“He’s gone.” The words came to my cell phone with a purpose that hit me deep in the throat. It was Thanksgiving and my older brother, the fast talking bodybuilder, the guy with the quick wit, the family man who always laughed, had left us. After contracting the short straw and type I diabetes at age 11, he had beaten the odds every moment. But he couldn’t get past 2020.
They say that siblings are your first friends, your link to the past, and your bridge to the future. While listening to the news of my brother’s death, I was drinking water, drowning in the last words and in the lost moments. I couldn’t find air. I ran away. I couldn’t scream. All humans within earshot were confined to their home by state mandate. There would be no shoulders to cry on and no comforting hugs. There would be no “I’m sorry” and no back rubs. It was a cold turkey duel on Thanksgiving.
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 cunning mountain man who taught us to water ski and cheat at cards. And in 48 hours, we would lose Uncle Robert to COVID-19.
It was difficult to understand: 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 edge of existence and looked into the abyss, each with his own version of the bottomless pit. Death became a hashtag, life became a meme, and surviving became a climax in a cyber broadcast. We all lived under the net and over the rainbow, except for the zooms, the gathering places and the CGI crowds, manifestations of life that we could no longer have.
I found a photo of my brother when he was 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 poses on a weekend back from college. He leans on 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 sibling dispute. My mother asked him to come closer. He said no. He had a jawbreaker stuck in his cheek. I had just finished a cherry that was on all my lips. I was wearing my mustard yellow stirrup pants and my cashmere coat. She was wearing her herringbone sweater. I turned away from him disinterestedly. I was a tough girl. He made me that way. My mother aimed her manual focus Canon camera with the folding fan flash, the shutter broke and the moment froze in time. What I would give to get close to him now, for not having turned around that day, for having taken that space between us in my 8-year-old hands and held onto him forever.
The trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix for my brother’s “Celebration of Life” was long and lonely. He would be out in the open, masked and around a table of framed pictures. 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 that I had lost. The place was desolate, save for a large saguaro cactus guarding the picnic area. It was a massive pillared tree. He had seen a lot of weary commuters and truckers. It had survived the roar of the freeway, the fumes, and the dizzyingly hot waterless seasons. His 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 he was giving me so much at once. As I drove through the dune-backed lunar landscape, my mind returned to simple rooms and soft furnishings, snowmen and seashells, bed bugs and barbecues, stick ball and Halloween, banana seats and minor leagues.
I still have my brother’s number on my cell phone. He is still smiling from his Facebook page. Your big, bold, determined life lives on in a contiguous block of fixed-length virtual memory. Technology is cruel that way: a fake cyber head, a digital ruse. 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 have a second chance for a last goodbye. So when this big kidnapping is over, shake hands, hit your fists, and high five. Hug everyone you care about and never let them go. Say ‘I love you’ every waking moment and never allow physical distance to come between you and your family again.