The Things We Never Did by Angelo Attanasio

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The Things We Never Did by Angelo Attanasio
Illustration by Sue Babcock

My brother has aged ten years in the last six months. At least it would seem so to my parents and me. The bags under his eyes are getting darker, his hair is thinning, even his teeth do not appear to be as bright as they once were. His sudden transformation worries us, but he says he’s just very tired. He leads a stressful life, for sure; Mom has always said that. His entire existence is his job. Work, come home late, dinner, go to bed. Rest on Sundays. Repeat. We’re living with a ghost, basically. He says he will move into his new apartment soon, but I can’t imagine how he will find the time and strength to do so.

The agency he works for treats him like a slave. All of these kinds of agencies treat newcomers like slaves. The problem is that you don’t know how many years you’ll remain a newcomer. “I want to make so much money in so little time, that one day I’ll be able to retire in a house next to the sea and never work a day for the rest of my life”, that’s what he’s been saying since we were teenagers. He’s a good guy, my brother: hard worker, always respectful with everyone and he never complains about anything—perfect for exploiting.

Once, he came back from work earlier than usual (a miracle!), but as soon as I saw him, I almost screamed: a thin yet distinct line of gray hair had appeared over his right ear.

I whispered, “What happened today?”

“Nothing. What do you mean?” he replied.

I opened the wardrobe in our entryway and gestured to his reflection in the mirror. His eyes widened, and he hesitantly brought his hand up on that little streak.

“H-how is that even possible? This morning it was all black,” he stammered.

“You work too hard,” I told him for the umpteenth time.

“Yeah, but if I don’t work like this now, I’ll work hard for the rest of my life,” he answered through gritted teeth as he strode away into the house.

That was just the beginning. After a month, everyone, even my brother’s colleagues, could tell that something was wrong with him. He had started walking slower, losing his mental acuity, and gaining weight without even knowing why. Worried it could have been a terrible disease, we took him to the best specialists in the city to figure out what was going on, but every analysis was perfect, not a single exam showed a problem in my brother’s body—he was just aging quickly.

We went through the same rigamarole with every doctor. “Do you smoke?”.

“No, I’ve never smoked a single cigarette in my life,” was always the answer.

“Do you drink?” insisted each specialist, hoping to cling to anything that could explain the inexplicable.

“No,” came my brother’s annoyed reply.

Then, after some deep rumination, each physician arrived at the same diagnosis: stress.

“You see, son, you lead a highly stressful life which causes this exhaustion we witness,” said the last doctor we consulted.

“I don’t feel exhausted. Can’t you see how rapidly I’m aging, for Christ’s sake?” my brother retorted.

The doctor stared at him and coldly replied, “Yes. I’m going to prescribe you some supplements in order to—” but my brother stood up and left without a single word, slamming the door on his way out. I apologized for his behavior, explaining that countless other doctors had prescribed countless other supplements, all of them useless. The clinician mumbled something I didn’t listen to, then I paid and left. It was clear they had no clue about this strange disease, and they were as helpless in diagnosing him as they were too proud and arrogant to admit it. “Throw physic to the dogs!” Macbeth said to his doctor, and perhaps he wasn’t so wrong.

A year has passed. My brother’s hair is almost completely white, and he has so many wrinkles, he looks the same age as our dad. Self-proclaimed specialists come to our house from all over the country to study his condition. Every exam he’s undergone shows that he’s fit as a fiddle. Once, his boss allowed him a free Saturday, perhaps he even took pity, so we went for a walk on the seafront. The cold wind crashed the waves against the rocks, splashing the almost deserted sidewalk under the November leaden sky. We sat on a bench.

“All these efforts to build myself a future and now…” he started speaking after a long silence, but his voice broke.

“You’ll see, it’s going to be a temporary thing,” was my weak reply.

“You know,” he said, “the thing that upsets me the most is not that I’ve contracted this kind of disease but the fact that I’ve always focused on my future; I’ve never in my life thought about the present. I never once stopped to enjoy the moment—not one single time”. Tears poured down his cheeks, wetting his short, grizzled beard. I was speechless, since I agreed with him.

“When I was in college,” he continued, “I was only focused on graduating; when I started working, I was thinking how I could progress in my career and earn more money. I’ve always worried about so many commitments that I neglected a lot of people, but most of all, I neglected myself. I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have hobbies, I don’t even play sports because I have no time. I’ve often thought there would be plenty of time to do those things—or even that it was too early—and now… now it’s too late.” He put his elbows on his knees and covered his face with both hands. His sobbing was almost soundless, as if he were concerned about bothering me.

After many visits, the doctors convinced themselves that the bent old man in his late twenties that my brother is, qualifies for a disability pension. Even they realized that he can’t keep on working in his condition. Although our parents do their best to hide their apprehension, they’re glad to spend more time with him: they talk a lot now, they also went for a little trip together. Once he and I even went paragliding.

Two years have passed since the day that streak of gray popped out in my brother’s hair. Now he has lost many teeth and he can hardly hear us. He spends his days between his bed and the upholstered armchair in the living room. Our poor mother, who now could be mistaken for his daughter, holds his bony, liver-spotted hand as she looks into his watery eyes, seeking any trace of that old vitality in her once tireless son. His hazy eyes, despite being framed by an archipelago of wrinkles, convey a recently acquired awareness—a sense of tranquility. It seems to me that now that my brother doesn’t have to worry about his future anymore, he has reached some sort of inner peace, almost entirely similar to resignation, for sure, but now he appears to relish the moment, the little things, the affections that had been taken for granted his entire lifetime.

He passed away in his sleep. His serene face didn’t show the slightest hint of pain. While our house was full of relatives and friends mourning the fact that such a brilliant young man was met with such terrible misfortune, I couldn’t help but think about all the things we never did.

BIO: Angelo Attanasio was born in Naples, Italy in 1993. He graduated in Chemistry in his hometown. He has many hobbies like working out, playing guitar and making cocktails at home, the latter of which inexplicably makes him very popular among his friends and family. He can be found on Twitter @AngAttanasio.