Bad Math

10257863_10205087245313522_8928703632963846795_oDavid would have been 56 today. A photo of us, my head resting on his right shoulder and our brother Tommy sitting at his left, pops up in my Facebook feed as a “memory”—as if I would forget this birthday without this visual reminder. The photo is from a restaurant in Houston called Julia’s where we had a fantastic dinner years ago, a restaurant that, like my brother, is now gone.

In my inbox, a daily email from the Writer’s Almanac says today, March 13, is the birthday of Percival Lowell, Janet Flanner, Pope Innocent XII, even Uncle Sam—at least the day he was “born” in the form of a cartoon character in 1852 in a publication called the New York Lantern. It seems David’s name, far more important to me than any of these, should also appear here in the list of VIP birthdays as I scroll.

Wikipedia says, “March 13 is the 72nd day of the year (73rd in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 293 days remaining until the end of the year.” There are 365 days—or 364 if next year is a leap year—before I feel quite this feeling again.

I saw Tommy last week when he turned 53. I know the proximity in their birthdays brought both celebration and competition growing up. Now it causes only sadness. Already, Tommy has surpassed David’s life by six years, which seems like bad math; David was born three years before Tommy. But this is what death does; it changes math. It made Tommy my oldest brother.

Forty-seven years isn’t so bad, and anyone who knew David knew he lived more than most people do in a lifetime in that span. Still, it’s hard not to feel cheated each and every year, as I am greedy. Wanting more, so much more. And unable to add much.

Though I had a rare dream about David a couple of weeks ago, so rare in fact that it might have been only the third time that he has appeared in my unconsciousness this way, unsummoned by me, a welcome visitor. In the scene, David was driving a speedboat—too fast, no surprise—while I sat in the seat behind him, being splashed with spray and laughing raucously. It felt dangerous and safe at the same time, a sense my brother provoked easily. Upon waking, I cried as I cried when I lost him the first time, in real life, the way waking up reminded me of the reality each and every day for years, and not just on his birthday.

It was strange last week, as always, to be back “home” in Houston, surrounded in our mother’s house by her photos and mementos of David—her own shrine, different from mine, from Tommy’s—reminding me of our deeply varied relationships, the relationships that still go on for each of us, even now, as a wise writer recently wrote me.

I have not yet lived as long as David did, but I hope to, and I hope to surpass him too. As the baby of the family, I wonder if I will outlive everyone eventually, if not also go beyond their years, their numbers, their experiences. I wonder, as we all must do, whether we will meet again, somewhere where numbers don’t exist.

I love Tommy, and I know he loves me too, but we are unlikely to put our heads on each other the way I did that night after dinner, warm with red wine, with good food, and with the comfort, the security, the assuredness of my siblings, with our brother David between us.

We are minus one and counting.



Ashes, Ashes

spodomancy_on_white_paper_-_thin_ashes_01A couple of days ago, I clicked the small ornate letter T on my iPhone, as I do most mornings, and ran my finger down the appealingly slick surface, scanning the headlines in my New York Times app. Sick of the elections, racial tensions and ongoing police dramas, I kept scrolling, taking note of items but not engaging enough to actually click on anything until I saw an article titled, “Powder Tossed at Metropolitan Opera May Have Been Human Ashes.” Yep, that’s the kind of story that always gets my attention.

I won’t suggest I don’t have a certain kind of curiosity many would call morbid, though I just consider it an interest, not unlike any kind of interest anyone might have — say, in horses or sports or knitting — except in my case, it’s all things death, dying and grieving. Sometimes, it isn’t the same kind of conversation starter as other topics. Yet, sometimes it is.

I read with great interest about how a man in the audience had waited until the intermission of a Rossini performance and then apparently sprinkled something white into the orchestra pit. He was “witnessed” doing it, he was caught on video reaching into a black bag, and then — after the rest of the show was cancelled and the audience members evacuated — the powder was examined by experts. The orchestra pit was declared a crime scene! The entire debacle was called a “terrorism scare.” That’s the kind of world we live in.

As it happened, the guy was simply trying to fulfill the dying wish of a dear friend, a guy who had originally introduced him to opera. Terry, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, had agreed to the romantic idea that his cremains be scattered among famous concert halls. When “The Sprinkler” later wrote the director of the Met an apology letter for the enormous disturbance explaining the scheme, he said, so beautifully, “I jokingly told Terry they would never be able to vacuum all of him up. He would be there forever enjoying all the beautiful music.”

I am, I know, more than likely inordinately drawn to subjects like this. I read follow-up articles in the Times and the Washington Post, the latter of which recalled that the only times the Met had ever cancelled performances partway through was for death: once for an artist who died onstage after singing an aria about death, once for an elderly man who jumped from the balcony during “Macbeth,” and once for a tenor who literally sang the phrase, “You can only live so long” (though probably in Italian) before he succumbed to a heart attack.

If this is not all some crazy kind of poetry, what is?

It all took me back to my own situation, poetic too in its way, I suppose, especially in retrospect. Eight years ago, I sat in the library of a church parish in Houston with my mother, my brother’s stepmother and a pastor I had just met. An odd grouping, to be sure, borne of a terrible situation. Together, we opened a black plastic box, about the size of a shoebox, and a plastic bag that was tucked inside that contained my brother’s ashes, the dusty stuff he had been reduced to after his — I’m tempted to say “untimely death,” but what death is exactly timely? — and proceeded to divvy up the sandy stuff into small parcels.

The plan was to distribute little dime bags of my dear brother to his friends and relatives so that pieces of him would be sprinkled throughout the world. Because he died after hiking a bunch of peaks, because all he ever really wanted was to be outdoors, because globetrotting was one of his most intense joys, we all hoped that he, like Terry, would end up in glorious and amazing places that meant something to him for all eternity.

I wonder now where the grey-white powder from my brother, the shockingly small residue of a big life, has been sprinkled. I hadn’t thought much about it after the memorial service where we discreetly tucked the parcels into people’s hands like drugs. A unique parting gift for sure.

As Terry hoped to have tiny fragments caught in the fibers of lush red carpeting above which voices would soar, I hope that David ended up mixed into the scree on enormous mountains, in the sand of expansive beaches, in the soil of a field somewhere ablaze with wildflowers.



10608734_10206384392821399_8447542291957026714_oThere is something about anniversaries that seems to automatically set us up for disappointment, regardless of why the day is significant. The year marker of a lovely experience like a wedding, or a benign thing like a birthday, or an accomplishment like quitting smoking are wrought with expectation and memory:

What if he doesn’t remember?
Will I get the present I want? If not, I’ll have to fake being excited.
I quit the day my friend had her mastectomy. She died anyway, after all that.

Anniversaries that are/should be celebratory often still bring up doubts and questions, stress or judgment:

I don’t know why we’re still together.
I can’t believe I’m already 60 – one year closer to retirement/more wrinkles/less mobility/death.
What’s the point of eating healthy and exercising? There’s no guarantee that any of it will matter.

The anniversary of a death is, by definition, sad in most cases. But it also holds expectations, questions and hard reflections.

Yes! I am going to do a memorial hike!
What will I feel? Will it be appropriate? I will have to hold it together even though I’m falling apart inside.
What if I don’t think about him every minute of the day? Does that mean I’m over it or I have a hardened heart?
How can it be that he’s been gone for seven whole years? Life doesn’t make sense.

Thursday came and went without much fanfare, much to my disappointment. I felt I had to go to work (new job) and the weather was awful (90 degrees and 98% humidity killed my motivation), so the hike was postponed/cancelled. All I managed to do was send a brief email to my mom and a text to my brother, and pull an old photo off of Snapfish and post it to Facebook. It was a sweet picture of David and me growing up, but all my post did was make my friends sad for me and inform the acquaintances that didn’t know I’d lost a brother, so they were shocked and sad for me. Spreading misery – not what I wanted.

The story behind the picture might have been better:

In it I’m perched on a brand new bike, cherry red with the training wheels still on, my hands grasping the arched handlebars in a determined way, like I have places to go. I’m pretty sure I had just received it as a Christmas present, as there is still one of those fuzzy 70s ribbons tied onto it. I’m pretty sure I’m still all dressed up for Christmas given that I’m wearing a red and green dress plus patent leather t-straps (with socks!) and I was generally forced into dresses for special occasions against my will when I was growing up. (The fact that it’s a sundress doesn’t mean it wasn’t Christmas since I grew up in Houston and we were often in t-shirts in December.) I’m pretty sure I’m five in the photo.

That means David, standing behind me, barefoot, but wearing khakis and an Izod, would have been 17. We’re in the driveway at the house on Acacia and he’s ready to do something if I start to fall – I can tell by how he’s focused on me, not the camera. I can tell because of his active hands. I know because he was my big brother and would have been worried about me.

I remember him spending a lot of time with me in that driveway, helping me learn to steer and balance and pedal and finally move into the street. He helped me get the training wheels off – literally and figuratively. I owe him a lot. I owed him a better anniversary.

Seven years and counting…

David at altitudeThis Thursday will be the first time that September 3rd falls on a Thursday in seven years. The cycle that bumps days of the week has made one full rotation.

It was on September 3, 2008, that my big brother, David, went missing. I remember it all too well.

It was on a mountain like the one in he’s standing on in this picture where he felt his last elation. I like to think he was as happy as he looks here for his last moment.

I can’t believe another year has gone by. I still miss him all the time.

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