I was five years old and he was nearly three. Relatives visiting from out of town were using my brother’s bedroom, so my mother had put him in my bed. It was a single bed and he was at the foot of it rather than next to me.
As usual, she had put us to bed far too early. I’ve always felt that this is where my lifelong curse of insomnia came from, being put to bed before I was sleepy. This particular night I was lying there, running stories in my head as I did whenever I could not fall asleep. Gradually I became aware of a noise coming from the other end of the bed:
Shussh. Shussh. Shusssssh-shusssh.
I knew exactly what he was doing and I whispered, “Raymond, what story are you playing?”
”Gas station”, he said. “I’m pumping gas.”
That is the only normal conversation I can remember ever having with my brother. A month later he caught spinal meningitis and lost his hearing as a result. He was so young that, while not mute, he forgot how to talk. When he was seven he was accepted as a boarding student at the state school for the deaf, coming home only for Christmas and the summer vacation.
Because of this my life was strangely divided. For nine months of the year I was an only child in a home darkened with guilt and sorrow. I learned to creep around the house, not calling attention to myself. I learned to escape into the world of books.
For the rest of the year I was my mother’s babysitter and confidant, repository for all of her grievances. My father, winter and summer, worked 60- and 70-hour weeks. His secondary escape was his basement workshop where his solace lay in making piles of sawdust.
Raymond learned to read lips and he gradually acquired a limited vocabulary of spoken words. His most common form of communication was sign language, which I learned imperfectly. I left home when he was sixteen. Later, when I was living in Cleveland and he was at Gallaudet in Washington, D.C., we made the trip home to Michigan together for Christmas with our parents. Once, maybe twice. Neither of us really wanted to spend the holidays there but it was a duty.
I married, divorced, started moving around the globe, married again. Raymond stayed in the world of the deaf, working first as a football coach, then as a drama teacher, at schools for the deaf. He married three times. Neither of us have children. Both of us have had problems with addictive substances.
Somehow we became estranged. I really don’t know why. It must have been an early misunderstanding, pride fueled by alcohol, the physical distance separating us, and the lack of continual bonding. The bottom line is that we did not contact each other for many years, communicating only through our mother.
Finally, I managed to be in Florida when he was scheduled to visit our parents. We had a reconciliation of sorts without ever resolving whatever it was that had originally caused the rift between us. We exchange cards at Christmas. We have met face to face
twice again here in Florida. The last time I managed to have a long conversation with him without my current sister-in-law trying to act as a mediator.
It was better. Our communication is a mixture of his lip reading and voicing of a few words, the little sign language that I can remember, and a lot of scribbling on yellow pads that are passed back and forth between us. But, funnily enough, there is a comfortable feeling of being with an old, old friend. Someone who probably knows what I am thinking before I say it.
The next time I see Raymond I will ask him if he remembers playing gas station.