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.
I’m learning to live with your best
sugar bowl in my hutch, sweater on
my skin, watch on my dresser.
I’m sweeping the rug you gave me
snowed under with tissues I wept in,
shredded and scattered by the dogs.
I’m bewildered, most of all,
rinsing out vases, my hands stained
yellow with the pollen of lilies.
It happens each year. October 30th draws closer, and I’m a wreck, and it’s been long enough that I don’t actually remember why I’m a wreck. And then I do. A daughter always remembers losing a mother. She remembers it in her bones.
The power of the calendar baffles me. How can a date on a manmade chart have power? But it does. Maybe the calendar isn’t manmade. Maybe it’s just discovered, and it ties in to deeper natural rhythms. Maybe we socialized, higher-thinking creatures have decided these rhythms don’t apply to us, but they do. We are animals, and animals feel grief.
Grief is not a function of whatever higher mind we think we possess. When our big Holly dog had to be put to sleep, we brought her body home to bury. Zoe, our little dog, gave her a last, sad sniffing-over. Then she put up her snout for one loud, sad howl. For the rest of Zoe’s life, when we talked in Holly’s special voice, Zoe’s ears pricked up and she looked around, expecting Holly to show up when we talked the big dog talk.
So I guess it’s not surprising that for years, I waited for Mom to show up. I mean, I know it’s insane and all, but I still kept thinking this terrible mistake would somehow be reversed, rectified. On my first trip up to Bainbridge Island after she died, I fully expected her to appear. She would step out from wherever she’d been hiding and we’d all laugh at how she’d put one over on us.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted by my own disrupted expectation.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talks about saving her husband’s shoes after he died, because, well, he’d need them, wouldn’t he, when he returned. She knew he was dead, of course she knew that. But still, he might need those shoes. I understand that perfectly.
Here’s something else I understand. You all have moms, and your moms are not going to die. That only happens to other people’s moms. I know that, okay? But you all don’t have moms like my mom, that’s what I should make clear. No one, aside from my brothers and my sister, had a mom like mine.
She loved us deeply. Profoundly. Imperfectly. She was emotionally expansive and inclusive, easily wounded and unforgiving. She was magnetic, intelligent, frustrated, passionate, narcissistic, petulant, sarcastic, educated, manipulative, conniving, loving, caring, hopeful, idealistic, hilarious. Most of all, my mom was alive. She was on fire with living, from the soles of her size-12 feet up through and out the roots of her silky silver hair. She was larger than life, and though she hated that about herself physically, she wore it like a queen intellectually. She was a force of nature.
I don’t write much about Mom’s actual death. The official version is, I drove to Seattle with my oldest daughter, my sister and my nephew on a Saturday. I was going to argue with Mom about cooperating with her cancer treatments. I walked in to the hospital to find my brothers and father there, and my younger brother told me, “We think it’s going to be today.”
I’d been told she had six months. It had only been two weeks since they told me that.
I remember too much of the hours between when I entered the hospital and when I left. Reading to her, talking to her, trying to calm her down. Every shapeless syllable that rose from her throat, because she was not able to speak anymore. What comforted her and what angered her. Her determination to die.
At the moment when it happened, I remember my family in that room, our heads thrown back, the rising, keening cries that reminded me of Zoe’s last howl for Holly. We just wailed. I called my ex-husband from the bathroom of the hospital room. To him fell the task of telling two daughters who weren’t with me.
I called my friend Elizabeth and let her know it was over. Saying the words still didn’t make this real or understandable. The last time I saw my mother’s body, my little brother was bending over her, gently talking to her and cutting off a piece of her hair with his pocketknife, so I could have it as a keepsake. Then it was time to leave.
When I paid for my parking at the hopsital, I asked the attendant, “How long have I been here?” and he said “Three hours.” I said, “Your whole life can change in three hours, did you know that?” He nodded and gave me my change.
I kept patting my daughter. That was not for her comfort, but for mine. I’d feel this terrible spinning, like I had nothing holding me down, like I was going to fall off the earth, and I’d reach out, touch her hair, regain my footing through the primal reassurance of her presence.
While we waited in the ferry line, I called my friend San from work, to ask her to let the office know I wouldn’t be back the next day. I wasn’t crying. I was too shocked to cry. I remember the questioning tone of my voice when I told her, “My mom is gone?” and the questioning tone in her voice when she said, “Oh Karen, she is? She’s gone? I’m so sorry?” Like the weight of declarative statements would have crushed us as we gently interrogated this new, nearly unspeakable truth.
Like a pile of sand
Churned to bits and heaped
Waiting for the tide to take me
But daughters come, with pails and pats
And shore me up
Not letting me wash away.
The first Christmas after losing my mother, my family gathered and made our way through, stopping now and then to just cry. We would carry on and cook or eat or open a gift, and then one of us would choke up, and then all of us would. Tears upon tears, dominoes of grief, one after another, until we had all fallen down. Over and over that day, we stopped what we were doing and grieved.
My grief was exacerbated when my younger brother and his wife announced that they were expecting their first child. I was so happy and so devastated. How could it be that my mother would never meet this child? Worse yet, how could it be that this child would never meet my mother? This child who is nine years old, now. I try to tell her about her other grandmother, some halting explanation of how wonderful she was to my girls. But what am I trying to do? Make my niece experience a loss she doesn’t have to experience? I don’t know. I just know I want my niece to have some concept of her other grandmother, some idea of her.
At one point, a friend said something like, “Your mother wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.” I said, “You didn’t know my mother. Mom would want to be missed. She’d want me to be miserable. She’d want me to lie down in the middle of a road and let cars run over me.”
If a desire for advice brought you to this post, I’m sorry. I’m not much for advice. But I can tell you that it does get better, I swear, it does. You look at each other and express disbelief that it’s been five years, then ten years, then more. This year, it is twelve years since that day in Seattle.
Losing my mom was like this: I was standing on the prairie alone, and the ground was dry and the sky was getting dark. Somewhere behind me, a gigantic roar started. It was a roar and a wind and a howl, and I could hear it back on the horizon, and I knew it was coming but there was no getting out of its way. It gathered up and blew through me with the force of a freight train, and it left a hole that wouldn’t close. The world became a place I didn’t recognize.
It felt like this for years.
But at some point, I realized that I’d made it through the worst. I forgave myself for not going to the cemetery on her birthday one year, or on Mother’s Day the next. Eventually I forgave myself for going on. I understand that we are designed to outlive our parents, to survive losing a mother, a father. Eventually, we are supposed to be all right, and I am. I hope my mother would forgive me for that.
I will always remember her last words to me, spoken over the phone on a day when she was too sick to talk, so I said I’d let her go and told her that I loved her. I could hear the nausea and misery and pain in her voice when she said, “Oh, I love you.” Best last words ever, I think. I feel profound gratitude for those words, every damn day.
So, I take it back. I do have some advice: think about ending more conversations with the words, “I love you.”
Grief’s handmaiden bears a bowl
Where once her heart beat
Her ribs encircle it
It goes all through her
Her mourning is soft and dappled
Like the wing of a pigeon
Fanning the surface
Testing the tension
And she spills a bit here
And she spills a bit there
Minding her grief
Making her way.