(This story was written by my sister, Joanne)
March 28, 1999, my “brother” Steve died. His half-brother René Lawrence, who grew up a self-described fatherless bastard and became a failed rock musician, called to tell me. Steven Adam West, Steve, had himself grown up fatherless, never having been acknowledged outwardly by my father or our family. Steve had been a mystery to me since I learned of his existence as a child. He had been born of my father’s first marriage to a woman named Toni Adam, whom my grandparents disliked. My father equally grew to dislike her…so much so that he only waited until Steve’s birth to divorce her. Daddy always said that Steven, which is what we called him then, was the actual son of a man named Rod Cantrell, a man my father found his wife with roughly nine months before Steven’s birth. Nevertheless, Steven had become a wraith drifting in and out of my childhood daydreams, spent imagining how much I would have loved an older brother, how much we would have had in common, how much I was missing by not knowing him.
When our piano teacher, “Miss Marie” Waltman, told my twin sister that day at piano practice that she had seen our brother, Dianne rushed home to tell me, and then ask our parents who Miss Marie had been speaking of. We were in the seventh grade, just the right age to imagine the power of this information. Our parents explained who he was and that he would not be a part of our family or our future. The book was closed. The dreams, nevertheless, continued.
A few months after our mother’s death in 1992, Dianne called me to tell me about a phone call Daddy had received from Steven, now known as Steve. We were thrilled…and determined to know him. It seemed that he was living in a suburb of Dallas, DeSoto. Dianne and I called our sister Bonnie to report that we had been contacted by our “brother.” Bonnie’s reply was, “He’s not our brother.”
Dianne and I set up a conference call to Steve and spoke briefly with him, arranging to have lunch the following Tuesday. Steve was to come to my home in Dallas, while Dianne would arrive from Corsicana. We waited anxiously to see the mystery brother, wondering what kind of car he would drive, what kind of face he would have, build, clothing, demeanor. Was he artistic like we were? Miss Marie said he was “so good-looking.” He arrived in a 1974 Dodge that later I had to give a jump to in order for him to leave. He had a very slight build, a beard and a smile that included two missing teeth in the front of his mouth. His fingers were yellowed from smoking, and his clothing was worn and tattered, his sans-a-belt pants had strings hanging off them, and his “fruit boots” had little zippers on the inside of his ankles, the only parts that weren’t scuffed. We were sure, however, that he had made every effort for us. All in all, we decided that we “could get past this” if we liked him as a person.
That was not to be. His combative and negative disposition was hard to abide. He insisted on our paying Dutch at the Blackeyed Pea on Greenville Avenue, and spent the meal complaining about the treatment he had received as a child. It was as though all those years of anger were spilling out over us. Dianne never wanted to see him again, characterizing him as a “crud.” I still persisted and sought him out, believing that the inclusion of my brother in my life would enhance it. Alone, after several more dinners and lunches and trips to the bar where his brother René played with his band, I found him entirely too difficult to subject myself to. And so, I stopped calling him, though he continued calling me. The last call came about six weeks after my son Matthew’s death in 1994. He didn’t know about that and hung up quickly when I told him. I didn’t hear from him again until a 1999 call from René. My lifelong romance with old dreams ran the span of a scant two years.
In early March, 1999, René called to say Steve had gone into Baylor Hospital on February 17th in terrible shape, cirrhosis of the liver and acute malnutrition. He asked me if I wanted to see him. I chose not to go…simply because I thought he wouldn’t die and I didn’t want to him in my life again, a crude sentiment but honest. I really didn’t want a relationship with him any more. To me, he was a caustic, toxic individual and very difficult to be with. I would be constantly on the defensive, consistently feeling I needed to apologize for having spent my life with our father’s love, while he did not.
Of course, he didn’t find out that our father reckoned he wasn’t his birth father until he rang up my uncle Doyle, our father’s brother, who informed him. How like Doyle to “give him the news” in the name of honesty. At any rate, if I had known Steve was going to die, I would have gone to the hospital. Not a lot of guilt there, and mostly manageable levels.
His funeral was Thursday, April Fool’s Day…an apt date for such a lost soul.
A friend was going to go to the funeral in Mexia with me (over an hour’s drive) but later declined. I called Conan, my cousin, who was “happy” to be asked (imagine that). On the morning of the funeral, Bob, my very-ex-husband, asked if he could go, too, and even considering that it was Bob, I was still grateful for the company. Conan and Bob got along, so I was in a way looking forward to the drive down and back. My sister Dianne was appalled about Bob coming, but it wasn’t her call, and we were to pick her up in Corsicana after having lunch at Humbert’s with her, Daddy’s girlfriend Hazel and Daddy (who did not want to go to his “son’s” funeral). We all agreed with him that he shouldn’t, especially since Daddy had been ill recently.
We arrived at the old cemetery in Mexia a few minutes after 1:00. We spotted the small funeral canopy spread over about six folding chairs. There were three vehicles already there: two cars and a hearse. The skies were overcast, and rain seemed to threaten, adding to the depressive funeral atmosphere. René was waiting under the canopy, along with Steve’s employee Jeff and two people from Corley’s Funeral Home in Corsicana. Corley’s had been the business of Steve’s uncle, his mother’s older brother. One of those two employees left after about 15 minutes for another funeral, leaving a total of seven people to mark my brother’s passing. The four of us comprised most of those.
René, standing in front of Steve’s powder blue fiberboard casket, was casually dressed, often putting his hand on the simple coffin. It looked more cardboard than wood and was finished in a flocked paint. René’s personality had all of the warmth lacking in his brother’s, and he spoke easily and freely, remarking on how Steve would not have wanted a formal service. Well, this one certainly qualified.
René was generous in his descriptions of Steve but not sparing in his criticisms. He spoke about him as a very flawed person. He openly discussed Steve’s difficult side, and about his estrangement from his two children. René had not notified either of the children about their father’s illness, nor of his death, explaining that he was honoring his brother’s wishes, who told him he “would know when the time was right to inform them. It would be when they called to ask for money.”
After about a half hour of “chatting,” another car arrived. A man in a belted trench coat who introduced himself as “Commander” Helm entered the tented area in which we were sitting. He was short and carried himself in a puffed-up manner, filling the tent with his self-important pomposity. He said he had flown in from Connecticut and was decked out in a Navy insignia belt buckle, tie clip and lapel pin…all declaring his past position with Naval Intelligence. He talked about himself, as though we should all salute and said he had been one of those “invisible” people in intelligence, and that “only four people in his life ever called him ‘Rob’,” Steve being one of them. This “honor” was reserved only for his mother, his wife Helen, his priest and Steve. (What an honor Steve had.)
My narcissistic, very-EX-husband Bob, in his inimitable pronoic style, interrupted him and asked if he could call him Rob. The “Commander” eyed Bob and snarled, “No.”
Mr. Helm (I just could not call him Commander) had known Steve in Old Greenwich, when they were working together on missile programs. He spoke of how much he respected Steve’s intellect, and that they had through time, cemented a family connection between them. “Commander” Helm currently sells miniature soldiers at collectible shows. I remembered meeting him once with my nephew West at the Big D Collectible Show several years ago, which was why he seemed familiar.
After a few more minutes – that seemed like days – someone suggested that we give a “toast” to Steve’s life, then René opened the lid of the coffin and removed a half-gallon bottle of Jack Daniels, holding it up and saying, “This is what killed my brother. Would you all like to have a drink?” We, of course, declined. Then he asked us to come have a look at Steve’s body. Only Bob (of course) stepped forward, grabbing my arm as he did and forcing me to the casket with him. I had never seen Steve in a suit, so that was a surprise, and his face was a sort of clay-like color and the hollows in his face were more pronounced. Other than that, he looked the same…only dead. Included in the casket was a carton of Lucky Strike non-filter cigarettes, a small Whitman’s Sampler candy box and some computer disks that were labeled, affectionate mementos from a loving brother.
Gratefully, Dianne, said that we had to leave, since she needed to find a restroom, so we left, driving to the nearest Texaco. The drive back to Corsicana was filled with lively comments, rehashing the entire experience. The discomfort was broken by lots and lots of laughter. Though we were all a little dumbfounded by the whole thing, frankly, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
On reflection, I could not sustain a relationship with my brother during the two years that I knew him. He was just too much hard work. And while my head knows that, I grieve for the relationship that never was. Ultimately, we had nothing in common but our last names.
In 2001, on the way to a College Station football game, I stopped at the little Mexia cemetery. Steve still had no headstone. I wrote down the phone number of a local monument works and called them. I ordered a stone to match those of Steve’s mother and grandmother beside whom he lies. Conan offered to foot the entire bill, and gratefully, the cost was only $245.00. Though I called René to ask him what to put on the stone, he said he didn’t care, so I chose only his name, with “Grandson, Son, Brother, Father.” It’s all he ever was.