For some reason, I always think of my brother Stephen at about this time, 5:00 a.m.
If I am awake, the image of his face rises to my mind, a perpetually beautiful young man with demons clutching his shoulders. Mixed drinks, expensive men’s socks, and weeping willows remind me of Stephen. Tall, broad-shouldered, with our father’s strong chin and faraway gaze, Stephen rounded out our family, making it four boys and four girls. Our mother named him for the expression, “Even stephen”.
Stephen tried to kill himself several times before he succeeded. In the January before his death, I chided him about calling 911 after awakening from a deliberate overdose with a failed kidney and dangerously high toxemia which caused his legs to swell. “Gosh, Steve,” I joked. “Kinda inconsistent, eh? Try to off yourself but call for help?” His answering look pierced my soul. “I wanted to end the pain, not increase it,” he told me, in a tired voice. I still feel the lurch of my stomach and the burn of my regret.
Steve talked to few people about his madness. He had nursed my mother during her final illness, serving as the night nurse when we struggled to find someone to take that shift. His wife at the time demanded that he come home to her, forcing his choice between his dying mother and living wife. They divorced not too long after my mother’s funeral. Stephen moved back into our parents’ home and began arguing with my father about the old man’s failings.
I learned about my brother’s drug addiction during the week after my father died. I stayed at Steve’s apartment and saw his drug use first-hand, right in front of where I sat nursing my newborn son. I fled to another sibling’s house, wracked by the sight of the needle, the box of vials, the rubber turniquet. I could not comprehend what sorrow must drive someone to such extremes. I did not intervene.
Stephen never talked about the pain he longed to escape. He never complained. He rattled through two failed marriages, one lost beloved daughter, and the long, slow death of our mother, cracking jokes and dancing. When the eight Corley children sat in the funeral director’s office writing our father’s obituary, the funeral director got confused trying to keep track of all of us and our spouses. Two of my sisters had husbands named Bill, and this seemed to really throw the guy. He kept saying, “Two Bills? There are two Bills?” Finally, he got past that, and checked with Steve one last time. “Now, what is your spouse’s name,” he said to my baby brother. Came the swift reply: “Two exes, no bills.” I still laugh, I still hear that voice, that love-me-and-leave me voice with its shimmering, fragile edge.
When I think of Steve, I understand the critical difference between “complaining” and talking to release one’s accumulated emotions. Steve carried himself like a too-tight pressure cooker, letting his charm surround him like a shroud, its smothering blanket holding the grief and suffering firmly against my brother’s heart. He never spoke of it, at least, not to me, not in my hearing, and not that anyone shared with me. It consumed him.
We buried my brother’s cremated remains in a brass box on 21 June 1997. Someone put a Grateful Dead sticker on it. My brother Frank’s parish priest let us have a private memorial service for him, and we played the songs he loved, including many Dead tunes, among them, the haunting Brokedown Palace, with its sad goodbye:
Going to leave this Broke-down Palace
On my hands and my knees I will roll roll roll
Make myself a bed by the waterside
In my time – in my time – I will roll roll roll
In a bed, in a bed
by the waterside I will lay my head
Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.
Going to plant a weeping willow
On the banks green edge it will grow grow grow
Sing a lullaby beside the water
Lovers come and go – the river roll roll roll
Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
Behind Steve’s composed demeanor, he bore festering scars. Speaking his grief might have saved him. When his face comes to my mind, at 5:00 a.m., when I cannot sleep, I tell myself that he found a way to escape his pain. But I also tell myself that his way cannot ever be my way; and that while I am busy trying not to complain, I should not let my worries ride my back. From time to time, I open the pressure valve, and the steam eases, into the air, where it is borne away.