The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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West Whately Chapel is a stone’s throw from my childhood home. It sits in front of an earthen dike that holds back the old reservoir, which used to serve Northampton. Growing up, my siblings and I were aware of the enormous volume of water contained there. We knew that if the dam broke, our house would be swept away. It was tangible evidence of something we already felt: that we were never really safe.
There is a new reservoir now, much larger, and a new dam, huge and modern, made of stone and concrete. But the old reservoir is still there, placid and dark. The simple white chapel, with its stained-glass windows, potbellied stove (the only heat source in winter), and boarded-up, old-fashioned john, is used mostly for weddings and funerals. Both my sister Dereka and I got married there, and we’re having our brother Brian’s funeral there today.
One March day a few years ago (coincidentally on the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death) I went to the funeral of a friend at West Whately Chapel. There was a freak blizzard that morning. En route, I took Ambien and drank vodka, and I blacked out at the podium and fell. Later I stole some pills from a neighbor’s house and nearly died of an overdose. I remember nothing but fragments of it, splinters of being at the chapel and shards of the ambulance ride, then larger pieces of waking on a gurney at the hospital, and finally the shame, whole and complete, buckets of it, like the dirty snow piled up in the hospital parking lot. Some of the same people will be present today at Brian’s funeral, and I am hoping to redeem myself in some small way.
I get off to a poor start. My daughter and I arrive late. The chapel is full, but there are seats saved for us up front. People are standing next to the potbellied stove in back. My sister Dereka is at the podium.
It is a modern service, no minister or Bible to be found. This is how some of us grieve at the beginning of the twenty-first century: no God, just memories of the deceased, proclamations of earthly love, and half-formed ideas of what lies beyond. (Light, mostly.) It is almost pagan. We burned Brian with a picture of his children and a pack of Camels. We would have sent him off with his tools, but they weren’t allowed in the crematory.
Many of the mourners are from the commune Brian joined when he was twenty-two and left when he was thirty. As far as I can tell, that was the peak of his existence, the most productive time of his life. After he left the commune, he had ten more pretty-good years, and then it was all downhill.
I am glad the commune members are here, for their memories of my brother hearten me and help me remember what stunning raw material he was. The other mourners are mostly family, and we are more jaded, for we saw the downward slide. Still, we reach back and remember.
I have managed so far to contain my tears, which have been abundant these last couple of weeks. I’m going to read a poem, and I don’t want my eye makeup to run. But then my sister Tamar stands and shares this memory:
One day when Brian was six and she was about three, they ran away. She thinks it was because my mother told them they couldn’t have spaghetti for supper, but there must have been something more than that, because they walked three miles, Brian pulling Tammy (we always called her Tammy then; she hates that name now) in a little red wagon. The road was dirt, and the wheels must have bumped over the loose rocks. Brian carried his belongings in a bandanna tied to a stick, just like a hobo. He brought a can of tuna fish and a knife.
What Tammy remembers most, she says, is that she cast in her lot with Brian without reservation; she trusted him utterly, because he took care of her. Our mother was too tired and too overwhelmed, always wondering where the next meal was coming from. By then she had four children: Dereka, Brian, Tamar, and me, the baby — a fussy, floppy baby. (And homely, my mother used to say. Her first homely baby.) So Brian became Tammy’s mother. He fed her. He washed her face. He even changed her. And for some reason, she doesn’t know why, she called him Candy.
I hadn’t known that. It pierces my heart. Candy. Of course. Because Candy was the best thing in the world. We seldom had it, because our mother said sugar was bad for our teeth. But it tasted so good. So sweet. The best thing. Candy.
Eye makeup or no, the tears come. My daughter pats my shoulder and holds my hand, but she’s sensible about such things and doesn’t try to stop me — which is good, because there is no stopping it. It’s like the reservoir in spring, when the water used to rise over the lip of concrete and roar into the spillway.
More people get up and share their memories. A man from the commune tells of being assigned to help shingle the roof of a dormitory. He was a city kid, and being so high up gave him the willies. He was holding on for dear life when he looked up and saw a maniac dancing down the ridgeline with a bale of shingles on his shoulder, laughing and singing. That was Brian.
Another man tells how he and Brian were in a boat off the coast of Maine when a fog rolled in, and they suddenly had no idea in which direction the shore lay. They hadn’t brought a radio and were at least five miles from land, but Brian didn’t panic. Somehow he figured out which way to go. Maybe it was how the waves broke, or the wind. What this man remembers is that Brian showed no fear, just calm acceptance.
In Brian’s last five years, I often wished he were dead. By then he was an end-stage alcoholic, and they are nothing but trouble. He’d been hospitalized numerous times, had lost part of a lung, had overdosed, had gotten pneumonia, and, five months before he died, had washed up at my sister’s house in Arlington, Virginia, still smoking, still drinking (drunk, in fact), half dead with pneumonia and pulmonary disease and wanting her to help him finish the job. She called me, the nurse in the family, and I explained how to make him comfortable. I reminded my sister that she had both Ativan and Vicodin in her medicine cabinet. (Because I am the family’s medical consultant, my siblings always tell me what they’ve been prescribed, and because I’m an addict, I always listen carefully.) She gave him both pills, and he calmed down and slept. When he awoke, he decided he didn’t want to die just then, so my sister took him to a doctor, who gave him Ativan to try to get him off the booze. My sister emptied her house of alcohol, but Brian drank Listerine and then went to the nearby store for beer.
Finally Brian’s long-suffering girlfriend came down from Massachusetts to help out, and he did get sober for a few months and even went to South Carolina to work. I don’t know much about those last months, only that I was glad he was far away from me. There was nothing to be done, I felt. All the words had been said, the rehabs paid for, the bail put up, the calls taken, the tears shed, the prayers uttered. If it was time for him to return to the soil, so be it.
He did get through to me once on the phone, right before I left to go on vacation. He was sick and needed medical advice. He said he couldn’t eat, his urine was the color of Coca-Cola, and his stool was white. I wasn’t sure right away what his constellation of symptoms meant. (I’ve been strictly a psychiatric nurse for a while.) At first I thought, Liver, but Brian said the doctor had told him his liver was OK. I said that if it wasn’t his liver, then he’d better have his pancreas checked.
Before we hung up, I reached deep down to try to find the bountiful love I’d had for him as a girl, but I could not find it. So, being a nurse, I said, “Take care of yourself. Stay off the booze. Eat good food. But stay off the booze — that’s the most important thing.” He assented weakly. At the time I thought he was sober.
Then I went on my vacation, and one of the places my boyfriend Peter and I stopped was at the home of an old friend of my parents. V. had been in a commune with my parents back in 1946, in Jamaica, Vermont. Some of the people in the commune had trust funds, and some did not. Some had to live off the food from their gardens, and some did not. My parents and V. did not have trust funds.
I am always seeking to untangle the mystery of my family’s pain, so when I meet people who knew my parents before I was born, I pump them for information, trying to understand what may have occurred to damage them — and us — so severely. V. said my mother was continually leaving my father, storming down the road with her children trailing along at her heels. Mother would tell V. how she was going to move to New York, or Boston, or Tierra del Fuego. At first V. took it seriously, but soon she realized this was a pattern; that the next time she saw her, my mother would be back with my father, smiling as if all were well.
V. also felt that my mother and father had always shut Brian out. She speculated that it had been mostly my father’s doing: when it became clear that he did not accept his son, my mother, too, rejected Brian, to keep her husband pacified.
My brother was born at home with a country doctor in attendance, and family lore has it that when Brian slid from my mother’s body, and his penis came into view, my father said aloud, to no one in particular, “I can’t be a father to a son.”
Brian had a fearless, wise soul, but he also had a death wish so strong there was no fighting it. Whatever AA might say, no one who knew Brian really believes it was the drugs and alcohol that killed him. They were just the instruments he used to bring his death about. He could not get sober because when he tried — and oh, how he tried — something painful and animal and angry rose up in him, something he would rather have died than fight. He had received a mortal wound to his ego at a young age. He had no higher power on which to call.
Peter and I were staying at a Super 8 motel when I called home to make sure my cats were OK. The cats were fine, but Brian wasn’t. My sister told me he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. Dereka and Brian’s daughter, Viney, had gone down to South Carolina to get him out of the hospital and bring him home.
I went outside the motel to smoke. We were on a lake surrounded by dry hills, bare except for some kind of brush growing between rocky outcroppings. I stood in the clear water where the tiny waves lapped at the shore, and I thought, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my strength.” And then I thought, No, that’s not true. This trip had proved it wrong. The whole time it had not been the mountains that had given me strength; it had been the small things: the moss, the stones, the lady-slippers, the way wood twisted as it grew. Peter would say, “Look at those mountains,” and I’d drag my head up reluctantly and say, “Yeah,” and then look back down to what really mattered: the forest floor.
I thought perhaps pancreatic cancer was beautiful under a microscope, the cells’ ductal shape adding interest to the otherwise fat, even ovals with their dark nuclei. I imagined the pathologist turning on his stool, unsquinting his eye, checking a box on a form. The diagnosis was clear: pancreatic adenocarcinoma. I imagined the doctor telling Brian none too gently, since my brother clearly had not lived his life in fear of such things, “Six months.”
But the nurse cried. Dereka told me that when Brian left the hospital, the nurse cried and said he was “just the sweetest thing.” Yes, and here again I had confirmation of this strange quality he had, which I later saw when he was dying and had forgotten to want his drugs and drink, and I had forgotten to be mad at him, and he was back to being what he once was: lovable, appreciative, aware, gallant.
Brian died at his girlfriend’s house in Massachusetts, a post-Victorian home with peeling paint and clapboard siding in a once-prosperous mill town. Dereka, Viney, and the girlfriend did most of the work, but toward the end I came down and stayed with Brian at night, to give them a break. Mostly I slept, but, being a mother, I woke whenever he began to stir. In the dim light I would turn and see him doing something in the air with his hands, lost in a morphine dream. I would get up out of my chair and stand by the bed and ask what he wanted. Sometimes he wanted to sit up. Then, when he sat up, he peed. His urine was raspberry-colored. His penis was uncircumcised. I’d known that, but still, it was strange to see it, strange to see the muscle in his lower abdomen working to push the urine out.
Then his mouth would be dry, so I’d get him something to drink. Viney had stocked the refrigerator with every drink and treat he might desire. He had not always been the best father to her, but she was the best daughter he could have asked for. She stayed with him from the moment he got his diagnosis to the second he drew his last breath. She even put coins on his eyes to keep the lids down once he was dead.
At any rate, I’d get him ice-cold water, or soda, or a yogurt, or a little box of apple juice. He liked it all. One night I got him some water and gave him his pain pill and his Ativan and sat by him on the bed (this was before the hospital bed) and had a drink myself; iced tea it was. And as we sat there in the companionable silence, he turned to me and said, “So, what’s your name?”
I laughed. I had made a big mistake with some hair dye and turned my hair an unusual shade of red. I said, “I know my hair is red, Bri, but I am still your sister.” He laughed too, not at all embarrassed to have forgotten me. The thing is, even when he hadn’t known who I was, he’d been so polite. He’d thanked me for every little thing, asked me if I wanted a drink, made profound sighs of pleasure at my offerings. Even in the depths of his illness, he was thoughtful.
I let him smoke too. The others gave him only unlit cigarettes. He would puzzle over them and try to strike hallucinatory matches and puzzle some more. Lying by his bed one late afternoon, I decided I didn’t care: I was going to let him smoke, and if anyone tried to stop me, they’d have a fight on their hands. I announced my intentions to all and sundry, then got a match and lit his cigarette. I had to hold it to his lips when he was ready to inhale. He took, in total, four deep puffs. The pleasure on his face was exquisite. He turned his eyes to mine and said in amazement, “That’s a good cigarette.”
I will never regret that.
The next-to-last night I was with him, he was in a hospital bed, and when I put the rail down so he could sit on the edge of the bed, the metal bar dug into his skinny thighs. So I bunched a quilt in between his legs and the cold steel of the rail, and then I went to get him something to drink. When I came back, he was trying to extend the quilt so that I could sit beside him and be comfortable too. In fact, he’d gotten it into his head that this whole project with the quilt was really for me, and he was turned around, one knee on the bed, the other spidery leg barely holding him steady on the floor while he tucked and pulled and folded. I put the soda down and said, “No, Brian, this is for you, not me. Don’t worry about it.”
And he turned to me and, with his toothless grin, said, “Baby, you can have it any way you want.”
I laughed and said, “Brian, you keep forgetting that I’m your sister.”
“Oh, is that so?” he replied thoughtfully.
I had thought I was done with him. But now that he was dying and couldn’t hurt us anymore, I could love him again. And, God, did I love him. We all did, we girls. We lavished love on him, folding our arms around him, smiling into his eyes, kissing, hugging, catering to his every whim while he wasted away and his eyes sank and his body began to stink with bedsores and his mind wandered and he became the boy we remembered — or, better yet, anything we wanted him to be. Brian. Bri. Candy.