This is chapter five of a story entitled The Other One. To start at the beginning, click here.
I’ve likely only had a handful of days that felt longer than this one. The combination of anger and empathy is a strange on to say the least. Being upset that information was held from me, yet at the same time knowing that the information is bad news for the person who is holding it. I wanted to hug my mother at the same time that I wanted to shun her.
Manchester suddenly felt so uncomfortable. What had been so welcoming just a few days ago, so familiar after all the years that I it honestly felt somewhat normal, was suddenly hostile. All the things that I hated about the place stood out, as if there was some sort of injury I had reaggrevated just by coming back. It took seven years to come back, and that now felt like too short a time, like my return was the reason my mother was sick.
My mind was flooded with thoughts of the last days I spent here. How the entire summer after graduation and into the Christmas holidays felt like hell. How I had to watch my closest friend grow weaker and weaker until he finally couldn’t keep going. How I felt entirely powerless to do anything or help the situation in any way. Manchester didn’t feel the same after all of that, and with the passing of a few years, I hoped things would be different.
That faded quickly.
My mother tells me that she simply didn’t want me to worry. Dad says the same. They thought it would be better than to have me worry and panic from all of those miles away. Their plan was to just wait until we were through the holidays to let me know. I guess they were okay with letting me return home with worry, but they couldn’t have me worrying while I was with them. None of it really made that much sense to me.
They did have a plan, though, which I guess I can’t fault them for. They were supposed to find out the severity of the disease soon, and depending on how treatable it was, they would let all of us know while we were all gathered, as some sort of Christmas gift to the family. If things looked bad, well, they would break the news in their own time. I don’t know why they had never revealed this plan to Ashley, though, because it didn’t take any time at all for her to spill the news to me. Now, after a long night last night of tense comforting, we had a long, long day together when the news finally came.
I will never forget the look on my mother’s face. She saw who it was that was calling and froze. I don’t think she expected the results to come in so quickly, and she hadn’t taken the time out to fully prepare herself for bad news. Years ago, when she first battled breast cancer, it was a struggle, regardless of the fact that she pulled through. Even if the news on the other end of that phone call was good, it still meant a potential struggle, and I’m not sure she was quite ready for it.
She put the receiver to her ear as the rest of us stared. When the news finally came, she couldn’t control her emotion at all. The doctor could have been standing in the room talking to us and it wouldn’t have been as clear as the look on her face.
Everything would be fine. Everything was detected very early, nothing was spreading, and with a lumpectomy and some very mild treatment, she would be fine in basically no time.
Everything would be fine. This roller coaster of a day would finish smoothly, as we shared a collective sigh of relief.
The celebration that night consisted of some pizza delivery, since nobody had the energy to prepare the scheduled family dinner. Alex had spent most of the time he had off from work with Rachel, his wife, and her family. With baby Bryce in the famliy, the grandparents were sure to take turns hogging him whenever they could. So when we finally had an opportunity to sit down as an entire family, my parents, Alex and his two companions, myself, and Ashley, the circumstances prevented us from being very formal.
Sometime between the pizza and the baby ogling, I decided I needed a chance to sit on the porch steps and get some air. The air, even in Mississippi, gets cold enough to make you question the goodness of life, but tonight for whatever reason, it felt nice. And it was good that it felt nice tonight, because I needed some sort of refreshing feeling after how the past 24 hours had gone. Going from anger to stress to relief does a number on the psyche.
I had to try and calm my brain down some, as the events of the day caused me to dwell on things that happened seven years ago. The similarities between then and now flooded my brain. They had been sitting there for hours, but only now came clearly, since it’s always easier to see similarities when you can see the differences too. And tonight, I was extremely thankful for the differences. Extremely thankful that the situation seemed so hopeful, as compared to last time.
Last time. Why does it always feel like my life is so divided? Things either happened back then, or they happened after Ethan died. Even now, I can’t seem to stop looking at life without a clear division.
“You just can’t stay away from me for too long, can you?” I hadn’t even noticed that Alex had beaten me outside. I wouldn’t find isolation here, but I guess that’s fine.
“Yeah right. I’m the search party. Your absence had us worried.” I quipped.
“Oh I’m sure. Mom never looked out for me like she did with you.”
“Yeah, she didn’t notice you were gone.” Alex was a little bit true. Mom had always seemed to be a little more concerned with my well being than his. That was probably just because she knew he would always turn out just fine.
“But seriously,” I continued, “she’s already relieved, and now she’s also got your son to play with. It’ll take a hand grenade to separate a grandmother from a grandchild.”
“Or just a dirty diaper. Though I guess that’s about the same.” Alex extended a cold beer my direction from his rocking chair. He had come out here prepared.
There was a brief pause as I took a seat in another chair. “So what brings you out here?”
“Aaron, I’m the father of a seven month old. If somebody wants to take my kid for a minute and give me peace, I am all over that.”
“So you got Rachel’s permission to slip out?”
“Basically had to grovel. Ended up agreeing to finally clean up the garage.”
“Ah, the finer points of marriage.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
We clinked bottles and took a swig before the pause returned for a second. Neither of us had fully made the transition from wanting solitude to making conversation.
“You know,” I said as I took another sip, “in England, they prefer their beer warm.”
“And some people like ice in their coffee. Both are just criminal if you ask me.”
“Amen. It’s unnatural.” We each took a lengthy swig of the hoppy delight in our hands. It was the first time I’ve ever seen my brother with a beer. I had always sort of been curious as to whether or not he drank. If he did, it just never came up, and since he was the perfect child, I was never comfortable enough to bring it up.
“I knew being a father would change you, man, but I never assumed it would make you a drunk.”
“That’s nothing. You should see Rachel’s coke habit. It’s like being married to Scarface.”
I wasn’t sure where this sudden sense of humor came from either, but I was enjoying finally seeing my brother’s actual wit in person again. There was another quick sip, than he continued:
“I’ve found that in the business world, you end up wanting to pick up on a few things you didn’t normally, just so you feel like more of an adult. Appreciating beer. Dressing better. Heck, I even picked up an old set of golf clubs off the internet and hit a quick nine every now and then.”
“Oh gross.” The idea of my brother growing older was funny to me, as he always had a bit of an old man’s mentality any way. “I hope you don’t have any awful sweater vests.”
“Rachel loves them. She makes me wear one in the bedroom. You know,” he paused just to make the punchline that much worse. “When we’re intimate.”
“I hope you choke and die.” I doubt even a six pack of beer would be enough at this point to make me forget that statement.
There was another quick silence, before Alex spoke up again.
“She didn’t tell me either.”
“Mom. She didn’t tell me about the cancer either.”
I wasn’t sure how to take this. “Really?”
“Yeah, I guess she just thought I had too much going on to worry about that right now, what with Bryce and all.”
“Wow. Figured her favorite would get first billing.”
“Oh I do. She still brings me cookies regularly.”
I laughed a bit, because I know her cookies were responsible for about ten extra pounds on his waistline. As I stared at him, though, it hit me how much older he actually did seem. You don’t really notice it with family, because they always seem the same to you regardless of how old they are. Alex, however, was clearly starting to show his age just a bit, like he actually was growing up. It was a curious realization.
“So what’s it like being a father? How do you feel waking up knowing that you have a little person who depends on you?”
“It scares the piss out of me.” You could tell by the look on his face that Alex was totally serious with his flippant answer. “I mean, that’s exactly what it is. There is a little person, a little boy, who depends on me and Rachel. I’m supposed to somehow raise him correctly? Teach him the right way to live? How to be a decent person and to respect people and to try and work hard in everything he does? How to take advantage of the eighteen or so years in which I’m fully responsible for him, which really isn’t a long time when you think about it. To be as responsible as I can be with that little amount of time?”
He looked into his bottle for a brief moment before looking me dead in the eye.
“Aaron….it’s exhilarating. Honestly unbelievable. I love every second of it.”
I just looked at him as he sat back into his chair and continued drinking. I was slightly dumbfounded, because he honestly had just listed off some of the toughest, scariest parts of being a parent, then expressed how excited he was by all of it. It seemed so foreign to me, I am not even sure if my tone was curious or exasperated when I asked my next question.
“How do you love every second of that? That’s not pressure, Alex. That’s constant pressure. Unrelenting difficulty. Even if you are prepared for it, which I’m sure you are, it just seems…” the words stopped coming, but Alex picked them up for me.
“Oh of course it is. But that’s why it’s exciting. Because I’m not doing the things I’m doing for nothing. I mean, when I look at him, at my son, I realize the responsibility that lies ahead of me. It makes me think about my every action. How everything I tell him or teach him or show to him will play some sort of role in shaping the person he becomes.”
At this point, he is staring at his hands, as if he realizes that they really are these amazingly powerful tools that he is describing.
“When I look at my son, I see the potential his life holds, Aaron. I see that sure, there will be challenges in raising him, because we all face challenges in our lives. But those challenges are just that: challenges. They are obstacles. They can be overcome. And with the effort, they can be overcome. When I look at him, I don’t see a lot of work. I see a wonderful person, who I get to help along the way.”
I was totally dumbfounded by my brother at this moment. I let out some sort of “wow” at his sudden philosophical outburst, then sat quietly. His statement felt surprisingly humbling. He was really a man who understood the importance of his role.
In fact, there was something else in what he said that hit me hard. It was the way he talked about challenges and obstacles and difficulty. He didn’t talk like the man who had entire rooms of people glued to his every word when he told stories. He didn’t talk like the man who was so comfortable working a crowd that he could have made a living as a professional event host. He didn’t talk like the man who had a nice, secure job and a sweet, loving wife to go home to. He didn’t talk like the older brother I was always aware of, who seemed to have everything just work itself out for him.
He talked like me. Like a man who understood difficulty.
Then he broke the silence. “Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not in a hurry to give up everything from my younger years. I mean, I even brought the stick and pads with me.”
I couldn’t figure out why my brother brought up hockey suddenly. I wasn’t even aware he played. Or that he was aware of the sport. But I quickly remembered that I was back in the Football Belt and it hit me what he actually meant.
“Wait, you still have the Nintendo 64?”
“You know it. And brought it here tonight, specifically so I could beat you down in Mario Kart just like the old times.”
I nearly jumped out of my chair. “Oh, careful with that trash talk. I’m not as reckless with my shells these days.”
Alex paused before he opened the door. He looked me squarely in the face and started talking to me in a manner I’ve never seen from him, like he was speaking directly into me.
“Aaron, I know you’ve had some rough times. Maybe rougher than the rest of us at times. We’re all aware of that. Mom isn’t the only one who had those moments of total worry for you. And do you know how much she loves having you here this Christmas? How much all of us do? Cause we do.”
He grabbed my shoulders, “It’s good to have you home, Aaron. Really good.”
He turned and walked inside the house, leaving me along for just a second. It made sense to me more than it ever had when I was a younger, more stubborn, perhaps more sullen kid. This wasn’t just my brother saying some things to comfort me. The stress of mom having a potentially threatening illness had struck him hard as well. You could see it in his eyes. His care, not just for her, but for me and Ashley too. He was certainly a grown man, and one who was concerned for his family. Maybe I hadn’t ever given my older brother enough credit.
For a moment, I thought back to Ethan, and how Alex was close to the McLaurin family as well. For probably the first time, it really clicked with me that that Alex understood it.
He understood it all, and much more than I realized.