“I only want to know if you’re happy and well.”
That was the phone message I left for the brother I hadn’t seen in forty-five years. My voice was shaking as I added, “I hope you’ll return my call.”
I’d woken that morning from the old dream:
I run in a circle in a wooded place. Run with the others, yoked together, lumbering in darkness, moving faster and faster, circling, stumbling, and driven, flying around and around in an endless loop. A monster slithers alongside, chasing us. Body of a snake with the head of a bear, roaring and raging with remorse and loss, remembrance and longing and fear—sheer animal terror.
I move faster. Gallop away. Leave the circle behind; abandon my spot, afraid the ancient animal after us will get me, bite me, and I’ll fall down, and forget, and the circle will dissolve forever and ever.
I was the big sister, the oldest of Mama’s nine children. I was the one she relied on to handle things when she wasn’t able, and she mostly wasn’t able. By the time I was fourteen I was taking care of four siblings under the age of five. I could change a diaper in half a minute and fill a baby’s bottle in the dark back seat of a speeding car without spilling a drop.
I fed them. Picked them up when they cried. Kept them quiet while she drove through the night from one catastrophe to the next. Mile after mile, hungry and thirsty and afraid. Talk to the phantom behind the wheel, expect no answer; just keep it awake, steady on the road, moving forward.
How I loved them all when she brought them home from the hospital, especially the boy born seventh in line, just a toddler standing in the backseat of the car, watching and silent, when I ran away from our family and never came back .
I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen and he was one. I have a single Polaroid of him: a family shot taken when he was a few months old, nestled in Mama’s lap. Like her, he had a full head of dark hair and searching eyes. For years, I didn’t know how best to reach out to him or how to let him go.
I wondered what became of him. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out. At sixty, I didn’t want to reach out to a brother I’d left behind only to be turned away, or worse, blamed for the hard life I’d left him in.
If I’d stayed, I could have protected him. That’s what I believed. Maybe he believed that, too.
Then Mama died, and I put aside fear. I used every resource I had, and some money too, to find a likely contact number. I discovered it through a fee-based public records database. His number, listed and active for years—kept through every change of address and dropped like breadcrumbs as he went along—convinced me he might want to be found. Still, I had to muster the courage to connect.
With trembling hands and a trembling voice, I left him that message and waited.
A week later, I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Celebration, Florida, a planned community conceived by the Walt Disney Company. I sip a lukewarm latte and scrutinize the features of every forty-something man who comes through the entrance. On the lookout for a faded memory, some combination of Mama and my brother’s father, an overweight man who walked with a limp and had wide beautiful eyes. I watch strangers place orders and pick up beverages. Before long I’m not even sure what a man in his late forties should look like.
My brother probably has no memory of me, only what he’s been told: the family legend of a frightened girl who ran away. But I’m not that girl anymore. I’m a woman plagued by survivor’s guilt, still trying not to let shame rule me.
“I would not have returned your call,” my brother said when he phoned me back, “if you hadn’t said the magic words.”
I only want to know if you’re happy and well.
“I want to see you,” I said.
“I’ll look in your eyes and I’ll know,” he replied. “I’ll know.”
He will look into my eyes and know who I am: kind and good and considerate, or callous, mean-spirited and self-absorbed. He’ll look into my eyes and see whether they are frightening and aggressive—like Mama’s.
The next day, my brother texted me: Let’s meet at noon for coffee and go from there.
Twenty minutes after twelve I’m still waiting, watching the entrance. A middle-aged woman walks by my table. She slows as if to check me out: my hair, my clothes, and the fact that I am alone. Is she doing reconnaissance for my brother? I remember his words: “Sometimes one of them says they’re alone. But when I show up, the whole gang is there.”
Nervous, I stare at my phone. Turn the ringer up. Finally I text him: I’m here in the corner. Alone.
He texts back: Almost there.
I’m inside , I type back.
“I know,” he says.
He towers over me, a full-grown man with wide strong shoulders. He lifts me out of my chair and hugs me. He wears sunglasses and a ball cap as if in hiding. “Need a refill?”
“No, I’m fine.” I’m a mess. I forgot to pack sunglasses and a hairbrush. Sweat runs down the back of my new blouse and my legs twitch, itching to run.
I’m always running, leaving too much behind. Believing I can choose whom to love, to trust. Believing I can do without family, without blood kin. I tried to make up for these losses with degrees, good friends, and a solid life. But nothing ever filled the hungry void inside of me, the emptiness of pretending to be some mythical survivor, the opposite of Mama. I vowed not to become like her: a messenger of woe, a destroyer of lives.
She took what she wanted. So I refused to want. She ran her family like a lawless gang. I refused to be the head or heart of any family, even my own.
I didn’t want responsibility or power over anyone else’s life.
I did love babies, and I wanted one of my own. I thought I’d be a good mother, because I grew up taking care of little ones. I learned to love by cradling my siblings, feeding them, playing with them. Yet when I gave birth to my own child, I froze in fear. Terrified that the abuse I’d suffered would cause me to harm my son, I kept my distance. I let his father parent him and stepped deeper and deeper into the shadows. I didn’t deserve to be a parent. That’s what I told myself.
I couldn’t protect anyone: not my siblings, not myself, and not my son.
I might as well not even try.
My brother buys an iced tea for himself and asks if I’d mind moving outdoors where he can smoke. He chooses a table on the patio and fires up a cigarillo. “I shouldn’t but I love them.” He blows smoke over his shoulder, adjusts his sunglasses, and asks whether I’m in touch with any of our siblings.
After Mama died, social media brought my sisters and me back together again. In the ether of the internet, I called them sisters, “liked” their pictures, and commented on their posts. I messaged them: “Where is our younger brother?”
The wicked witch was dead, and now at last I could be the strong sister: Gretel grabbing her brother by the hand and leading him out of the dark forest. Into the light, and back home again.
I knew he’d been placed in the foster care system at age seven; that he’d emancipated out of that system at sixteen. But why, exactly, and where did he go? That’s what I needed to know, but my sisters were no help. As if in a fairy tale, each offered up a different scenario.
“He’s dead,” said one.
“Find him for me,” demanded another.
“I think I have his number,” the third volunteered.
“She said I was dead?” He chuckles, but looks around to see if he’s been followed. He seems to fear I’ve brought along a vengeful sibling who’ll jump out from behind a potted palm to confront him.
Eleven years since Mama’s death, and we are both still fearful.
My brother won’t tell me where he lives or share the name of his workplace. I tell him I have a son who has never met any of our family. He’s ignorant of our collective ailments and illnesses, created and inherited: PTSD, IBS, heart attack, collapsed lung, hearing loss, mental illness, too-early death by drug and alcohol overdose, and staggering betrayal.
I have nieces and nephews I have never met. In the middle of the night, I squint at their photos on social media, note their resemblance to Mama, to me, then shut down my computer and weep into the keyboard.
“It’s been difficult for me to recognize and accept our history, too,” my brother says.
He suggests we move across the street for some lunch. I sit across from him at an outdoor table and watch him order for the two of us, a stranger to me and yet deeply familiar. The high cheekbones and studied manners. As soon as the food arrives, he thanks the waiter, slips his napkin onto his lap, and politely waits for me to take the first bite. For the next four hours, we feast on snapper with pineapple sauce and white rice with plantains and beans. Finally, over a shared wedge of key lime pie, he describes what happened after I left.
She kept him captive. Out of school, away from friendships, far from his father. He was scolded and reproached without end. She tried to destroy him, break him like bones in a hand, knuckle by knuckle. If child welfare came nosing around, they just moved. The sister in charge after I left hurt him too, in ways I cannot bring myself to write down or to say aloud, and the other kids joined in.
The neglect and abuse is worse than anything I’d endured, worse than what I’d been told, worse than what I’d imagined. I shield my face as I listen.
The senseless cruelty never stopped, even after he got away. When they learned of his successes, they turned their shakedown tactics on him, showed up unannounced: Here I am, give me money, I need a new transmission, more gas, a co-signature on my lease . They visited only to pilfer checks and rummage through his possessions, disrupt his new life. They even threatened his life after he refused to send Mama money.
“And that was it,” my brother says. “I cut them off.”
We survey the dirty dishes in front of us. Eventually, he breaks the silence.
“I forgive them all, I do. Mama’s fire can only be extinguished through love and forgiveness.”
I understand the power of letting go of resentment, and still I am skeptical of this . I hadn’t forgiven anyone, the living or the dead, for allowing what had happened. And now, after hearing what happened after I left, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself. Or my siblings. They kept their stories about our brother confused, what had happened to him vague, their part in it concealed. They knew the worst had happened, and yet they said nothing.
I’m furious. A desire for revenge, for justice, clogs my parched throat. I’m struck mute with anger, self-recrimination and shame, regret and remorse.
I’d posted photos on Facebook of my journey east. I knew one of my sisters might text me, wanting to know if I’d found our long-lost brother. And what would I say?
“Isn’t Celebration a beautiful place?” my brother asks.
It’s idyllic. It’s the kind of place that lends a semblance of safety to body and spirit. Swans glide over a man-made lake. Exotic flowers twine through trellises. The city seal shows a little girl with a ponytail running past a picket fence, her dog following behind. It’s nothing like the chaos of living under Mama’s rule.
We came out of her but we did not belong to her. Not in the best sense of the word belonging : to have a proper place. We belonged to Mama in the worst sense of the word: as possessions, property, to be used as she saw fit.
My brother pauses to strike a match and puff another cigarillo. He has beautiful hands, capable and strong. I put mine over his and ask about the pallor of his complexion, the gray circles under his soft brown eyes.
He has Type 1 diabetes. It was diagnosed in his twenties. After days of unusual lethargy, he finally went to an emergency room.
Mile after mile, hungry and thirsty, watching his sisters eat sacks of take-out while he went without; day after day, with nothing to eat but their leftovers.
“If I was super hungry, I’d slip into the closest diner,” he tells me. “The waitresses were always so nice. They’d give me a glass of water, and I’d stir in a squirt of catsup and call it a meal.”
When I’m stressed, I still eat Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup straight from the can. I gulp down the gray globs of congealed broth and somehow feel satisfied.
“How did you get away?” I ask.
An older sister sent him into a store to steal a bracelet, the sister who beat him if he didn’t do her bidding. He signaled the security guard and got caught. Arrested on purpose.
He was only seven. Like me, he became a ward of the court and was put into foster care. That’s how we were both able to finish high school and go to college.
We’d both worked hard to pull ourselves up by those proverbial American bootstraps. He emancipated out of foster care and went straight to work. His first job was for a scam operator, selling magazines door to door in exchange for food and lodging. My first real job was fieldwork, roguing seed corn for a state-run agriculture business, riding to work in the back of a flatbed truck with a handful of other girls. Our task was to chop down the undesirable corn stalks, get the bad seeds out of the cornrows before they contaminated or polluted the hybrid corn. A heavy sickle in my hand, soaked through to my skin, trusty tennis shoes waterlogged, I took my place at the end of a quarter-mile row. Sharp-slicing, fast-moving me, carving my path with a vengeance.
“You should know,” he half-grins, “when I ran away that day, you were on my mind.”
Amazing to hear him say that a sister he’d never met—a sibling too afire with pain to stay, too alive with possibility to stay, no longer able to bow down in subservience to Mama—had bequeathed to him a sense of self-preservation.
I aged out of foster care into too-early marriage and motherhood. Managed somehow to go to college, and then to graduate school, not once but twice. Expensive turns through the revolving doors of ambition, funded by government grants, government-funded student loans, and on-campus work-study jobs.
Education saved me. I’d never have made it out of poverty, never slid out from under the ancient and territorial hold Mama had over me, without it.
At first my brother studied law, his lost father’s profession. Then he shifted to economics and became a stockbroker. He was good at it, too.
Most of our siblings didn’t graduate from high school. Two were dead before reaching the age of forty.
None of the survivors like to be told what to do or how to do it.
We all have our addictions. Pills. Alcohol. Religion. Art.
“Our sisters describe Mama as a rose, a beautiful rose,” I tell him. “They tell me I need to forgive and forget, and accuse me of not loving her. They even use her line: ‘There is something wrong with a girl who doesn’t love her mother.’”
“I don’t want them in my life,” my brother says. “I can’t. I just can’t.”
I confess my guilt, my shame, and my failure, a failing that has undermined every hard-won success in my life. “I’m so sorry I didn’t take you with me.”
“You couldn’t have saved me,” my brother answers. “Even if you had stayed.”
I was walking to a friend’s house when our mother drove up and yelled at me to get back in the car or she’d make me sorry. And for once, I didn’t obey her. I broke into a sprint. I had nothing but the clothes on my body: dirty jeans, an old sweatshirt, and battered sneakers with holes in them.
The sound of birds singing in the black oak trees overhead reassured me, even though I felt like a traitor. Birds flee danger. Birds fly away. I thought, If I get away, I’ll be free, too.
From then on, every connection I made in life was tenuous and compartmentalized. I kept family separate from friends, friends separate from work, and anything that mattered to me a secret. For decades I never shared where I came from or what had happened with anyone. I’d become a successful adult only because I’d trusted myself, and myself alone.
I feel an adrenaline push, up my legs and into my gut. I excuse myself from the table and run for the ladies’ room . Dash into the nearest toilet stall, thankful to be alone so I can let it all out.
When I’m done, I’m trembling and empty. I grip the edge of a sink and stare into my own eyes in the mirror. Wash my face with a wet paper towel and reapply my tinted lip gloss, hands shaking.
Seven years old when he was taken away in a police cruiser in Winslow, Arizona and put into the foster care system. I was twenty-one at the time, only three years out of the system myself. Living in Oklahoma, taking college classes I couldn’t afford, with monthly rent to make and no car. What could I have done? What? I couldn’t change the past.
I’d left, but not for nothing. I left behind an example of leaving. And that turned out to be something he could use.
Now I could finally let the corrosive guilt go .
By the time I return to our table, long shadows have moved across the red tile of the restaurant patio. There’s a chill in the air. My brother asks if I’m okay. He lights another cigarillo, and I order another decaf coffee.
At six, we stand to say goodbye. When we embrace, we cling hard and long to each other. He allows me to take a picture with him, and assures me we’ll stay in touch through texting. “But please don’t post anything on Facebook,” he says. “Please.”
I nod in agreement, and wonder if I’ll ever hear from him again.
I’m standing in the security line at the airport when he texts: thank you for caring what happened to me.
On the flight back to Los Angeles, I keep looking at the photo of my brother and me. I hope that we will meet again and again, and that each time we’ll be a little more open and trusting. I hope we’ll share raucous laughter, the relief of newfound affection.
But if that doesn’t happen, if we never see each other again, if we communicate only by text, in timeworn phrases of reassurance— I love you, I’m so glad I found you, take care of yourself —that will be enough for me. So long as he remains happy and well; so long as he feels free of the past.
When the plane lands at LAX, I receive a text from one of our sisters, wanting to know if I have found our long-lost brother. I stare at the message for a long time before I finally text her in return.
No, I haven’t found him yet.
We know you have , she fires back. Tell him to get in touch with us — we know him, we R his real sisters, we never left.
Do this for us, her words imply, and we will forgive you for leaving. We’ll bring you back into the dark circle of family. Wounded children made vicious, who remain in Mama’s gang long after her death. Sworn to silence. Trapped in denial. Circling a secret past.
Five years old. His head bashed in. Hurt so badly he woke up in the hospital, post-surgery. That’s what he told me and I will never forget. But the ones who hurt him want to forget, and the ones who only watched consider themselves innocent.
Our long-lost brother must stay lost, at least to the rest of the family.
I don’t know what U R talking about. I haven’t found him yet , I text.
And in the middle of a crowded airport, amid a throng of strangers, I feel as if I have found myself: the capable big sister, the oldest of Mama’s nine children, the one who can still be relied upon to handle things when no one else is able.