Essay: My Brother’s Body Went Missing

I’d always had a difficult relationship with my older brother. That didn’t end when he died.

I have no idea what happened to my brother’s body. He died 8 years ago and we lived hundreds of miles apart, but it’s not the literal distance that kept me from stepping in to claim his remains; it was the figurative space between us. 

Five years older, Bill was never much of a brother to me, and it wasn’t just the age difference. He probably thought I was too straight-laced, and I wasn’t enamored of his devil-may-care lifestyle. I could never relate to his sense of humor, which always seemed a little off or at someone else’s expense. I would have loved to have been able to look up to him and talk about important things, but to be blunt, I found him self-absorbed.

It didn’t help that he had a drinking problem.

Bill would say he had it under control but I knew better. One night he called me at 2 a.m. after being picked up by police for a DUI. His second wife was away, and I drove 25 miles to collect him from a police station. “This is your one call,” I said. “I’ll never do this again.” That may sound harsh, but he knew how I felt about drinking. Our younger brother had chalked up a number of DUIs by then, and my father had put our lives—and countless others—in danger because of driving drunk when we were young. And now Bill was doing the same thing in his racy Corvette. He’d always owned one, even when he was too poor to buy his daughter new shoes when her one pair wore out.

After he left our childhood state of New Jersey for Florida, I could hear the ice clinking in his glass whenever he called to touch base. I dreaded those calls. He had left his second wife by then, his new girlfriend had left him, and his drinking had progressed to a dangerous level. I tried to find things to talk about—I can usually talk to anyone—but we couldn’t get past superficial topics.

I can only assume that the hospital buried my brother’s body in a pauper’s grave, paid for at public expense.

Bill had once been a successful insurance salesman, but by then he was doing telemarketing. Then he lost that job, his motorcycle was repossessed, and he’d been in and out of the hospital a few times. He told me the doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong with him, but I suspected he was lying; I was sure his problems had to be alcohol-related. I started calling to check on him, calls that didn’t make me feel any better. Both our parents were alcoholics (they and our younger brother all died before Bill), and I knew at a young age that both my brothers were heading down that same road. Though I’d been educating myself about the disease for years, long before Al-Anon support groups sprung up near me, I felt utterly helpless.

I did have a good relationship with Bill’s daughter, my niece, and we talked often.  As he got sicker and sicker, Bill’s hospital stays were growing more frequent, and he had no health insurance and no family doctor to oversee his illness. My niece and I both had jobs and children; neither one of us wanted to leave home to take care of him, so we found an alternative—we paid for Bill’s son, her brother and my nephew, to fly down from New Jersey and move in with him. Like his father, Michael had no job and was also an alcoholic, but we were hoping it would work out. We gave Michael money for Bill’s medicine along with rent and food for the two of them, while I silently fumed that the cash should really have been going to my son’s college fund.

When Michael arrived, he found a trail of excrement wending through the apartment. The floor was a sea of dirty clothes and empty bottles, and the refrigerator was nearly empty. Michael cooked and cleaned, but Bill was still in and out of the hospital, until the day the ER staff said “something burst” and they couldn’t save him, according to Michael. I felt terrible but I couldn’t cry, so I did the only thing I could do—console my niece, who was hysterical. Bill didn’t deserve this, yet I knew from my reading that it was the natural progression when someone doesn’t stop drinking.

My niece and I kept hoping that the other would step up and travel to Florida to take charge. Only she wouldn’t go, saying she wanted to remember him the way he’d been when he was healthy. As for me, I felt I had given enough over the years—from paying his mortgage when he first married to also being financially and physically responsible for my other brother and my parents at times. If my niece wouldn’t go, I told myself, I certainly wouldn’t. I was done.

Michael was supposed to look into his father’s Veteran’s Administration death benefits to cover the burial, but last I heard he couldn’t find any information and I let it drop. I can only assume that the hospital buried my brother’s body in a pauper’s grave, paid for at public expense. I don’t think Michael had what it took to see that his father was buried when he was battling alcoholism himself. I didn’t ask, and the truth is buried with Michael, who died of the disease last year at around 50.

Where is my humanity? you might ask. Bill was still my brother, after all. Could I not at least have seen that he got a decent burial? I don’t feel guilty that I did nothing, but I do regret it. If I could go back in time, I would get myself down to Florida and make sure Bill was buried, though I don’t know exactly why. I also see now that I could have taken leave from my job and still been able to pay my son’s college tuition. But during the height of the crisis, it simply didn’t seem possible or wise for me to go. Yet every once in a while, I remember the few times, years earlier, when Bill seemed so normal and I saw a glimmer of a different future for him, before it all went to hell.

Mostly, though, I remember how Bill hurt people, how he took and rarely gave, and how we were never able to emotionally connect. Ultimately, he couldn’t beat his disease and in the end, I couldn’t beat my dark feelings toward him, toward his death, toward everything. I had given so much to my whole family, and in the end, I had no more to give.

I still have a relationship with my niece, although we rarely talk about her father. It’s not that we’ve forgotten him or banished his memory; there’s just not a lot to say. I haven’t told her that I wish I’d done things differently, and I’m not sure I’d bring it up. With some deaths, there is no neat and easy ending. That’s just the way it is in some families.

Pat Olsen’s essays have appeared in numerous national publications and on numerous websites, including the Washington Post, Next Avenue, and Purple Clover.

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