HOME PLACE - Big sister on earth fills in for big brother in heaven

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I called Garry today.

This is a big departure from routine.

Do you remember I wrote a column about my husband's childhood friend in 2004? I told you the two had grown up closer than brothers, enduring together abusive, negligent fathers and harsh childhoods as the two families picked their way across the nation as migrant workers.

Everything those boys went through then strengthened the root of brotherly love.

In the last 30 years, they fertilized their relationship with phone calls -- David here, Garry in Alabama. I could always tell when my husband was talking to his "little brother." His voice would soar with laughter and choke with shared memories, in marathon sessions lasting hours.

When he emerged, his ear red and grin wide, David always passed on Garry's message -- "Your boyfriend said 'hi.'"

Garry's crush on me, since eighth grade and the first time he laid eyes on me, was legendary. His wife laughed about it just like my husband did. I played along to Garry's vow of undying devotion and avoided picking up the phone when I was too busy to be flattered so.

David's death hit Garry hard. Too ill from a lifetime of bad habits to travel so far, he instead keened in agony over the phone, turning me from supported to supporter. Which I was willing to be for Garry's sake.

Then, wouldn't you know it, his wife died less than a year after David.

OK, stop right where you are. And no. Just ... no.

But, yes, I still love my husband's little brother like my own. I'm trying to be a better sister, answering the phone when his number pops up, knowing his pain is fresher than my own.

Garry doesn't have there what I have here as a foundation for going on with life. So I murmur soothingly as he rambles on, often aided by alcohol, always in the sway of incredible grief.

I hear the stories of sleeping with his wife's box of ashes because he slept with her for 20 years and he doesn't know how to sleep all by himself. It sounds bizarre to you, but not to me.

Garry's loneliness has led him right to the edge of asking the question you are all wondering about in your minds. He dances around it as I sashay back and change the music, with a laugh to divert the tension.

It's not easy to hear that sort of misery and raw need, but I did so on purpose this morning. As I suspected, Garry is just waiting around to die, doing little but breathing. And not even that all that well. He just had "a sort of heart attack," he admitted, and his doctor wants him to exercise.

I felt the pistons start up. "Garry," I snapped. "You get your butt outta bed and you make some phone calls and you find out where you can take some yoga classes or do some strength training and you see if they offer a discount and you ... You got a YMCA by you?"

At this point I had adopted Garry's thick Alabama accent, causing my kids to exchange looks in the kitchen.

"You do? Then you had better call them and talk to someone and I want to hear that you really did that. You hear me, Garry? Because I will call that Y myself, don't you think I will not."

Oh, my word -- it felt so good to pull out my Big Sister cape and swoosh it over my shoulders. It was like a tonic to yell at a man in complete love and hear him laughingly agree to my demands.

I don't have any illusion I can help Garry improve the quality of his life. He's never tended his health before, so it's hard to care even less than that.

But I can be a sister. Just for David, who was a really good big brother.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom or by calling 509-526-8322.

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