Last November, I read the Gita every day, usually in the morning. I read it out loud. I read Chapter 10, where *god* attempts a taxonomy of who he or she is, and this definition is basically a list of the most beautiful things on earth, and, by extension, the universe. This happens in conversation with a young soldier, Arjuna, of royal birth, and the hero of the story.
Arjuna is about to face the bloodiest day of battle against his enemy, and yet it is an intimate, quiet moment between them. This meeting, between man and god, takes place in the morning, as the mist is rising over the fields.
All right, Arjuna: I will tell you
a few of my manifestations,
the most glorious ones, for infinite
are the forms in which I appear. (10.18-21)
Goodbye to Earth
The phone rang. It was raining, a cloudy November morning. I answered as I was crossing the street. I stood there, the rain pouring down. That’s how it ended. That’s how it was over. In fact, nobody was there when he died– he had died the night before. In fact, his body was in a different city by the time my family found out. He just disappeared. Nobody ever saw him again. I’d been on my way out for breakfast, so I went anyway. I had bacon, eggs and two glasses of wine. After, I bought yahrzeit candles, dug up photographs, and built an ad hoc altar on my window ledge. This is the first time I read the Gita, candles burning, on my knees, on the dark hardwood floor of my Brooklyn apartment.
I think he knew his sense of self would remain intact — that he had a soul that was timeless, and all he had to do was let go of his body. But that meant saying goodbye to earth, the life he had known, and the people he’d loved. That was the price he’d have to pay. He’d have to get rid of legs and hands and eyes that didn’t work anymore — like the soul battling for dominance over the body, and a gradual severing of the two. Until one night, he shook himself free. And he didn’t want an audience. It was private.
I am the beginning and the life span
of beings, and their end as well. (10.18-21)
You know I called our estranged brother Mike three days or four days after you died. And you know I choked out an apology for doing something 20 years ago that had to be done. You know all this because you sent me a text, in a dream, and it said, You can tell that story, but don’t hurt his family. It was pretty easy to find Mike’s phone number. We’d recently driven by his house when I was in town. And of course, our family on Facebook always posts pics of him and his family on Christmas Eve. So I know how much he looks like our stepfather, his father, which is weird, right? And yet Mike’s personality is nothing like his.
Instead he is the perpetual oddball kid in pointy sneakers, who wrote poetry when he was nine, “I knew a girl, she was a pearl.” He’d sing this to me in the kitchen, when I came home to visit. He sang in all seriousness. It was his performance. Middle kids have a hard time in general; especially in our family, with the three reigning idiots — you, me and Stevie taking up so much space. It was a hothouse environment ripe for the creation of both love and hate. Didn’t Tolstoy say this? All unhappy families are alike.
I called Mike, because Stevie, our other brother, said to me, you can’t come to the family breakfast after Mark’s funeral, unless you make the peace with Mike. It’s up to him. Then he added — actions have consequences. What I learned is that even your death was no match for denial, and that has consequences, too. And that wasn’t a price I was ever going to pay. I never had the luxury of denial. I envy anyone who has constructed an alternative narrative about our parents. Ignorance is bliss, yes, but sometimes it’s also death. And maybe that’s the same thing.
I missed the 21-gun salute to you at Union Grove Cemetery, but I wrote the eulogy you requested. I know you’d understand. First of all, I knew you wouldn’t be there. Second, it would be like jumping off the rocks into Lake Michigan in September. Nobody survives that. But I bet Stevie and his wife put out a nice spread: eggs, bagels, an assortment of salads, baked ham and vodka. The guests, in the lakefront home that morning, did not include your daughter, your granddaughter, your youngest brother, or any of your sisters. But that is the way of our hometown family. That is their insularity.
But in a parallel universe, at your memorial breakfast, we all cavort on Stevie’s front lawn– overlooking the lake. Brother Johnny brings out the speakers and sets them in the driveway; Exile on Main Street, full blast. Stevie sets up a card table with a fifth of Smirnoff, and we pass a joint back and forth. Some of the cousins are dancing. The sun sets and the light hits each blade of green grass on Stevie’s lawn, travels east to illuminate the white caps on the water, and then the clouds overhead. In this moment, we stop, we cease all revelry, and acknowledge that yes once upon a time, we all really did love each other. But we don’t anymore.
I know Mike was good to you in your final days. I know he grieves for you as well, that when he listened to my voice, asking him to forgive me– so I would be allowed at your memorial breakfast — I know he was heartbroken, and couldn’t wait to erase my message. He had to pretend he never heard me cry. There was just too much realness there:
This is the sister I used to sing to, before she fucked everything up.
I think I have told this story in a way that doesn’t hurt his family, but does allow me to grieve for you; the gremlin brother with blue eyes, who pissed outside, and the oddball middle brother who wrote poetry, and the other middle brother and his mansion on the lake, and our sister with her cap of curly hair, and John boy the youngest, who we tortured and loved in equal measure. And all the rest is just a page in the history of family, the biggest book ever written, always hungry for the next chapter.
***(SYTOS)*** (See You On The Other Side)
I was thinking about the 6 stars in his last text to me. I saw it when I came up from the A train, back home again in New York City. I saw the stars as a symbol of the universe, of the night sky. It’s been 170 days since I last heard from him. But our last digital conversation wasn’t sad at all. He was leaving, yes, and not coming back, but — I could find him again. We didn’t have to say goodbye. I was so relieved. I’d been dreading it. I was so happy for us. I really was. Yes, I will see you on the other side, happy travels, bro, like he was going to the Grand Canyon, or checking into the Jolly Roger on AIA in Ft. Lauderdale, on the beach.
Sometimes I’ll go back to the last 95 days of his life, and read all his texts; especially the ones where he’s hallucinating. I always understood what he was saying: It scared me a tremendous bingo. I’ll listen to the 45 seconds of him singing, I Can’t Make You Love Me. He sent the audio file to Johnny and I, siblings in NYC. That was the weekend, he was so high on Fentanyl, he said, I just had a conversation with cousin Debi, but she’s not here. But he wasn’t in pain. That was my bifurcated reality– somewhere my heart was breaking, but somewhere it was not. As long as he wasn’t in pain, or the pain was manageable, everything was alright. The thought that my brother could actually disappear from my life was too ridiculous to contemplate.
Cousin Debi made a tapestry of his t-shirts and mailed it to me. I got his death certificate in the mail, crumpled it up, and saved it. He left two walking sticks here. One was adjustable, and I gave it to the guy who maintains the flower gardens around here. He said he had a friend who really needed it. When I picked it up, it was so clearly adjusted to his height. I could feel his weight. I kept the wooden one; it’s in the corner by the window, next to a picture of all of us at Stevie’s wedding.
I was just singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, because that’s the other side, isn’t it? Three stars equal we’re not really saying good-bye? That’s where I’ll find you. I don’t know if I believe that anymore, and I hope this doesn’t make you sad. I read another series of texts from August 2014– when all this was new. And you were very Buddha about it: Don’t be sad, I’m not sad. This is just how my life ends. And I said, Yes, I get it, I respect it, but I will still miss you.
Ok, so now I’m at the part where I miss you
He knew it was coming. I think for a while he tried to outrun it. And then he sat on the pier on Lake Michigan, and went fishing, wore wooden beads that dangled from his wrist and a black straw hat. And that’s why he dyed his hair purple, in the last few months of his life.
It was an honor and privilege to bear witness to his last days on earth, but there were times when I didn’t think I was going to survive. The first night of my last visit to Wisconsin, in late October, he was sleeping. I went outside to talk to Johnny, my baby brother, and my fucking heart was breaking. It was hard for me to breathe. It was beyond crying. I don’t know what you’d call it. It was late, past eleven o’clock, as I walked north, towards Library Park and the downtown. Johnny kept saying big breath in, big breath out. Then he said walk to the bar, by the marina, have a glass of wine, but I wanted to get back to Mark.
On the second night of the second visit, I dreamt I was in Lincoln Park, at the lagoon, in the shadow of a giant willow tree. The moon was full and I could see the water so clearly– even the weird little needle-nosed fish. Then a small gathering of people, maybe twenty, walked towards me, in the water, in the river. And everything was kind of black and white, like the color had been washed from the image. I didn’t recognize anybody, but they were happy to see me. One woman in particular stood out from the rest– large dark eyes, long black dress with white lace collar. I tried to be brave, but I knew that every single person in the river was dead. And I’ve always assumed, since Mark had six weeks to live, our people, our shared ancestors, were gathering in the river to greet him.
Lately, however, I think they were there for me.
The Afterlife: Las Olas Boulevard
I think he fell out of bed at the nursing home because he was really at the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, just north of Las Olas Boulevard, and south of Sunrise. This was his favorite spot, old school Florida– the Jolly Roger Hotel, and the Parrot; a tiki bar for locals. He was at the shoreline in a hospital bed, just as the sun was coming up, facing south, and sitting up. Instead of being in some institutional nursing home, he was at the beach. And he just got up, and walked away, headed north. On earth– his body fell out of bed. And that was the end. The rest was pro forma. Maybe his heart kept beating, but — really, he was at the beach, smoking a Marlboro Light, and a having a coffee. And he knew he was dead, and said, glad that shit’s over.
I’m pretty sure that’s how it went down.
Let Me Go
340 days after his last text to me, ***STYOS****, I watched a video of the cremation process. I wish I could’ve stopped myself, but I didn’t even try: The body is wrapped up tight in plastic, like an Egyptian mummy. It arrives at on a rolling cart at the door of the incinerator. A person puts it in a cardboard box, and slides it, like a slice of pizza, into the oven. Then the rough ash and bone is placed in a kind of blender– which grinds it down to a fine powder, and the contents are placed in another, much smaller box. All day, I saw that series of images, accompanied by the reverse crescendo in Claire de Lune— on a continuous loop. I don’t know why I married the two together. But it brought me some peace.
I don’t read the Gita anymore, and I don’t talk to him, because I have to let him go. I wasn’t letting him go. When someone dies, we try to hold onto the past because this is where they are alive. They have a musculature. They have an ascending and descending aorta. They have hemoglobin, neurons, hair, nails, teeth, a heart; all the delicate tricky machinery of being human.
Let me go. That’s how he ended his phone calls, or texts, even if he’d been dominating the conversation for the last forty-five minutes.
Ok, let me go.
Ok, I will.
Whatever in this world is excellent
and glows with intelligence or beauty–
be sure that it has its source
in a fragment of my divine splendor. (10.41-42)
Bhagavad Gita. Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Three Rivers Press, New York, NY, 2000.