February 1, 2016 § 6 Comments
My oldest brother, Jimmy, was born today, 65 years ago. He died at just 14, so it’s a little hard to imagine him old enough for Medicare. If I try I can see his face: wrinkles around the eyes, the soft skin, the lines cut near the mouth so like my mother’s. His hair, if he were like the rest of us, wouldn’t be all gray yet. He’d probably have a few extra pounds, but maybe not; he was the only athlete in the family. He’d have a wife, certainly, and kids. He gave his cat to my sister (who already had a cat) the summer we successfully begged two new ones, so he wouldn’t have one of those. I can’t picture his house or imagine his career, though he had more openness to the wide world than the rest of us. I decided to be a writer at 7; my sister the veterinarian always loved animals. My younger brother’s focus seemed to be on not growing up and he’s made that work for him, though he’s incredibly responsible and caring, particularly with our mother, and earns a living. But he’s never had a career and wouldn’t want one—“Johnny” and “career” just don’t mix. Jimmy, though—I can see Jimmy having a career. I just can’t tell you which one.
What you lose when you are as old as I am is the belief that such a thing shouldn’t happen to you. My brother. My mother’s child. How can I say that when I read about Brazilian babies born with microcephaly or Syrian children drowning off the coast of Greece? Sure, in the world I would create, if someone would only make me God, children wouldn’t die. Nobody’s children, ever, nor suffer horrible diseases, disabilities, cruelty, abuse or neglect.
But this is the world we have and everybody dies unexpectedly, even if the doctor just said about the 98-year-old, “It will happen tonight.” The crossing from one moment to the next is inexplicable, unbearable, and the foundation of the world. We all know we wouldn’t be here without the millions and millions of deaths the world is built on, from the earliest life forms, the amoebas, blind fish, saber-tooths and Neanderthals, to our grandparents getting out of our way. It is a spiritual practice to learn to see death (mostly one’s own) as akin to a leaf falling: ordinary, lovely, reassuring.
When I was 10, I wouldn’t have given my life for my brother’s. I knew I was selfish that way and suspected my parents might have chosen differently if they had any say in the matter. I didn’t blame them for that: it was enough that I would choose myself. Now, of course, it’s different. I think I’d give what years I have left to have had him with me since 1965, though who knows what I’d really do if Rod Serling appeared with a notarized offer. The tricky thing about thought experiments like this is that if there is some being with the power to change life and death and time, death loses much of its sting. (My Catholic aunt died happy that she was soon to see Jesus.) The point of death as we know it is, as people like me know it, people who are not believers—though sometimes we have our fancies—is that it is faceless and indifferent. You may be killed by a maniac with a knife or a drug-addicted doctor, but death itself has no personality.
That is what Buddhists say to embrace. The no-thing. Let go of the material world, which passes. Beloveds, who die. It’s easier to imagine doing that now than it was at 10—much easier. I have far less longing, curiosity, wild wonder at beauty and knowledge, less ambition (though it’s still there, banked coals). But if one is to let go, why, I wonder, is it so important to be kind? The Dalai Lama, who knows a lot about this, says that’s all that really matters: kindness.
I am kind, when I am, because of death and suffering, because I understand that you don’t want it to all be over, to lose them and the world and yourself; and you will. It is the proper response to the barely put together shambling creatures we are, hugging our wounds like furry little sharp-toothed pets. Jimmy was kind (not always). He knew how to be. He would be more so now. I’m with the Greeks: the dead still exist someplace but it’s really nowhere, no food, nothing to look at, nothing to do. No punishment or reward. Just awareness, forever, that there is such a thing as life and you don’t have it.
What I mean is, that’s the death I carry with me. Not Heaven, Nirvana, or nothingness (how to carry that?) But a bunch of shades in a dim cavern, remembering feasts and friendships, the sun on the waves: love, jealousy, betrayal. Or that moment when you wake up before everyone else and look at them sleeping: this one’s mouth open, drool on his lip, sun on his hair; that one curled in a ball, blanket over her head. Dreams pacing under eyelids. Husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, child, cat.
What I miss most is what I never knew or could have known: who he was in the privacy of his mind. I knew he was there, in his kingdom. Thinking, laughing. Making plans. It was always a secret. I wanted to bite that secret open. Never could, never would have. By now, if he’d lived, I’d have forgotten. But since he’s still 14, a part of me is still 10, and I miss him like a little sister does, wanting to know everything.
Making a Fist
We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.
“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”
Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.