Jim and I sat in the backseat, our faces out opposite windows. The wind dried our sweat into salty white stains. Daddy was sick, so our parents had pulled a tiny Airstream to Arizona for a virus-free winter.
We packed into that trailer like canned sardines. Daddy ran a driving range and gave golf lessons. Money was tight. I’m not sure why my parents gave in when Jim and I begged for a puppy from a mongrel’s litter. Maybe they thought their kids, nine and five, needed a break from Daddy’s illness. Besides, Daddy loved dogs. Mommy did not.
“We’ll name him Amigo,” Jim said. Amigo, it was. A squirmy, short-haired white pup who loved his chow.
One afternoon, I sat with Jim in the desert dirt of the golf range. The song “Vaya con Dios” blared over a loud speaker while Jim spoon-fed Amigo from a can.
“I’ll take a bite if you will,” Jim said. “I dare you.”
“You go first,” I said. I was pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to eat dog food, but Mom served lots of brown mushy food from cans. Jim heaped a teaspoon high, the same spoon Amigo had just licked, and grinned as he swallowed it down.
“Your turn,” he said re-loading the spoon. He waited. He was my big brother. I couldn’t go back on my word. I held my nose and swallowed a spoonful in one gulp. Jim gave a round of applause. Amigo wagged and wiggled, waiting for his turn.
On Sunday nights, I waited in my dorm room for the phone to ring in the booth down the hall. Someone knocked on my door when the call was for me. Each ring sent a wave of fluttery anticipation through my body. Finally, someone knocked. I ran for the call.
“Hi Elaine,” my brother Jim said. “How are things this week?”
I told him about classes and my social world. He was 22, but took on a fatherly role. Dad had died four years before, and Mom had abandoned maternal duties and taught elementary school for overseas Air Force dependents. Jim and I did the best we could to support each other on opposite coasts.
“I’m afraid I’m failing German. I can’t keep up with the kids who were exchange students or spoke German at home.”
“I wish I could help,” he said. It helped that Jim was interested. It helped when he listened. Calls from California to New York were expensive, but phone calls from France, Germany, or Okinawa were out of the question. Mom never phoned. Neither Jim nor I had much money—two scholarship kids—but somehow he paid for our weekly calls.
“I just got a summer job in Washington, DC. Why don’t you come with me and get a summer job there?” he said during my sophomore year.
He’d just tossed me a life-preserver.
We spent that sweltering summer in a one-bedroom apartment without air-conditioning. We slept in twin beds in the same room, like we had in the Airstream, and ate canned corn-beef hash that looked suspiciously like dog food. We went to free concerts on the White House Mall and danced at cheap nightclubs. We created a sense of family.
“The local oncologist is sure Vic has lymphoma, but he doesn’t know what kind,” I told my big brother on the phone. I sobbed the word “cancer.” It was harder to swallow than dog food.
“After ignoring Vic’s calls for a week, the oncologist finally called Vic. ‘I sent your tissue sample to five labs and no one can diagnose it.’ he said. ‘We’ll wait and test again in a month or so.'”
“That’s ridiculous,” Jim said. “I’ll talk to a few friends.” Jim was on the Board of the New England Journal of Medicine. He called his colleagues, even though it was Labor Day weekend.
The Tuesday after Labor Day, Jim called again. “I have a doctor at Strong Hospital, a lymphoma specialist trained at Dana Farber. My friend says he’s the best anywhere. They already made an appointment for Vic and requested the tissue sample.”
I sobbed with relief. A glimmer of hope after months of trying to figure out what was wrong with my husband. Our general practitioner felt Vic wouldn’t survive another month while his lungs filled with mucus and his throat closed with swollen glands.
After the doctor’s visit at Strong, I called Jim to report. “Their pathologist figured it out,” I said. “It’s bad. Incurable and extremely rare. But at least we have a diagnosis. They’ll begin treatment next week.”
“That’s better,” Jim said in a quiet even voice as I flooded the phone line with tears. “Vic couldn’t wait. If he needs more, you can come here to Cambridge. I love you. I’m sorry. I’ll call on Sunday.”
I knew I could count on Jim.
Do you have a sibling or friend you can count on when life is tough? How do you honor them? I found it helpful to write these stories on the first anniversary of Jim’s death. For other articles about facing illness, see When Dad’s Die Young or The Thief: When Cancer Returns.