The automatic door parted and swung out of the way, pulling us from the crisp March air into the disinfectant smell of the nursing home. Immediately to our left, just across from a tiny waiting room, were two small administrative offices, one nestled inside the other. Scotch-taped to the wall outside the office, next to the parish wall calendar, was the notice: a photocopied form with underlined blanks, filled in by hand in carefully printed letters, announcing the memorial service for Steve to be held on March 14, 2001, at 10:30 a.m. on the second floor.
A plump, pleasant-looking woman, whose eyeglasses and I.D. badges cascaded down her chest on a chain and bounced as she walked, approached us from the other end of the hall. She scanned our six faces quickly with polite curiosity and instantly settled on my mother's with sympathetic recognition.
"Mrs. Brega," she said, taking my mother's hand in both of hers. "And Mr. Brega." She extended her hand to him and paused momentarily, letting their names float as complete sentences. Mom smiled, lips tight, already fighting the urge to cry, and Dad simply said, "Hello."
Then she looked at my twin brothers, towering over all of us, and at my husband and me.
"I'm Kathy," I said, "Steve's sister. We met at one of your team meetings."
"Yes, of course. How nice that you could come."
I thought it an odd thing to say since we were family, but I smiled politely, looking for her name on the tangle of badges. "This is my husband, Pat, andI'm sorry, I've forgotten your name."
"No, I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I'm Margaret Dowd, the director here. Hello, Pat. So good of you all to come." The introductions seemed endless.
"These are my other sons, Douglas and David," my mother chimed in, her composure momentarily restored.
Please don't say it was nice of them to come.
"I'm very glad to meet you," she said to Doug and Dave. "And so glad you came."
She looked at each of us again as we waited to be told what to do next.
"We're going to the second floor," she said. "This way."
In the hallway several more notices about the service were taped to the wall. A younger, but similarly plump, woman was waiting to escort us to the second floor, and a round of polite hellos and fake smiles sufficed while we waited for the elevator. Inside the elevator another notice was taped to the wall. They were everywhere. Our escort pulled a ring of keys from her sweater pocket and fiddled with them as a final announcement crackled over the PA system in a slow, deliberate female voice: "The memorial service for Stephen Brega will begin at 10:30 on the second floor in the common room." My throat tightened and I looked at Doug and Dave. Doug muttered, "That's weird."
Everything about this is weird.
The elevator stopped, and the woman opened the door with a key. We filed out, stepping to the side to avoid fully entering the area before us. Doug turned pale and whispered, a bit too loudly, "This is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Dave stifled an uncomfortable chuckle as I shot Doug a look. The room was dotted with people who seemed to be moving in a kind of slow motion. I couldn't tell if it was really their speed or if my mind just couldn't take them in any faster. It was a cold morning, and the gray light from outside backlit the shadowed figures at first, giving them an eerie, silhouette-like appearance. No one seemed to notice us at all, our awkwardness, our hesitation. Mom and Dad had moved through this room and the surrounding halls dozens of times in the last six months, but now they seemed disoriented. They didn't hear Doug's comment or our whispers; they were scanning the room, looking for Steve.
Moving authoritatively around the room was an older, petite woman in a white blouse, dark skirt and cardigan sweater, and black, comfortable-looking shoes. A small gold cross hung around her neck. Dad recognized her and made a beeline for her.
"Hello, Sister," he said.
"Hello, Mr. Brega," she said, offering both hands.
Instead of giving her his, he handed her a folder. "I brought some pictures of Steve. I thought people might want to see them. Is that all right?"
"Of course," she said. "Let's put them right here on this table, and people can come up and look at them whenever they want."
The round, commercial table, adorned by a plain white tablecloth, held a small vase of flowers, a portable cd player and a small stack of programs for the service. Dad spread the pictures out on the table, looked at me and shrugged. Then he took a handful of programs and gave us each one.
The program was typed on a piece of the facility's letterhead and photocopied, similar to the announcements taped to the walls and the elevator. It looked like a one-page script with the title Memorial Service. "Steve" was handwritten into blank spaces in four places. First, where the leader noted that "...we, Stephen Brega's community, turn to God's word as the source of our faith and hope"; then, where we asked God to: "receive Steve into His kingdom"; "to bless Steve and keep him and be gracious to him"; and "to lift up His countenance upon Steve and give him peace." Amen.
There would be two readings, followed by REFLECTION, PRAYER INTENTIONS: (Please feel free to pray out loud if you wish), and OPPORTUNITY FOR PERSONAL SHARING. Fill in the blank.
Three weeks earlier, the wake and funeral had seemed even more unreal. Familiar faces of friends, neighbors, and distant relatives filing into the funeral home, signing the book and looking at the collage of photos on the easel next to the casket, served to heighten the disbelief that Steve had died, that he was truly dead. Not like in 1964, when he was merely "clinically dead" for a few minutes. A few critical minutes, it turned out, before being revived by Dad and Mrs. Merton, the nurse across the street, who took turns pumping frantic breaths into his lifeless mouth. The wake and all of the recent rituals of grieving, however surreal, were at least clear. They weren't shrouded in the confusion and shame, which, in 1964, enveloped the botched suicide attempt that rendered sixteen-year-old Steve blue in the face (asphyxiation from the noose), comatose for two weeks, and permanently brain-damaged for the next thirty-seven years. Most of the callers didn't comment on the obvious double tragedy, that all these years later, at age fifty-three, Steve died from asphyxiation after choking on a sandwich. Irony was beside the point.
In 1964, in our small Massachusetts town, word spread like fire that Steve had tried to kill himself and that he was in a coma in the intensive care unit. People responded as if there had been a death in the family. The B&B Market, where Steve had worked the previous summer and after school until just the week before, sent over a canned ham, bacon, hamburger, cube steak, and a roast beef. Jean Wood made a pie. Marge Rigali made spaghetti and a cake and, on another day, took the ironing home with her. Flo Haetinger brought brownies, and Connie Pel-legrini made lasagna. Other people brought more cakes, bread, cookies, and a whole bag of cheeses. Someone even brought pickles. Mrs. Rockwell, in addition to baking a coffee cake, sent flowers. My aunt, Ruthie, made a list of who did what so that my mother could properly thank everyone later.
Ruthie had flown in from Ohio to be with us (Doug and Dave were fifteen, I was ten) while Mom and Dad took turns at the hospital around the clock. At that time, they were allowed just five minutes an hour to be in the intensive care unit with Steve. He was packed in ice to bring a raging fever down and, even while in a coma, had thrashed around so violently that he tore the skin around the small tracheotomy hole, carving what would later became a long, ugly scar across his throat. A vivid, if redundant, reminder.
Mom slept on a sofa in the hospital waiting room night after night for those first two weeks in order to be awakened by the nurses every hour for her five-minute vigil. Meanwhile, grim-faced doctors used terms like "vegetable" to describe the kind of future Steve was likely to inhabit, if he survived. Mom was adamant that he would neither die nor become a "vegetable." She would say, in her matter-of-fact way, "If he wasn't meant to live, we wouldn't have found him in time." It became a kind of mantra. At least he didn't die. He didn't die. She even stipulated that there were to be no tears unless he did die. Grief was, therefore, suspended, first for two weeks; then, after he emerged from the coma, for a few months. And a few more. Years would pass before Mom could even consider that he might never return to "normal." Since she was the conductor of the family mood, the rest of us followed her lead. We were instructed to use the term "brain injured" because it was implicitly more hopeful than "brain damaged" (and certainly more palatable than the official diagnosis I found in the records years later: Acute Brain Syndrome Associated with Trauma: Anoxia from Strangulation from Hanging). Her insistence on a positive attitude dared anyone to challenge her belief in Steve's ultimate, complete recovery.
During the early days, weekends were spent traveling to visit him in one hospital or another (which even he referred to as "funny farms"), or coping with his visits home. There were batteries of tests, applications to programs, trips to Vermont, Boston, Dallas, Philadelphia and New York. At times he lived at home. One regimen, which lasted a year or two and was designed to "pattern" his brain, required a strict routine of creeping and crawling on the floor, walking and skipping in a deliberate and exaggerated manner while pointing his forefinger at the opposite big toe, sleeping in a particular position, eating large spoonfuls of peanut butter to exercise his jaw so that he could speak better, and breathing into a paper bag for one minute every hour. A prominent department store in Springfield opened its doors early in the morning, before store hours, to let my father guide Steve around the spacious first floor on his belly, then his hands and knees, and then upright, skipping and walking. It was like a demonstration in evolution: reptile to mammal to human. Dad had taken a leave of absence from his job for a few months to follow this around-the-clock schedule of what, on paper, looked like a list of fraternity initiation pranks. When he had to return to work, a "tutor" was hired to put Steve through his paces. That made two strangers in the house.
There were flash cards and multiplication tables, elementary school books and tape recorders. The suppertime challenge was to re-teach him to eat only one mouthful at a time. We struggled to comprehend the devastating transformation from high school junior to this confused, low-functioning successor. Mostly, we just tried to cope. We became familiar with the top of each other's lungs and the bottom of each other's patience. "Chew your food, Steve." "Don't yell at him." "Stop it, Steve." "He's doing the best he can." "Why doesn't he understand?" "Button your shirt, Steve. Steve? Steve!" "Be patient. He can't help it." At times, neither could we. After the early, periodic, and unsuccessful attempts at living at home, he lived the rest of his lonely life primarily in nearby group homes, coming home for a day visit on most weekends. When asked casually by Dad, "How are things going, Steve?" he would answer simply, "Nightmare, John."
It was all so unnatural. It was as if parts of his brain were precious photographs, destroyed along with the negatives, in a fire. They were just gone. I used to dream that I would wake up one morning and there he would be, bewildered by his own reflection in the mirror and wondering, like Rip Van Winkle, where time had gone. He would be normal again, with a gaping hole in his memory for the lost years up to the morning of my dream. No more afterimage. Once in a while, and for the most fleeting of moments, a glimpse of normalcy would appear. When I was a teenager, he once said to me, while looking into the bathroom mirror and rubbing his fingers over the scar on his throat, "Don't you ever try anything like that, Kathy." His words were clear, not garbled, and it was the last time he said anything so big-brotherly to me.
Mom is fond of saying that time marches on. At times it did. Other times, it crawled, it oozed, it shuffled like someone on Thorazine. Years of industrial-strength medications took their toll as Steve's speech became more unintelligible and his body stiff and awkward. You could see his own frustration in his eyes. Walking through the streets, disheveled, unshaven, and mumbling to himself, he became the kind of guy you would probably cross the street to avoid. Nevertheless, in our small town, people who knew him still tooted their horns and waved to him before casting quick, sad glances into their rearview mirrors.
He managed, incredibly, to maintain a remarkable sense of humor that emerged from time to time in poignant, painful hilarity. But, he also became disruptive and, at times, violent, necessitating extra supervision and an occasional "respite stay" from his environment. His last official address was the "secure unit for behaviorally challenged" patientsthe locked psychiatric wardat the nursing home. He was on a respite stay from there, at a psychiatric hospital, when, in an unsupervised moment, he choked on a sandwich. The cause of death was listed as "asphyxia due to choking," and the manner of death as an accident.
The room was slowly filling up with residents and a few staff members. There we were: Dad, Mom, Doug, Dave, me, and Pat, each in our own little world, sitting uncomfortably on one side of a haphazardly formed horseshoe made of folding chairs. Sister welcomed each new arrival, waving her hand this way and that to direct someone to take a seat or move a chair to make space for the occasional wheelchair, gently guiding into position this unlikely group of mourners. We watched as if their assembly was a separate event and we a separate audience, and I was surprised to see so many people who had all come to say goodbye to Steve. I watched Sister approach a bewildered looking woman in a wheelchair who was asking if she was in the right place.
"Hello, Suzanne," Sister said. "Are you here for the memorial service for Steve Brega?"
"Yes," she said, and then added, "When did he die?"
"A few weeks ago," Sister said.
"Oh," she said, sadly. "That's too bad."
"Yes, it is. Was he a friend of yours?"
Suzanne looked into her lap and answered softly, "No. I didn't know him."
Sister put her hand on Suzanne's shoulder and nodded. "It's okay."
"I just thought it would be nice to come. Something to do," Suzanne added, as if she had decided to stop and watch what everyone else was watching on the television screens in the window of an appliance store.
Sister smiled at her. "It's very nice of you to come. Why don't you pull your chair up right over there, next to Charlie."
Suzanne's expression became purposeful, and she pushed off for the other side of the horseshoe and the space next to Charlie, who was staring intently at Dad across the room. I leaned forward and looked across the laps of my brothers and mother to Dad, who was smiling at Charlie.
"Dad," I whispered. "One of Steve's friends?"
He nodded and smiled a knowing smile. "Later," he whispered back.
Mom and Dad knew several of these people. They had spent part of every weekend for the last few months visiting Steve, greeting the other residents, taking an interest, however briefly, in their lives. Dad later told me that Charlie used to walk around the square of the nurse's station and poke his fingers into the change-return chute of the pay phone, barely stopping to feel for coins. Steve would sometimes wait by the phone and clap his hand over the change return as Charlie approached. Just for fun. Charlie would walk on by and keep walking around the quad past Steve until, eventually, Steve would get bored and move somewhere else, leaving Charlie to his hunt for spare change.
Sister clicked on the CD player and adjusted the volume. A piece of appropriately somber but lovely music began to quiet the voices in the room. All eyes were on Sister, except for those of one man, directly across from me, who was slouched in his wheelchair with his head hanging over his lap. I wondered if he, like Suzanne, was here because it was something to do.
Sister began by welcoming everyone to the service. "I want to thank you all for coming to this memorial service for Steve Brega. I know that it means a great deal to his family, who is here with us today." She held out her hand in our direction and nodded to us. All heads, except that of the man slumped over in his wheelchair, swiveled in our direction and stared. The man lifted his head ever so slightly, just enough to be able to raise his eyes and see us across from him. Suzanne smiled at us.
Sister continued as we followed along with our programs. My anxiety had quieted down, and I was now thinking that this was going to be too short. The whole program was only on one page. After the first section, in which the response from the participants sounded like a warped record, there were two readings, Psalm 23 and another from Revelations. The words spilled into the room like water seeking any crevice to fill. Then there was a moment of quiet reflection. After another request to God to receive Steve into His kingdom of light, love, and peace, it was time for Prayer Intentions. Sister asked us to pray for the pope, the local bishop, and the parish priest. She asked us to consider the poor, the sick, and the elderly. All the while, Mom's head remained down, much like the man's across the way. From time to time, her shoulders would shudder and her hands would crumple the tissues she continued to pull out of her sleeve. We all nodded and droned the response, "Lord, hear our prayer," after each call. Finally, Sister mentioned the nursing home and emphasized that we should say a "special prayer" for the residents. At this point, the man across the way, whose head was now practically in his lap, lifted just his head and moaned, in a loud, gravelly voice, "We can use all the help we can get." Then his head dropped back down over his lap. I looked down the row of Bregas to my left. Mom lifted her head and pursed her lips to stifle her laugh. Dad was unable to control the escape of some chuckling noises. It was something Steve would have said, looking for a laugh. Doug, Dave, Pat, and I could barely look at each other. The residents were not laughing, but simply nodding in agreement, and Sister, thoughtfully, allowed the moment to linger. The relief was glorious. "Thank you, Peter," she said finally. Yes, thank you, Peter.
Everyone was alert now. The last part of the service, which had only taken fifteen or twenty minutes so far, was the Opportunity for Personal Sharing. Sister invited people to say anything at all about Steve. One young man said that he liked to go downstairs with Steve to have a smoke on the porch. He would miss that. Charlie said only, "Steve was my friend." Suzanne sheepishly offered that she didn't know Steve, but that she would have liked to. A young man in sweatpants and slippers, who had been sitting through the service with a notepad on his lap, wrote something on it now, got up, and shuffled over to Dad. He handed the pad to him and looked into Dad's eyes. On the pad he had scrawled, "I want Steve come back." Dad showed the pad to Mom, who smiled and burst into tears. Dad also smiled and handed the pad back to the young man. "Me, too," he whispered. The man turned and looked at the rest of us. He walked slowly past Mom and Doug and handed the pad, arbitrarily, to David. David looked at the words, then at me and back to the man. He handed him the pad, raised his eyebrows, and said, "You never know."
Sister brought the service to an end, and invited people to come up to the table to look at the pictures. All the photos were, at Mom's insistence, pictures taken after 1964. She hadn't wanted any pictures of him as a child or even as a teenager. Perhaps having to grieve for both Steves the "before" and the "after"was just too much. Some of the photos were of him alone, candid shots of a nice-looking man whose condition was unknowable from the picture. Others were more strained: a forced smile, a slightly stoned look, an awkward stance, something just a little off. In one, he was laughing hysterically, looking for all the world like a guy having a good old laugh but, just maybe, a little crazy. Dad and I loved that one. Many were family photos, happy-as-we-can-be. Many more were lonely, at least to those of us who knew him. Several people meandered up to the table. They recognized the Steve in the pictures, the only Steve they knew, and they smiled at the photos. One man told me that he, too, liked to go to the beach. Another said, "Cute dog, what's his name?" No one knew what circumstances brought Steve into their lives. There was no grieving for an earlier Steve, no sadness about the life he could have had or the one he inhabited instead, and no double meaning in the silent mourner's note, "I want Steve come back." They were simply sorry he was gone. Charlie picked up one picture to study it more closely. Then he said, to no one in particular, "He was a nice guy."
Kathryn Brega Rebillot is a writing tutor for the Bard College Prison Initiative. She lives in Tivoli, New York, and is working on a collection of stories.