Here's a rare picture of me with all of my siblings - Brenda's holding me, Donnie is lying behind us, and Buster, the big brother of us all, is on the right.
Yesterday was Buster's birthday - it's hard for me to imagine he would have been sixty-one. It's hard for me to imagine I'm now older by more than a decade than he was in my last memory of him, when I stood beside him in the hospital, kissed him, told him I loved him, and told him good-bye. We knew he wouldn't be coming out of his coma.
Even now I cry when I think of it. I can't imagine, don't want to imagine, how it feels to my parents, losing a child.
In my earliest memories, Buster had already left home. There's a memory of us visiting him at his Army Boot Camp graduation in Louisiana, and one of him taking me to a carnival, where he won me a soapstone bank shaped like a cartoonish hound dog."Grumpy" is still with me, sitting high on a shelf in the livingroom, a reminder that my big brother loved me and spoiled me. On his visits home, he doted on me...a trail of small footprints meandered across the ceilings in our house because minutes after coming through the door he would comply with my demands to "Walk me on the ceiling!" He would grab me, flip me upside down and hold me up (giggling and squealing) so that I could walk in that imaginary topsy-turvy world. Mama says he was crazy about me when I was a baby...he would even wash the styling grease out his hair so I could play with his dark brown curls. I can't remember that, but I do remember sitting on the front row of his wedding, crying. I must have sensed that things would change between us.
Through most of my life he was in the background, a shadow...Buster was busy with his adult life and I was busy with my childhood and they rarely intersected. He became a father and I loved being an aunt. He went to Viet Nam - twice - and we hung a map up on the hallway wall, keeping track of his whereabouts with pushpins. He divorced and gave up custody of his son, and I didn't understand.
Our lives collided again just before Christmas in 1973. I was watching television in the darkened livingroom, the colored lights on the Christmas tree splashing a kaleidoscope on the walls, when the phone rang. I heard Mam-ma's voice talking, then her silhouette appeared framed in the doorway. "Buster's been shot."
I remember Brenda and I pulling in to the dark parking lot of Houston's Ben Taub Hospital, rushing through the glaring white halls, dodging solemn faces overflowing from the waiting rooms, just in time to see Buster, his body bruised and bloody, being wheeled in on a gurney. He disappeared through the white double doors of the operating room.
Mama refused to leave the hospital for ten days, until she knew he was going to make it. She slept in stolen snatches on a hard wooden bench in the lobby. Daddy brought her fresh clothes and she washed up in the ladies' room.
My once tall, muscular big brother was now a quadriplegic. He came home from Viet Nam only to be shot in a bar just outside of Houston. One of the bullets severed his spinal cord.
Over the next few years he was in and out of hospitals...he attended the University of Texas and then Victoria College, getting a degree in business...he started a guard dog business and learned to drive with hand controls...he wrote poetry and loved debating with his friends about religion and what ever else got them stirred up. He could be moody, unpredictable, and gripped by bouts of depression - just like me, a teenager during those years, too consumed with my own life to pay close attention to what was going on in his.
We didn't get along very well. He loved to tease me and embarrass my boyfriends. Except Tom...Tom just let it roll off of him.
Just before his thirty-fourth birthday, Buster went in the hospital for surgery. The next day he went into the coma. Within a few days, he was gone and I realized how much I loved him, and how much I would miss him. I wished I had told him I loved him more often when I had the chance.
Not long after his death, I woke to find him standing in my room. Standing. We didn't speak. Perhaps it was a dream, but it doesn't matter...in my heart I knew he was sending me a message because he knew I loved him and would want to know that he was once again tall and strong, healthy and whole, just like he was in my childhood.