On March 4 of this year, I lit a candle, still remembering that chilly morning in the mid ’70s when I stumbled out of bed in the dark to answer the house phone. My recently widowed father got right to the point. “Louisa, it’s Daddy,” he said in his thick Carolina accent. “I have bad news. Jay was in an accident on his way to Bethesda. He’s in bad shape.”
I sat on the bare wooden steps outside my bedroom, listening to him and looking vaguely down at the dangling phone cord. “Uh-huh,” I said tonelessly.
His voice faltered. “I’m in Baltimore now, at the trauma center where they flew him. The doctors say he has serious brain damage.” In the end, he didn’t survive.
Even after crawling back into bed with my boyfriend, the man who is now my husband of more than 40 years, I couldn’t get warm. Over Barry’s shoulder, I looked out the window at the rain. The sparrows on the wet power line seemed to be shivering in sympathy.
Bonding with My Brother
On a night four years earlier, Jay and I had stayed up late together, munching on peanut butter sandwiches and graham crackers. Everyone else had gone to bed. As the grandfather clock struck 11, I hesitated, uncertain whether to ask the question that had been swirling around my mind. With nine years between us, Jay and I hadn’t grown up together and barely knew each other. And it was hardly a routine kind of question.
“Um, I have something to ask you,” I said, clearing my throat.
Jay nodded. “Yeah?”
“What was it like the night I called Mother and Daddy and told them I’d been raped?” Two months earlier, a masked man had stuck a knife at my sternum early one Saturday morning, the spring of my senior year, while I was jogging near the Tulane campus. The man coerced me into a nearby cemetery, then raped me between tombstones.
“If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you,” the man had warned me afterward, as he pulled up his pants and sped off across the cemetery.
Despite his threat, I had reported it to the New Orleans Police Department within an hour, but to this day I don’t know what happened to the man.
Our relationship changed from acquaintances who barely knew each other to friends.
My mother was visiting my sister in New York that weekend. I couldn’t imagine telling my father without her, so I had waited until she returned Sunday evening to call.
Jay looked at me after I asked him the question, his straw-colored hair, ’70s pageboy style, swinging around his ears. “I was sitting in the living room when the phone rang,” he said. “Daddy picked it up. He called out to Mother right away and she got on the extension.”
He stared out the window. “I knew something terrible had happened. I kept listening, trying to figure it out. When they came back into the living room, Mother was sobbing. Daddy said, ‘Jay, your sister Louisa has been raped.’”
I nodded, ignoring the graham crackers I usually snarfed down. I could visualize the scene: Jay waiting in the living room, Mother crying, Daddy—his face carefully neutral—reporting the news.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he went on. “I was stunned. We all just sat there in silence except for Mother. She was crying so hard, it felt like there wasn’t room for any emotion but hers.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “That’s why I didn’t want to come home afterward. I could barely deal with my own emotions, let alone Mother’s.”
Jay told me he finally went to his room to do his science homework. “I didn’t finish it,” he said. “I just couldn’t concentrate.”
Awhile later, as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered, Is he really only 13?
Keeping up the Connection
On the basis of that one conversation, our relationship changed from acquaintances who barely knew each other to friends. We corresponded, and three years later, when our mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jay typed me letters on her Smith Corona while she was in the hospital:
“Ever since I found out about Mother, a lot of thoughts have been running through my head. Death to me has always been a visitor in books, but never did he come into my life. I can’t grip the actuality of death, the finality of it all. I have spent long hours just sitting and thinking and trying to realize it.”
“And it’s weird because right now is one of the happiest times in my life. I’m happy with who I am and what I’m doing, and I feel confident, not of anything in particular but just of everything.”
After she died, Jay kept writing me. Alone in the house with our father, one day he wrote, “At times the place gets kinda lonely.”
A week later, though, his letter had a different tone:
“Daily, there have been snow flurries and a hint of northern winds. It’s a bleak picture outside. But in our humble abode, all is well. I’m in charge of the kitchen, and tonight I’ll make an Italian rice skillet. I’m just trying to be a good son, companion, and housemate to Daddy. The other morning I got up early and made us grapefruit, bacon, toast, and pancakes for breakfast. It was really fun.”
Later, I would read and reread his letters, weeping. This unusually kind, sensitive 16-year-old, supporting our father, who had just lost his wife of 31 years.
A month after his death, Jay came to me in a dream, wearing his T-shirt from the ’70s rock group Yes, his adolescent skin pockmarked.
“Weez, I need to talk to you,” he said. “How is the family doing?” He zeroed in on each sister, one by one: the two oldest, then Jane, his playmate growing up. She was struggling, I told him; his loss had upended her world.
“What about Mother?” Jay asked me. She hovered in the background, a dim, shadowy figure, my dream self’s way of conveying that our mother had died only a few months earlier.
“She’s not around much,” I said.
“How’s Daddy?” In my dream, I remembered reading Jay’s scrawled note on the fridge after I arrived for his memorial service. “See you Sunday. Behave yourself!” he’d written cheerily to our father, before leaving for the weekend on what would be the last day of his life.
“And what about you? How are you doing?” Jay peered at me, his eyes penetrating, really wanting to know.
I woke up before I could answer, my pillow damp from tears.
Over the years I’ve pondered why I’ve clung to the skinny filament of conversation Jay and I had late that evening around the dining room table. It wasn’t long, and he didn’t say very much. It was more what he didn’t say. Only weeks after my assault, I had no way of knowing how unusual it was that he didn’t change the subject, didn’t make light of my rape, didn’t give me advice, didn’t lecture me, didn’t ask, “What were you doing jogging at 6 in the morning, anyway?”
Just a 13-year-old boy, he responded honestly and directly. So simple. So rare.
Because I asked him that question, he and I established a bond that lasted the remainder of his short life—a bond I can still feel now, decades later. That such a loving, tender connection with my kid brother could come out of the most harrowing experience of my life remains to this day both a mystery and a blessing.
This article is an online exclusive of Unity Magazine®.