There's one more member of Stephanie's family, someone I haven't mentioned. She has a brother named Mike, two years younger than she is or was. He lives in New Mexico, and he's an artist and art teacher. I've seen some of his artwork on the wall at his parent's home, and I'll confess I don't understand it, but that's not an insult; there's plenty of art I don't understand, often displayed in museums and at galleries. Mike has never been married or had children; Stephanie and I always knew we didn't want children, so I can empathize. Beyond that, all I know for sure is that he and Stephanie weren't close.
She told me that from the time he learned to speak, virtually his only words for Steph were taunts and insults. Maybe that sounds like the normal behavior you'd expect from a baby brother, but as described by Steph, it was relentless and never eased up, even as the siblings reached adulthood. "Everything he said and did was either explicitly mean or had an undertone of meanness," Steph told me. "It was never 'Good morning', it was always 'Good morning, Fatso.' Mike has never said a kind word to me in his life," she told me. "Never. Not once."
Was that true, or was that an exaggeration? Steph wasn't usually prone to hyperbole, but she was sensitive — perhaps overly sensitive — to criticism. Playing Devil's advocate, it's possible that after too many mean remarks from 8- or 10-year-old Mike, 10- or 12-year-old Steph might remember the worst moments the clearest. When we were treated rudely by store or restaurant staff, or by doctors or nurses, or when she was not taken seriously at her job, she could certainly turn prickly and defensive. But I'd add, I never saw her turn prickly and defensive without provocation.
So I wasn't sure what to expect, the first time I met Mike. Steph and I had flown in from San Francisco, among dozens who'd been invited to the 80th birthday celebration for Steph and Mike's grandmother. It was basically a family reunion, and the family is big enough that they rented convention space at a hotel in Iowa.
When Mike arrived and saw Stephanie and I, he approached without a smile and simply said, "Stephanie" — monotone, though this was the first time they'd seen each other in at least a year. Stephanie introduced me, and Mike shook my hand, sort of smirked but didn't say anything, and promptly excused himself and walked away. Steph translated the smirk as, "Yup, she married a fat guy." At the time, I weighed 350+ pounds, more than twice Stephanie's weight, so if that's what he meant, well, he wasn't wrong.
Later that evening, the birthday party became dinner, with Grandma's family and friends spread across several shared tables in a restaurant. Mike sat two or three chairs from Steph and I, and we each tried talking with him. He gave brief responses, but mostly nods or the hand palms-up, universal symbol for "Not now," while he spoke with others.
And OK, it's a big family, there were lots of people Mike hadn't seen for a long while. But — his sister was one of those people, right? At that birthday shindig, Steph and I had full-fledged conversations with her parents, with her grandmother (the birthday girl), with her uncle, her aunt, and with a few cousins, but we didn't have a real conversation with her brother. Afterwards, on our way home to San Francisco, Stephanie was glum and wondered, basically, what the hell?
A few years later we spent several days together, the five of us — Stephanie and I, Mike, and their parents. It was Christmas in Arizona, where the Webbs had extended family, and Stephanie and I flew in from Frisco. Phoenix was 85° and sweaty in December, but that's why they call it the Valley of the Sun. We saw the sights, and I remember visiting a rocky place out in the wilderness (probably a state or national park) where I had a long and pleasant conversation with my in-laws.
The five of us spent days in close proximity, bumping elbows and eating meals together, and even for an introvert like me, with that much time together there should have been at least a few conversations with Mike. I certainly spoke with him, and Stephanie spoke with him, too — words and sentences, but his replies were quick and curt and there weren't really any conversations. Steph and her brother had a few minor disagreements, about where we'd eat dinner or what excursions to take around Phoenix. At one point he lost his temper about something, but I don't remember what, and it wasn't aimed at Stephanie.
So I didn't see the meanness she had told me about, from their childhood. But I didn't see any sign of affection, either. He just seemed … uninterested. Uninterested in his sister, uninterested in her husband, and perhaps uninterested in Christmas with the family far from home. Thinking about it all these years later, it seems fair to say that Mike's behavior in Phoenix was what you'd expect from a sulky teenaged boy — but he was 28 years old.
On the way home to San Francisco, Stephanie was glum again, and wondered again about her brother. "He was so distant, even though he was right there." Maybe he had some personal issues on his mind? Maybe Christmas makes him cranky — I'm not a big fan of Christmas myself, so that's certainly something I could understand. We tried to guess what was going on in his head — maybe this, maybe that — but we had no real theories.
Home again in San Francisco, Stephanie wrote a short but heartfelt letter to Mike, asking why he had always been so cold to her, and asking if he loved her in any way. A few months later, their mother told us that Mike had mentioned receiving a weird letter from Stephanie, but Steph never received a reply. After that, she stopped sending him Christmas or birthday cards, never called or heard from him, and mostly stopped inquiring about him with her parents. It was painful, so she closed the curtains. Direct quote from Stephanie: "As far as I'm concerned, I'm an only child."
I don't know Mike. Only met him twice. But I think the world, the sun and stars, the universe of Stephanie. She's my favorite human, ever, by quite a margin, so it's beyond my comprehension how anyone could know her, yet be so disinterested. And it hurt her. So when I wrote Stephanie's obituary for the local newspaper, I remembered what she'd said, and honored it. The obituary didn't mention her brother among her survivors. As you wish, my love.
Now, though, things have become more complicated. Today, Stephanie's parents mentioned that her brother's health has been failing over the past several months. Next week he'll check in at a hospital in Denver, hundreds of miles from his home, to see a specialist and begin six weeks of treatment. His prognosis is cross-your-fingers; he could make a full recovery, but it's not guaranteed.
Stephanie was a much better person than I've ever been, and she's with me always, so I still look to her for advice. She'd gone completely no-contact with Mike since Arizona — eighteen years ago — but now that her brother is seriously ill, what would Stephanie do?
I know what she would do. I bought a Hallmark card on the way home, and her brother will have it before he checks in to the hospital. Steph would've picked a better card and written better words than mine, but we would've agreed about sending it. If her health permitted it, I'm sure she would have gone to Denver to visit him in the hospital, because there's a time for grudges and a time for forgiveness.
We don't know each other well, but I'm Stephanie's widow. She told me that you two weren't close, but she loved you. If she was still with us she'd be on your side, 100%. We both want you to get better and be healthy.
— Stephanie & Doug