatted with all my father’s coworkers, who’d known me and my brother since we were children. I walked to radiology explaining my plans for school and the future, amidst comments of how tall I’d gotten and how my brother was doing, and so on. When the scan was finished, I was told urgently through the scanner room intercom not to get up. They came for me with a wheelchair.
I spent a week in the Boston Children’s Hospital intensive care unit. My stroke was the result of something called an arteriovenous malformation, shortened to the acronym, AVM. Its a malformed blood vessel which connects to capillaries far earlier than it should. As a result of the increased pressure on tissue never meant to sustain it, it is place prone to catastrophic failure. The AVM was revealed by way of a test called an angiogram, which was the same procedure that had unearthed the precise location of Cooper’s tumor. While under general anesthetic, a wire is fed through an incision in the groin and carefully pushed with the guidance of a small camera all the way into the brain. Once in position, radioactive dye is released to be photographed as it spirals outward through the nest of veins and capillaries. I’ve seen the prints. They look to me like a strange sort of organic abstract art, with twisting grey lines of various thicknesses and shades. Off to one side, away from the epicenter of the spirals where the dye was released, a single, ghostly line is bold against the white of cheap printer paper. That is the best representation I have of the poltergeist in the brain that almost killed me.
I was sent home from the hospital for a month so that the blood could recede back into the grey matter before my operation was to take place. I always thought of it like I was waiting for a bloody kitchen sponge to dry. It took ten hours to remove the malformed blood vessel, and when I woke I first reached to my head and felt the padded bandage, and the outline of the taught cat-gut stitched skin where I’d once had curly red hair.
My first night home from the hospital, my brother held me in his arms while I cried. I don’t remember how long I stayed like that. For me, with all the drugs and painkillers I was on, time passed as a strange image ghosted where my life had once been, moments felt like days, and weeks passed as swirling cycles of pills and sleep. It was like waking up in a pitch-dark room in an old haunted house. There was no life before I had come to that place, and I couldn’t be sure there would ever be a life after. Only the next dose and the next day bringing the next dose, which was all that would let me sleep. The pain from the three new titanium screws keeping my patched skull together beneath the stitched skin was the most intense I have ever known. Cooper was only fourteen then, the same age I’d been when he’d had his surgery. I remember feeling how his arms were wider than mine and how steady he felt. On that first night, my father carried the spare mattress to my room and set it on the floor. I fell asleep holding his hand that reached up to me from the floor. Though my father stayed in the room with me that night, it was my brother who guided me forward with his own experience. Even if he didn’t know he was doing it, my young brother led me from the dark of the room, and I saw my life take shape again. My hair grew back, and the stitches fell out when I picked at them with my fingertips. For Cooper and I, we resumed our lives, and the future once again had form to me.
The spring of my sophomore year of college was when my mother called me one night to tell me Cooper had been admitted to a psychiatric ward for suicide risk. He’d made the decision to go himself. She told me about one night in particular that he’d been so quiet, and how my father had roared down the stairs and yelled at him. My father wasn’t able to understand what was going on in Cooper’s head, and Cooper didn’t know the words to describe it. But my father did know the words of how to deal with a troubled mind when he was raised. And he went on and on and Cooper had said nothing, sinking into the couch where we used to watch movies as a family.
It was during the summer of that year, and Cooper was still in locked psychiatric care, that I sat in on many “family mediations” which took place in well air-conditioned rooms with heavy weighted chairs and tables so that they could not be thrown or used as improvised weapons. Cooper had bandages where he’d picked away at the skin on his arms, digging in with his fingernails in a similar way that he used to do to me when I beat him at video games when we were children. Though in this case, he’d gone clear past the point of causing pain, and well into the skin. These were the only times I saw or heard from Cooper during those long months. He wasn’t allowed a cell phone. The windows on the doors were the sorts they’d had on the classroom back in elementary school that had thin wire running between the panes of glass to reinforce them from shattering.
I never knew what to say to him after he came home. Even with him there, the house remained as quiet as when he had left. Though I never saw him, I could feel the gravity of his presence, and the pull of something indescribable emanating from his locked bedroom door. I worked as much as I could at my summer job making coffee to stay away. I didn’t want to see him. Whenever we would talk, Cooper would put on mask or a front, as if he were a lonely main drag of false faced building, where behind there was only a plain stretching out from the ghost town that was his young face.
One night in the fall while Cooper was in an outpatient program, we were driving together. I pressed Cooper finally on what was going on in his head. In that confined space, I told myself I would listen. Cooper told me in a monotone voice that should have told me all I needed to know about his ability to see clearly. But he kept going. He told me how he felt nothing for my father or my mother or for me. He told me that instead, the concern we showed to for him fell upon a numbness of his spirit. I failed him then as I had done all those years ago when Cooper could not speak at all from his hospital bed except in the monotone haze of medication, sleep, and pain. I should have seen through it and understood how he was trying to approximate how to tell me the feeling of the depression he could not put to words. But I did not. My voice instead roared from the confines of the car that I’d inherited from my father. Cooper didn’t say anything, as I calmed down, and tried to tell him that I loved him in my voice, still loud, but now with tears. Over and over I told him how much I didn’t want to lose him, and his face didn’t so much as change. I’d already lost.
Our love can show itself in cruel ways, and we become brutish, and are strangers to our former selves who sit in the backseat and watch with eyes wide at the people we are becoming. We were like our parents then, fighting as they drive on down the road, threatening to pull the car over if the two brothers don’t stop fighting. No deep voice billowing jovial off-key verses through the house can solve that once the words have been spoken. They will seep into the drywall as blood into grey matter. Things spoken and then lost as if in a dream, like “I would die for you Cooper,” and “please don’t leave me here alone” were spoken from me to him, and then lost.
My brother’s arms healed, just as the scar from his surgery all those years ago had, and then eventually faded as the cat gut stitches fell out years ago. But there are damages to systems far too complex to be repaired that lay well beneath where we can get to them. I lay awake at night often, thinking of my brother, and the things I should have been able to find the words for. I think brothers often do find the words later in life, but for Cooper and myself, we were made to search for them too soon. In our confusion to find the right ones, I spoke in anger, and Cooper didn’t speak at all. When I see pictures of him as a child, which my mother still proudly displays throughout her house, there is now alien voice of my father in my brain saying the words, “you’ll only have each other.” It is a cadence, a pulsing, a pain, and a dream. Like the squeeze of a hand reaching up from a bedroom floor, or a car radio singing underneath raised voices in the dark.