I’m not entirely sure where the remembrances came from this morning. I was under the impression that each new year is supposed to be filled with optimistic anticipation of beautiful future things.
Not dour memories of my past.
And yet, barely six days into another year, I caught myself thinking about my brother. I’ve written about my brother “Butch” in the past. He was “Butch,” I was “Buster.”
And although Butch — Joel Harold Barnett — was the older brother, born in 1950, his injury before I was born created a paradigm shift in the Barnett hierarchy.
I’ve written about his injury before, so I’ll spare you the in-depth details and just say he sustained a fall when he was a young child that paralyzed the entire left side of his body.
Although I was almost three years my brother’s junior, I grew up as the older brother.
Thinking back on all those years, I never wanted to be my brother’s keeper, but somehow things turned out that way.
For me, growing up with Joel was supposed to mean doing things that brothers did together, fishing and hunting together, swimming in the stock tanks together, riding horses together, getting in trouble together, learning all that life had to offer together.
Except that it never seemed to happen that way.
According to my grandmother, Joel had special needs. He needed to be pampered because he couldn’t take care of himself.
Even when he could.
My grandmother, the strong-willed matriarch of the family, insisted my brother be protected from the harsh cruelties of other children and the pitying stares from the adults.
And because my brother was coddled most of his life by her, I became the go-to son when work needed to be done.
When chores such as cleaning and cooking were required. Or tending to the pigs, chickens, and horses we owned.
The entire family just stopped asking Joel to help.
And it pissed him off because he wanted more than anything in the world to be “normal” like me.
And yet, each time the family offered him the opportunity, he would give an extremely half-hearted attempt and then lean on his incapacity as an excuse to return to the overprotective arms of our grandmother.
It was the same way growing up in school.
In an attempt to be accepted, my brother often came out swinging with his good right arm when picked on. And merely by proxy, I became an unwilling target of the backlash, frequently getting pounded worse than my brother ever did.
This is not a politically correct statement, but keep in mind, I didn’t make the rules back then.
The word that would quickly circulate around each of the many schools my brother and I attended was that none of the machismo punks cared to damage their reps by busting on a cripple.
A word both my brother and I learned to hate and for two entirely different reasons.
Somehow we both managed to stay alive long enough for Joel to graduate from high school and me a year later.
Without further ado, and due in large part to my grandmother’s insistence, my brother immediately enrolled in college.
His frailty, not his grades, provided him a small grant of scholarship money. My grandparents paid for the rest and managed to cut a deal where Joel could live with grandmother and grandad while he went to school.
And went to school.
And went to school.
It turns out my brother had stumbled onto a pretty good deal. Go to school constantly and let his grandmother prepare his food, wash his clothes, buy him anything and everything he asked for.
Professional College Goer. Sweet.
Unfortunately for me, come graduation time, there was no scholarship money to be had.
Plus, the general view of the family about son number two was I was old enough and quite capable of enduring the hits of living. I needed to get a job just like everybody else. If I wanted or needed a car, I would find a way to buy one or walk.
As simple as that.
I decided if that’s how things were going to be in my world, then I might as well just join the military and set out on my own adventure.
And so I did.
It would be another five years before my brother and I hooked up again. What brought us together was money.
Interestingly, what split us up again was money.
My brother and I come from a broken home. My mother left the family when I was eight. And though Joel and I never kept tabs on her much after the split, she evidently did on us.
For me, contact with her came through a phone call where she invited me to come to Atlanta and spend some time with her and a half brother I didn’t even know I had.
During the short conversation, I learned my mother had purchased a round trip plane ticket for my brother.
Me? Not so much.
I needed to either fly or drive, but either way, my mother insisted she wanted both of us to meet our half brother, and she had something to give us.
Three days later, I rolled into Atlanta and found her house. As it turned out, my mom’s remarriage to a successful businessman ended up providing her everything she could have hoped for.
A loving husband and father, a wonderful and healthy son.
What she and her husband certainly didn’t plan on was for the man to be stricken by a cancerous brain tumor and die when our half brother was only twelve years old.
When we talked, I could tell by my mother’s expression she would have gladly traded the millions of dollars her husband left her for one last kiss, one final caress.
Just another way of life taking an ironic crap on you right?
Just before we had to leave, me taking my brother to the airport and then heading out for the long trip back to Texas, my mother handed us cashier’s checks for $5,000.00.
Quite a large sum of money back in those days. Not that she was trying to buy our love. We all had managed to go our separate ways in life. She was simply trying to lend a helping hand.
It couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
I was struggling to make my house payment and raise a family, and the money was just what I needed and at the right time to help me over the hump.
At the airport, as we exchanged handshakes, my brother asked me for a favor. Since he had no money at all except for the cashier’s check, he wanted me to float him a loan of three hundred bucks.
I gave him the money, demanding that he promise as soon as he “put his money in the bank,” he would drive up from Groesbeck Texas and pay me back.
A year later, I got paid back, but It wasn’t with money.
It turned out dear Joel had chosen to spend the entirety of his five grand on booze, and I’m sorry to say, a bevy of women who were more than happy to ply their feminine wares as long as the money lasted.
I found him sleeping in his bedroom at the grandparent’s house. Without so much as a hint at what I intended to do I grabbed him by his hair and dragged him out into the front yard. There, I proceeded to beat about three hundred dollars worth of crap out of him.
I left him bleeding from the mouth in the front yard, got in my car, and drove off.
We didn’t speak to one another for the longest time. Until my grandfather passed away, and three years later my grandmother died.
It was a panicked collect call I received in the middle of the night a few months after burying my grandmother. It seems as if the grandparent’s house was being sold to cover the hospital and hospice costs and Joel was being evicted.
I drove down to Groesbeck and met him at our grandparents’ house. The electricity had been turned off and we were forced to walk about in the dark with only the aid of flashlights.
It was one of the most surreal nights I’d ever experienced, almost as if I’d just stepped inside a fright house.
There were cobwebs and filth everywhere, piles of dirty dishes in the sink, and thick blankets of dust on the furniture. Mouse droppings covered the floors of almost every room.
It was a complete shock to the system.
Joel wasn’t in any better shape.
It took everything I could do to keep from gagging because of the reek of his body odor. It seemed as if he’d not changed clothes or taken a bath in months.
Destitute and a complete basket case, he stood there as I loaded piles of his foul-smelling unwashed laundry into three large trash bags, dumped them in the back of his pickup truck, and we both left the house with me in the lead.
Once Joel and I reached my house, my wife and I made a place for him to sleep on the living room couch.
Then we forced him to take a shower and for the next four hours we set about washing all of his clothing.
My wife and I stumbled into bed at about three in the morning.
Two hours later the alarm went off.
The next morning over coffee, I had a chat with my brother. I let him know he could stay as long as he needed to, but I insisted he started looking for a job immediately. I told him as an adult; it was just as much his responsibility to pay the bills as it was my wife and me.
When my wife and I returned home from work that evening, Joel was gone.
My brother and I never spoke again, and I never even knew when he died.
I suppose a lot of the problem was on me not reaching out to help more often. In hindsight, I probably should have, but the thing is, as I said, I never really wanted to become my brother’s keeper.
But I don’t believe he minded it one little bit.
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