Don’t get me wrong, I loved my brothers and sister, but I can now only take them in small doses.
You know how it is growing up, always fighting for your own space, having to live with their idiosyncrasies, getting blamed for stuff you never did.
I never got to have a room of my own, always sharing with the other middle brother, James, whereas the eldest brother had his own room, and by necessity, our youngest sister.
They too got the first-class education where James and I were shuffled off to trade school, which James always said was a hop, step and jump from prison.
Coincidentally, James and I were the first to leave home as soon as it was possible. WE had to earn a living and pay rent, whereas the other two were being nurtured through school, and life.
It was the school of hard knocks for us.
Over the years we all drifted in and out of each other’s lives. We also drifted, at one time or another all over the world, and later, all over the country.
Because of this, only seminal events brought us back together, and even then, those moments were few and fleeting, and not looked upon with fondness. We were not the typical family.
When the time came for each to marry, at varying times of our lives, each would be there at the event. Keeping up with each other was a task for social media, and there we learned of children, divorces, affairs, and disasters.
But there was one defining event that finally shook up our collective trees of life; the death of our parents. Whilst none of the children were particularly close, it seemed to fall upon Janine, the daughter, to look after them.
And, when they were killed unexpectedly in a car crash, it was she who delivered the bad news, and issue the invitation to return home for the funerals.
It was sad, yes, but not as much as it should be for a child. For me, I had spent years hating them for perceived wrongs perpetrated, not getting the same treatment as eldest and youngest siblings, not getting the financial support when requested, and not getting a visit, even if it was only once a year.
So, when I read about their deaths, it saddened me, but I hadn’t seen them for a half dozen years, and had almost forgotten they existed. Yes, I should have made more of an effort to go see them, introduce them to their grandchildren, but I didn’t.
It was a completely different situation with Sally’s parents. There were a close-knit family who, whilst also had the monetary and space constraints as we had, and with more members of the family to contend with, they seemed to make it work without fear or favouritism.
She had only recently met each of my siblings in person, simply because of the fact we were getting older, and reasons for coming together more urgent, well, for the others, anyway. And that Sally had put her foot down and demanded we make an effort to see them.
“So, you are going to the funeral, all of us this time I hope.” I had just shown her the missive sent by my sister, Janine, proclaiming the sad news, not being surprised yet again at the coldness that ran between the members of my family.
She had been disappointed at my indifference, even when I explained the circumstances, and how that coldness had begun and festered throughout our lives. For one who had never been in that situation, it was hard to explain, or understand. Not when comparing it to her own situation.
“If you want.” I was going to make the excuse that my work would not allow the time off, but that would only be because of me, not them. I had used it before, and Sally had realised eventually what I was doing. It wouldn’t work this time.
“We should. They were, after all, your parents, and like it or not, they did give you your start in life. I’ve no doubt they did the best they could.”
Sally always saw the best in people, though with my parents, they did leave her somewhat perplexed at times. The same went for Jeremy, the eldest brother, and his indifference. He was our father reincarnated, and his wife, Lucy, was very much like our mother, perpetually suffering from disdain.
“You had to be there,” was all I would say in my defence.
It was a statement I used often to explain away their indifference. I wanted to believe they had done the best they could, but they could have done better. I hesitate to use the word selfish, but they had been, putting their needs before us.
Even in death, I could still feel the resentment.
“Do you want me to make the arrangements?” She always did, and if she had not, perhaps she might never meet my parents, or my brothers and sister.
“That might be best. You know what I’m like.”
I didn’t hear her reply, but I knew what it would be. A frown and muttering under her breath. She knew what I was like, and still married me, much to the disdain of my eldest brother, Jeremy, who had said to her, a day before the wedding, she still had time to change her mind.
He hadn’t endeared himself that day, or any of the days since.
For Alison and Ben, the two children that were never going to be anything like my siblings, it was an adventure. We rarely travelled far from home for holidays. Preferring to spend it with Sally’s parents at their summer house, big enough to fit everyone, what I would have called a boarding house. It was near a lake and was the closest thing to a summer camp as I would get.
Going over in the plane, Sally had banished me to an aisle seat one row behind them. I suspect that was to give me some mental preparation time, but more likely to consider the lecture she’d given me at the airport about me being more proactive in being nice to my family.
It was time to stop playing the forgotten child routine, and to start behaving like I had a family and simply accept them despite their idiosyncrasies. She was right, of course, as she always was, and todays, of all days, it made me wonder what is was she saw in me.
Off the plane, the first surprise was waiting in arrivals. Sally. Holding a sign much like a chauffeur would. Apparently, she had arranged transport. The second surprise was Sally and Janine together, like they were old friends. I was guessing Sally and Janine had had long conversations over the funeral arrangements.
She also liked Janine, even though she lived in a different world. Janine had never married, had a job that paid squillions of dollars, and lived in a mansion, one my children described as a castle, it had so many rooms.
Then, after the hugs, and the smiles, she saw me, the wet blanket.
“You can give me a hug you know.”
I could feel Sally’s eyes burning a hole in me. Hug it was. It was a first, and oddly, rather than consider it was waste of time, it gave me a strange set of emotions.
Then the moment passed.
“You look well.”
“That you can thank Sally for. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be a basket case now.”
“Who’s to say you not, still.” Sally gave me the critical eye, and it was a warning shot across the bows. Behave or else.
We followed Janine out of the terminal building to a parking lot where limousines were parked. She had got us a stretched limousine. Wherever we were going, it was going to be in style.
Sally told me at some point that when she had suggested we stay in a hotel, Janine would not hear of it. She said she lived in what was tantamount to a mausoleum, and there was plenty of room for us. And the rest of the family.
It seemed that she had been very successful in inventing something that everyone needed, and, when she described it, it made sense. Holding the patent and licensing people to manufacture it had made her very wealthy indeed.
Somehow, I’d missed that aspect of her life, though my impression of her, with her education and cleverness, she earned squillions. I was practically right.
What was also explained to me, because I had remarked on how well Sally and Janine got along, and that couldn’t have developed in the last few days while arranging thw funeral visit, it transpired the two had met once of twice when Sally was over this side of the country for seminars, and the two regularly emailed each other.
No sense, Sally said, for her to shun my sister as I had.
Once it might had annoyed me that she would do something like that, but it made sense that Sally would want to know Janine, at the very least, better despite how I painted her. She may have tried with the other two, but I knew Jeremy would strike out the first time she spoke to him, and James was hard enough for anyone to find, let alone his family. I’d tried, and he had disappeared. Not even Janine knew, at that moment in time, where he was.
Jeremy, unfortunately, we would see later.
It was also apparent that once we reached the mausoleum, that I was supposed to go and have a chat with Janine, family stuff she said, and Sally was happy to move into, and unpack, then get the cook to make the children a meal.
We went into a room that Janine called her office.
It was a large wood panelled room with a lot of shelving and a huge number of books. My only remark, that she could not have read them all. It was a little churlish and elicited a grimace.
Janine was not going to put up with my nonsense and was well aware of my attitude from discussions with Sally. It led to her first statement, soon after we sat in very comfortable leather chairs, in front of a window that looked out over a rose garden.
I was counting staff by then, a housekeeper, a cook, a young woman who was there as a waitress, a maid who showed Sally and the children to their rooms upstairs, and outside two gardeners. It was no surprise then the limousine was hers, and the man who drove it, ger chauffeur.
She lived a very different lifestyle than I did.
“I can see that look on your face where you are judging me, and you shouldn’t. You might think you were badly done by, but I’ll let you into a secret, you got the better deal. Not that I’ll defend Jeremy, but in my case, I had a hell of a lot of expectation dumped on my shoulders. You got to swan off and live your life without a care in the world, and I can see you have made all the right decisions, and got everything I could only have hoped for. I have no husband, nor boyfriend, and any I did didn’t last long because my focus was on work and success, instead of happiness. So, yes I have a big house and a lot of money, and people running around doing my bidding, but I have no one to share it with, and no one to pass it onto.”
“Yet.” It was a noble speech, and I’m sure she felt the loneliness of it all. I was going to say she had a choice, just as I had, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.
Certainly, I didn’t feel the same way about her as I had before I came of this odyssey, and that in itself may for some be something of a revelation. That hug she had given me at the airport, and the feelings it conveys almost confused me, and most likely would have frightened me if I had not had Sally.
For some reason, now, it was going to be impossible to have the same feelings, or feelings of resentment, I once had.
“There are things you need to know, Tom. The first is that I am not long for this earth. I have about a year, two at the most, the news of which I received about an hour after the police called to tell my our parents had been killed in a car crash.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
It was bad news for anyone to learn, but on top of the news of our parents, I couldn’t imagine what that was like.
“The second is that our mother had been diagnosed with the same condition, about two years ago, and didn’t tell anyone. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from the possibility it would happen to me, but we both know she was selfish and inconsiderate at the best of times. Believe me when I tell you we had some incredible rows over the years. And no, I was not a daddy’s girl so I got no support or help in dealing with her truculence.”
I could just imagine our mother giving Janine hell. And in that same thought, how sad it was to have saddled Janine with all of that responsibility. I knew Jeremy hadn’t been any sort of help in regard to both parents, and James was not to be found. I really had no excuse, and I had to admit that some of my father’s selfishness had rubbed off on me too.
“You should have told me, or told Sally to tell me.”
“You would not have been in a receptive frame of mind, not then. But now, I can see you’ve turned a corner, just being here. You could have declined to come, I know now of the hurt our mother and father in particular had inflicted on both you and James, because in their declining years, they eventually turned on both Jeremy and I. Jeremy didn’t cope very well, and did what you did, just went away, leaving me to deal with it. I’m not blaming you, not do I blame you for leaving, I truly understand why. It’s just a pity we didn’t have conversation years ago, because now we’re going to miss on so much in the little time we do have.”
The pity of it was there was nothing I could do now to get that back. But going forward, I was not sure what I could do to make it up to her. And I said as much, and it sounded a lot better in my head than out loud.
“Well, there is something you can do. It’s a funny story, though I believe you will not get a laugh out of it. The third thing is that I am the executor of their wills. Against my advice, and probably something our mother was not fully cognisant of, was a desire for my father to take her on one last road trip. The doctors had decreed due to her worsening condition she would have to go into managed care. He took her to Las Vegas, of all places. The thing is the day they left, mother decided to play this jackpot poker machine, and won the jackpot. I didn’t discover this until the Casino rang me, though how they got my phone number is still a mystery, to tell they hadn’t cashed the check. They were on the road out of Vegas when a truck hit them head on. It wasn’t really an accident, according to the police. They said the truck driver said our father had driven straight at him. I have no reason to disbelieve him.
“He deliberately wanted them both to die?”
“Yes. He had said more than once that he didn’t want to live without her, so I think it was his plan to spend a few days together while she was still cognizant, and then end it. I have no doubt she knew what he was planning to do, and had agreed it was the best way to end the pain and suffering.”
It certainly sounded something he would do. They never regarded the feelings of anyone else in any of the decisions they made. I was going to make a comment, but it seemed moot. They were dead now, and they had gone out on their own terms.
“The truck driver?” I had to spare a thought for him, because they would not have.
“Relatively unharmed, just shaken. And the shock that someone would do that. I met him and apologised, but it seemed not enough recompense for the suffering they caused him. Anyway, I asked the police if they had found a check in the remnants of the car, but given the state of it, it was not surprising they didn’t so I asked the casino to cancel it and write a new one.”
She reached out and picked up a folder on the table between he chairs, and took out a slip of paper and handed it to me.
A check made out to our parents.
For eighty-seven million dollars, and change.
I looked at her, quite literally astonished. “This is ridiculous.”
“What it is, is a sign from the heavens that will give me an opportunity I might not have been granted otherwise. I want you to come home, and spend the last months of my life here with me, and make up for the time we have lost. I know both you and Sally have jobs back home, but that check, your share of it, will make the decision a little easier to make.”
“Does Sally know about this?”
“Only that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, and that she was waiting until you came here before talking to you about what to do. She said it would be better coming from me, not her, because of how things are in the family. I’ll be honest with you, Tom, I was prepared to come to you to plead my case before our parents did what they did because there’s no one else I would want to spend what precious little time I have left.”
I knew now why I’d felt such intense feelings earlier at the airport. It had been a sixth sense, that something was terribly wrong. And she was right, what time she had should be spent with family, those values I had come to terms with being with Sally. It was the right thing to do, but it was not wholly my decision. There were ramifications of uprooting our lives back home, including the sacrifices Sally would have to make.
“Have you told Jeremy?”
“God, no. He’d be a total ass about it, saying I was trying to steal the limelight and making it all about me. We can tell him when it’s too late for him to make any comment at all.”
“We’ll find him. I have resources available that you can only imagine exist.”
I believed her.
“Then I guess I should go and find Sally and see what she has to say about it. And I guess I should apologise for being such an ass all these years.”
“No need. In a way I envy you, always have.”
“You have no reason to. I never made anything of myself, not like you have.”
“You’re wrong if you think that. You have an amazing partner, two beautiful children, and you have provided for them, and look after them in a manner in which I can only dream about. It’s not about money, or possessions, or anything like what you see I have, because when it comes down to it, all that matters is the people around you. That, unfortunately, was the legacy our parents gave us and it was wrong.”
She stood, “Let us not dwell on the past, but brace ourselves for the impending crash landing of the one and only Jeremy. I have some very good champagne chilling at the bar, and we’re going to need fortification, if not Dutch courage before the monster arrives.”
© Charles Heath 2021