The very next day Max called not once, twice, or even three times. There were six calls in all, ranging from the substantive — financial matters — to the absurd — bits of nostalgia about which his grieving mother wanted more information.
More poignant was an urgent call from Joanie, who was distraught after a tongue-lashing from her mother. Robbie, not surprisingly, had insisted that her daughter drop everything — in perpetuity, if necessary — to be at her beck and call.
“She says I’m the worst person in the world!” Joanie informed him.
“Sorry, but you can’t be,” Leibowitz responded.
“Well, the way your mother views things, isn’t your Aunt Kate the worst person in the world?”
“I g-guess,” Joanie said haltingly.
“And how about your Uncle Phil? Doesn’t your mom call him the worst person in the world?”
“And what about me? Don’t I qualify on occasion?”
“Not just on occasion,” she acknowledged.
“Then see? The job’s taken. You’ll have to settle for being the fourth worst person. Make you feel better?”
Hearing Joanie chuckle made Leibowitz continue. “Help her when you can — if you can. But above all remember that she’s the one who should be consoling you, not the other way around.”
That advice was useful, but only up to a point, for a day later Joanie called in tears. “My mother hit me!” she told Leibowitz.
“What do you mean, hit you?”
“She told me I had to go with her to Jamaica. And when I said no, she started pounding on me, screaming that I’m horrible. Am I that horrible?”
“Not to me, you’re not. Or to your Dad, as I remember. Or your brother. Or your friends. Right?
“I suppose,” she said softly.
“So whose word are you going to take — your mom’s, or everybody else’s?”
“So what do I do?”
“First, whenever possible you speak over the phone, rather than actually getting together. And you tell her you’ll do everything you can, but that there’s an if —”
“Only if she’s willing to help herself.”
“Help herself how?”
“By seeing a professional. With me?”
“Then there’s the big one. Ready?”
“You’re finishing law school in June, right?”
“Then it’s time to pick a city where you think you might like to live —- whether here in L.A., or Chicago, or San Francisco, or wherever.”
“Move there to study for the Bar Exam.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Because you need to start a life of your own.”
“Somebody won’t be happy.”
“Ask you a question?”
“Ever seen her happy?”
Joanie’s silence spoke volumes.
It took a joint campaign by both her son and daughter to get Robbie, who maintained that she was absolutely, perfectly fine, to interview therapists. But doing so at least provided something to do above and beyond driving her kids nuts.
Then at last came a decision which Joanie reported to Leibowitz. After rejecting ten therapists for various reasons, Robbie at last found one who seemed acceptable. Why? Because he told her exactly what she wanted to hear.
As days turned into weeks, then weeks into months, the frequency of crises diminished, with the calls moving from constant to occasional.
During that period, Max fell in love with a kindergarten teacher named Gina, which meant that he was too busy with his own affairs to be on-call 24/7. Then Joanie, a lifelong New Yorker, announced that she was moving to Berkeley to study for the California Bar Exam.
The biggest change of all, however, came when Robbie, who had maintained that her love for Don was, and would always be, eternal, started dating an economics professor from NYU. That was an even bigger boon to her kids, for it gave her someone new to boss around.
Strangely, the family member from whom Leibowitz heard the most during that time was his brother, whose personal woes were mounting exponentially.
Even so, Leibowitz was surprised to be awakened early on a Monday morning by a call from none other than his sister. “I’ve got news about Phil,” Robbie announced.
“What kind of news?” Leibowitz mumbled groggily.
“As in heart attack. Get on a plane as soon as you can. I’m setting the memorial service for Wednesday at noon.”
Still not sure where he was — or even who he was — Leibowitz tried hard to shake off his drowsiness. “Wednesday at noon?”
“Wednesday at noon.”
Hanging up, Leibowitz took several deep breaths, then made himself a pot of his favorite Chinese green tea. Sitting at his kitchen table, he thought long and hard about his kid brother, whose ongoing series of disappointments had at last come to an end.
The excessive smoking and drinking, Leibowitz understood, had been more than an indication of Phil’s unhappiness. And the same was true of the gambling.
Feeling immobilized, Leibowitz sat there pondering the hows and whys about the different paths taken by his siblings and himself.
Then, in the hope of finding something to savor, he tried to think of the good times. But to his dismay, the few that came to mind were quickly overshadowed by the squabbling and strife that rarely abated.
He was about to book flights when the phone rang again.
“It’s Max,” announced his nephew. “Since you’re coming in, which is great, Gina and I want to see if you can have dinner with us after the memorial on Tuesday.”
“You mean Wednesday.”
Silenced reigned until it was broken by Max. “You didn’t hear?” he asked with what sounded like embarrassment.
“My mom moved it up a day.”
Realizing that he had only barely been saved from arriving a day late, Leibowitz instantly gave up any thought of making the trip.
In the days and weeks that followed, Leibowitz found himself, as never before, pondering his own mortality. With two family members — one sharing his DNA — having succumbed to heart attacks in fairly rapid succession, it was inevitable that he would worry about his own future as well.
He scheduled the medical exam he’d been ducking for too long, cut back on the consumption of ice cream, cheese and wine, made a concerted effort to be more diligent about exercise, and even dug out a meditation CD for use in times of stress.
It was at a moment when he was actually hoping for some headphone-assisted transcendence that he got a call from his niece.
“Your guest bedroom offer — can I take you up on it?” Joanie asked.
“And the stuff that went on — you know I had nothing to do with it.”
“About Uncle Phil.”
“What about Uncle Phil?” asked Leibowitz, suddenly both apprehensive and alert.
“M-my mom didn’t t-tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“M-maybe you better call her.”
“Joanie, please. Tell me what this is about.”
“The heart attack .”
“What about it?”
“Y-you really don’t know?”
“There wasn’t one.”
“Joanie, please speak to me in English.”
“Well, Uncle Phil —” she stammered.
“H-he hanged himself.”
As though the wind had been punched out of him, Leibowitz struggled to catch his breath. Then, careful not to inflict his rage upon his niece, he did everything in his power to measure his words.
“But the truth was known from the beginning?”
“S-so it seems,” Joanie said softly.
“And it was your mom’s decision not to —”
“L-let others know?”
“I guess,” she said even more faintly.
“Mind my asking when you found this out?”
“I had to go back for a wedding, and it kind of —”
“Y-yeah,” Joanie said sadly.
Leibowitz let a moment pass for Joanie’s sake. “Okay if I ask one last question?”
“This decision your mom made. Think it was to spare her — for want of a better word — embarrassment?”
Joanie hesitated before finally responding. “Probably,” she said with more than a measure of shame.
Leibowitz thought about his kid brother, whose cry for help was neither heard nor acknowledged. Then he thought about the people all over the world whose suffering goes unheeded by those whose only concern is self-interest.
It was at that very moment that he vowed never again to speak to his sister.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have been about the criminal justice system, Eastern spirituality in the Western world, diabetes, and boxing. Though American, he also writes regularly for a British music magazine called ‘Blues & Rhythm’. His fiction has been published hither and yon.