It’s beginning, the last bit, the chunk of time we will measure after the clock stops. We’ll say I remember when we knew it wouldn’t be much longer. We’ll say I remember where I was sitting when I read his email, the one he sent to a handful of us, the one that said thank you for sticking up for me and for enjoying our time in this fabulous life together, the one that said you’re reading this because I love you more than I can describe.
If he lived next-door I’d cook for him every day and carry dishes down the street and in the side door, quivering eggs on warm polenta, sweet potatoes mashed with coconut milk and Sambal and a little brown sugar, a jug of tea with Tupelo honey and a cup with a delicate edge. But he is far away and saying no, saying please, saying you would ask this, want this too, and he is right.
From the beginning of this horror he has requested, politely, that there not be drama, and we have complied. Mostly. I have kept my Sarah Bernhardt scenery-chewing persona under wraps and have written my emotional Class 5 rapids on my blog, even toning it down there because he reads what I post. To him I write newsy emails about my road trips and my lovable but totally inept husband, stories about the adorable goofball he was when we were kids, about Simone and Amy and Chris, not about cancer, not about dying. He writes back: upbeat and funny, like his letters always were, a passing reference to getting a buzz from the steroid the hospice nurses give him to help him breathe. “Live it up!” is his last line, every time, those words that Amy put on their New Year’s card this year under Simone’s picture because this new year would be her uncle’s last.
I found a box of ancient Super 8 films and had them cleaned and repaired and put on a DVD. There we are, a sturdy blond girl who almost never stops grinning and the cutest baby boy you ever saw. We were a Navy family, while we were a family, and the films record birthday parties – ours and every other friend’s kid’s – in carports and on lawns from Hawaii to Bethesda to Las Vegas, vacations with aunts and cousins and grandfathers in Colorado and Kansas City and Catalina. There’s one of Michael trying to walk on Craig’s head and Craig looking at that bruiser of a kid and those huge feet with a look of utter puzzlement on his little face. Every Christmas clip has a tree with perfectly spaced tinsel and the same snowman and choirboy candles I remember my mother lining up in her living room every December until she died. I showed off my Dale Evans cowgirl outfit complete with hat, vest, chaps, and a pair of silver six-shooters with triggers that always got stuck. We splashed and swam in pools and in the ocean and chased each other in front yards and back yards and streets. We rode new bikes. I squinted like a mole in every sunny scene. Craig gurgled in prams and playpens, then grew up and showed a neighbor kid how to plonk the piano keys. I had the mumps and demonstrated the symptoms by filling my cheeks like a blowfish and turning one ear and then the other toward the whirring box with the antler light rack.
I last saw him in November when we had our Big Chill music weekend, when Gary and Dawn and I went to Arizona together. We knew, all of us did, that none of us would ever see him again, but we didn’t make a big deal about saying goodbye. There would still be phone calls for a while and emails for a while longer than that. Goodbye is goodbye, and he was still cooking breakfast then, hardly down for the count. I said to him, “I’m going to say that I’ll come back. We both know I won’t, but I’m going to pretend, if that’s all right with you.” He said, “Sure, that’s fine.”
He’s moved on now to opiates and Valium. His throat is crowded, invaded. Things have been put in order, given away, driven away, name-tagged. His daughters are there right now for a last weekend while he can still stand, while he allows it. Someone at his house has been reading the old piece I wrote about how Marge helped my father die when he couldn’t breathe. I hope there is a stockpile. I hope he can signal that it’s time when it’s time. I hope his wife is selfless and strong and doesn’t flinch. I know he’s told me he has a plan. I hope it is flawless.
This is his death, his to suffer or welcome, his song to orchestrate. As though we were dancing, I am following his lead. I am not a good follower – I can hear a couple former business partners and my husband snorting with laughter – but I’m trying. Harder than I’ve ever tried to do anything. I fucking hate this – I hate that it’s him and not some awful person who the whole world would be better without. I hate that I can’t take care of him or save him or swap him, that we’re not all still in the same sweet neighborhood where we can knock on a screen door or hear a guitar out back. I hate that people think you’re losing your mind if you start crying when they ask you how your brother’s doing. I’ve learned that most folks are okay with a quickly wiped tear but get completely nonplussed by a snotty nose or your voice breaking in the middle of a word. I hate that you’re expected to just wait patiently for someone to die before grieving, that you’re not allowed to be sad until there’s a cold body, a silent heart. It’s ridiculous. I’ve loved him for 58 years and he’s not just dying, he gets to suffer for a year every single damn day first. That’s about as sad as sad gets, it seems to me. Why is it cool or sophisticated or grownup to act like there’s nothing at all wrong with anyone, nope, not a single thing when there is this enormous fucking worlds-colliding event that’s about to happen one state east of here? It’s not okay to cry about that? Seriously? The cold-steel truth is I’m a little angry at the no-drama rule since I’d rather howl like a coyote than have to swallow this pain and smile, so I do it here at Casa de Swell where he can’t see me and I’m posting this rant on Open where he no longer reads. That’ll fix him, goddamn dying rule-making brother.
A friend told me about this woman, a singer/songwriter named Antje Duvekot, linked me to a YouTube video of her singing “Long Way.” Parts of it remind me of when Craig was on the road with his band all those years ago, driving with amps and guitars and drums all over the western U.S. and Canada, playing tunes and falling in love and writing his famous letters. I think too about this long road we’ve been on all our lives and all the places we were together, the places we were apart when he settled in Denver, when what he believed in so strongly was what I questioned, then discarded. It’s a long way to Colorado and back, yes, it is.
And god is the boulder in the road, or one of them anyway. I don’t buy the story, don’t believe in some string-puller or injustice-punisher any more than I believe in ghosts or blood sacrifice. It makes me crazy to think people pray to some -one? -thing? for a win on the football field, to tell them what is right or wrong, to cure them of cancer. For me, the whole myth grew out of a fear of death, and this many thousands of years later the fear is still as breath-stopping as it always was.
But even I, she of the stark disbelief, is metaphorically shouting to the heavens, offering choices, demanding to know why some -one? -thing? has ‘chosen’ my brother to be the recipient of this defect. Here I am, talking inside my own head, condemning unfairness, demanding equity, begging for his life. I say foolish things like: Why him, huh? Do you know what he is, what he can do, how much he loves? How important his love is to people? Do you? Do you know that he can tell the funniest cow story you ever heard, play a melody that makes the whole world vibrate? That he has perfect pitch and an incredible ear, that he can sing harmony to anything? That he can build and fix and keep-running and figure out a million more things than other people? That he’s incredibly smart? And fair and honest through and through? That he would help you if you needed him to no matter what, even if what you asked him to do was pretty crazy, he would never ask you why or if you thought maybe you should think it over, he would just get in the car and drive all night and do it? Do you know there are probably only a handful of people on the entire fucking planet that are as good as he is, as true, as golden? Why doesn’t any of that matter? Are you even listening?
And in answer to all my questions, Antje Duvekot sang “And you can ask the mountain, but the mountain doesn’t care.” Because that’s really it, isn’t it? We all die at the end of a life, and sometimes it’s magic and sometimes it’s tragic, like Jimmy sang. Some people get really old and see three and four generations of their families born, and some sweet babies are killed by their mothers. Some people die in car accidents, smeared on the asphalt like roadkill and some in hospitals, surrounded by boiled linen and gloved hands. A lovely man with throat cancer is going to choke to death, as horrific as that picture is, unless someone helps him. If I’m honest, I can wail all day long about how I would do anything to save him, but it’s not true, it’s not. If a booming voice from the heavens spoke to me and said, “I’ll remove his cancer but only if I can put it in Amy or Simone,” I would say no, never. Without hesitating for a nanosecond. The mountain doesn’t care.
I have this dream. It takes place on the day that he knows (somehow) is the last good day, before the writhing and the gasping. He knows. So he lies down and reaches for a blanket, one of the old soft ones Marge used to wrap around our dad, maybe the red one. He pulls it over his long body, his legs, one shoulder. Everyone he loves is there, and each of us takes a turn, leans down to kiss his warm brown cheek. His long, sinewy fingers hold each person’s hand and squeeze, medium hard. His brown eyes are clear and steady, the way they’ve been since the day he was born. He closes them as he lifts the blanket and drops it softly over his face. And he’s gone, into his own dream, hearing the most beautiful song, seeing his god, floating down an endless river on his way to the sea.
Posted in: favorites, human beans, la-la-la-love, letters to craig, my baby brother
Tags: adobe soup, antje duvekot's long way, bethesda, cancer, candace mann, craig, craig mann, death, death dream, dying young, hawaii, las vegas, navy family, old movies, ranting at god, red blanket dream, religion, san diego, sisters and brothers, super 8 film, throat cancer
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