My Brother’s Keeper


The landline in my father’s kitchen screamed like a siren. I brought the phone to my ear; I heard Steve’s voice.

“Whatcha doin?”

No hello. No how are you.

I tried to think quickly of an excuse not to see him.

“Come over to my apartment,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

I knew this was another of my brother’s lies.

It was 2005, and I was in my second year of graduate school in New York. I had been bartending full time at night while attending classes during the day for the past eighteen months. I had kept up the treadmill of work and study as my father’s health had steadily declined, his kidneys failing despite dialysis. He thought dialysis gave him a free pass to eat a bag of Milky Ways nightly. It hadn’t worked out that way. My father and siblings, Sandy and Steve, lived in San Jose. My professors gave me accommodation for two weeks, and I was able to fly back to California to split care for my father with my sister, Sandy. Steve was not up to caregiving duties.

Steve had told Sandy that he had moved in a 22-year-old heroin addict named Jerry so he could “sponsor him and straighten him out.” I knew that was a fairy tale; both of them were shooting up and splitting the rent.

I drove to Steve’s apartment. The grinding fatigue of caregiving and lack of sleep made my eye sockets burn and throb. I was the parent now, spending long, silent days bathing and feeding a father who beat his children for years before illness gradually made him an invalid. I felt cold inside as I parked the car and walked to Steve’s apartment. The apartment building was next to a 7-Eleven and a nail salon. The apartment was on the ground floor. I knocked on the door and Steve shouted for me to come in. The kitchen stove and backsplash were splattered with tomato sauce like the climax of a horror movie; the sink was piled with dishes and the counter edge had cigarette burns, probably from the smoker nodding out before the butt made it to the ashtray. The living room had four or five cardboard boxes with clothes, underwear, and socks hanging out of them.

Steve’s young roommate was passed out on the couch. He had on a Wilco T-shirt and Pokemon underwear over his thin, white body. The needle marks on his forearm looked like bee stings.

Steve and I walked out to his cinder block patio and sat at a metal table under a faded yellow cloth umbrella. I could see paint peeling off the fabric. Steve had put on weight—maybe twenty pounds. He had a pot belly, and his beard, always so neatly trimmed, was shaggy with food crumbs in the tangle of hair; his handsome face was spotted with blackhead pimples, a sure sign that he was shooting heroin.

“I’ve figured it out,” he said.

“What’s that?”

“My so-called illness, whatever you and Sandy call it,” he replied.

I was silent. I could only stare into his eyes. I didn’t have the will to argue.

He stared back, defiant.

“This is me. I am the energy; I am mania. I am humming with manic power. Manic is my essence. Manic is who I was born to be, who I always was. I lied to myself when I agreed to take the meds for nine years.”

He snuffed out a cigarette. The ashtray was brimming full; the old butts spilled onto the table. “You made me lie to myself, to my soul, to who I really am.”

I gazed at him for a silent minute and turned to stone. There was something so final in that remark that I realized the conversation was over.

“Well, good luck.” I moved to walk out to my car. “I hope things work out for you.”

“Wait a minute, what’s the rush?” he said. “I need to ask you something,”

I stared at him with no expression, knowing what was coming next.

“I’m a little short, Michaelo. Can you lend me a couple of hundred?” He gave me his best car salesman smile, the one he used when he was sure to close a car sale, back when he used to work.

Guilt, resentment, and an ache of longing moved through me. The years of hearing the same question and always opening my wallet, or my car, or my apartment, or my life to bail him out, just one more time, the this will be the last time, I promise, and then the last time just became the next time, and the next time, and the next time after that.

“I’m done, Steve,” I said. “You’re going to have to find another ATM.” I couldn’t feel anything as I said it. It was like hearing a stone drop in an empty well.

The slide into relapse and mania had come two years before. It erupted quickly. Steve had been sober and in recovery for nine years, and during those nine years, we had bonded more closely than we ever had before. I spent almost every weekend with him, helping him around his house, going to flea markets or having family dinners with his wife and daughter. Then he had a heart attack, and shortly after that, his wife told him she was leaving him for another man. He stopped going to meetings, stopped taking his bipolar medication, and began doing speedballs, a cocaine and heroin cocktail. The mania took over, and he never came down, his mind running one hundred miles an hour every day.

Along with my sister, I had spent most of my early adulthood bailing him out of jail, taking him to the ER, lending him money, and answering his 2 a.m. phone calls to discuss his grievances and resentments toward life in general. Now, twenty years later, my role as my brother’s keeper returned after I had thought I would never have to take on that responsibility again. I was in the middle of my own divorce and in graduate school to change careers. To take on being his savior felt like I was being pulled down into the ocean with an anchor tied to my feet. I couldn’t be the hero and save my brother again. I could barely save myself, but the pull to rescue him was so strong.

A few days after I walked out of his apartment, I returned to graduate school in New York.

Two weeks later, I was picking at a spinach salad and studying. When the phone rang, I looked at the clock. It was close to 10 p.m. I answered and all I could hear was Sandy crying and gasping for air, her voice strangled.

“Steve’s dead, he’s dead,” she wailed.

It felt like the floor had dropped. My head spun. I struggled to speak.

“How?” I mumbled.

“I don’t know, his heart—he was with that kid, Jerry—he just called and told me.”

I got his friend Jerry’s number and called. An older woman picked up the phone and got him on the phone, and I asked him what happened.

Jerry spoke in a torrent, “Mike, Mike, I swear to God man, he just died. My mom brought us some soup, and Steve said he didn’t feel well and went to lie down, and I went to check on him and he was dead.”

I suddenly flushed with rage.

“Don’t lie to me, you little fuck, you were shooting up and he OD’d, didn’t you?” I screamed into the phone. “That’s the way it went down!”

Jerry started crying on the phone.

“No Mike, I swear to God, we hadn’t used that day. He just ate the soup and lied down, and then he died.”

My breathing was ragged. I hung up the phone and sat frozen in place, staring out into space, for hours.

The autopsy said that Steve’s heart had blown up, enlarged on one side. He had gone into cardiac arrest. He was fifty-two years old.

We had him cremated, and my aunts and uncles came to my father’s house to tell stories of my legendary brother: so handsome, a man who could sell snow to Eskimos. A cousin told everyone that Steve was his role model for the man he dreamt of being, someone so charismatic he lit up a room when he walked in. I wrestled with this image of Steve, but could only remember him, dissipated and manic, under a faded, yellow umbrella.

We took Steve’s ashes and sprinkled them in the waters of Santa Cruz. We didn’t really know any other place he would think of as home, so we settled on the ocean. The day was overcast, and the water reflected gray; I waded out to my waist with a wreath of flowers, and a gust of wind blew the powdered ash onto the waves. A little wind and he was gone.

I dreamed of him incessantly for years. In the dreams I was always with him when he died. I was the one who killed him—repeatedly. In one dream, I was carrying him in my arms up a steep mountain trail to the top of ledge, a thin thread of river running miles below. I held him close, kissed his cheek and threw him over the edge, watching him fall and drift, like a leaf in strong winds. In later years, my wife would often wake me to stop me screaming in my sleep.

In my work as a therapist, I listen to my clients’ painful ambivalence about caring for but ultimately leaving a loved one, a lover, a parent, a child, whose choices in life have ripped their bond apart. They tell me of their gut-wrenching choice to abandon someone because they were themselves dying by inches trying to save them. I see my brother before me as they speak, so magnetic, so handsome, and jealousy stirs in me—jealousy that, in the end, the drugs and mania had become my brother’s keeper and had taken my place in his life. I loved him but I couldn’t save him. I live with an uneasy regret. My brother and I, at the same time, were drowning. I swam to shore.


Michael Cannistraci‘s essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Briar Cliff Review, Ravensperch, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, Long Ridge Review, The Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review, Quibble, The Bryant Literary Review, and Glacial Hills Review.

Sal Daña is a gender-queer, 21st-Century Mexican surrealist painter based in the Americas. Informed by psychoanalytic theory, they are interested in painting as a sublimation behavior. The work often depicts dream-like scenes rooted in anxieties around climate and gender.