Phantom Net (Essay)

I looked over at the wall by the door where my brother had pinned up some of his favorite photos. My eyes passed over each one of them, and I smiled a little bit as I recognized familiar faces. My mother’s startled face. Some of my brother’s friends kicking around a soccer ball. A close up of my left eye.

The next photo gave me pause, and I sat up abruptly. It was an older woman’s face, smiling and squinting into the sun.

“Mrs. Rafani?” It was the first time I had spoken in his room in months.

Mrs. Rafani was our next-door neighbor, a kind woman in her ’80s. Her husband had died five years ago, and a year later she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. One day, a few years before she died, my brother came back from visiting her house withdrawn and surly. He found me in my room reading and sat down on the edge of my bed with his face in his hands. We sat for a few moments in silence before he looked at me, tears in his eyes.

“She forgot…” He shook his head and exhaled deeply, looking up at the ceiling. “She forgot that her husband is dead.”

I put down my book and moved to say something comforting but my brother cut me off.

“Apparently she has been doing that regularly. Every day she wakes up and forgets that her husband is dead. Every day someone had to tell her that the love of her life has been dead for years.”

My brother hadn’t been able to say anything else for the rest of that day.

I laid back down on the bed. My brother had been obsessed with that for a while, often going over to sit with her. I think he was terrified of Alzheimer’s, by the concept of memory loss in general. He had been extremely close to our grandfather before he could no longer recognize us, in a way that I had never understood. By the time I was old enough to formulate ideas and take note of the world around me, our grandfather had begun his journey towards oblivion, and his confusion often made him impatient and irritable.

In fact, the only real conversation we ever shared was actually about my brother. We fought quite a bit as children, each of us misdirecting a soul-deep ache from issues too profound for us to comprehend. I was crying on the swing in the backyard when my grandfather found me. He slowly sat beside me, groaning as his joints rebelled against child-sized seats. We sat in silence while an intermittent breeze swayed us back and forth. Once he began to speak, so slowly and softly I had to lean in to hear, he never once looked at me. I don’t remember much of what he said, except that as the sun began to fade and my mother’s voice echoed out the call for bed, he became almost frantic.

Having a brother is something that requires effort, it requires more patience than you can possibly imagine.

“Listen to me before you go. Having a brother is something that requires effort, it requires more patience than you can possibly imagine. He will make you so angry sometimes that you will scream and cry and tear your hair out of your head. But then, you’ll reach a point when the battle ends, and you’ll both realize that the two of you are a team.”

I stared up at him, and was scared to see my reflection distort from the tears in his eyes. He let go of my arm and patted it gently.

“Your parents are going to help you grow into a strong woman. And when you get older you will find someone you will want to live with and have children with. But your brother will be there through it all. He will be your safety net for the whole journey.”

On my brother’s bed I wiped my eyes and looked back at Mrs. Rafani’s picture again. In a way, I was lucky. Every day I woke up and the vacuum from my brother’s life would leave me breathless. The pain was immeasurable, a daily leap into freezing water. But at night, while Mrs. Rafani forgot, I found him alive with his hand held out for our next adventure.