It was late December. My big brother was in the hospital, dying of congestive heart failure at the age of 38. My heart was breaking. I was 30. I had lost my father at the age of eight. My brother had been the nearest thing I had to a father for most of my life.
Pete was an alcoholic and he smoked and had asthma. I think he must have been fatalistic. He admitted to me once during a coughing fit that a doctor had told him he wouldn’t live past 30 because he’d had rheumatic fever as a child which damaged his heart. I reminded him at the time that he was 31. He looked at me, grinned and put his index finger against his lips. “Shhhhh,” he said.
My aunt and uncle had given me a ride to Marquette where Pete was hospitalized. I stayed at my cousin’s home and walked back and forth to the hospital every day. His doctor spoke with enthusiasm about a heart transplant. I knew it would never happen. Pete was just too sick. His whole body was breaking down.
My mother had an ulcer attack and had been hospitalized two floors up from Pete. I ran back and forth between the two floors, trying to look out for both of them. Mom was being difficult. I know it was because she was sick herself and was worried about Pete. But Mom wasn’t very good at handling things. The nursing staff was short-handed. Mom was demanding. I flew off the handle with her one day. I accused her of acting like a prima donna. She never forgave me for that remark. It didn’t seem to occur to her that it was difficult for me as well, watching my brother dying, trying to look out for her. I was close to losing it myself.
That evening, my cousin took me to the mall. I don’t remember why. Maybe it was just to help me forget my troubles for a couple of hours. Christmas music drifted out of the PA system. And in the middle of the mall, they had constructed a Christmas tree made of blood red poinsettias. I couldn’t help but stare at that beautiful sight. I had never seen anything like it. It was 12-15 feet tall, and it just about took my breath away.
Pete died a day or two later. It was two days after his birthday, and three days before Christmas. The longest night of the year. My sister had called and told me to stay in that night, that she and her husband would stay with Pete. I was exhausted, so I did what she said. At three in the morning, a call came from the hospital. Pete had died. I was numb as I got dressed. My cousin drove me over to the hospital and came upstairs with me to see my mother and then downstairs to see Pete. The nurse said my sister had never shown up. Pete had died alone.
I was so angry with my sister. And hurt. I could have been there with Pete. She later said that the roads had been icy, and they were 25 miles away. She could have called to let me know. But she chose not to.
I stood in my mother’s room staring out the window at the dark and listening to the silence. The only sound at that hour was the machinery that kept the hospital running. I watched as steam rose from vents in the buildings. It was deeply cold. Silent Night played in my head, over and over again.
Although it has been many years since Pete died, I sometimes find myself walking out of the stores in December when I hear Silent Night.