It happened so suddenly. We were completely unprepared and left with no instructions. Three weeks ago, she broke her ankle. Then, in the night, she couldn’t breathe. At the hospital, they told us our mother suffered a pulmonary embolism and just like that, she was gone.
“Who’s gonna tell Paddy?”
We played a grown-up version of Not It in the hospital corridor.
“I’ll make her funeral arrangements,” said Sean with the kind of big brother finality that signaled he was in charge now.
Bridget told me between crying jags, “You’ll know how to make him understand.”
My protest that “It’s always me” fell on deaf ears.
As long as I can remember, I’d been the playmate for a brother who could not play. Born just ten months and a few days after me, he was a beautiful baby. It soon became apparent though, that Paddy wasn’t like the rest of us as he fell further behind with each passing year.
He mimicked my speech yet he couldn’t tell me what he wanted. Instead, he had screeched and flailed on the floor, inconsolably. When I’d tempted him with toy trucks, he only turned them over and spun their wheels. When I’d sung nursery rhymes, he covered his ears. The only game he played willingly was Knock, knock. Who’s there?
He’d chirp like a little bird. The same joke, repeated time and time again. It never failed to produce my little brother’s staccato laughter.
Sean hated that stupid joke. I’d heard him say it was Paddy’s fault our father left us. Bridget believed that, too but I knew no other life than the one I lived with my autistic brother.
His respite caregiver, Debbie, met me at her door with an exasperated expression. I knew we’d overstayed our welcome. During the weeks after our mother’s injury and the days since her passing, we had no other options.
Paddy didn’t look up. He kept his eyes glued to the cartoon playing silently on the television, swaying on the couch and giggling with each animated skirmish.
Debbie asked, “Who’s responsible now?” I silently answered, “Not it.”
“Paddy?” I said, but he didn’t respond. I tried, “Knock, knock?”
He only leaned further away.
I hadn’t told him yet. The words to tell what happened to our mother still wouldn’t come. I sat beside him as he perched on the edge of the sofa with his long, skinny legs tucked under his bottom, captivated by the action on the screen. Food stains dotted his pajamas.
“What did you eat?” I asked.
For an instant, his eyes met mine. A quizzical expression settled on his face.
“Pancakes?” I asked.
“Cereal,” Debbie told me. “Most of it ended up on the floor.”
Together, Debbie and I wrestled him into clean clothes while he hooted his objection. I promised her time-and-a-half pay if she kept him just one more day until our mother’s visitation. She reluctantly agreed.
The next morning Debbie had his bags waiting at the door. “I have another job,” she announced. He stood behind her, dressed and clean-shaven but glassy-eyed.
“Is he all right?”
“We had a rough night,” she replied. “He says his tummy hurts.”
As I fastened his seatbelt I told him, “We’re going to see Momma,” and immediately regretted it. All the way to the funeral home, he sang, “Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” in his high-pitched tremolo as he rocked from side to side.
“Momma’s asleep,” I said. I held a finger to my lips and whispered. “Don’t wake her up.”
Paddy stopped singing.
In the chapel, I led him to a seat in the front row.
Sean stood next to Momma’s open casket with our aunts and uncles clustered around him. Grief-stricken, Bridget wrung a handkerchief in her manicured hands. She glanced at me. I saw her expression change to surprise as she saw Paddy sitting quiet and still.
I rested my hand on his leg and felt intense heat radiating through his pants. His face was pale except for two bright red circles on his cheeks. I smelled fever on his breath.
I gestured to Bridget but she ignored me. For what felt like an eternity I sat with him. He never moved or uttered a sound. No one came to offer condolences to me or to Paddy. Just like when we were kids, the family kept their distance.
Finally, I told him, “You stay here,” and approached my mother’s casket.
She was absolutely beautiful dressed in a pink chiffon gown with a choker of pearls at her throat. Her red hair lay in perfect curls on the satin pillow. She’d been made-up as if for a party, like she was catching a cat-nap, waiting for the fun to start.
For an instant, I imagined her eyelashes fluttering open. She’d look at me with her pale blue eyes and smile that melancholy smile of hers.
Suddenly Paddy was beside me, peering into her casket. I touched his hand and for once, he didn’t pull away.
Sean scowled. “Move back,” he ordered.
I took Paddy’s arm and tried to steer him away but he resisted. Gripping the side of the casket, he leaned his face in and kissed our mother.
“Knock, knock?” he said.
Automatically I answered. “Who’s there?”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Sean replied.
Paddy opened his mouth, but nothing emerged. No words. Not even his chirpy little laugh. A moment later he leaned in again and vomited into the casket.
Bridget and Sean howled.
Paddy looked at me with pleading eyes.
I led him away as our mortified family watched.
At the water fountain, as I wiped the stains from his shirt with a wet paper towel I shook my head in disbelief at what had happened. Then it dawned on me: “I’m It, now and forever.”
Karen Walsh resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where she writes poetry, short fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published in literary magazines and online journals, including River Styx, Magnolia, Watermark, Earth’s Daughters, FOCUS/Midwest, Nail Polish Stories, and FreeFlashFiction. She teaches Child Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Maryville University in St. Louis and has worked as a school psychologist for over 20 years. Visit her blog at sugareeblog.wordpress.com.