[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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For Alan

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

An Excerpt from
by Robert J. Sawyer

On Saturday, June 8, 2013, my younger brother, Emmy-award-winning multimedia producer Alan Bruce Sawyer, passed away in Toronto from lung cancer at the age of 51.

Six years previously, in 2007, my novel Rollback had come out. It contains three scenes I never for a minute thought would be prophetic about an older brother burying a younger one.

Rollback deals with CBC audio engineer Don Halifax and his wife, SETI astronomer Sarah Halifax. They are offered a rollback — a rejuvenation procedure — by a rich patron, and it works for Don, regressing his physical age from 87 to 25, but it fails for Sarah.

I'd thought about reading excerpts from these scenes aloud at the Celebration of Life service for my brother Alan on June 15, 2013, but didn't think I'd be able to get through them without breaking down. But I offer them here as a tribute to my brother. Some of the details are autobiographical; some aren't — I don't suppose it matters to anyone but the two of us which are which.

Chapter 34

       Don was at home, lying in bed next to Sarah, when he was awoken from a dream. He and Sarah were standing on opposite sides of a vast canyon, and the gap between them kept widening, geologic forces working in real time, and —

       — and the phone was ringing. He fumbled for the handset, and Sarah found the switch for the lamp on her nightstand.

       "Hello?" said Don.

       [Alan Sawyer] "Don, is ... is that you?"

       He frowned. Nobody quite recognized his voice these days. "Yes."

       "Oh, Don, it's Pam." His sister-in-law; Bill's wife. She sounded hoarse, stressed.

       "Pam, are you okay?" Next to him, Sarah struggled to sit up, concerned.

       "It's Bill. He's — oh, God, Don, Bill is dead."

       Don felt his heart jump. "Christ ..."

       "What is it?" asked Sarah. "What's wrong?"

       He turned to her, and repeated the words, his own voice full of shock now: "Bill is dead."

       Sarah brought a hand to her mouth. Don spoke into the phone. "What happened?"

       "I don't know. His heart, I guess. He — he ..." Pam trailed off.

       "Are you at home? Are you okay?"

       "Yes, I'm at home. I just got back from the hospital. He was pronounced DOA."

       "What about Alex?" Bill's fifty-five-year-old son.

       "He's on his way."

       "God, Pam, I'm so sorry."

       "I don't know what I'm going to do without him," said Pam.

       "Let me get dressed and get over there," he said. Bill and Pam normally wintered in Florida, but hadn't yet headed south. "Alex and I, we can take care of all the details."

       "My poor Bill," Pam said.

       "I'll be there soon," he said.

       "Thanks, Don. Bye."

       "Bye." He tried to put the handset on his nightstand, but it tumbled to the floor.

       Sarah reached over and touched his arm. God, he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his brother. And then it hit him —

       Not since before. He normally only saw Bill a couple of times a year, but they did usually go to a Jays game each summer, although Don had begged off this year. This damned laying low, this foolish embarrassment about seeing people he knew, had cost him his last chance to see his brother.

       He left the bedroom, walked to the bathroom, and started getting ready to go. Sarah slowly followed him in. He was about to say she didn't have to come, that he could get Gunter to drive him. But he wanted her with him; he needed her.

       "I'm going to miss him," Sarah said, standing next to him by the sink.

       He glanced briefly at the mirror above the basin, showing his own youthful reflection, and her aged one. "Me, too," he said, very softly.

       "Sarah," said Pam, as they stood at the door to Bill's condominium apartment, "thank you for coming." Don's sister-in-law was a thin woman in her late seventies, short, with high cheekbones. She looked at Don and scowled. She probably recognized the distinctive Halifax features, including the large nose and high forehead, but not the specific face. "I'm sorry ...?"

       "Pam, it's me. It's Don."

       "Oh, right. The rollback. I — I didn't imagine ..." She stopped. "You look good."

       "Thanks. Look, how are you holding up?"

       Pam was clearly frazzled, but she said, "I'm okay."

       "Where's Alex?"

       "In the den. We're trying to find Bill's lawyer's name."

       Sarah said, "I'll go help Alex." And she made her way further into the apartment.

       Don looked at Pam. "Poor Bill," he said, having nothing better to offer.

       "There's so much to do," said Pam, sounding overwhelmed. "A notice on the Star's website. Organizing the ... the funeral."

       "It'll all get taken care of," said Don. "Don't worry." He gestured toward the living room, and led Pam further into her own home. "Do you need a drink?"

       "I've already got one going." She lowered herself into an amorphous fluorescent-green chair with a tubular metal frame; his brother's taste in furniture had always been more avant-garde than his own. Don found another, matching chair.

       Pam's drink — amber colored, with ice — was on a table by her chair. She took a sip. "God, look at you."

       Don felt uncomfortable, and he shifted his gaze to look out the fifth-floor window, taller, more-expensive condo towers filling most of the view. "I didn't ask for it," he said.

       "I know. I know. But my Bill — if he'd had a rollback, why ..."

       He'd still be alive, Don thought. Yes, I know.

       "You were ... you were ..." Pam was shaking her head back and forth. She stopped speaking with her thought uncompleted.

       "What?" asked Don.

       She looked away. The living-room walls were lined with bookcases; Pam and Bill even had bookshelves built-in above the door lintels. "Nothing."

       "No, tell me," he said.

       She turned back to him, and the anger and betrayal were apparent on her face. "You're older than Bill," she said.

       "By fifteen months, yes."

       "But now you're going to be around for decades!"

       He nodded. "Yes?"

       "You were the older brother," she said, as if resenting that it had to be spelled out. "You were supposed to go first."

       All Saints' Kingsway Anglican Church had been the church of Don's childhood, remembered now more for the Boy Scout meetings he'd attended there than for anything the minister had said. Don hadn't been in the building for — well, the phrase that came to his mind, no doubt because of his current surroundings, was "for God knows how long," although he didn't in fact believe in a God who kept track of such minutiae.

       The coffin was closed, which was just as well. People had always said that Don and Bill looked a lot alike, but Don had no desire to have the comparison — and the contrast — highlighted. Indeed, since Bill had never had a weight problem, Don looked more like Bill had at twenty-five than he himself had at that age. He was the only one in the room who had known Bill back then, and —

       No. No, wait! Over there, talking to Pam, could that be —?

       It was. Mike Braeden. God, Don hadn't seen him since high school. But there was no mistaking that broad, round face, with the close-together eyes and the one continuous eyebrow; even wrinkled and sagging, it was still obviously him.

       Mike had been in Bill's year, but Don had known him, too. One of only four boys on a block mostly populated by girls, Mike — Mikey, as he'd been known back then, or Mick, as he'd styled himself briefly during his early teens — had been a mainstay of street-hockey games, and had belonged to the same Scout troop that had met here.

       "That's Mike Braeden," Don said to Sarah, pointing. "An old friend."

       She smiled indulgently. "Go over and say hello."

       He scuttled sideways between two rows of pews. When he got to Mike, Don found he was doing what one does at funerals, sharing a little remembrance of the dearly departed with the next of kin. "Old Bill, he loved his maple syrup," Mike was saying, and Pam nodded vigorously, as if they'd reached agreement on a nanotech-test-ban treaty. "And none of that fake stuff for him, if you please," Mike continued. "It had to be the real thing, and —"

       And he stopped, frozen, as motionless as Bill himself doubtless was in his silk-lined box. "My ... God," Mike managed after a few moments. "My God. Sorry, son, you took my breath away. You're the spitting image of Bill." He narrowed his beady eyes and drew his one eyebrow, now thundercloud gray, into a knot. "Who ... who are you?"

       "Mikey," Don said, "it's me. Don Halifax."

       "No, it —" But then he stopped again. "My God, it — you do look like Donny, but ..."

       "I've had a rollback," Don said.

       "How could you —"

       "Someone else paid for it."

       "God," said Mike. "That's amazing. You — you look fabulous."

       "Thanks. And thanks for coming. It would have meant a lot to Bill to have you here."

       Mike was still staring at him, and Don was feeling very uncomfortable about it. "Little Donny Halifax," Mike said. "Incredible."

       "Mikey, please. I just wanted to say hi."

       The other man nodded. "Sorry. It's just that I've never met anyone who's had a rollback."

       "Until recently," said Don, "neither had I. But I don't want to talk about that. You were saying something about Bill's fondness for maple syrup ...?"

       Mike considered for a moment, clearly warring with himself over whether to ask more questions about what had happened to Don, or to accept the invitation to change the subject. He nodded once, his decision made. "Remember when the old Scout troop used to go up north of Highway Seven each winter and tap some trees? Bill was in heaven!" Mike's face showed that he realized he'd probably chosen not quite the right metaphor under the current circumstances, but that simply gave him an incentive to quickly push on, and soon the topic of Don's rollback was left far behind.

       Pam was listening intently, but Don found his eyes scanning the gathering crowd for other familiar faces. Bill had always been more popular than Don — more outgoing, and better at sports. He wondered how many people would come to his own funeral, and —

       And, as he looked around the room, his heart sank. None of these people, that was for sure. Not his wife, not his kids, not any of his childhood friends. They'd all be dead long, long before he would. Oh, his grandchildren might yet outlive him; but they weren't here right now, nor, he saw, were their parents. Presumably Carl and Angela were off somewhere else in the church, perhaps busily straightening collars and smoothing dresses on youngsters who had rarely, if ever, had to wear such things before.

       In a few minutes, he would present the eulogy, and he'd reach back into his brother's past for anecdotes and revelatory incidents, things that would show what a great guy Bill had been. But at his own eventual funeral, there would be no one who could speak to his childhood or his first adulthood, no one to say anything about the initial eighty or ninety years of his life. Every single thing he'd done to date would be forgotten.

       He excused himself from Pam and Mike, who had moved on from Bill's love of maple syrup to extolling his general prudence. "Whenever we were playing street hockey and a car was coming, it was always Bill who first shouted, `Car!'" Mike said. "I'll always remember him doing that. `Car! Car!' Why, he ..."

       Don walked down the aisle, to the front of the church. The hardwood floor was dappled with color, thanks to the stained-glass windows. Sarah was now sitting in the second row, at the far right, looking weary and alone, her cane hanging from the rack that held the hymn books on the back of the pew in front of her.

       Don came over and crouched next to her in the aisle. "How are you doing?" he asked.

       Sarah smiled. "All right. Tired." She narrowed her eyes, concerned. "How about you?"

       "Holding together," he said.

       "It's nice so many people came."

       He scanned the crowd again, part of him wishing it were fewer. He hated speaking in front of groups. An old Jerry Seinfeld bit flitted through his brain: the number-one fear of most people is public speaking; the number-two fear is death — meaning, at a funeral, you should feel sorrier for the person giving the eulogy than for the guy in the coffin.

       The minister — a short black man of about forty-five, with hair starting to both gray and recede — entered, and soon enough the service was under way. Don tried to relax as he waited to be called upon. Sarah, next to him, held his hand.

       The minister had a surprisingly deep voice given his short stature, and he led the assembled group through a few prayers. Don bowed his head during these, but kept his eyes open and stared at the narrow strips of hardwood flooring between his pew and the one in front.

       "... and so," the minister said, all too soon, "we'll now hear a few words from Bill's younger brother, Don."

       Oh, Christ, thought Don. But the mistake had been a natural one, and, as he walked to the front of the church, climbing three stairs to get onto the raised platform, he decided not to correct it.

       He gripped the sides of the pulpit and looked out at the people who had come to bid farewell to his brother: family, including Bill's own son Alex and the grown children of Susan, Don and Bill's sister who had died back in 2033; a few old friends; some of Bill's coworkers from the United Way; and many people who were strangers to Don but doubtless meant something to Bill.

       "My brother," he said, trotting out the first of the platitudes he'd jotted down on his datacom, which he'd now fished from his suit pocket, "was a good man. A good father, a good husband, and —"

       And he stopped cold, not because of his current failings in the category he'd just enumerated, but because of who had just entered at the back of the room, and was now taking a seat in the last row of pews. It had been thirty years since he'd seen his ex-sister-in-law Doreen, but there she was, dressed in black, having come to quietly say good-bye to the man she'd divorced all those years ago. In death, it seemed, all was forgiven.

       He looked down at his notes, found his place, and stumbled on. "Bill Halifax worked hard at his job, and even harder at being a father and a citizen. It's not often —"

       He faltered again, because he saw what the next words he'd written were, and realized he'd either have to skip them, or else force the minister's error into the light. Screw it, he thought. I never got to say this when Bill was alive. I'll be damned if I don't say it now. "It's not often," he said, "that an older brother looks up to a younger brother, but I did, all the time."

       There were murmurs, and he could see the perplexed faces. He found himself veering from his prepared comments.

       "That's right," he said, gripping the pulpit even harder, needing its support. "I'm Bill's older brother. I was lucky enough to have a rollback." More murmurs, shared glances. "It was ... it wasn't something I sought out, or even something I wanted, but ..."

       He stopped that train of thought. "Anyway, I knew Bill his whole life, longer than anyone else" — he paused, then decided to finish his sentence with, "in this room," although "in the world" would have been equally true; everyone else who'd known Bill since birth was long gone, and Mike Braeden hadn't moved onto Windermere until Bill was five.

       "Bill didn't make many mistakes," Don said. "Oh, there were some, including" — and here he tipped his head at Doreen, who seemed to nod in acknowledgment, understanding that he meant things Bill had done in their marriage, not the fact of the marriage itself — "some doozies that he doubtless regretted right up until the end. But, by and large, he got it right. Of course, it didn't hurt that he was sharp as a whip." He realized he'd mangled the metaphor as soon as he'd said it, but pressed on. "Indeed, some were surprised that he chose to work in the charitable sector, instead of in business, where he could have made a lot more money." He refrained from glancing now at Pam, refrained from conveying the point that Bill never could have afforded what Don himself had been given. "He could have gone into law, could have been a corporate big shot. But he wanted to make a difference; he wanted to do good. And he did. My brother did."

       Don looked out at the crowd again, a sea of black clothes. One or two people were softly crying. His eyes lingered on his children, and his grandchildren — whose children's children he would likely live to see.

       "No actuary would say that Bill was shortchanged in quantity, but it's the quality of his life that really stands out." He paused, wondering how personal he should get, but, hell, this was all personal, and he wanted Sarah, and his children, and maybe even God to hear it. "It looks like I might get damn near" — he faltered, realizing he'd just sworn during a service, then went on — "double the number of years my brother did."

       He looked at the coffin, its polished wood gleaming.

       "But," Don continued, "if out of all of that, I can do half as much good, and deserve to be loved half as much as Bill was, then maybe I'll have earned this ... this ..." He fell silent, seeking the right word, and, at last, continued: "... this gift that I've been given."


From Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer.

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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