Art by Timothy Callaghan
Mike, my oldest brother, has Lewy Body Dementia. Probably. An autopsy is required to diagnose with certainty, but his neurologists are pretty sure. LBD is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s. On a PET scan, parts of Mike’s brain seem to have disappeared, whited out by protein deposits that develop in nerve cells integral to thought, memory, and motor control. In his prime, Mike could command a room. A former Navy SEAL, he was tall and handsome, with our father’s dark hair and arctic-blue eyes. Mike’s ready physical strength, paired with his confidence, left little doubt in anyone’s mind that if action were required—a strong arm to pull you back from a crumbling cliff edge—he was the man for the job. Even today he can seem that way if you don’t look too closely. If you don’t notice how roomy his crisp button-down shirts and pressed khakis have become. If you overlook the tremors or the occasional wild expression that overtakes his features when he momentarily forgets where he is.
These days when I call to check in, I can hear his wife coaching in the background as she transfers the receiver, “It’s Theresie. Your sister.” I do it too. I greet him with, “Brother Mike!” He always pretends to know who I am. He might say, “Ho, ho, ho!” as if he discovered a secret I was trying to hide from him. Or he might say, heartily, all theater, “Good to talk to you!” He just wants to get off the phone before I ask him something hard like, What did you do today, Mike? Or, Did the grandchildren visit on your birthday?
I know not to do this, not to trap him. I’ve learned to talk at him in the hope of relieving his anxiety. I tell him about the weather out East or a funny story about our dog, a merry Cocker-Pit mix named Charlie Parker. I tell him again as if for the first time that I no longer live in New York City, that my husband and I moved Upstate in 2014. “That guy,” Mike says, and I agree, that guy, George. I tell him George is doing great. “Great!” Mike says and laughs his Santa Claus Ho! Ho! as if I said something amusing, which makes me laugh, too. And it’s good on some level, the two of us laughing about nothing, really, on the phone together. Other times it’s not so good, and I wind up upsetting him, as I did during a recent conversation when, sensing he was tired, I said, “OK, Mike. I guess I should let you go.”
Mike asked, “What’s OK?”
For a moment I thought he was asking why I said that, why one said “OK” during a pause in conversation. Questions about language interest me, and I gave it some thought. Was it an assertion of accord between the two people talking? Was it a verbalization of a turn in dialogue?
My silence must have made him nervous because he asked again, “What’s OK?”
Only then did I understand he had forgotten what OK meant. I could have said any two letters into the receiver, “LS, Mike.” Or “HX, Mike,” and said no less than OK. In a rush to compensate for misunderstanding him, I said, “It’s just a thing people say, Mike,” but my tone was off. He couldn’t parse it, which further agitated him. I knew if we kept talking it would only get worse, so we bade each other goodbye.
What I should have said when he asked, “What’s OK?”—and it came to me as soon as I disconnected the call—was, “Oscar Kilo, Lieutenant Eiben.” That might have prompted the entire NATO alphabet to hop a ride on a neurotransmitter from a not-yet-whited-out part of his long-term memory and zoom to his language center. I imagined him brightening with recognition and saying, “Oscar Kilo, Roger that!” Then I could have said, “Over and out.” I imagined him laughing Ho! Ho! Ho! as I pressed End Call.
It slayed me that I hadn’t thought of it in time.
And therein lies a conundrum of my heart: Mike and I were never close. Back when Mike knew who I was, he didn’t like me very much—and the feeling was mutual. Anyone with half a heart would feel compassion for a man who once could navigate a ship by starlight and now goes off course on his way to the bathroom. I feel compassion for Mike. And duty, because he’s my brother. But he also was a bully, and I was, for much longer than I care to admit, his dupe. Why was I crying over a phone conversation he had already forgotten? Why was I suddenly beset with feelings of remorse?
Part of our disconnect was age difference. He was fourteen when I was born. I was three when he went to Notre Dame, seven, then eight, then nine when he served in Vietnam. The first memory I have of him is his visiting our parents en route from Hong Kong to Chicago, where he had a job lined up and a fiancée waiting. This was 1966, after his military discharge. Like a fairy tale prince in his Navy Whites, he arrived with exotic gifts from foreign lands: For our father, who formally shook Mike’s hand when he answered the door, a reel-to-reel tape player—state-of-the-art electronics—in handsome walnut cabinetry. For me, a skinny fourth-grader who still colored within the lines, he brought a two-foot-tall geisha doll in a teak-framed glass box with a door and a knob with a silk-thread tassel that I could pull open. The doll wore an embroidered kimono and a detachable obi with a carved ivory fastener. When I wound a key at the base of her stand, she turned in a circle, plucking a song on a lute. Mike’s largesse left me speechless with the certainty that my relationship to this man made me special. And then he was gone, to work, to marry, to father four children, to make a life of his own.
We saw one another at big family events—baptisms, weddings, funerals—and in the early years I was young enough to want to be one of his brood. I wanted to be owned by him. Adored by him. By the time I got to high school something changed. I saw him as a representative of the early 1960s, crew cuts and patriarchy. My cultural ID tags read Levi’s, pot, and most definitively, women’s equality—not simply as a right, but along the lines of It’s so fucking obvious, why is this even a question? We antagonized one another on sight.
Mike told me I once said he should be ashamed for having fought in the Vietnam War. He told me this decades after I allegedly said it. I denied it heatedly, refusing to believe I could have been that brutal. He insisted. We sparred back and forth until he narrowed the time frame to a cousin’s rehearsal dinner that Mike and his young family attended in 1975, shortly after America limped out of Vietnam. I would have been seventeen then, just starting college, obnoxious in my certainty of the wrongheadedness of all the institutions—the Catholic Church, ROTC, the US Navy—that had groomed Mike for war. Back then I was just as black-and-white in my judgment of these issues as he was.
I do remember another family event, a wedding in 1980. By that time, I was in grad school, working toward a master’s in creative writing. Mike had never heard of such a thing (school was for professions; art was an indulgence) and wanted to know if Dad was paying my tuition. When I said no (that was a lie), Mike pointed his index finger at me, the other fingers of that hand cupping a rocks glass, and said, “If I had time, I could write a great novel,” and he proceeded to tell me what it would be about.
Mike’s Novel Synopsis
A Navy SEAL is on assignment in a rural village, a so-called “gray” village because of suspected but unproven allegiance to the Viet Cong. His orders are to search each house, maybe ten or so, looking for concealed weapons and hidden supplies. The SEAL, who is six foot four inches tall and heavily armed, ducks into the first house. Several children—he doesn’t know how many, three maybe—fly from where they are to clutch at and hide behind a woman who sits before an open fire, tending a pot of rice and bitter melon. The SEAL inspects the interior with his MX199/U Flashlight. There is nothing in the house. Nothing. In the smoky silence and the flickering light of the fire, the woman and the SEAL stare at one another. One child whimpers. The SEAL considers whether the food is for the enemy, who hide in the jungles above the villagers, who farm the rice paddies below. It is a big pot. Enough food to feed a family for a week. The SEAL kicks the pot, spilling its contents, which douses the fire. In the sudden darkness he smells the nourishment seeping into, mixing with the dirt floor. Years later, back home in America, the SEAL can never watch his own children eat supper without thinking about what he would do if someone tried to take food out of their mouths.
Finished with his story, Mike rattled the melting ice in his glass. I was still stinging from his easy dismissal of my life, my graduate studies, so it took some time for me to come up with something to say.
“Wow,” I eventually said. “So, he brings the war home with him. Is that the point?”
Mike took a step back, tossed the last of his drink into his mouth, and then appraised me, head to toe. I was still in my protest-everything mode and looked unlike any other member of our family at the wedding, my clothes from thrift stores, my hair frizzy and long and unkempt. I liked it that way. It felt powerful to me, like there was even more of me to contend with. I liked the idea of daring people to take me for who I was—my brain, my heart, my passion—as opposed to what I looked like. This was all lost on Mike. No woman he had ever met looked like me. I was just a girl. Just a dumb girl. At least that’s how I felt as he stood there chewing his ice.
Finally, he nodded and said before he walked away, “You should see a doctor about your face.”
It was true. My acne was bad. I hadn’t learned how to take care of myself yet.
Our antagonism continued. I loved his wife, who, from the get-go, perhaps because she recognized the “only child” lonesomeness of my birth order, pulled me into their nascent family and her large, welcoming, Chicago Irish-Catholic clan. Over the years, I doted on their children, some of whom I was closer in age to than Mike, and then their grandchildren (fifteen, last count). I booked layovers at O’Hare just to see them all, but Mike and I couldn’t get through a meal at the same table without baiting one another.
When he heard about my first publication—I sold a radio play to the BBC; I was 21 and thrilled— he called our mother to verify the truth of it. Years later he told me he sat next to a writer on a plane and told the man that his sister was a writer too. That surprised me, and I said so. Mike replied, “Of course I had to fluff up your resume a bit.”
It’s hard to take in the whole of a person when you always have your metaphorical dukes up, but I wasn’t the only one who didn’t really know Mike. No one knew Mike, not really. He had a privacy that couldn’t be breached. Asked about his time overseas, he would bark like a navy commander: “That’s classified.” You wanted to know Mike? Look at what he did and how well he did it: Mike was an architect, a marksman, he sailed. He could explain how bridges stayed up and, when buildings fell down, why. Escorting each of his three daughters down the center aisle of Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, he seemed to have arrived straight from Central Casting, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only woman in attendance who could feel his steadying hand on her arm.
The image he offered the world was genuine. His self-control and assured competence had been hard-won. But for me (and that agog fourth-grader who stubbornly still lived inside) it wasn’t enough. Despite his put-downs and casual dismissals, I thought if I could crack his rational, right-minded veneer, I could reach the real man, the man with fears and regrets and even moments of uncertainty, the man who had the same confusing parents I did and who knew them fourteen years longer than I did, but I didn’t know how to get through.
At some point I decided I was the problem. Mike had an old-fashioned idea of how a woman should be, obviously, and I didn’t match it. I wasn’t blonde, for starters, and I led a messy life loudly. I talked about subjects he considered taboo—live-in boyfriends, psychotherapy, our father’s alcoholism. I never dyed my hair, but in time I did outgrow my TMI phase. Still hungry to know him, really know him, I tried to address—often clumsily; if I’m not confident with new terminology, I can stutter and drop syllables—his interests (astronomy, hunting, Chicago’s superiority to NYC), but that didn’t foster a closeness either. At some point we found out—probably through a VA disability program—that in 1964, in Viet Cong border territory, a grenade exploded in close enough proximity to put him in a coma for a week and deafen him in one ear. After being told that, I made a point of speaking into his good ear in a room with no ambient noise, but I still couldn’t find common ground. Books, my passion, were out. Mike told me long ago he had never read a book written by a woman. Politics? Forget it. When Sarah Palin was nominated to run as John McCain’s VP, Mike told me I should be glad. When I asked why, he said, “She’s a woman, just like Hillary.” When I replied, “Women are not interchangeable!” Mike said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Finally, I came to believe Mike didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. If I sat in his presence with the familiar features of our family on my face, he was content. He would even smile at me. But if I opened my mouth, he tuned out. This was a hard conclusion—he’s just not into me—to accept. It felt like giving up. But if I was being even a little bit objective, there was a lot of empirical evidence to support it. In truth, I couldn’t recall one good conversation between us, ever, in person or on the phone. Thinking on that further, I realized that in my entire life Mike called me directly, actually held me in his thoughts long enough to ask his secretary or his wife for my number and dial, only three times.
The last call was May 1, 2011. Mike called to tell me his “boys” (the Navy SEALs) had killed Osama bin Laden.
The time before that was September 11, 2001. At the time, I was living on Broadway, four blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. When I heard the first tower fall, I lay on my bed, clutching a pillow, certain a nuclear bomb had brought the building down, certain I was about to die. All the windows were open. A cloud darkened the apartment.
Time passed. The particulate debris settled. The apartment brightened. I sat up, confused. When the phone rang, it was Mike. After ascertaining my relative safety, he told me about the Pentagon hit. As he was talking, the second Trade Tower fell.
“Another bomb!” I was hysterical.
“Not a bomb,” Mike said, calm as an airplane pilot. “It’s the jet fuel.”
“The jet fuel,” he said. “The fire was too hot for too long. The steel couldn’t hold.”
The enormous comfort he gave me in that moment—not nuclear bombs—enabled me to do what I had to do to get through that unspeakable day. Years later, I was in Miami with my husband, George, who was speaking at a conference. Mike and his wife were there too, escaping a bad Chicago winter. With no obligations during the day, I hung out with them. One afternoon on our way to lunch, I tried to tell Mike how much his September 11 call meant to me, how grateful I was to him for what he had explained to me that day.
“As I recall, you protested the Iraq War,” Mike said from the front passenger seat.
The car windows were open. I leaned forward to make sure he could hear me.
“I’m saying that you really helped me out that day.”
“The US military helps you out every day, little sister,” Mike said.
The first time Mike called me, it was 1990, a few months after our dad died. I was living in Manhattan in a studio apartment so small that the sound of the ringing telephone filled the entire space. I was always startled when it rang and even more so to find Mike at the end of the line.
Mike said, “I heard you finished your novel.” Family grapevine, I supposed. I confirmed that was true, that an agent had asked to read the manuscript. He then went on to say that if I said anything bad about Dad in my novel, he was going to put me over his knee and spank me.
I was thirty-two years old at the time. Speechless, I disconnected the call. When the agent rejected my manuscript, which was based on our father’s professional success and his subsequent self-immolation, I put it in a file drawer, where it stayed, classified.
It took me some time before I started to write again, and to do that I had to let Mike go. Not outwardly in an observable way. I just stopped caring what he thought. With thirty years’ hindsight, however, I now can see that Mike was reacting to more than what he identified as a lack of patriarchal respect. He was defending himself, too. I had violated one of Mike’s inflexible truths: Dad was a great man. In size, stature, business and financial acumen. A man who understood how the world worked. A man, Mike often said, who knew everything. He was the man Mike admired and emulated, and because of that, Mike needed Dad to remain as he remembered him.
Mike might have had a different dad than I did. Our other three siblings—all much older than me, one older than Mike—share his version of Dad, the man of steel and silence and success. He was a good provider, as my mother said, but he lived at a distance from his family. That was certainly the case with me when it was just me and Mom and Dad. I suspect the same was true for Mike and the others. Dad never let anyone into the very private privacy of his own mind. The difference between these two families is that I knew the man of steel and silence and retirement after his success. The father I knew had burned too hot for too long, and whatever kept him upright and indomitable for much of his life, no longer held.
I think that is the crux of Mike’s coldness toward me. He didn’t want to hear what I had to say, because he sensed I had an insight about our father that could equally apply to him. As it turned out, he was right.
Mike was in his fifties before his implacable veneer started to crack, and we began to catch glimpses of the forces that drove him, but in the beginning, no one foresaw the turmoil that was to come. The arsenal of guns Mike’s family found hidden in their home. The daisy chain of lawsuits Mike filed against former clients, former friends. Mike’s insistence on election night 2008, as his friends and family were heading down to Lincoln Park to celebrate Obama’s victory, that landmines were buried on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike’s escalating fear of Black people breaking into his home becoming so encompassing that even in his dementia, he often locked his wife out of the house when she was in the backyard, gardening.
Was his gradual change of behavior—going from pointed but blithely delivered commentary about what was wrong with society, to overt acts of paranoia—the earliest sign of the onset of LBD, decades before it was diagnosed? Was it exposure to Agent Orange? New research points to an increase in dementia cases among Vietnam War–era vets. Maybe the damage started then. Maybe active duty lay the groundwork for his deepening fixations, a by-product of war’s necessary us-vs.-them paradigm. Perhaps his war-time concussion damaged more than his hearing. Maybe his head wound set in motion gradual brain damage. Maybe Mike just got tired of waging an internal war against a world that didn’t conform to his black-and-white view of it. He had dispatched uncertainty from his thought process for so long he had no capacity to even recognize let alone cope with it once it crept in. The tragedy here is that Mike needed help—but he couldn’t see it and would never accept it if anyone else made the call. He told his own family if they tried an intervention, they would never see him again. For Mike, as for our father, maladies of the mind or such a thing as a broken heart didn’t exist.
I think any or all of these possibilities went into making Mike who he became. But I also wonder what damage trying to live up to the myth of our father inflicted on him. Our father was cold. He learned that from his own father, who favored Dad’s younger brother in all things. The family business Dad built to such success (it was eventually sold to a global conglomerate), had been started by his dad. In retirement, our father had nothing else to do other than suck on the thorn that his father would never know he had surpassed him. There was really no room for anyone else inside our father’s deeply private mind. His grievance was all-consuming. And while maybe I escaped the brunt of his wounded narcissism (being just a girl and all), I know my father brooked no competition from other men. That fancy reel-to-reel tape player (state-of-the-art electronics) Mike hauled from Hong Kong just to please our father? Dad never once turned it on. It gathered dust in a corner of our family room and our mother eventually gave it away.
I think the remorse that filled me after our recent phone call had to do with the deep memory of how much I had wanted to make a connection with Mike, maybe make a connection to that unacknowledged wound inside of him. And how I had stopped trying.
I would like to ask Mike if he noticed when I let the power of his opinion lose its grip on me. I would like to ask if he had noticed, if it was a relief for him, too, when I let him go.
The time for questions and answers is long past. Recently Mike had a stroke. Maybe. It was unusual in that its effects were bilateral. He lost muscle control in both legs. Because he’s such a big guy, his inability to walk precludes his discharge from rehab to return home, which is all he wants to do, racing down the corridors in his wheelchair, asking random staff and visitors where the exit is. His military training kicking in: Escape at all cost. The nurses are kind. They encourage him to do his PT and they work to prompt his memory. When they ask him to tell them the names of his children, he always starts with my name.
Therese Eiben’s work has appeared in december magazine, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Writers Studio at 30 (Epiphany Editions), among other venues. In a previous century, she served as editor of Poets & Writers magazine, overseeing its redesign and editorial expansion. These days she writes and teaches in Hudson, NY.
Timothy Callaghan is an artist in Cleveland, Ohio. He received his BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and his MFA from Kent State University, and currently teaches painting and drawing at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville, Ohio. Callaghan is the recipient of a 2015 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. He has had numerous solo exhibitions at William Busta Gallery, Cleveland and has exhibited in group shows in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Elmhurst, Illinois. Callaghan is the author of One Painting a Day (Quarry Books 2013).