My father had three school-aged young boys and a young daughter by two women when he met and married my mother.
My mother raised those four children while having and rearing three children of her own.
All three black boys in that first set served this country: one in the Navy, one in the Air Force; D. served during Vietnam in the Army.
My oldest brother from my parents’ union said twice over the weekend that D., who lay dying from stage four lung cancer in Detroit — a fitting metaphor of brokenness — served “on the front lines” in Vietnam.
My memory is from 1971 and 1972, the era immediately preceding my parents’ divorce. So much had already happened before my sixth or seventh year.
Wars in Vietnam and in Hamilton, Ohio.
D. came home in the early 1970s when we were still an intact family and all jammed into that bungalow, the one with the stained glass windows and the glass-and-copper lamppost on the downstairs hallway banister.
When D. was on his way back to us, all the adults talked about was he’d been stationed in Germany. Germany could’ve been an American outpost, a debriefing way station for returning soldiers or where D. could’ve been working in some sort of supportive/supply role.
I never heard anything about Vietnam.
D. left a fastidiously neat and immaculately groomed “pimp” — he’d talk anyone into any mission, a pre-Charlie’s Angels Charlie kinda brotha.
He was a fast talker and hustler with a bevy of girlfriends, one more Pam Grier/Diana Ross-stunning than the next.
He was a hilarious, diminutive, cool dancer and an attentive and mischievous older brother of whom I was certain the rays of the sun shown on alone as he bounced down the sidewalk in that way he had of walking that looked like he was bouncing a basketball.
When I begged for and received a real porcelain tea set one Christmas, my self-taught handyman father custom-built a Kathy-sized table and four chairs he painstakingly sanded and stained.
Once built and assigned to a low-traffic area in the kitchen superhighway, I deemed it so that every big person should sit and have real tea with me.
Everyone had to take turns: my three older half brothers, my two older brothers and each parent.
All my siblings complained until my mother shot that stealth look and they complied, hurriedly and half-heartedly.
He sat on that tiny chair across from me and poured tea and talked to me in the blackest British accent that was awesome and made me giggle. He turned up the pinky finger of his drinking hand and kept my little cup filled. (I took lemon and sugar.)
When he got back he was glassy-eyed, thinner and wobbly.
He was always a small guy but when he got back he wasn’t sturdy.
He was rounded at his edges; droopy.
After his homecoming my next full and vivid memory of D. is of being his Baby Gal Friday; I was his sidekick and his road dog, beside him in the bucket leather seat of a Mustang or a Cutlass.
He took me shopping, outfitting me in all the 1970s finery Elder-Beerman had to offer. My favorite was an expensive, matching gown-and-robe set and house slippers. To this day I wile and write away my days in matching lounge clothes, and it was because D. taught me to relax and to look good doing it.
It wasn’t until years later I realized I’d been D.’s beard and the outfits were kid-sister hush money.
When the nighttime trips to the Bamboo-Harris projects came into focus is when I realized D. was selling and then later using heroin and cocaine.
When he sold it — and maybe even bought it — I made little trips in and out of the house with him, except for the times he knew he’d be gone indefinitely.
Then he’d make me stay home.
I was usually in pajamas.
This wasn’t unusual.
Often my mother bathed my two brothers and I, put us in clean PJs and in the car for a ride to Couch’s where we each picked chips, a snack cake and a drink.
With D. I always stayed in the car, sometimes ducked down.
I watched just above the dashboard as he disappeared behind one flimsy project screen door after the next. Sometimes he’d be in and out quickly; others, he’d be gone for long stretches.
One night he told me to tap the horn if I saw Uncle John — as in, Hamilton Police Officer John Hill, my mother’s younger brother and the city’s first black officer.
He sometimes patrolled the projects.
In my memory the time I did see Uncle John on patrol I called out to him and when he came to the car and asked what I was doing out there in the dark by myself, I told him D. was in someone’s apartment.
The jig was up.
My tenure as D.’s lookout, beard and sidekick was over.
My parents, slow to put it together, were angry and embarrassed and I couldn’t hang with D. anymore.
In rapid succession, my parents divorced.
Everyone dispersed. Later, D.’s wife and young daughter lived with us back in that house because he’d become abusive, negligent and unemployable.
He’d weasel in, fall asleep smoking, catch the mattress on fire.
My final childhood memory of him is sad, frightening and violent. He threatened my mother, the woman who’d raised him, with a gun during a Sunday morning church service.
Mom sat at the piano fearlessly, waiting to maybe be shot.
He and a junkie friend followed us around after church, shouting threats.
D. later disappeared to Detroit cycling through other drugs, processing in and out of rehabs and jobs counseling other addicts.
He’d show up throughout the 1980s clean, but never the same, really. Veterans never are the same.
Brothers and sisters are.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]