Rain drops pattered overhead and a long, low grumble of thunder followed the sharp crack of a distant lightning strike. As my brother Billy sank down into the chair across from me in the living room, he instructed, “Close your eyes and listen.” I stretched and rested my head on the sofa back.
Billy questioned, “You know that when it rains on a hot summer afternoon, you can smell a beautiful, earthy scent sometimes?”
I nodded, realizing he had his eyes shut, too, I answered, “Yes, it’s the smell of clean, wet soil, or maybe the chlorophyll in the plants.”
There was another roll of thunder, but the rain on the roof had lessened. We became aware of the sound of water trickling down a rain spout. Somewhere there was a slow, steady drip of water falling into a puddle.
My brother jumped to his feet and took the storm CD out of his new radio compact disk player. He said, “My new Bose has the best sound of any radio I’ve ever had. I almost imagined smelling the rain. Right now, when I looked outside, it seemed like I should have seen gray rain clouds scuttling away.”
Getting to my feet to look closer at my brother’s new toy, I admired its sleek lines before stating, “I’ve been told these are quite expensive.”
Defending his splurge, he maintained, “Yes, they are. But you get top quality for the money.”
My brother Billy liked to listen for special sounds and sights around him. His having me sit down to listen to the storm CD that came with his new Bose radio was typical. As I was growing up, I loved to be outside in the yard with Billy, or go for a walk with him in the woods on our farm’s back forty.
My brother would sometimes stop and hold up his right hand to say, “Listen!” I learned early on to freeze in place and hold my breath when he did. My reward was a memorable moment to enjoy, like the lovely song of a bird, or the distant whistle of a train, trucks rumbling on the highway two miles away, or to watch and listen to grasshoppers munching on leaves.
After a moment of silence Billy would sometimes say, “Do you feel the stillness in the air? It’s like nature is quietly waiting for the storm front to move in!” Or pointing to a bird swooping close to the ground in a recently cut hayfield, “That’s a phoebe. She’s getting her fill of insects this evening.”
I loved my brother’s habit of stopping to listen; it rewarded me with a huge sense of satisfaction. The pauses did more than prompt me to sense a change in the weather, identify a singing bird, or find out which plants gave the insects food. They were like memory markers or mental snap shots.
One day decades later, after I had moved Billy into an assisted-living home, I took him to the clinic for an appointment. It was a gray, dreary late-winter day. When we returned to the home, I parked my car. As we slowly walked toward the building entrance, Billy suddenly stopped his Parkinson’s shuffle and held up his right hand. Out of habit, I froze in place and held my breath.
A winter bird in nearby shrubs chipped bleakly. In the distance we heard traffic. The air felt still. Billy quietly commented, “There’s a storm coming.” I realized, with surprise, that the weather man on television had said the same thing last evening.
Of all the times Billy had told me to pause and listen, this was the most poignant. So much in his life had changed, but he was still my big brother, reminding me for one final time to stop and listen.