I didn’t bother to check the gas gauge. The tank was full. It had to be. Everybody knows that when you rent a car, you pick it up with a full tank and you return it the same way. Besides, there had been some confusion at the customer service counter. I’d paid for a compact and they didn’t have any left, so they upgraded me to a midsize. When we drove up to the booth, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be charged more for the bigger vehicle, and that’s what was on my mind. Not the fuel tank.
As we eased out into the brilliant sunlight, my sister and I searched for the airport exit and the entrance ramp for I-95 North. My day had begun at two o’clock in the morning, and hers not much later. Two flights each had transported both of us from chilly mid-spring locations to the heat of eastern Florida. Now it would take an hour and a half to travel the eighty miles from Fort Lauderdale to Palm City, where the hotel was, and where our brother lived.
There was a sign indicating that the highway was up ahead, but as we followed it the wide road split into two, with neither offering any further direction to the interstate. One side was for ARRIVALS, the other for DEPARTURES. A third lane appeared, offering to guide us back to the rental car area. Wanting none of those things, we circled the airport. Twice.
When we did manage to escape the powerful gravitational force pulling us toward Long Term Parking, something on the dashboard began to beep. I looked down and saw that the Low Fuel light had come on.
“The gas tank is empty!” I said, with infallible insight.
“You’re kidding,” Jackie replied, easily matching my brilliance.
And so it would go for the next four days. It had begun inside the terminal, where I’d led the two of us up the stairs — then down two floors on the escalator — as we searched in vain for the food establishments that had been so plentiful and unavoidable just minutes earlier. Later, we got lost looking for the hotel. Then we were talking so much, we missed the turn for the bridge that would take us to Joe’s house. One day, I decided to get cash so we could buy cookies for everyone, but we couldn’t find a bank. And when we did, I went inside, only to return to the car moments later and tell her there was no ATM, even as we both stared at the sign that read “24-Hour Teller” pointing around to the back of the building.
“Did you think that meant they have a real person who works twenty-four hours?” Jackie asked.
“No,” I answered. “And anyway, why don’t you shut up?”
We discussed the mystery of the empty gas tank. Was it a mistake? Would we be expected to return the car full of fuel? That couldn’t be. We’d be giving the rental company a gift. No, we’d return the car as close to empty as possible. Could we prove we hadn’t been given a full tank? Of course. We had gone straight to a Citgo station and spent forty-three dollars on regular unleaded. The problem was, we had failed to get a receipt. Or rather, my sister had failed to get one, a fact that I repeated to her on several occasions, mostly during those brief moments when we weren’t disagreeing about something else: directions, my refusal to take money from her for the hotel room, the location of an Italian bakery that we’d been told had great pastries but seemed to become invisible each time we drove past, or the best method for packing a box of Twinkies in a suitcase. We were supposed to turn left at the sixth traffic light after the bridge, yet we both somehow lost our ability to count, always slowing down at the fourth or fifth light, sometimes turning, sometimes proceeding with great uncertainty. The missing signs for I-95 had thrown us, but we were also avoiding the conversation no one wanted to have: Joe’s cancer.
* * * * *
Our brother Michael arrived on the first night. Jackie and I and our niece Christine picked him up in West Palm Beach. I hadn’t seen my sister in five years, and Michael in eight. I couldn’t remember how long it had been since Christine and I were in the same room.
Joe’s surgery had been done in early February. Doctors removed a large part of a malignant mass, but its roots stayed behind, diving down into his brain as they sought nourishment and stability for the new tumor they would likely form. Now in their sixties, Joe and his wife Noreen had always been, for me, the models of youth and adventure. They’d become world travelers in the past decade, and had just returned from a trip to Colorado. Joe had exhibited some unusual behavior; tests were conducted, and then the operation. Radiation and chemotherapy followed.
Now our vigorous older brother was almost unrecognizable. His face puffed and drooped, the side of his head dented and deformed by pockets of fluid, he looked as though he’d been beaten with a club. He was weak, struggling to take more than a few steps without a cane or walker. He had trouble getting up from the couch. He could eat pretty well, but appeared lost in his own world, often not hearing the conversations that swirled around him, and sometimes adding to them with comments that seemed, at least to the rest of us, unrelated.
* * * * *
There was a swimming pool right outside, and a gorgeous beach nearby. None of us felt like doing anything but sit in that house and talk, and eat. And laugh. And sometimes cry. Joe looked as though he were drifting away, as though he were no longer able to be with us in the ways we all wanted.
Our society extols with great reverence the almighty will to live. But the condition of the brain affects everything. An injured brain may not be able to counsel itself. Or the intention may be present, but the physical ability to respond may be absent. Or maybe the nervous system is busy, working hard to fix things on the inside, and has no time to put on a show for visitors — even visitors who are full of love and hope, and who can’t imagine the world without the injured one.
We stayed for four days. We ate a lot of pizza, as well as ravioli, calzone, and cannoli. (If there really is a heaven they’d better have Italian food.) Noreen cooked and cared for Joe. We all tried to help, but mostly, we were just there.
And then it was Friday morning, and time to leave. Was it good-bye as it had been so many times before? Or was this the last one? I drove the rental car to West Palm Beach, where Jackie and I would drop Michael off at the airport before heading back to Fort Lauderdale. The subject of gasoline came up yet again. The gauge was now showing about a third of a tank. I thought we could make it back with maybe a gallon to spare.
“What I’d really like,” I said, “would be to pull into the rental car place
just as the Low Fuel light was coming on.”
And then Michael asked, “Do you think we’ll ever see Joe again?”
After a few long seconds of silence, Jackie said this:
“You never know if you’ll see someone again. Whenever we leave anybody,
there’s a chance it’ll turn out to be the last time.”
We had been disagreeing and fooling around and acting like a bunch of immature children all week. But now my sister had said something true and perfect. Death sometimes announces itself months or years in advance. At other times it shows up without notice, and in a blink someone who’d always been there is gone. We may have just seen them a week ago, but we didn’t understand it would be the final time. We didn’t realize that good-bye was the real thing. Sometimes we don’t know. Is the tank half full? A quarter? Are we burning the last few drops? There’s no gauge to tell us how many days we have left.
The lesson, of course, is that we should treat every time spent together and every parting as though there may not be another. We hugged Michael several times before he hurried off to begin his journey home. Who knew when — or if — we would see him again? Or if he would see us?
Jackie and I arrived at the airport in Fort Lauderdale two hours ahead of schedule. We hadn’t gotten lost or missed a single turn. We found the rental car drop-off as though we’d been there a hundred times. I moved into the left lane and signaled to enter the building. The moment the car was inside — and I mean the moment — we heard a beeping sound coming from the dashboard. I looked down just as the Low Fuel light flashed on. We parked the car, shook our heads, and smiled. Then we went inside to check on our flights.
As always, planes were landing and planes were leaving. From every direction, people were coming and going, many propelled by the unique energy of eager vacationers; I could see the excitement in their faces. A few, though, wore the expression shared by my sister and me, and by all of us in our brother’s home during those four days. It’s a look that indicates both a full heart and a hollow emptiness. A look that says, simply, I hope we will see each other again.