Death’s Sorrow, a Song that Sings Without Invitation

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Gary Guenther

Why, sometimes, bother to write at all? Words have their own impulse to sound themselves, like small and large gongs shuddering under our hands. But mostly tonight I write only because what else can I possibly do?

My older of two brothers, Gary, age 79, had a massive heart attack Thursday night or Friday morning, then perhaps another, and was placed immediately on life support. Then passed this morning, with our help. We sat hunched about, stood staring, immobile, wept and wondered, spoke to his likely unhearing ears, held his hands or feet. And so soon! he was gone.

My brother of magic music hands and hard-headed ways and large living. A well-educated man and a self-taught man, a person who could not get enough knowledge.

I had just visited with him three days before–after he had been ill for several months and in hospital often. But that day he seemed so far from the verge of death. No, he was so much better than he had been in many months, in all known ways. Clear and more at ease, his severe congestive heart failure and bi-polar illness episode well treated. Thinner, a man once tall and broad-shouldered now smaller, folding in and out as his gestured and leaned.

Hearing this tonight, now: his saxophones and clarinets and flutes talking mad and mellow music; his buoyant singing tripping over tables and faces, those great old standards, swing, Gypsy jazz. Sizzling, shuffling, deep dipping, high scaling notes; the swirl, punch, laugh of the wild and pensive being you have always been.

I want to say: Speak to us, tell us the plaintive truths. Tune up the atmosphere with songs made to be freed. Make a ruckus but not a terrible one, an ebullient one.

Please.

You could say anything. Raw or tender, frightening or confounding, irritating and illuminating and just plain curious and so riveting to me.

My brother’s photographic memory, phenomenal, the vast ranging information, philosophy and science, arts and politics and world history, a myriad opinions and dreams and intuitions and more. The several hundreds of films he critiqued, copied, shared. The music he mentally cataloged, spoke of with eloquence, voice rat-a-tat-rat-a-tat, slip-sliding along: it mesmerized me sometimes–as it did even him. I would call and sing a song’s–jazz, classical, pop–first few measures and he would tell me its title, give me the words if they were forgotten. My own phone wizard of music quizzes.

He was the first one who read my first attempt at a novel and when he said how much he appreciated it, how he believed in my writing, I was stunned, as he read a couple books or more a week, and read diverse choices, read well. He could understand my story’s or poem’s underground lives, the crisscross of meanings. Like he also knew I was a dancer who mostly didn’t dance. A singer who cut off my love affair with music to survive in the greater and much harder world.

And I knew more of him than he thought I knew and he knew this eventually. But I also knew very little, much less than what others even said, the good and the not good. I was just watching, hearing in my own way, from soul and gut. And I only write what I know, what I feel; what else can we offer but our own truth…

Welcome to my house, I said (what matters to me is being blood). Welcome to mine, he said. So we came/went and enjoyed.

His baked beans, his ham and potatoes, missed already. His cigar-smelly, liquor-in-a-glass, sweat-tinged, tiny music club room in the back yard. Instruments galore, whole and in pieces, stereo and radio, small open window so the chickens could pop in and out of his place, then his partner’s studio. His good bare feet took him everywhere. White mane of hair and rumpled hats. The fascination with not only instruments but cars and motorcycles, like Dad. Appreciation of small things, the value of what was used and tossed that he then took apart and repaired. How he liked dogs and cats, their very animal-ness, his affinity. Cared about the forlorn; I have heard them speak of him. Loved his partner’s good rich art and her–so long.

I don’t know how I cared for someone this much, about whom I usually saw so little. He left home for University of Michigan when I was 7, got two degrees, taught at a prestigious college and worked at mental health clinics. But later he lived right down the street.I pass by their house every day almost. I have stopped in on a whim. and it was good to greet him, share a hug, sing a little tune. He thought I might perform with his band some years ago. No, but I heard them play several times, so good I danced, a happy fool, in my chair.

Did we always see eye-to-eye? No, but please, forget those tenacious family issues, everyone has them despite best attempts at denial or correction. Everyone can say yes or no to what they want to hold close. I have so much learn, but being a family member is something not hard for me. Maybe because I trailed along behind the four older ones, I’ve loved them from close to the ground with its gravity, closer yet to the heart because I am the person I am. And I cannot not love with entirety, little pest sister who grew up to be this person, a full human being.

We had that perfect three hour visit last Tuesday. It truly was. So long it had been. I was so glad he was up and about though shaky-legged, that he shared such conversation as hoped for. I got to take him to the grocery. We talked possible vegetables and the preference for darkest chocolate and bad-tasty chicken strips and three big cartons of puddings as he zipped around in an electric cart. I could not get him to buy oranges but did get him to buy bananas. We laughed as he drove fast but not too fast to tip over displays; he had good corner control. People smiled, nodded at us; we smiled back. He was so appreciative of the deli man’s careful way, making up a whole new batch of chicken strips for him. The lady next to us suggested it with a twinkle in her eye. Gary liked that. He said the big box would last him the week; the savory-greasy aroma gave him a grin.

And yes, the talk of musicians and favorite places in Mexico where he still wanted to live, maybe November he’d get there again, that was paradise to him, heat and colors and simpler ways. Then, old friends he had seen come and go, people who had worn shirts and socks he had given them, why not, and money, it comes and goes, it’s the way it should be. And what of my writing now, what would come later, what did I think? Write, Cynthia, keep going.

Finally, his not being able to play music, anymore. Heartache, dulled under resignation. And of God, once a useless topic to him, now of meaning. An eruption of so many possibilities.

His round hugs and three kisses the last day, happy at last. And: see you next week for the ultrasound, Gary! And I was thinking of how soon Marc and I would make a pot of good pasta and hefty salad for our table and Gary would be able to join us again and we’d all talk like we had all night long. we’d all prayed. It felt like an answer to fervent prayers.

But we never know anything for certain, we do know that–then are surprised.

This is what I miss tonight: what we will not now do together, what could have been possible since he got better… after the interminably long illness stopping things, separating all…How time and opportunity have faltered and forsaken me once more. Though it is finally accepted, anyway. With appreciation– for what we’ve enjoyed, or never get over it.

Did he leave, finally, the material world because his music was to be played and shared no more? Or he was just worn out, finally burdened by breathing, the surfeit of song and sorrow and stitched up things? Such agony he knew, such joy. It can be soul-tiring to live hanging onto a grand bright kite of life and looking down to see a whole messy, stupendous scene yet still ask relentless questions with no definitive answers. Then, finally, to become servile under the dictator of illness. And under the new rules of aging that no one truly briefs you about, it’s often just everyone for themselves calling out an embarrassed help now and then.

And the bullying of the years’ errors, what a villainous thing it can be. I know some of that waste. Hard to proceed without assistance or it can drive you to the edge. We all need it or are lying to ourselves. He got the help–despite his intention (with his daughter’s insistence and devotion to his aid). Our prayers, my good Lord, how hard can one pray…. Are we not all worthy and unworthy and ever needing transformation? I believe God saw his hand out and came forth and my brother opened the windows and then a door. It changes things. It did change things.

Life is carried in many ways here. Can feel like a back-bruising pack of odds and ends, dreams and demons, wounds and wonders. Shadows. Miracles. Breaths un-breathed and hissed and whispered, heart beats jumping and waltzing, finally resting on a too-long pause…

You, my brother: done here.

Yes, that Stairway to the Stars, Gary. Come on now, sync with the new rhythms. Flee to peaceable places. The Light loves you no matter what, I swear to you the angels speak in a kaleidoscope of tongues, sing crystalline choruses, are like jewel-bright fires dancing as the pathway opens.

It all will be revealed, now go.

Going up now, don’t let go of those who love you until a sonorous bell rings long and loud, then you will see.

And here I am waving, Gary, I am waving at you, still.

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Best Bargains for Life

3/4/17

Hello Diane,

Yesterday afternoon I could have been sold anything at all, and in fact it turned out I needed bronzed peach lipstick, baby pink blush, “age retraction” moisturizer and an introductory sized perfume (I’ve forgotten the name already, maybe “Intoxicate”. ) My hand barely trembled as I signed off on the surfeit of beauty products. I’m sure the saleswoman didn’t see that bounty coming. Me, a barely forty year old woman of modest means who was attired–can I even say that? maybe just covered up— in athletic wear, even if it was a good design with great colors, turquoise and yellow. Sweat was just evaporating from my upper lip, forehead and neck. That’s my style, not some pearly satin foundation. But I fell prey to her insistent good cheer. I became convinced while staring into the fancy hand mirror as she dabbed and daubed this and that, that any advice she offered I should believe. I needed it right then. I was under a serious spell; she ought to be given a bonus for her brainwashing skills. Otherwise, why would I have become so vulnerable, spent that money?

You know how I feel about spending on trifles. You and I are the ones who almost never indulge, only sometimes at a sale. Remember that white silky blouse and the form fitting black pants you said looked so perfect on me? I still haven’t worn them. The accusatory price tags dangle more like security tags not to be removed. The clothes hang in the back of my closet, a conspicuous lapse I don’t want to recall, another indicator that I am weak when I should be immune to such pitfalls. Especially flattery. But sometimes one needs such a thing. And if unnecessary beauty supplies are part of that need…you understand, I know. You do love lipstick.

Your usually pensive sister is feeling about as reasonable or spiritual as that hefty receipt. I sense danger here; I need a support group to get over this recurrent feeling that I deserve less than others. I am sure you can suggest a few.

But yesterday I had finally had enough of wounding asides from Ethan. What a time of it I’ve had lately. Can I tell you about things–again?

I get that he periodically engages in this mighty battle with depression. I get that he has daily free-form anxiety nipping at his heels. Who doesn’t get some anxiety and depression in this age and place? We live in the Age of Absolute Ambiguity Somewhere on the Edge of a Deep Reckoning. No, I know it’s more serious than flippancy. It’s all severe and impactful. Frightening, at times. And when I really get a good look at things eye-to-eye, I run. Literally, of course. And at times end up places not intended, like the mall yesterday. A brief escape.

He barked at me. Ethan not a real dog, of course, and not really like a dog, yet his words started to sound more like that than meaningful words offered in regular conversation. It was the opening insults–that I am a nitpicker, never understand him, have not the patience or perhaps intelligence to comprehend his complexity–hurled my way. Then finally an irritable refrain:”You always blame me, I’m the one who’s wrong, I’m the screw up, you’re Miss Perfect!”–and then his old victim mode clicks into place and there’s no way I can detour around it effectively. It’s like a double locked door. No sweet talking will budge that bolt of narcissism and the other of self pity. Or whatever it is. Nothing I say would be considered anything other than direct firing upon him. It matters not that I may even have a need of self defense. So I have to leave.

You know how this goes. How many times have I picked up the phone and tried not to complain but you heard the rumbles of trouble, anyway, and suggested I go for a run at the least? Me and my exercise, he says, all that matters when his world and the actual world are breaking apart. It is possible, I say under my breath, that maybe all we can do is walk or run or ride bikes or take the boat out, tear off in search of freeing relief at such times in our lives. It does not add harm.

Anyway, Diane, yesterday it all seemed to boil down to how I try to micro-manage him when I suggested that the container of hummus was also bought for me, could my chip get a chance in there, too? He had eaten half of it already, might’ve even killed the whole thing off unless I mentioned it. He sat in front of the TV with container and the crumpled bag of rice chips. I really like hummus and chips, too but he was offended, frustrated with me, then pissed off. I was acting like I was his micro manager, damn it!

What? I was trying to (jokingly) get my chip equal time. He didn’t think it cute or funny.

So, I ran about four miles, then ended up at the mall. I cannot imagine how much fun that woman was having as she wiped down my face with spongy cotton puffs soaked in astringent as I wiped away a drip of sweat. Slowed my breathing, my heart rate. Tried to breathe through my nose, quietly. It felt good to sit there, be taken care of even in a superficial way.

“Busy day, huh?” she asked.

I had an impulse to tell her what just sort of day it was but smiled, studied a number of similar lipstick shades. Let her sweep a fluffy, finely-haired brush over cheekbones and chin. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t know if it was that blush color, last vestiges of heat from running, or my private embarrassment. It was utterly unlike me to be at her mercy. And she didn’t have the right shade of lipstick so she’d mail it free of charge. Music to my ears! Someone cared enough for once to not charge me one more penny just to make me happy. Well, it actually cost seventeen dollars. Too much!

I know, crazy, all of it. But this is what Ethan does to me. Or what I let him do, right? I went home, hid the cosmetics in the bathroom–will I use them? He was watching–you guessed it–television, drug of choice. I made us both a salad and read a book of Ursula Le Guin’s essays. Not trying to one up him, but honestly I couldn’t deal with an auction show much less his snubbing me. Anyway, we didn’t talk the rest of the night.

I will send this email off to you and get to bed. I have another newish book awaiting me.

Any ideas of what I might do next time–rather than buy things I don’t want? No, don’t say cooking or canasta or a women’s choir. I mean truly good ideas. You are so very much cheaper than a real shrink, and I thank you from my heart, in advance.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/5/17, 2:24 a.m.

Hi Diane,

I have been reading for hours and I still am not sleepy. He’s on the couch. I didn’t awaken him. I try to awaken him every night when he falls asleep out there, then stays there and I head to  bed. I go back, try again. Then he gets cranky, refuses to budge. So I just left him there last night, whispered that it was up to him to get his grown self into bed, not me. I don’t want to awaken a dozing bumble bee. I know it’s supposed to be not awaken a sleeping dragon or dog but I like dragons as well as dogs much better, they are less apt to attack right off….Tomorrow night when he comes home he will grumble that I should not have let him sleep so long there, that he was late for work. So it doesn’t matter which I do in the end.

That’s the problem, I cannot please him for long. As you realize after fifteen years of us together.

Ethan was more fun those first years, remember? Spontaneous but steadier. I was once warned he was too sensitive, moody. But I am attracted to those who who are bright, a bit eccentric, perhaps. Or I thought that was what it was. But I tend to become bored with men who don’t prod ideas, explore new experiences with panache. You know how your spouse is a good guy but also, well, a handful… and yet…you do love each other. Is that what Ethan and I have going on underneath the crossed wires, sizzling arguments? I wonder if it’s more a fascinating conundrum that never gets resolved to the other’s satisfaction. Or a game of wits. Whose move? How do I strategize effectively? What does he truly intend despite an appearance of intention?

That does sound cold.

Is there anything else this might be? Okay, a misguided attempt to save someone who does not want to be saved. I am well aware I can’t do that. Yet… I just want to find the Answer. Help him feel good, too. I mean, lots of people have emotional issues that are tough. They get help. They get better. How could I have known he would have a bona fide illness, that his extreme emotional episodes were not just passing reactions to stress or actual crisis? He doesn’t want to get help thus perhaps does not want to get better. And I still, after all this time, just want him to know what it is to be happy. Because I though I’m not ecstatic every day, I’m pretty okay with it or better, finding cheer…except for his unhappiness. Help, maybe a twelve step program is next on my list? I know you think they go overboard. And it’s all just common sense, figuring out life. Until it isn’t, dear Sis. Then it hurts like hell.

Anyway, he is sleeping, snoring away, the noise echoes off ceilings, trundles along walls and enters the bedroom.

And I’m sitting up half the night again, digging about for more elusive hope. Hear that shovel digging away at a mountain of brainstorming? That tool must be getting dull.

Diane, that last book you sent me is fabulous. I read it voraciously, as if there was never such a good story written before. Good books stir up my faith in a fonder, wiser sort of life. And incite feelings that wash over me like peace. I’ll take a tentative, even transitory peace at times. There are moments I feel could live my whole life in books and never miss a thing! But mostly, of course, I sweat/ache/pray over my tangible life–what it is, can be. Will be.

I wish we could get coffee tomorrow and chat about books. Your always interesting being and doing. How was that experimental quartet last week-end?

Why are you so far away?

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

******

3/7/17

Dearest Diane,

After my rigorous run, after I had taken my messes to a country road a mile from our house, after I felt the swell and slope of land under my feet like a heralding of strength, the air so delicate, awakened earth and new flowery things shared like promises of renewal–after all this, I went back home to find him there, home an hour early.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking Oh, dear God no, he’s lost his job–they were sure to find out how unstable he has been feeling sooner or later. That happened once before, did you know that?

“Nothing. I came home to say something I’ve thought about a lot.”

I toweled off my head and chest, bent down to take off my running shoes and as I was untying the laces, I felt fear. The tension of anticipation and that worry he might do something stupid or rash, that all his pent up anxiety and depression he tamps way down to go to work, to live well enough every day in this hard world will have a deadly eruption. I took my time, rinsed off my face from the kitchen faucet, then filled a glass.

Then we sat down at the kitchen table, the one he made four years ago when we bought this place at the edge of the city. It’s a functional, recycled pine wood table, not glowing and elegant like he wanted it to be, but that’s why I like it. It’s our homely, sturdy, everyday place to rest and eat and play games, pay bills and dream and talk. It’s the spot that matters most, at least to me.

“I’ve decided I’m going to try therapy, after all.” He held up his hand; he knew I was about to gush with gratitude. “Just try it a couple times, to start. You know I don’t like shrinks. I don’t like their various potions, they never really work out. I feel nothing can make a permanent difference, anyway; this is just how I am. I have a basic condition. It rules me more than I dare admit. But I’ve been thinking about how all these years–thirty or more years–I have been run ragged by constant anxiety and terrifying bouts with depression, the obsessions and compulsions just getting harder to cope with as I age.”

I looked at him but he was staring out the window, at the leaning fence or at the trees that remained mostly naked of leaves. I looked at his hands because they catch my attention. They shook as he turned a fancy fat pen over and over in his fingers. Soon he would start writing. He writes almost without thinking, jots down anything, writes phrases, copies words on a magazine, sets down titles of songs or a long thoughts on a certain theme or maybe lines to some song–another compulsion. I find scraps of paper densely covered with his printing, they are everywhere, I don’t know what to do with them so stack them in a pile in a tray on the table. If I throw any out he will notice and be very annoyed. He wrote then on an used, unfolded napkin the word therapy up, across, down, over and over. I wondered if he would go online later and order five or ten more expensive, unneeded pens and more reams of paper to write more jottings now that he had even more to cogitate over.

“Okay,” I said and swallowed a gulp of cool water.

“But I need you to do something for me, too. I need your part done.”

I narrowed my eyes at him, then at the robin that landed on the fence.

“Stop asking so many questions? Especially when you get into… therapy?” Just saying that word brought me a relief that barely hid uncertainty.

“Take care of your own issues. Like stop writing to Diane, Lark. Please.”

A small shock traveled from spine to head where it lingered in my skull. I looked at his significant profile, nose large in a Roman way, whiskered jaw.

“What did you say?”

“You know what I mean. You write her a lot, I think. It really needs to end now.”

There arose a great jangle inside me. My heart revved up, felt huge in my chest. He ought not talk about my sister and me. He was just not happy; I could tell by how quiet his voice was, how he stopped writing.

“How could you know that? And why is it important?” I kept my voice even. Tried to recall when I might have left my computer open. What had he seen?

“I hear you pecking away at odd times. It’s got to be her. That’s how it always has been–so it continues. But after over a year, shouldn’t that be done with?” He put down the sleek pen. “I’m not the only one with issues, right? So you need to own up, address this. It’s not even vaguely…healthy, I don’t think.”

I was about to get up and shout at him: Really? Tell me about unhealthy versus healthy! Instead, I got up, put the kettle on the stove to heat water for tea or coffee, whatever he wanted.

He started to write again, I could hear the nib of the flowing ink pen inching its way across a fresh page, probably a bill envelope. “She left all this awhile back, you’ve got to find more friends or something,” he said.

“No.”

“What do you mean, ‘no’? Come on, she’s dead, Lark. You can’t undo that.”

I felt the scream all coiled up inside start to uncoil and it raced up to my lips but I ran. I ran out the kitchen door and kept pushing through all the fear, trying to outrun the scream. The cool of night came on with a sudden shadowing of earth, air that became wind was so cold it seared face and arms. Nature’s last word on things. Instead of peace filling my heart it pumped harder, my legs reached up and out, leaping over uneven ground. My feet crashed through weeds, I jumped over the fence, kept moving through twilight, an animal on the loose.

It was the stream that got me. It brought me to a halt ass my feet felt wetness, that gentle water a surprise trigger for tears that fell like warm rain on someone else’s stilled face. A storm sweeping across an empty parched plain. Me, lost.

“No! Diane, no leaving me here alone!”

It sounded like a prayer that was a demand but even if it wasn’t the right thing it just was. I felt it was foolish, though, because I have talked to you so long, written you so much… yet over time felt your presence less. You left first by dying, then by receding from the days as I got more used to your being somewhere else.

Not much around here, no, sister.

But at night I sit in the rocker by the window when Ethan is snoring away, harmless and feckless, and then I still feel you come by. Settle about the room with your smile. Your kind way. I guess the moon and stars have to shine for you to find me here. I’ll just wait. We are not that separated by death, are we?

I told him I would stop this. I cannot, yet, any more than we can choose to just ignore these tough times. Maybe I understand his desire for relief better than he thinks. But I know what I need; this part costs nothing. My talking to you is healing. I can just meditate on the days we had to enjoy, as well as all that causes me to pause, the sorrows. What I have to remember is what you always said, your hazel eyes shining: Life is what we must live so we do it as well as possible; it comes to an end soon enough. It’s always something, anyway (you’d laugh but never sounded bitter, just a laugh), so just got to roll with it, Sis, and pray like mad.

It was full of maxims but from you it has always sounded like wisdom of the ancients, another lesson from God’s mouth to my heart. I take it in, the love that still comes to me from you. I must write to your presence; it is a comfort now. When it’s time, I’ll figure out what to do next. And I will wait for Ethan to help himself, knowing we are not alone with the waiting, trying, failing, more trying– and maybe even succeeding.

I have to go now as I got a package I want to open. It may be the bronzed peach lipstick. I’ll let you know what I think– if I wear it. But if you catch a glimpse of it on me and give it the okay, send me a sign. A blossom or two at my door would be lovely or a bright birdsong one morning when I feel overwhelmed again. You have such good taste, I leave it to you.

Or even news of a really good sale. We always have such a time searching out bargains arm in arm, talking about things of import or pure foolishness, don’t we?

Didn’t we, Sister…and then some.

Goodnight.

Love to you,

Lark

 

Breaking the Night

Moon Over Columbia River

It was that hulking bridge, the one I had crossed over innumerable times, one more major structure that arced from east to west, from my side of the land mass to the other where the city center is at work long hours, beckons and dazzles, then makes night turn over and into itself like a magic jacket that’s never worn out. It must sometime lay itself down to rest, surely. But there are many people who do not, at least not for long. Or they may. Forever.

That particular December night it was sometime in very early morning and though city lights glowed here and there, it must been more darkness than light, the sky hiding its mysteries. The bridge must have felt more real than all else for a few moments. Rain abundant and chilled, starry maps obscured, the inky depths of the behemoth river a bitter cold yet a living thing and moving fast.

No one else was there–or near enough to notice. Just one man.

On the way home from work I got the call from my sister. I knew it had at last happened after many failed tries. I sobbed in the traffic and hit the steering wheel. There was nothing left between me– all of us–and the slash of truth.

He was here. Then gone.

It took me a year to even dare cross that bridge again. I was forbidden by fear and pain. And when I finally did, I screamed. I was in the car with two grown daughters in the back seat and as we crossed over my scream spiraled up, out, away. Screamed and drove too fast, yelling I’m sorry I’m sorry! I’m so sorry but I can feel him jumping!

I did not drive over it again for another year. I still do not if there is another way. I know I will always see that sign, the one that boldly, often too late lists an emergency number for suicidal persons who have scaled that highest of our many city bridges.

I’ve never written of it for the same reason I screamed: no words can define that kind of wretched void. But it has been ten years since my nephew committed suicide and now I can say it, how his leaving yet draws sorrow to my chest, mind, spirit.

His mental illness was not something most wanted to think of often if we were honest. It was difficult to witness. The depression was dragged about like it was another despised and invisible body, and sporadic bursts of mania obscured his thinking, hounded his rest. It was breathtakingly hard; we, too, hurt–for him, for our family. There were good times when we felt relief and cheered him on. The bad ones came more often; I didn’t know what to say except I was his aunt and there for him. He’d had therapy for a couple of decades. There were many hospital stays; medications tried, tossed and revisited. He sought relief, a modicum of more normal life while on a merry-go-round of places, people, addictions, jobs.

Those of us who could shared our homes with him for periods of time. I picked him up from the psychiatric ward after he had attempted suicide again. He stayed in an extra room in the house for awhile. I was determined to get him to as many twelve step meetings as I could; he wanted to stay sober and clean again. He was safer with my sobriety as a guard against temptations. But it was a partial help at best. By then I was a counselor but felt my help small. I just cared; encouraged and aided him in practical ways. We talked. I listened, gave him food, drove him places, acknowledged his struggles. Then he got his own place again, then found a new love, was feeling much better.

There were many times he felt better. But not well enough for long enough.

He loved music of many sorts and hung out with his father, admired his being a jazz musician. His graceful, strong mother was his bulwark. He was a natural athlete like other family members, a daredevil since childhood. Movies were fascinating to him; he had an avid interest in classics, independent film and new offerings. His conversations revealed a probing intelligence that could be hidden beneath the facade of watchful onlooker. Pensive but changed with a generous smile, showing us more to offer.

I knew him only a few years, really, as he grew up far from cities I lived for decades with  husband and children. When I moved to the Northwest, he was often not present at family gatherings or only for a brief stopover. When he was more hopeful if never optimistic, and the lashings of anxiety subsided enough that he gleaned bits of peace and joy–then he met us face-to-face. The exchanges were easier, with laughter an infusion of life-giving energy. For him, for us. It was understood challenges persisted and when it was roughest, he kept to himself. We were updated by his parents and sister but the truth is, his life was deeply lived and fought for, rescued and shaped primarily beyond my own tentative grasp. Beyond all our reaching, perhaps.

But I did know him a little, I mean that I got to share ranging conversations, walk a ways with him, sit with him at AA meetings and hang out at relatives’ with him, share a meal and a smoke. I have recurring memories of the two of us standing in yards, on sidewalks or porches, smoking and talking, silence measuring our speech. This may seem minor. It is not. It was much of our time together. But mostly I had him only those last 13 years. We hugged each other close many times in that span. And I felt his suffering as it tattooed a deep calligraphy on his being, was hoisted onto his shoulders, cupped in his capable hands like a torn creature mended then torn once more and rendered into what only what he knew.

It was so little time to love a nephew, a whole person made of cares, of passionate insights and talents, nightmares waking to stony bleakness. Of rich vision and stymied efforts.

And then he stepped into the air, breaking night into falling shards, vanishing into the cold and so much farther yet.

It stops my breath to write this even now. I grieve his going, still. There is no blaming or rage to this. No more even smallest of self-recriminations. He left because it was what he finally could do. I understand nothing more.

Today is the date. I thought it was two days ago but as I wrote I  re-checked the calendar and no, it’s been ten years ago now. Tears haunt me. We do not know what we know until thrust into confoundment such as this and then know less. But it transforms those remaining behind, strikes us dumb. Takes remnants of pain and that becomes a whispering thing that speaks all the more.

Reid, you do yet move me. I feel your spirit this quiet night. My brother’s eyes are reflective of yours and his music echoes both living and dying; your sister’s and your mother’s hearts carry your being like a pulsing jewel. I burn three candles for you in the gentle warmth of my home. My nephew, they glow long and well for you.

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People die of suicide more than we can believe. It may be that for some the holidays play a part, or maybe not. Life is breakable, it can be terrifying and it is not for us to fully know what anyone’s path will bring, even our own. So I am asking of you as you go your own way: step into the power of your empathy. When you see someone distraught and fearful, floundering alone, when you hear their cries and feel the leaden weight of their despair, find mercy; be kind. Hold out a hand in some way, even knowing it may not be quite enough. For one moment, it might. We owe this much to other humans; we owe it to ourselves.

An Afternoon of Art and Conversation

Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser
Kresge Court, Detroit Institute of Arts-photo by Bill Rauhauser

I know what they think, the two of us gliding through the art institute, his hand on my elbow, my eyes a bit dreamy, pearls swaying with each confident step. He is bulky and tall, his hair streaked with silver and wavy, and his heavy coat which he wore as though it’s a royal cloak, well, it’s cashmere, isn’t it? Of course they think those thoughts. I am too young for him. We’re not even friendly in a way one would expect family. I wear, I suspect, a look of slightly tarnished yet studied elegance. Do they think I don’t know what effect I can create? It’s in my blood. An actress mother; a composer father. We design everything.

I call him Samuel and he calls me Galinda, our ruse in case someone should hear or spot him and then proceed to detain us with an intrusive chat. He is well-known. I am nobody despite my attempt to appear cosmopolitan. Bored, perhaps above it all. Samuel bends over from time to time to inquire after me, to offer knowledge or astute criticism. I try to enjoy this tomb full of artistic endeavors. The places they put art! I have never visited the Detroit Institute of Arts. Why would I? I’m not ignorant. I just live in Kansas City. Or, I guess, did.

After we fill ourselves with a smorgasboard of classical works and outrageously modern pieces that make him squirm and me giggle, we sit in the courtyard. It’s chilly so he offers me his suede sport coat across my legs, considerate, a rather intimate act. I need a smoke. He offers me one of his, and the gold-plated lighter makes the barest flicking sound, not like my blue plastic Bic. I nearly choke; they’re French cigarettes. I suppress a cough while he looks away politely. He doesn’t really want to be here on a Saturday afternoon. I am his wife’s niece. He just married Portia a year ago. He wants to please her while she’s at her office.

Everyone said it was for her glamour but really, it was for her wit. I have seen them together enough to know how much he admires her. And she him. Portia is much like my mother, Eleanora, but absolutely intact. Her cosmetics business thrives.

My mother is in a place no one wants to mention. My father, Abe, distracts himself by playing piano all hours of the day and night. He won’t eat my cooking. He doesn’t like to sleep alone in their satin-covered, sway-backed bed.

This is how it was, act 1, scene 4:

“Why do you bring me chicken and peas at eight o’clock at night? Can’t you see I’m working? No, no food. Remove the tea, as well. Coffee. Please.”

I stand in the doorway, holding the too-hot china plate, then pick up bright green peas one by one and pop them in my mouth. The chicken is enveloped in mushroom sauce that even I loathe.

“Must you eat that way? Don’t we have a dining room table, silverware? Let me work now. I have to get this completed for the publisher.”

How can I blame Abe? Eleanora is the only one who has mastered him. Coddled him. I am the result of idealistic passion that has begun to erode from the sharp edges of life.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, darling. Come and sit.”

He swivels on the piano bench and holds out his hands to me. But I am already finished with the peas and my fingers are slippery with the last tablespoon of butter. I leave the music room. The silence soon iss stuffed with allegretto and appassionata and a moan of misery as he stops again and again. He huddles over his score. I feet his loneliness like an arctic wind. I can’t evade it no matter how hard I try.

Eleanora has always been absorbed by acting–live theater–and has done well enough to have her name on a half-dozen major Midwest marquees many times. But things change. She is now not the type they seek. Age creeps in and her flirtatious nature becomes a little sad. Or she stumbles over her lines more often. Prestige can’t be easily bargained for or bought. I’ve watched her slip away, into odd reveries, into sleep and finally into a dark corner of her mind but cannot tell you exactly why. My mother still can hush every room she enters. She has such flair and is so quick one has to work to keep up with her. But we are helpless. Well, I haven’t been home for four years but I saw it coming even before I left.

Fade to black, scene change. My own dubious future.

I think sometimes creativity can contort things. It can turn you inside out and then where is the refuge? I’ve noticed that everyone I know who adores creating risks adoration of their own feelings. It’s like a mirror they fall into if there are not enough other images to divert their attention and energy. Or simply not enough spark to illuminate something greater.

Eleanora and Abe would scoff at this. I am just a twenty-two year old college graduate with a new job. No matter that I pay attention. I am nothing if not a neophyte. I have not become absolutely amazing, something they desire with all their hearts.

So, Aunt Portia. She found a place for mother to recuperate from life. She offered me a room in their suburban Detroit home that could accommodate three families so here I am. I work at Metropolitan Estates for now, crunching numbers, attending to people’s wills and all. That’s right, as glamorous as all that, but when I tell people I’m quite interested in wills and inheritance taxes, they act as if I’m somewhat a genius, at the very least clever. But the word I most often hear? “Spunky.” How spunky of me to move here and take this job right out of college in nineteen sixty-seven. I think, how crucial to survival now that I am on my own.

“You enjoyed the art?” Samuel asks with interest.

His name is really Arthur Minhausen III. He owns so much commercial property in this city you about trip over it just walking down the street.

I exhale as he stubs his own cigarette out.

“Some beautiful paintings, of course. But I like living art, not entombed, untouchable.”

Samuel smiles, a crooked front tooth adding a certain flair. He brings his coffee cup to his lips, hesitates before drinking. “Example?”

“How about gardens? Aunt Portia’s is outstanding. Or public sculptures that seem in short supply here but abound in Europe, I hear. People can touch them, enjoy a summer breeze as they sit and gaze at them with serious intent. Or not. Art for the masses, all sorts. Or art you can wear, we certainly need that, too!”

“Ah, now you sound like Portia,” he says. “You should travel more and then tell me what you think. Explore different cultures, enjoy other visions.”

I look away to hide the fact that I don’t believe that will ever happen. My life doesn’t include windfalls. But I see a couple staring at us, the woman whispering to her companion. Arthur is high-profile, a local celebrity. He fundraises. He is a toastmaster about town, a gad-about that everyone likes to rub shoulders with. He looks as good as he talks and his wife is even better.

“Well, I made it to Detroit. That’s a start.”

He leans toward me. “A bold move, I must say.” He inclines his head. “Lizzie, you share your mother’s and aunt’s gifts, you know.”

My actual name spoken is a disappointment–shhouldn’t I go by Elizabeth now?–but I flush. Too often I’ve heard I have my mother’s and aunt’s looks and it gets tiring. I have known this new uncle for about a month. “Meaning?”

“You’re a creative thinker, practical. Smart, personable. Independent. You will do well. It won’t always be Detroit. It may be New York or Los Angeles. Public relations, as you hope. You’ll make your way.”

It seems extravagant to me, all this praise. Arthur/Samuel is lighting another cigarette and handing me a second, which I refuse. His smallish eyes are clear and steady. I open my mouth and close it. He nods to encourage my response.

“You forget I might have gotten a serious genetic load of melancholia. I may be doomed to swooning too much or crying over how unfair life is. Worse, collapsing under my own emotional weight. My own mother finds her life less than she desires and what happens? She dives deep into the cave of her bedroom until we have to search for her and send her away for reconstruction. I’m sometimes fearful if I stub my toe I might decide I can’t even walk!”

I’m embarrassed by my frankness, how easy it is. And my anger. Surely I can be kinder. But there it is. Meanness where there should be tenderness. She is my mother, after all. My father could do with more goodness from me, too. He wept as he told me it was best I go.

“It happens. We think we know how to manage and then find out we have a deficit that needs addressing. Or there’s a change in the weather, whatever! We might need help. Everyone does, sooner or later.”

“Not you, I’m sure.”

Arthur inhales and holds it too long, as if the smothered smoke keeps his thoughts in place. I imagine a boat coming to port, the thoughts ready to disembark, waiting for a signal. The he exhales and words tumble out.

“Why not me? Is my ambition separate from the rest of my living? It all comes from the same source: ourselves. Dreams and failures, achievements and losses. But there are our plans and life’s plans. We make ourselves who we need to be, and it works or it doesn’t. I tell you, I haven’t always had it this good, and I don’t mean just materially.”

I sipped my Coke, then held it with both hands to cool myself. “Okay, wait, so my mother chose to be nuts? And I can choose not to be? Just like that.”

He shook his head slowly. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes, but it’s also how we deal with what is dealt. Everything we do is a risk. Like my business. Like you coming to stay with us. Even your mother’s choices, Lizzie.” He reaches for my wrist and his hand is dry, firm. “She will rebound, Portia believes, don’t you? People start over. And you are not to feel guilty about any of it, if I may say so. Just live your own life and see what happens.”

I am about to tell him he has a lot to say and I’m glad he took me here. But someone is fast approaching us. There is a camera held high. Arthur takes my hand–“Galinda? Shall we?”–and we stand up, turn, walk briskly away.

He leans and whispers. “Let’s call Portia and meet her for a Greek dinner. This way, my dear.”

We leave a gallery of eyes behind us. I know how we seem. An older man taking charge, his arm about me to shield me from the press, a man who knows what he wants and gets it. Me, a stranger to Detroit, too young to know what she is doing, full of high-spiritedness. A certain sophistication she only copies from her mother, aunt and many others she admires.

But as we walk into the brashness of afternoon sunshine I feel strength of my own. He has let go of me. I can manage just fine. I only have to step forward. Tomorrow I’ll call my parents. Let them know I do love and miss them though I’m glad–delirious, really!–to be here. Cue the curtain. I have much more to actually live, darlings.

Photo courtesy of DIA
Photo courtesy of DIA