On December 6th, I lost my older brother to an array of medical woes that have been changing the shape of his life for the last ten years.
If I were to list for you what he endured, you wouldn’t believe anyone could. At birth, my brother got a bum ticket when it came to his body and health. But he lived life as large as he could within the bounds of his earthly container, and he fought long and hard for each day, no matter how much pain and discomfort it held.
Steve promised me that he wasn’t actually going to die. His specific promise was “Keith Richards, the cockroaches, and me.” Despite this promise, he’d been trying to die for a long time. Many times in the last ten years, we’ve been summoned as a family to make the hardest decisions, the final decisions. We’ve been asked to come to terms with his end and to prepare ourselves and wait. Every single time, he’d rallied in what was no less than a medical miracle.
After each of these events, Steve expressed, with some huffiness, his disbelief that the doctors expected him to die. He found it unthinkable and a little personally insulting. “They thought I was going to die.”
So in early December, when he came to the point where he was done fighting, none of us could believe it. We sat with him and waited, but at some point, he turned to the love of his life, Elaine, and whispered, “I wish we could just be alone. Just the two of us.” And though what he probably wanted was their life at home, with the cats and their favorite music and her gently preparing the simple meals he could eat, he also meant that he wanted to be alone with her as he struggled his way out of here. They did so much living that way. He loved his life with her.
Brother Steve died on the sixth of December. He died during my busiest month at work, the peak of deadlines and sales meetings and project coordination. And there’s that little thing called Christmas, which brings far-flung girls home to roost, and family gatherings, presents and parties and concerts. If you’re trying to avoid sitting alone with your grief, I recommend December. You can careen from distraction to distraction, especially if you can add the anxiety of writing an obituary and planning a memorial service on top of everything else. You can do so much to avoid your grief in December.
There are no good words for losing your brother. There just aren’t any. And I know it’s this “time of life” and all that, I’m in my late fifties and I know this is the season of loss, that all around me my friends are facing the same thing. As I said to my friend Kim years ago, we are designed to outlive our parents. That loss is survivable. But siblings? My big brother? Brother Steve? Even though I have been staring down the barrel of this for a decade, I still can’t stand it. So I planned him a pretty little memorial service with friends and family and a slideshow, my brother’s life projected on a wall, from his beginnings in California to his death in Portland. I had mostly my own photos to draw from, so there are many shots of my brother and I side-by-side, with our long hair and big noses and big smiles. Eventually, we both had big glasses.
You could always tell that Steve and I were related.
I dislike the sainting we do of people after they die. The polishing up and perfecting. My brother Steve, like any human being, was deeply flawed. He had sustained grievous injuries to his psyche, along with the life-long difficulties of his health. He was perhaps the most passive-aggressive person I have ever known, but as he said to me once, “Isn’t passive-aggressive better than outright aggressive?” Which made me laugh, even as it exasperated me.
He did things that drove me a little nuts, like ascribing long, complex motivations and desires to pets. He also had a unique mindset about the past that I can best explain this way; if it happened once to Steve, he saw it as always going on. So an isolated event loomed larger for Steve than it should have—having been followed home from school by a bully one afternoon, he remembered this as if he were followed home from school every single day. He extrapolated long, murky motivations from awkward social interactions, and had his feelings hurt accordingly. There was a tangle in there around his great big heart, mostly made of insecurity about whether or not people really loved him.
Trust me. People really loved my brother.
Steve had gifts that far outshone his flaws; a curious, brilliant, lively mind. Artistic and writing gifts of staggering proportion. A delightful sense of humor—playful and a little sharp, with a gleeful sense of mischief. And oh my gosh, could he converse. Steve focused on you when he was with you, and that gift of singular attention made him one of the finest conversationalists you would ever have the good fortune to know. I think he got both of these from our mother. Their conversations were epic. But if you really wanted to know Steve’s genius, you would find it in his relationship with music.
Steve’s involvement with music went so much further than just his own personal gifts. Yes, Steve had a voice like an angel from his earliest years. My aunt remembers him at age three, hearing things on the radio and then going over to my mother’s piano and picking out the tune by ear. He had a perfect soprano, she says. I remember when my mother was teaching him to play the guitar. Mom played the piano and the guitar, which she learned so she could play classical style, like Segovia. And it wasn’t easy for Mom to teach Steve—I have a distinct memory of her stern face, her cat eye glasses somewhat askew, as she worked and worked with him—but once Steve learned, he blew right past her in skill and devotion. Nothing made my mother more proud than when Steve surpassed her on the guitar.
So I remember my brother playing the guitar and singing. His voice, people, my brother’s voice. So high and clear and strong and beautiful. Singing at talent shows and in choir and in school assemblies and at his high school commencement, where he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I was an adult before I understood the relationship between Steve’s weight and his incredible voice. All I knew was that when he was twenty, and he had the bariatric surgery to lose weight, his voice changed. He loved it, Steve enjoyed that his voice got a little lower, a little grittier, but I always missed that high tenor that rang like a bell.
Steve wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments and learned them easily—banjo, mandolin, ukelele. Music formed the basis of his social life and it brought him Elaine, who he met on an Americana music board. You know how some people shut down and stop listening to any new music at some point in life, and there they are, back with Huey Lewis or whatever? That never happened to Steve. For his entire life, he was alive and curious and omnivorous in his musical tastes, and he shared them all with me. I’ve already written about how he brought home music that has always played a key role in my life and creativity.
But Steve was also my singing partner. Because of arthritis and illness, it’s been years since Steve could sing or play, but it always felt like, as long as he was alive, it might happen. We could still lift up our voices together on “Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” “Six Blocks Away,” “Blackbird.” We sang together constantly. My voice is loud, so he often did harmonies while I took the lead. And Steve and I are both musical omnivores. The earliest songs I remember singing with him? The Beatles. We were always planning a CD, our CD that we would cut together and share with family and friends.
That CD won’t be made, now. I can’t believe I will never sing with my brother again. I can’t hold this in my heart.
I thought I could choose the music easily. Just start with the Beatles and come forward. But Steve loved so many styles of music, jazz and classical included. And like, Bjork. EVERYTHING. He listened like I eat—happily, with great curiosity and interest and openness to anything new. As a result, the thought of choosing music for his memorial service made my head spin.
Listen, I had figured out all the rest of it. Where to have it, and when, and who to include, and which photos to put on the board, and what should be on the table, and which flowers to bring, and food, and format. But the most important part of it was the MUSIC, and yesterday morning, I was sitting in my armchair crying because the day had arrived, and this was the most important part of the entire event and I hadn’t figured it out. How could I not have figured out the music for my brother’s memorial service?
I have always turned to Steve for music. We swapped songs like marbles. Have you heard—let me play—listen to this—you might like—All our LIVES we have done this. And Steve had curated a series of CDs for me that he called “Sweet Harmony.” There is a Sweet Harmony 1, 2, 3 and 4. These were the songs Steve wanted to sing with me on that mythic record that we were going to cut together, and never did. So I loaded those CDs into my shelf stereo, unplugged it, put it in a Winco bag and carried it to Nordia House. Steve chose the music for his own memorial service, after all. Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, and the Beatles, too.
The other CD I chose was a compilation of two records by an obscure artist that Steve and I loved to distraction in 1974. She was a heroin addict and a hold-up artist who spent time in prison and found God and music and made something magical of all these ingredients. I believe she was the first artist ever signed by David Geffen. She made two records that were not commercial successes, and died poor and alone. Her music is haunting, sacred, and strange. She has that singular musical sensibility of Dennis Wilson—swooping and eerie and deeply personal. It makes the hairs on my arms stand up.
So I had that playing while people arrived. We were going to have some light catering by Broder Soder, and as Casey from Broder was setting out the food, he lifted his head and said, “Are you playing Judee Sill?”
We find our consolations where we can. Despite these times when I am left alone with my grief, my tears, and these songs my brother left me, and this emptiness where he should be. This has to be survivable, too.
When I was 11, and my brother was 16, and our sister was 13, the three of us were sitting around a kitchen table in a ratty little house on a rundown farm outside Booneville, Arkansas. We were strange kids, all too smart for our own good, exhausted by the burdens of being outsiders, but strangely proud of it. Our childhood honed us, made us sharp and keen. And I said, “I don’t want to go to Heaven, and I don’t want to go to Hell. I want to start my own place.” My brother and sister loved this idea. After some discussion, we decided we’d name it “Joe’s Bar & Grill.”
So, Brother Steve, I will see you there, at Joe’s Bar and Grill. Please stock the jukebox with all my favorites.
Please bring your guitar.
Note: Summer is drawing to a close, so please take a chance on something from the trunk: a piece about Lilith Fair from 1999. I’ll be finding and sharing old writing on here from time to time. Let me know what you think about that…
I took the girls to Lilith Fair this weekend. Lilith was the first wife of Adam. She was composed of filth, and she refused to take the submissive position in sex, so God gave Adam a different wife. Lilith went to live by the Lake of Fire, where she copulated with demons and gave birth to monsters. I think Lilith is the first wife archetype, and Eve is the trophy wife archetype, and you can see that Eve brought Adam nothing but grief, and Lilith had all the fun, just like in real life.
Anyway, I had envisioned attending the fair with my girls as sort of a female bonding, Goddess affirming, Earth motherly archetype sort of experience. Me, my three daughters, the strains of folkie girl music, natural fiber clothing, minimal eye makeup, bare feet … you get the idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to grow out my body hair before we went. I was a little concerned. What if Paula Cole were there, with her underarm pelt, and all I could muster was a bit of stubble? But I went anyway, because I was having my period and I thought that menstruation would demonstrate my personal oneness with the feminine vibe.
Because I am a first wife of the traded-in variety, like Lilith, I am chronically short of money. My dear older brother, Steve, bought our tickets. When his girlfriend decided she didn’t want to go, he had a spare one. He said that my fifteen year-old could invite a friend. So, we left Portland, five females ready to Lilith. I like to think my girls were feeling pretty smug about their cool mom, the one who knew all the words to the Lilith performer songs that flooded the radio waves as we drove from Portland to Bainbridge Island on Friday evening in my magical minivan.
We had to drive 200 miles north to Bainbridge Island on Friday night, and we got there late. I needed sleep for the driving on Saturday, so I embarrassed my daughters by being firm and motherly in front of the guest and putting every one to bed by midnight. I was supposed to be a cool mom, but I was just a tired mom. We slept.
On Saturday morning, we loaded up Brother Steve, our token male, and boarded the ferry to Seattle. It was a beautiful day, and the ferry ride into Seattle is always breathtaking, as are all the tourists who exclaim over the view, the gulls, the icy breeze, and the high cost of french fries in the ferry galley. After disembarkation, we crossed Lake Washington on the floating bridge, hit 1-90 East, and began one of the prettier drives a person can make in our part of the country. We climbed through the mountains along the Snoqualmie river.
Brother Steve and I embarrassed the kids in several ways. One was to remark repeatedly upon the gorgeous views. This is apparently not a cool topic of conversation. Another source of embarrassment was my insistence on frequent potty stops. “Now, EVERYONE go, please.” Much eye rolling, at that. I even made Brother Steve go, to be fair. Then, I mentioned to Brother Steve that I had not washed my hair that morning. He said that he hadn’t either. I said, “Yeah, I knew it would get all sweaty when I started to dance at the concert.” He said, “Oh yeah, I always get sweaty when I rock out.” The looks of horror I saw in my rear view mirror were indescribable. “Mom? You’re going to DANCE?”
We made it to the Gorge amphitheater. This is an outdoor venue, a series of grassy steppes that cover a hillside overlooking the Columbia River. The river has cut cliffs into high desert country, and this vista makes a backdrop for the performers. It’s like having a concert overlooking the Grand Canyon, for visual impact. I stood there for a moment and let awe wash over me, and then I got busy figuring out where to sit. The teenagers announced that they would not be sitting with us under any circumstances (the threat of parental dancing, you see),so I handed them some money and told us where to meet us to catch the shuttle back to the car. That was the last I saw of them for the day.
We laid out our jackets and took off our shoes and began the application of sunscreen, water, snacks. This is the motherly mantra for all outdoor activities… Sunscreen, Water, Snacks. We had dressed appropriately, I was relieved to see, and not just for the weather. Wardrobing issues are crucial at anything where there will be a lot of other women. I’d worn overalls and a white tank top and big brown sandals. So had the two children who elected to remain with me. We were the matching outfit/Joan Crawford/ mother/daughter Lilith Fair attendees, I decided.
Brother Steve was also acceptably attired. He had on Mariners regalia. Being a guy, he had on a baseball cap, and he decided that I needed one, so he bought me a Lilith baseball cap made of unbleached, brushed cotton. My cap bore the official Lilith logo. This is a naked lady with a plant growing out of her head. I wore it proudly, deciding it was nearly as much a statement of womanly unity as armpit hair! My Lilith cap announced my oneness with the goddess AND saved my eyes from the glare of the sun, so there you go.
There were two hours to wait until show time, so I began to people watch. There were not that many men there. This cut drastically into my people viewing pleasure, in all honesty. The average fair goer seemed to be a teenaged girl with long hair. She wore light khaki shorts, a tiny tank top, and big brown sandals. She traveled with friends. My daughter and her friend certainly matched the description. I decided that if I lost my daughter and her friend somehow, I could easily recruit replacements from the crowd to take home, and I wondered if our guest’s parent would notice.
There were many lesbian couples. Most were of the short haircut/Birkenstock variety, but my favorite pair were a couple of tall, skinny, overly tanned babes who roared in on a Harley. The woman who rode in the back strode around wearing black leather chaps and tousling her blonde, permed, long hair after she took off her helmet. The woman who rode in front was a ropey stud in black leather pants and vest and a big swinging wallet chain. Her waist length dark hair was braided, her face lined with muscle cuts from lifting, and her defined biceps were ringed with barbed wire tattoos. They were wonderful.
My girls were anxious for the show to start, and I could only buy them off with roasted corn and caramel apples for so long before the sun and the waiting caused a massive whine attack that made me wonder why I thought this would be a good idea. They were not charmed by the view or the people watching, they were hot and bored and the only thing that would placate them was to spend money, and I refused to buy them 30 dollar t-shirts, because I was not THAT cool of a mom. “You won’t wear anything that has a naked lady on it, I KNOW you.” “But Moooooooom, the halters are sooooo cute, and they just have a floooooooower on them.”
Suddenly, the entire success of the journey could only be measured by the ownership of a tshirt. I stood firm. No way. They eyed my hat with jealous contempt. The sun moved, and the heat and glare were merciless. The eight year-old wrote furiously in her diary. I peeked over her shoulder as “my mom won’t buy me an official Lilith fair halter top” anger grew. “I hate my mom. I hate my mom and my life and my sisters and my dogs and my car.” Wow. But then, just as all appeared to be lost, the sun went behind a cloud, and a breeze kicked up off the river, and we all perked right up, and the music began.
First, Michelle-someone-that-sounded-like-“My got a cello” came on and funked the place up. None of us had ever heard of her, but we liked her. There was a little confusion on the part of my kids as to whether she was male or female but I assured the girls she was female, because this was Lilith Fair, and all the performers were women, dang it. Eventually, Michelle MyGotaCello took her black leather vest off, and they could see that I had been telling the truth.
Then Erakah Badu came on, with her towering headwrap and African clothing and her neat little arm motions and her dead-on sense of humor. She held up her cypher, an African symbol for reproduction. She explained all the parts of the symbol, telling how they fit in with the female elements of anatomy. She asked us all to put our hands on our wombs. My girls solemnly did it. Then Erakah showed us the part of the cypher-symbol that corresponded with “the male principle.” She asked all the men in the audience to put their hands on their male principles, and there was a collective roar of laughter. My kids were bewitched. I liked her jazzy, unhurried musicianship and her explanation of Badu-ism. This seems to involve incense, candles, jazz, and a high self esteem. Hey, I am a convert, now.
The Indigo girls were next. They looked like a couple of soccer moms, actually. The Indigo girls are a favorite with my 12 year-old, who sang along with all the songs. She noticed when the row of women in front of us began to exchange emotional couple kisses during “Cross Over,” an anthem to finding true love. I felt proud that her response was ‘aw’ and not ‘ew.’ The Indigo Girls were incredible. Their musicianship was impeccable, their harmonies true, and though I could see that one is a rocker and one is a banjo plucker, somehow, it all works.
At one point, some longhaired girl came on stage and did a whirling dance with her back to the audience out of shyness, and her moves had the crowd cheering in delight. I realized, as she left the stage, that she was Natalie Merchant. There was a rowdy rendition of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and the Girls were joined by an indie band called “Kay’s Choice'” for that. All the performers came out and sang together for their last song, “Closer to Find.” That was shivery.
Then, it was time for Natalie Merchant’s performance. Now, I have a sort of love/hate thing with Natalie Merchant. I love her songs, at least the ones I hear on the radio. But I just know too many short, dark, curvy, Grateful Dead loving, patchouli-smelling, eccentricity-layering, pierced-nose-having, hair-tossing young women, and she is their patron saint or goddess or whatever. But she won me over, partly with her odd voice that misses more than it hits, but hits so hard when it does land, and partly with her extraordinarily high level of self-consciousness. She charmed me with her utter lack of stage confidence. She tried different stage businesses, and none of them worked just right, and she laughed at herself, and she made herself cry with her own songs.
The girls loved her. My little Liliths sang their hearts out. They sat on each side of me and we did Four Tops type line moves. That was the extent of my parental dancing. During Natalie’s song, “Thank You,” I was overcome with sisterly emotion and gave my brother a big hug and a few sobs of gratitude that he had given us the tickets. He is a true angel.
Somewhere in here, I smelled pot smoke. I thought about the concerts I have gone to over the years and realized that this was the most tranquil audience I had ever been a part of. We were appreciative, but we were mellow. Young women danced quietly, some wearing their free Biore pore-cleaning strip samples on their noses. There was no alcohol whatsoever outside the beer gardens, which seemed to be mostly empty. So when the sweetish smell of cannabis tickled my nose, I thought, “What the heck. It’s just a little pot. I can’t complain. It IS a concert.”
Then came the act that I was waiting for. I love Sarah McLachlan. I own every note she has ever recorded.
Either you get the Sarah thing or you do not. To explain is fruitless, because if you are not a devotee, then you could never understand my excitement and delight when she took the stage and began her set with “Adia.” She hopped around barefoot in a fetching, winsome way, and played almost all my favorites. She invited us to sing along, and I did, of course. My kids knew how important that part of the show was to me. They watched me as much as they watched her.
I didn’t cry, but I was transported. Her haunting voice makes me ache. In this day of studio engineering, there is no wonder equal to seeing a singer who carries the beauty of a perfect voice into a live performance. Brother Steve, unfamiliar with Sarah, was blown away. I was so proud to have him see her, as if somehow I were making a personal introduction. And then, we joined the orderly movement of exit, and found the shuttle station, where my happy teenagers waited. They were jubilant, and they were in great shape, loaded down as they were with free samples and good feelings.
We laughed and sang on the way home, and then the kids pooped out, and I drove along and thought about the last number of the night. It was a group effort. All the performers came onstage and sang “What’s Goin’ On.” I thought about something that Natalie Merchant announced, the fact that $19,000 dollars from the gate for the night was going to a battered woman’s shelter.
I had a small moment of epiphany, remembering the words of the Marvin Gaye song, looking at my little incipient women where they slept sprawled on each other in happy exhaustion. I hoped that they never need to understand why we have to do that for each other, raise money to help the battered.
I sent up a prayer to the little naked lady on my cap with the plant growing out of her head that they never will.