Two things, right now: My boyfriend and I are newly engaged. My father is in the middle of a manic episode.
I’ve been neglecting this blog – partly because I am busy gushing and crying in equal turn, and partly because I am way past deadline on like a million things.
I am not so distracted, though, that I haven’t glimpsed some recent headlines.
Here’s one: Joe Biden’s son died of a brain tumor. He was in his 40s. There’s this picture of Biden at the funeral — head tilted up towards heaven, eyes shut tight against a torrent of grief. It reminded me of these lines from this C.K. Williams poem:
What pathways through pain, what junctures of vulnerability, what crossings and counterings?
Too many lives in our lives already, too many chances for sorrow, too many unaccounted for pasts.
Behold me, the god of frenzied inexhaustible love says, rising in bloody splendor: Behold me!
I suppose the lines and picture are not a great fit. The picture is of something deeply specific: one man’s grief over the death of his son. The lines are about universality: how both love and pain are everywhere; how they stretch like taut ribbons, from the centers of our own private lives out to the periphery of all the lives we have ever intersected with; how there’s too much of either to absorb or make amends for, and how ultimately they are one in the same. Grief is just another way that love makes itself known.
Still, they’re connected for me, the lines and the picture.
The lines come from a poem called The Neighbor, which is about a man who imagines a mentally ill woman living in his building to be an old girlfriend whose heart he once broke. I’ve been repeating them over and over in my head these past few weeks, sometimes whispering them aloud. They’re like a fingertip tracing a constellation out from the chaos of stars; they snake their way from the image of Biden, through a series of mnemonic flashes, of all the people I know who buried their brothers young, to one boy in particular who I did not know well, but who I watched die of a brain tumor when he was about half the age of Biden’s son.
I don’t know what the final sketch will look like. It’s not like the Big Dipper, where it’s clear that you’re making a ladle; it’s more like Orion, where you know there’s a whole hunter up there, but all you can make out is an ill-conceived “7.” If I had more time, I’d think on it until the full image revealed itself. But like I said, way past deadline.
In the meantime, another chance for sorrow:
This is a fictionalized accounting of a thing that actually happened. I wrote it for a class I took on fellowship, then went back and changed all the names, including my own.
Chris, his girlfriend Georgie, and his younger brother Ed, had spent the better part of an hour whipping around the western side of Lake Tahoe on the Hobie 1, a 14-foot fiberglass sailboat that had been rusting in the driveway of the family’s vacation cabin for most of the past two years. They’d spent the entire morning chasing after a part for the boat’s main sail — a metal doohickey that attached the line to the boom. It was early August, and the heat had nearly smothered them. Georgie had been whiny, and Ed had not stopped ribbing Chris (Edward was 21, six-years younger than Christopher, and had always relished the role of bratty little brother, especially when he sensed his older brother’s patience wearing thin). But once they’d gotten out there and gotten some wind in the sail, whiny and bratty had yielded quickly enough to gleeful and giddy.
Chris, for his part, was feeling satisfied. He stood up on the bow, drinking a slightly warm Sierra Nevada Ale, watching Ed manage the tiller. The wind was cutting through Ed’s hair, the sun was on his face, and Chris couldn’t help but notice what a handsome man his kid brother was growing into. It was dangerous thinking, he knew. “Growing” was a word that evoked the future, and the future was not something to think about now.
Seven months had passed since the doctors told them that Ed’s brain tumors – aggressive, incurable, malignant little fuckers – were growing again. The entire family – Chris, Ed, their sisters, parents, stepparents and girlfriends – had spent most of that time on sojourn from reality. They’d taken leaves from school and work and hunkered down together in Walnut Creek (with regular trips to Tahoe) to barbecue and swim and hike and ski and sail, to watch movies and eat dim sum and see Ed through chemo. At night, they prayed for miracles; by day they convinced themselves that miracles were not needed. Because Ed was doing great.
Look at him, Chris thought. He’s happy. He’s cracking jokes. He’s fucking sailing.
The wind had all but died, now. They were finishing their beers as the boat made aimless scribbles in the water. Chris would have been content to sit a while longer, but Georgie was getting whiny again and Ed wanted to get back to the cabin before dark. None of them had a watch handy, but by the sun, Chris guessed it was close to 6pm. They were about 200 yards out from shore.
Fuck, he thought. That’s a long way to paddle. “We’ll have to take turns —,” he was saying, when Ed interrupted.
“Chris, I feel weird,” he said, holding his right hand in front of his face, palm pressed outward. “Wait, Chris, I can’t see.”
With that, Ed’s body went rigid and pitched backward toward the water.
“Grab him,” Chris shouted, scrambling down from the bow. “Shit!”
Georgie wrapped her arms around Ed and pulled him into the boat. But she wasn’t strong enough to hold him up.
“Stabilize his head,” Chris yelled.
“I can’t,” she yelled back. Ed was lying flat, with his head between the bench and the side of the boat. He was 6’, 200-pounds, and he would not budge.
“What the fuck is happening to him,” she screamed.
Chris crouched down, lifted Ed’s head into his lap and began searching frantically for breath or pulse. He couldn’t find either. His skin was pale and clammy. His face muscles had stretched and then frozen, so that his eyebrows were arched and his mouth was grinning, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker at the end of the late 80s Batman movie. His soft hazel eyes had rolled back into his head, as if to try and see what the fuck was going on with his brain.
“Please stay with me buddy,” Chris said. “Come on, Ed, please.”
Georgie had jumped up on the bow and was screaming, “Help us! Help us please! Somebody Help!”
This is it, Chris thought. This is how he dies. Oh Jesus Fucking Christ. They had been living all summer — maybe all year, maybe all of the past three years – in a cocoon. Love and hope made up the gooey interior; but it was denial that had formed the hard outer-shell. Now Chris felt that shell bursting open, felt himself tumbling out:
There is no way to beat this thing. We are going to lose him. There is not much time left.
A speedboat came zipping up from the south side of the lake and stopped at a 45-degree angle to the Hobie 1. There were four men on board; their haste had made the water choppy, so that both boats were now bobbing, up and down, up and down, like anxious children.
How long have we been sitting here, Chris thought. The words oxygen, blood-flow and brain damage crossed his mind in rapid succession.
“He has brain cancer,” he heard Georgie explaining to the other boaters. “… he said he couldn’t see…. he needs to go to the hospital…”
“Stay with me Ed,” Chris whispered. “It’s going to be ok.”
Two of the men climbed onto the Hobie 1. They tried lifting Ed, but there wasn’t enough room to get into position, and the boat was wobbling like mad. Chris worried that even if they could lift him, they would drop him during the transfer and he would hit his head, or fall into the water, or both.
“We could tow you back,” one of the men said. “But it will take a lot longer.”
Fuck that, Chris thought. He squatted down, forced his arms under Ed’s body and in one swift move, lifted him up to his shoulders.
“I’ve got him,” he said to the men. “Let’s go.”
Chris was 6’3” with long legs and in just two quick strides both brothers had crossed from sailboat to speedboat. Chris looked back at Georgie. There wasn’t room for her. She had no clue how to sail.
“Go,” she said. “I’m fine.”
As girlfriend and boat shrunk in the distance, Chris put his hand over Ed’s nose and mouth and felt a shallow breath. One of the men had called 911. An ambulance was waiting when the speedboat docked.
At the hospital, Ed came completely round. The doctor explained that it was “just a seizure,” and that seizures were actually quite common with his type of cancer. He’d have a few more in the months ahead, but he’d make it through the summer, and even head back to school in the fall. There would be one more Christmas, and one more New Year’s, and a couple more months from there. But it was that evening — sitting beside Ed’s hospital bed, listening to him recap the day’s sailing for their mother as if nothing else had happened — that Chris would always remember as the beginning of the end.