O'Malley At Large: Everything I know, I learned from my little brother

A conversation helps writer deal with grief and aimlessness

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

It was a Wednesday, the middle of the day, and I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking cold coffee and quietly having a crisis. I had no temp work, and no freelance story ideas to try to sell. I was broke, my imagination felt tapped out, and among other bills, rent would soon be due. My breathing went shallow and my eyes started to burn.

I tried calling my dad but he was out of the office. My mother was on the big island of Hawaii, doing yoga for the week, purposely out of cell phone range. Left with few other options, I dialed my brother Joseph, age 19.

"Whatup?" He was chewing audibly.

"I'm having a crisis," I answered.

'That sucks. I'm having a piece of pizza."

"I'm broke. I have no plan."

I heard him sip his Coke. Joseph is in his first semester of college at University of Alaska Anchorage. He also works part time at a before-and-after school program for elementary kids. These are major developments for him. Before our brother Anthony died of a drug overdose in October, Joseph had been unemployed and planless, playing Green Day guitar riffs in his boxer shorts from a room at my mother's house.

I'd been the one with my act together, living in Portland, temping part time and freelancing for the Oregonian. Now the tables had turned.

"Dude. You are so lazy. Get a job," Joseph advised, letting out a two-syllable belch. "You could be a hostess at TGI Friday's, but I think there is a requirement that you have to be hot."

I was about to explain that I did too have a job, that I was a writer, when I realized in a way Joseph was right. It wasn't that I was lazy exactly, it was that I was sort of petrified, which is like being lazy, minus the element of relaxation. Then, for no real reason, I thought of Anthony.

Our brother Anthony arrived in Portland in the middle of October. He was a tan, sandy-haired 21-year-old in a dirty baseball cap, baggy jeans, and down vest with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket. He'd been out of work for about a month, a fact that worried my parents, and as soon as he showed up at my house, I noticed that he was uncharacteristically apologetic, and so nervous the dog growled at him. He said he had a cold, and immediately took to the couch.

After a few days I walked Anthony and the dog to the park to try to help them hammer out their differences.

The afternoon was unseasonably hot, but the grass at the park was cool and green. I made the dog stay in one spot and Anthony walked around her, first with a very wide radius, and then slowly closer and closer, each time tossing her a piece of dog biscuit.

"Look at her, she loves me," I remember he said, grinning and patting the dog roughly between her ears.

The sky behind him was blue and bright like Easter egg dye.

Two days later my brother woke up at my house having seizures, after secretly taking a number of drugs from my medicine cabinet along with cocaine. He stayed in a coma for a week, until my parents decided to take him off life support. Going through his things later, I found broken dog biscuits in the back pockets of all his jeans.

As I sat at my kitchen table on crisis Wednesday, I calculated that it had been nearly three months since Anthony died, but part of me felt like it had just happened. Sure, I'd managed to write a few stories and showed up to a few temp jobs, but I wasn't my old self. I'd decided to quit writing this column altogether.

Grieving didn't feel how I expected. I didn't feel sad, I felt heavy like I was carrying around a handbag full of boulders. It made me want to spend entire days in my pajamas, reading books, taking baths and eating a diet that was almost entirely boiled or melted. Over the last months I sort of expected that if I stopped my life, somehow time would stand still. Time had seemed like a river that was sweeping me along, while my brother sat on the bank, getting smaller with each moment that passed. I wanted to slow it all down.

"You need to do things. Like me, I'm totally busy and I love it. Just do one thing productive, and you'll feel better," Joseph said before signing off with a "later."

I couldn't slow time down by stopping my life. Instead, by doing nothing, I only added to my own anxiety. Was it possible that my little brother, between pizza slurps, had given me a plan? Just do one thing. I made a cup of coffee, sat down at my computer and wrote this column. And, as I looked at the paragraphs piling up on the screen, for the first time since that easy day at the park, I did, indeed, feel a little better.

• Julia O' Malley is a former staff writer at the Empire. She now lives in Portland and can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.

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