My brother Frank’s heart attack slammed him against his sofa one week before his sixty-second birthday. I learned this later from my nephew, who’d just walked into Frank’s house with a six-pack and a Party-Size Doritos bag for March Madness.
Several months before the heart attack, Frank and Sherri had adopted a Bernese after putting down Sherri’s mutt of a dozen years. The mutt had been mellow, a tail thumper. The Bernese was a different kettle of fish. At six months, weighing 85 pounds, he bounced like a giant basketball wall to wall, rubbing all of himself against all of everybody else’s self, lolling his head back as it lay in someone’s crotch to gaze into his victim’s eyes.
When I asked how the Bernese behaved during the heart attack, Frank said, “The dog was doing what he does.” Meaning he must have thrust himself at my nephew, standing on hind legs with front paws on shoulders while licking every inch of my nephew’s face, impeding a desperately-needed rescue.
My nephew somehow dragged Frank to his truck. At the ER, the staff initially paid only desultory attention to the aging hippie with a gray ponytail and a puff of beard who insisted on walking in alone as his son parked. The cumbersome registration process reinforced Frank’s feelings about hospitals—about most institutions—and challenged his conviction that he could withstand almost anything. Over the years I’ve had little patience with his chronic impulse to Stick It to The Man, but I’ve always admired his relentless optimism. Now it had disappeared.
“They ripped my T-shirt,” he told me mournfully, as if that were the thing that hurt the worst. I knew without him saying so that it had been his favorite, the blue one he’d worn for his wedding to Sherri that said “Love Matters.”
I’d hugged him in that tee shirt many times. It always smelled like a ripe ashtray. Frank now acknowledges the role of his 45-year smoking habit in both his heart attack and the circulatory disease that earlier cost him a leg. For years, he’s worn a prosthetic leg and foot, a clanking metal appliance he attaches to his knee. All three of his wives have been smokers, too, Sherri with the heaviest habit. It’s almost headline-worthy that Frank has quit smoking. Sherri’s not there yet.
I visited Frank downstate after his release. Sherri, who has a neurological disease, sat on the sofa, their matching walkers parked by the front door, the Bernese relegated to the deck. As I entered, the dog howled, throwing himself in full-frontal display against the deck’s sliding glass door, marking it with drool swishes and breath-fog.
Frank released this baying monster into the house, where the dog attacked me. Slobber, lunges, licking, pressing, head nuzzling my crotch, paw pirouettes on my knees. “He’s a people lover,” Sherri remarked.
Frank leashed the dog, but in his weakened state he couldn’t yank the Bernese away from my body. “That’s okay, Rocky,” he said, leaning forward to rub the Bernese’s ears. “You’re excited to see her. Me too.” My brother kissed the dog, who bounded instantly back to me. “He needs exercise,” Frank said. “While my son was here, he took Rocky to the park. We can’t manage that yet.”
To keep the peace, I said nothing about the dog. Not then. Frank phoned me a few weeks later. Good news: He’d been discharged from cardiac rehab, his heart damaged but pumping. Bad news: He had a badly wrenched knee, unable to walk, unsure whether it was sprained, torn, or broken. He’d finally taken the Bernese to the dog park. The dog had run full speed into Frank’s knee, knocking him over; Frank had to be carried out of the park by passersby. It was the knee above his stump, and with the swelling, he couldn’t attach his prosthesis. “My fault,” Frank said. “We were playing with a stick.”
Something red-hot bloomed inside me. “How was it your fault?”
“He’s a puppy,” Frank said. “I should’ve known better.”
“It’s insane to have a ninety-pound puppy in that small house when both of you can barely walk,” I yelled. “It’s cruel for you and cruel for the dog.”
“My fault,” he repeated stubbornly. Then he got to the point: Because of his current infirmity, he and Sherri couldn’t come to Easter dinner the following week at my house.
I couldn’t let the Bernese go. “Normally, then, I’d visit you,” I said. “But I can’t have that dog all over me again.”
“He obeys Sherri,” Frank said. “She has a system of hand gestures.”
“That dog assaults people,” I said. “I’ll give him a hand gesture.”
“Anyway,” Frank said, “we won’t drive up to dinner.” He didn’t want to discuss the Bernese.
After the call, I thought about my brother’s relentless stubbornness, his suspicion of anyone directing his behavior. He hadn’t changed in fifty years. I hadn’t changed either, telling him what to do in that oldest-child way. We’d brought out the worst in each other. In my follow-up apology call he said merely, “That’s okay. I know you said those things out of love.”
Love Matters, as his favorite T-shirt said. But love should be the beginning of the story, not the end of it. Loving Frank is a difficult love. It needs lead time. Lead time means turning on all my senses before I speak: registering the smallness of Frank’s current world; listening to what it takes Frank and Sherri to manage a day of pain and Covid quarantine; smelling in the stale, smoky air the challenge to Frank’s quitting cigarettes.
If I’d allowed lead time, I might have understood what the Bernese in all its slobbery, hairy madness brings to their household. Optimism. Movement. Life. The jumping, running, and roughhousing my brother can’t do, the Bernese a new muscle in his damaged heart.
writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Michigan. Her prose has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Blue River Review, Lumiere Review, and MacQueen’s Quinterly, among others. She was a 2018 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine, and was awarded first prize in the 2021 flash fiction competition sponsored by the UK’s Fiction Factory. She is an occasional contributor to Brevity blog, an online publication about writing.