My brother was dying.
Mike was strewn out on the moldy shag carpet of his trailer’s living room, his mouth foaming, his arms and torso cut and bleeding, a razor blade and bottle of Ambien at his side. A pastor and deacon, along with our mother and other brother, Randy, held vigil, bore witness. They laid hands on him and prayed this burden to leave him, this demon drawn to so susceptible a man. It had worked before. With some stitches, cuts healed. With a doctor’s attention and a stomach pump, pills passed. With faith, Mike could become himself again.
Mike had an Arkansas girlfriend, Jo Ann. He had become close with her children from a former marriage, two boys he took to church and to rodeos and to fish on Ozarks’ waterways, just as he had once done with me. I prized those times with him — Mike knew all the best coves to catch huge messes of sunfish and how to drag in a heavy, ferocious pike so perfectly he appeared god-like in my five-year-old eyes. A firefighter, Mike was nimble and muscled then; he controlled the fishing pole with mastery and ease. When I landed my first pike, its two parallel rows of sharp incisors terrifying even after the thing stopped flopping in the bottom of our boat, Mike beamed with pride. He showed me how to clean it back on shore, one of the few times a man I worshipped expressed approval — I killed a living thing, cleaned up the mess, and took part in the circle of life, of men. I embraced an existence bigger than myself.
That summer I was living with my friend, Robby, and his wife on the shore of Lake Sammamish just outside Seattle. The water is constant. I had run away from my girlfriend, my last girlfriend, Hope, who wanted to be engaged. Back home, the patina of Jo Ann and Mike’s relationship began to fade. Violent mood swings ensued. Plates were broken, threats were made, and booze was drunk night after night under the waning moons of summer, moons I also drank under two time zones away. I ignored Hope’s phone calls. I didn’t tell Robby I was in love with him. I drank my vodka in fifths, and moved inside myself. Mike drank his Jack by the handle, and then flew off.
It is obvious now Mike was dealing with some form of mental illness. Manic depression, most likely. Despite a history of this in our family — our eldest brother, Marty, had stuck the sawed-off shotgun in his mouth, after all — prayer and reconciliation seemed the only option for Mike’s future, a pressure he felt, he surely felt, from all of us. Thus, our mother and brother, along with the local pastor and one of his flock, anointed Mike with oil and prayed for him one warm and still June afternoon, his body lain out on cheap carpet in a cheap trailer in a cheap town, bleeding and broken, his breath inconsistent but deep. Mike coughed violently with each exhale.
When someone finally halted the prayer meeting and took him to the hospital, when the stitches had been put in and he was able to speak, our mother, surely broken by another attempted suicide by one of her children, asked Mike why he did it. “I didn’t, Mom,” he explained, “there were demons in that house with me. Demons in me. Thank God they’re gone now.” Our mother waited three days to call and tell me. She believed him. From a thousand some miles away, I didn’t know what to do — to hang up the phone, then call back and yell at the insanity, or to pray, this redemption to stick and the demons banished to hell, to never be heard from again, or at least for some time.
Instead Robby came out to the porch as I told my mother I’d call her soon, that I’d pray for them, but that I needed to go. Robby stripped out of his board shorts as he ran to the water’s edge, his ass barely visible as clouds blew in over the moon, as his wife slept inside the house.