I find myself thinking more and more of those times when the phone would ring after I'd gone to bed, or as I was eating dinner, or when I just didn't want to talk to anyone. I'd always let the machine get it. Usually it would be one of my friends or colleagues or someone calling one business, and I'd pick it up. Most of the rest of the time it would be a telemarketer or a wrong number or someone I didn't feel like talking to. Sometimes, though, there would be no message, nothing but the dead static of an empty line. When this happened I would look at the machine for a moment, thinking that it was a little spooky, and go about my business, and the next day I would go serenely on with my life in middle management, not sparing a thought for the phone calls or my brother or the multitude of other things life had seen fit to let me forget.
Sean, my brother. While I was struggling through the fourth grade reader he was breezing his way through the eighth grade, three years ahead of where he was supposed to be. He was only about ten months older than me, but I held him in the deepest awe, the kind of awe you reserve for those so much better than yourself that you can't even feel jealous. He was that much better than me. He was the smart one, the good one. I was the average Joe, the semi-athletic decent student and sometime troublemaker about whom everyone said "boys will be boys" and looked past my stunts and pranks. I got through my school life easy, compared to him. No one expected very much from me. He was the one everyone depended on and expected so much from, and every time he met their expectations they demanded more. I don't think he minded, though, any more than he minded moving once or twice every year when our father got transferred to another city or another state. He was just better than me in every way; morally, physically, and mentally. He needed me, too, though, like Emily Dickinson needed her sister. His one major shortcoming was that he couldn't talk to anyone he didn't know well. If he had something to say to someone he wasn't close to, he would either leave it unsaid or get me to say it.
I say 'get', but what I really mean is that I volunteered to help him out whenever possible. I liked to help my brother, and I know he was grateful, just by the look in his eyes. He rarely needed to say anything to me, because I understood him so well, which is ironic - I was really the only one he could talk to.
See, I was the only one who knew how hard it was for him to make friends or even talk to strangers. Even our parents didn't understand. Everyone thought he was shy – painfully so – and he was, but it was more than that. Most of the time he literally could not talk to people. Some days were better than others, though. Occasionally, he could bring himself to talk to one of his closer classmates, but he normally couldn't say a word to anyone outside of the family, no matter how hard he tried. He was terrified of people, and no one knew it but me.
He made it exceedingly easily through his school days, even without friends. Even without talking. Nothing could ever stand in Sean's way. He graduated high school when he was fourteen and I was still in seventh grade (he skipped first, second, third, and ninth grades), then tried to go to college.
I know from the calls I got every night for the semester he stayed there that it was horrible for him. Usually his hello on those late-night phone calls was the first word he'd said all day, even to his teachers. It was bad all the time there, never any good days. He could never answer his teachers or classmates when they asked him a question; he just froze. His grades belied the fact that he hated it there, and he dropped out before they could kick him out. After he came back it was even hard for him to talk to our parents. With his great aptitude for languages (he was fluent in five, besides English, and was working on teaching himself Japanese) he couldn't talk to anyone. Our parents decided he needed help.
They took him to a therapist, and I wasn't allowed to come in with him. I remember waiting tensely in the waiting room, hoping against hope that he would be better when he came out but knowing in my heart of hearts that it wouldn't be so. You couldn't help him by trying to make him talk, not with a complete stranger in the room. He just didn't work that way.
The four of them spent the obligatory hour in there, my parents, Sean, and Dr. Owens, and came out looking dejected. It didn't work, and I knew it never would, despite Dr. Owens's assurances that things like this took time. Later he told me about it, but by that point he couldn't talk to our parents at all. The more time he spent around people he couldn't talk to the harder it got for him to talk to anyone. He told me that night, after we were in bed, that he hadn't even been able to say hello to her (the therapist). The three of them had sat around and started talking, just idle chatter, trying to make him feel more comfortable. It had almost worked, too, he said. He'd open his mouth to say something, then they'd all look at him expectantly and his throat would close up. Every time he tried to talk he'd have a minor panic attack.
"I hate this," he said, lying in the bunk above me. I could picture him staring up at the ceiling, knowing I was listening. When Sean talked, everybody listened. "I hate this and I'm scared, Mike. I won't even be able to talk to you soon. I can feel it."
"Don't say that," I said, then considered my word choice. I decided to stick with it. "You'll always be able to talk to me. Always." I was still a boy then, only fourteen years old, and still in that stage when saying something made it true.
He didn't say anything.
After that I was allowed to go to therapy with him. He was never able to talk to anyone else there, but he never stopped talking to me, at least not then.
He never really got any better, but he never got any worse, either. He discovered computers not long after that and soon started his own company, something technological - I'm not even entirely certain what he does – and made a couple billion dollars. Meanwhile, I graduated on schedule and got myself a nice job at a department store where I am now director of personnel. It's a good job.
Neither my brother nor I have ever married. I am completely happy as a bachelor, and Sean could never meet anyone. I don't actually think he's ever been happy. He lived in New York, of all unlikely places. He could only live away from me because he had no problems writing; e-mail became his new best friend. I know from the occasional phone calls I still got that he seldom if ever talked with or even saw anyone else, but he survived. And, as I said, made a couple billion dollars. I still live in Colorado, where we lived when I graduated, working with my colleagues, partying with my friends, and growing more distant from my brother with every day I didn't call.
That's how it's been for fifteen years, since he moved away and our parents died in a car crash. Sean and I haven't spoken, really spoken, for years. Usually I call him on his birthday and at Christmas, and he calls on my birthday. Sometimes I would think of calling him, just to talk to him, but something always came up or it slipped my mind or I just didn't feel like it. This year I forgot to call or even e-mail him on his birthday, for the first time ever. I realized it the day after and thought about calling him. I had planned on calling him. I never got around to it, though. Too busy or something. That's the way it sometimes happens; you move on and leave your entire past behind, even the people who once needed you and sometimes still do.
That's how it was for fifteen years, but no longer. Sean killed himself yesterday. His office was on the top floor of one of the highest buildings in New York and yesterday, around four thirty in the morning, he jumped from one of the windows.
I couldn't talk, and no one was listening. That's the note that was found on his desk, more like a written thought than a suicide note. That's what it was, though. He couldn't tell anyone he needed help, and he had no one to tell anyway. No one was listening.
I find myself thinking more and more of those times when the phone would ring after I'd gone to bed, or as I was eating dinner, or when I just didn't want to talk to anyone. I'd always let the machine get it, and on those occasions when there was no answer I would look at it for a moment and go on with my life. It scared me a little then because it was spooky. It terrifies me now because I know what it meant.
My brother tried to call me before he killed himself, tried to tell me he needed help, and I wasn't listening. Sometimes I wonder how long he went without speaking between my phone calls. Sometimes I wonder how long he was silent before he died. Mostly, though, I wonder how long it's been since anyone – since I - was listening to what he was trying to say.