“He’s gone.” The words hit my cell phone with a firmness that hit me in the back of the throat. It was Thanksgiving and my older brother, the fast-talking bodybuilder, the guy with a quick wit, the always-laughing family man, had left us. After contracting the short straw and type I diabetes at age 11, he beat the odds at every juncture. But he couldn’t get over 2020.
They say that siblings are your first friends, your link to the past and the bridge to the future. As I received the news of my brother’s death, I was drinking water, drowning in the last words and moments lost. I couldn’t find air. I ran outside. I couldn’t call. Every human within earshot was housebound by state mandate. There would be no shoulder to cry on and no comforting hugs. There would be no ‘sorry’ and no back rubs. It was a duel of cold turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
Chris had just texted us the day before to tell us that our uncle had died. Uncle Michael was larger than life. He was a mountain of a joker man who taught us how to water ski and cheat at cards. And within 48 hours, we would lose Uncle Robert to COVID-19.
It was hard to imagine: three family members in four days. It was too much in a year that had already been too much. Six degrees of separation, seven degrees of isolation, 6 feet for 15 minutes in a 24-hour period: our kingdom for a mask.
It was a year in which we stood on the brink of existence and gazed into the abyss, each with our own version of the bottomless pit. Death became a hashtag, life became a meme, and surviving became the highlight of a cyber feed. We all lived under the net and over the rainbow, except for the zooms, the hangouts and the CGI crowds, manifestations of life that we could no longer have.
I found a picture of my brother as a little boy in red shorts and suspenders. Another as a smiling teenager in front of a Christmas tree in the back room of the house we left thirty years ago. He strikes a pose on a weekend back from college. He leans against his first car in cut off jeans; His eyes are so clear that they seem to look into eternity.
There is a photo of us sitting in front of pumpkins at a local farm store circa 1970. I remember that day well. He didn’t want to sit next to me. Typical fights between brothers. My mother asked him to come closer. He said no. He had a jawbreaker stuck in his cheek. He had just finished a cherry one that was all over my lips. He was wearing my mustard yellow stirrup pants and cashmere coat. It was in his herringbone sweater. I walked away from him with disinterest. I was tough, little one. He made me like this. My mother pointed to her manual-focus Canon camera with the folding fan flash, the shutter opened, and the moment froze in time. What I would give to reach out to him now, to not have turned my back on him that day, to have taken that space between us in my 8 year old hands and held onto it forever.
The drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for my brother’s “Celebration of Life” was long and lonely. It would be outdoors, masked and around a table of framed photos. It was the best we could do. At a rest stop somewhere between Indio and Blythe, I screamed into the desert in existential protest at all I’d lost. The place was desolate except for a large saguaro cactus that guarded the picnic area. It was a huge, columnar tree. He had seen his share of weary commuters and truckers. It had survived the rumble of the freeway, the fumes, and the sky-high heat stations without water. Its pleated spines and tough skin were a welcome challenge in a world of harsh indifference.
My mother always said that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but she was giving me a lot at once. As I drove through the dune-backed moonscape, my mind went back to comfy rooms and soft furnishings, snowmen and seashells, bugs and barbecues, stick ball and Halloween, banana seats and minor leagues.
I still have my brother’s number on my cell phone. Keep smiling from your Facebook page. Your big, bold, purposeful life lives on in a contiguous block of fixed-length virtual memory. The technology is cruel in that sense: a cyber forgery, a digital trick. Just like the “social” distance that has kept us apart.
There are no repeats forever. There is no stillness after the curtain falls. We don’t get a second chance for one last goodbye. So when this big kidnapping is over, shake hands, bump your fists, and high five. Hug everyone you care about and never let them go. Say ‘I love you’ every waking moment, and never again let physical distance come between you and your family.