By Louise Ure
It would have been my brother’s 62nd birthday last month, but he didn’t make it that far. Sad to say, he’s been gone longer now than he was here. He died – a virgin – at twenty-nine. And I did everything in my power to change that.
Billy was the eldest of us, a jiggly, awkward child who could set your teeth on edge with his constant spoon-on-salt-shaker tapping and small petulances. A boy with no physical prowess, he became a quiet, shy man with a rich internal life and a love of music.
He was never the leader of a pack, but he had friends. A gang of dreamers whose walk and stories had no swagger to them.
He could play any instrument set before him. Guitar. Piano. Trumpet. Sitar. Flute. Saxophone. And like a dog with keen hearing, he recognized fine sounds long before the rest of us, introducing me to then unheard of Laura Nyro and Willie Nelson. The transcendent Joni Mitchell. A baby-faced Bob Dylan.
His house – one of four adobe bungalows in a creosote-studded patch of desert – was never clean, but always orderly. Dust covered record albums were alphabetized. Shirts were arranged by color and sub-categorized by sleeve length. Mourning doves and cicadas wrote their own desert symphony outside his bedroom window.
The cancer arrived when he was nineteen, a bit of bad news, but not insurmountable. Then a new word was added to our vocabulary: metastasis. A tumor near the spine. Important glands affected. A lung gone. A new addition to his brain. His young body was a sharp-crested map of scars in a terrain that should have been meadows and soft rolling hills.
He said he didn’t want to die in a hospital. We said okay.
My mother did the brunt of the work, tending him during the day, sleeping on a cot at the foot of his bed at night. My sister and I came home from graduate school on the weekends to spell her.
We made up stories to coerce his morphine-addled mind into accepting food. Beef broth was a wizard’s magic elixir. A steamed green bean became a warrior’s sword. We wrapped bean sprouts around grapes and waggled them in front of him. “It’s a hula girl.” He let them dance into his mouth.
Cousin Fred came by late at night with his guitar and played his saddest song, the one about a young bride’s haunted bed.
Don’t go away again, stay by my side
Don’t go away again tonight
This bed is where I’ll be, holding you tight
If you will stay
That’s the night Billy told me he didn’t want to die a virgin.
I could understand it. To know that moment of total giving. And total taking. That unsurpassable pas de deux in celebration of life.
I promised him he wouldn’t.
I found a hooker on Congress Street near the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. She had a round face and flat features, but she was soft spoken and seemed kind, willing to accept my money and take on the job. I drove her back to my brother’s house and waited outside in the car.
She could have lied to me but she didn’t. “He couldn’t get it up,” she said, sliding back into the passenger seat twenty minutes later. I paid her anyway.
My friend Gretchen tried the next night with no better luck, although Billy smiled – at peace – when she fitted herself alongside him in the bed, cradling him against her soft, loose breasts.
Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” leaked from the next room.
I would have made love to him myself if I’d thought it would do any good.
He died two days later, my promise to him unfulfilled.
I twisted early Catechism teachings to ease the pain. “If he died a virgin then he was in a state of grace. Just like a child. He’s sure to go to heaven right away.”
I couldn’t admit then how wrong I was. There is no holier state of being than to love and be loved in return.
Later that year, the university created an award in his memory, to be given annually to the student who best exemplifies the traits of “courage and modesty, altruism and honesty: the hallmarks of its namesake.”
He may not have lain in the sun-kissed arms of a Hula Girl, but I think Billy did pretty well in the being-loved-in-return department after all.