When you communicate with your dead brother, you have to do it on the down-low. Communicate with him around other people, but be cool about it. Turn up “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band when it’s on the radio. Sing along loudly, hitting every note and brrrehr-breh-ehr! The best people will sing along with you. Most people will just sit quietly and listen to you, looking out the window. Some people will try to talk to you while you sing. Don’t answer them. Just keep singing. Play air guitar at the right spot, even though you’ll have to take your hands off the wheel.
Dream about him. Before you go to sleep, say out loud, “I will dream about my brother tonight.” Nine times out of ten you’ll have a dream. These dreams will be unlike any other dreams you have had. The sun shines brighter in these dreams and the colors are more magical. These dreams are HD. Like the one where he showed up at a dinner party, uninvited, with dirt caked on his boots. He put his feet up on the table and the silverware rattled. Dirt flaked off his boots onto his empty plate. People around the table exchanged glances, like they didn’t want to tell him he was dead. You opened your mouth but no words came out. You had no words. Or the one where he was a kid in footie pajamas, the kind with the blue and red trains. You picked him up; he was so small. You put your hand on the back of his head as you carried him down the hall to his room. He felt very light.
You don’t want to purposely dream about your brother too often because the dreams leave you with a helpless, aching feeling. Like being freshly dumped.
Communication with your dead brother can also happen by accident. For example, you can go for a walk with your three-year-old daughter in the stroller to look at Christmas lights. While you are looking at the best house on the block, the one with the sleds and moving reindeer and lights all over the roof, you hear two children laughing and yelling. It’s coming from the house next door. The mother yells something and the kids are quiet for a moment. Then they start laughing again.
On Christmas Day, your brother was always the first one up. The one time he slept in and didn’t get excited about his presents was so out of character that everyone knew right away he had looked at his presents ahead of time. But he only did that once. The rest of the time, he was stoked. You were excited too, but his excitement seemed to eclipse yours. “Woo hoo! This is the best Christmas! Woo hoo!” he yelled when he opened his Atari 2600. Everyone laughed because he had wanted it so bad. You both played the shit out of Pac-Man and Space Invaders that day, that week, that year.
Now you listen as the mother tells those kids next door to the best house on the block to settle down. They call out in unison, “Okaaay, Mom!” The moment hits you sharply and painfully. You feel the power of infinite lost Christmases.
Sometimes people ask you about him without knowing that you have a dead brother. This totally counts as communicating with him. Any conversation about him does. Usually it goes something like this:
ACQUAINTANCE: Do you have any siblings?
YOU: Yes, I have a brother. But he died.
ACQUAINTANCE: Oh no, I’m so sorry! Oh dear….your poor parents!
The person who asked you is genuinely horrified at your answer and at themselves, for asking. They think it’s like your brother just died, and that mentioning it is bringing everything flooding back in a tidal wave of grief that will crush you. But this has already happened. You know this, and have had many days in between then and now to have a shift in perspective. This is not the same as being over it.
To cover for this awkwardness and to keep this dreaded breakdown at bay, they will ask questions that seem so thoughtless and irrelevant, you barely know how to answer. “Were you close? How old was he? How did he die?” They look around the room, plotting their escape. You try to explain that as time goes by, the love goes up and the pain goes down. You stop there. The pain you feel is muted by your new experience of loving him for having been there. You would still ask for him back, but you don’t ache like you used to. Picture a scale, or one of those carnival strong-man games. Except you can hit the very top with very little effort. The love is the bell. Every time you think of him, that bell clangs. It’s like that.
It’s okay that they don’t know, because someday they will.
Sometimes you feel like you are him. You absorbed some of his mannerisms, his reactions. “Sweet,” you say constantly, leaving off the “t” and using a lower voice. Or to your daughter when she’s acting crazy, “You’re about this close,” you say, “to ruinin’ everything.” Except when you say it you’re just kidding, and your daughter rolls away from you, laughing as you try to catch her.
Sometimes you’ll get lucky and tell someone who knows exactly what you’re talking about. When you tell him your brother died, he will tell you his brother died too. Then you are free to talk about your respective dead brothers in a way that is comfortable. His played the piano and attracted all kinds of women, without even trying. Yours had hazel eyes with the lashes so long they touched his eyebrows. His had diabetes and didn’t take care of himself. Yours could talk your ear off.
He was your little brother. It was just you and him, growing up. He struggled with drugs and lost the battle. It started when he was younger, around thirteen. He smoked pot and cigarettes. Then he started drinking. You had no interest in drinking until you were nineteen and even then you only had a White Russian whenever you snuck into the dyke bar downtown with your girlfriend.
Even when he was a child, he threw the most insane tantrums – screaming and yelling and tearing things off the walls. He got in big trouble for this and your parents were always talking about it. “Why is he such a hothead?” They called him the Tasmanian Devil, the one from the cartoons who was nothing but angry eyes and a scribbled tornado. He rolled around on the floor and cried, even at the age when this behavior was considered ridiculous. You always kept your cool. You always talked about your feelings in the most polite way. Your parents marveled at your clarity and consideration for others. Sometimes you cried in your room, loudly, but you always recovered. When you got angry you knew just how to stuff it down. Asking for permission came naturally to you. You would write “I am sorry” on a piece of paper and give it to your mom. Your mom was thankful for this. You knew how to be good.
When you got older you realized people had to earn that from you first, or else you would get used up and thrown away. Most people you dated were attracted to a woman who could get used up like that. Someone who wouldn’t raise the stakes. Someone who would say yes. Someone who had learned from an early age how to stuff things down. You had to learn to make waves. You had to learn to kick some ass.
Taking a page from your brother’s book can be helpful in terms of sticking up for yourself.
Teach your daughter to let her rage out. Tell your daughter it’s okay. Tell her she can be mad for the rest of her life if she wants to. Tell her there are some people who think feeling angry is normal and healthy, and that you are one of those people. Tell her you’re on her side. “Put your heart next to my heart,” you say. “Tell me all about it. Breathe.” Tell her anger is usually just part of the feeling and that there is always another feeling that goes with it. Tell her to draw you a picture of how she is feeling. She draws a picture of a sad face. She draws a picture of a scared face. She draws pictures of every emotion and pastes them on a piece of cardboard. She says, “When I’m sad, I can press the sad face.” She shows you a circle with two blue eyes and tears that are dots all the way down the sides of the upside down horseshoe. “What’s this one?” you say, pointing at a red face with zigzags on the mouth. “That’s when I’m feeling like a vampire.” You ask when she feels like a vampire. She looks down and says quietly, “When no one wants to play with me.” The happy face is the biggest, a big moon face with a smile that goes up to the ears, wanting to curl into itself. She uses it for weeks, the chart. She shows you every feeling she has and then moves on. You understand that now she is the one teaching you.
As your brother got older, the rage and the drugs got even worse. His behavior was alarming. Your parents looked at him like he wasn’t even theirs. After an episode of rage in which he had torn up all his money and screamed obscenities at your mother, she looked at him with disgust and said, “Who are you?” Screaming matches were a regular occurrence. Quietly, you would go into your room and read, tuning it out. When he was fifteen, during one of these screaming matches, your brother hit your mother on the arm. It wasn’t hard, but it scared everyone. Your dad and your brother struggled physically and then your brother ran out the door. Later that night, you sat with your dad on the couch while he wept. He kept saying, “He’s not the son I wanted.” You sat next to him quietly until he wiped his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I’m fine.” He patted your knee before standing up and walking away.
Once, when you and your brother were still teenagers, you got in a fight and sprayed him with pepper spray, right in the face. For a moment, he glared at you, then covered his face and fell to his knees, screaming, “You biiiiiiiitch!!!” You ran out the door, coughing from the stuff. You drove to work at the grocery store. On your lunch break, you called home. He answered. “Hello?”
“Hey Ronnie, can I talk to mom?”
“No! Fuck you!” He slammed down the phone. You laughed. Some guy in the break room said, “What’s so funny?” You shook your head, still laughing. “Nothing. Long story.” When you got home that day his eyes were red and swollen. He looked like he’d gone three rounds with Mike Tyson. You did feel sorry then, because he was your little brother and you had the advantage in so many ways. Your parents were mad, but they didn’t want to punish you because they were cautious about taking your brother’s side. He had been acting like a real asshole lately. They didn’t want him to absorb their sympathy and become monstrous with it, like a con-man taking the whole town for everything it has. Like the predator in the movie who preys on a young girl’s innocence and faith in humanity, just to get in the door. He had an aura of danger now.
But you saw something different that night. You looked at him that night and saw raw vulnerability. You saw someone who was not succeeding but wanted to. You saw someone who needed guidance badly. Your girlfriend said, “Military school. He’d respond to that, trust me.” He didn’t go to military school. He dropped out of high school and ran around with stupid little assholes from your suburban neighborhood north of Seattle. He stole cars and pissed off neighbors with the stupid shit he said. When you saw him then, he was always smirking. You ran into him on the street once and it felt like you were strangers. He said he had been at a party and had kicked someone’s ass for calling you a dyke. “Even if it’s true, I had to pound his ass because it’s about respect.” Everything always seemed to be about respect. “Thanks,” you said, wondering what the hell was going on in that fucking head of his.
Your dad’s daughter from a previous marriage, Lisa, and her husband, Buzzy, offered to take him on at their home in Maryland for the summer. “We’ll get him on the right track,” Buzzy said. Buzzy was a cop. Your parents were happy to send him. It was a great summer for you, without him there. You and your parents had relaxing dinners outside in seventy degree weather, with vegetables from the garden. You and your mom went to interesting plays and lectures. You had friends over and you chilled out in front of the television with no interruptions. You were bummed when your brother-in-law called and said, “Hey, we can’t handle him. You’re gonna have to take him back.”
He had been fucking up over there too. It seemed that wherever he went he would find the wrong crowd. The ones who were lost and didn’t know why. The ones people looked away from as they walked by. The ones who weren’t invited to weddings or parties because you never knew what might happen, with them around. The ones you always wished were different, would listen to you, would change, would turn over a new leaf. The ones who never knew the right thing to say, or knew and refused to say it. They were the ones who took too much out of the tank and didn’t put enough back in. The ones who (let’s just say it) you didn’t want around because they were sick, and even though you loved these people, you worried that whatever thing they had might be contagious, and you just couldn’t afford to get sick, too. So you waited, thinking maybe they would call you when they got better. If they got better.
Instead of sending him home, your parents did some research and found a place for wayward boys or teens with anger management problems, or adolescents with drug problems. They found a place in Utah that would take him. Utah had many places like this because the state had very liberal laws about what parents could do with their kids. When he got off the plane, someone was there to meet him. Then he was essentially locked up. You wondered if it was too big of a betrayal. Your mom said, “No, because we’re not lying. I told him he would be picked up by someone who would tell him where to go.” So he was told where to go and brought there by this man. He stayed there for eight months.
No one knew how godawful those places were. Your dad has said it’s the biggest regret of his life, that he sent your brother there. Your mom says it was terrible, but what else could they do? They didn’t know what else to do. You remember feeling sick sometimes, thinking that it seemed like jail, the way they described it in the flier. You would lie awake at night wondering what he was doing over there, at that moment. You wanted to know what was happening to him.
There are blogs by people who stayed at places like this as teenagers. Verbal, emotional, probably even physical and sexual abuse. Or maybe these are the only people who bother to write a blog about such things. Still you can’t imagine that any of the places were actually any good. Low-paid people in power positions with a bunch of pissed-off teens is never a good combination.
Those places still exist. When you look at the blogs you don’t read the stories too closely. It scares you and makes you feel terrible. It’s a masochistic kind of Internet surfing. When you Google “places to send children” it auto-fills with options. Places to send children with behavior problems. Places to send defiant, troubled, unruly, out-of-control children. Places to send a problem child. Places to send a child who is bad. A Moses basket for Cain, sent down the river to be caught by the reeds.
* * *
When your brother came back from Utah, he didn’t seem mad at all. He just seemed happy to be home. He was helpful around the house and ate dinner with the family every night. Of course it wasn’t long before he started losing his temper with everyone, getting into trouble again.
* * *
Your nephew—your brother’s boy—was only five years old when his dad died. He’s sixteen now. When you’re back home in Seattle, you try to remind him of his father. When he died your nephew only wanted to spend time with you and no one else. You watched Wizard of Oz together. You both sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at the top of your lungs. Children grieve correctly: by instinct. He cried when he wanted to and played when he needed to. He said he wished his dad didn’t have to take that bad medicine. The people at the hospital told you to tell your nephew that the lethal combination of crystal meth and barbiturates was bad medicine. Your nephew was afraid to take Children’s Tylenol for months after that. Remind your nephew about that. Remind him that he and his dad used to go camping and throw rocks into Puget Sound, that this was one of their favorite things. There was an island there you could see from the shore off of Deception Pass and your brother had said, “One day, I’m going to win the lottery, and I’m gonna buy that island.” When you asked him what he would do with it, he looked at you. “I’m gonna just sit on it.” You both laughed. “You would, lazy-ass,” you said. He nodded, proud of himself.
That your nephew doesn’t remember his dad at all pains you, so tell him stories. He won’t respond with questions and wide-eyed interest because he’s a teenager now and has learned to be inscrutable. He’ll nod, look away from you. He doesn’t trust adults as much as he used to, and is reluctant to let his guard down around them. You realize this is part of growing up, but it still kills you. You remember when he used to be so excited to see you that he’d scream your name and fall down on the ground laughing.
Tell him that his dad loved purple and Pink Floyd and that he couldn’t sing for shit. Tell him that his dad hated almost everything your mom ever cooked. Tell him how proud his dad would be of him now. Tell him you’re always here if he wants to talk about his dad and that you’ll tell him the truth about anything he wants to know. He’ll nod and won’t ever take you up on it but you’ll hope that it means something to him anyway. Tell him to talk to him. He’ll look at you like you’re fucking crazy, but tell him anyway. Remind him of the time he wrote a letter to his dad, two days after his dad died. He needed help spelling it out on the computer. It said, “Have a good ghost time.”
* * *
Visiting your brother’s grave is always something other than what you think it will be. It feels like someone else is doing it. Or like someone is watching. It feels like being a spy in a TV movie: foreign, scary, and possibly pointless. But whenever you’re back home you’re compelled to do it. His grave is the one under the flowering plum tree with the purple leaves, near the children’s graveyard. When you pass through the children’s graveyard, you always read a few of the gravestones. You feel this is owed to them. There is a small bench there that has the engraving: “A person is a person, no matter how small.” Some have only lived for one day. Some not too much longer than that. This is the only time you feel lucky about how it all played out. At least you had him as long as you did.
Your dad told you he likes to pour a Dos Equis into the grave when he comes. He pours in half and drinks the other half. He prefers to come alone. Bringing beer is a great idea, you think, but you haven’t done it yet. You usually talk to your brother a little bit. The best thing to do is just sit there for a little while. Like the old man on the tree stump in The Giving Tree. Just sit and rest for a while. Sometimes you clean the stone off with some paper towels and cleaner that your mom sent you with and just sit on the grass, legs crossed. When the pink blossoms on the plum tree are in full bloom, breathe in deeply.
Sometimes your mom comes with you and walks around the graveyard with your daughter, who is now five. Your daughter barely notices the gravestones, which are mostly the kind that are flush with the ground. She just sees a giant field. Your mom walks more slowly now and sometimes calls out your daughter’s name so she won’t run too far. Your daughter likes the statues of angels. “I’m going to choose to be an angel when I die,” she says. (Your mother-in-law filled her head with a bunch of crap when you weren’t paying attention.) Your daughter comes back and tells you how beautiful her wings will be. You’re waiting for her to ask you your opinion about angels but she never does. When you get back to the house, your other daughter, just a year old, yells out and laughs when she sees you. She holds her arms up, wanting to be held but not having the words. Just love.
There are many times when your brother won’t be there and you will really feel it. However, this is actually a perfect time to communicate with him. When you get married, put a picture up of you with your arms around his neck, your faces close together. It was taken the Thanksgiving before he died. Put it in a silver frame and put a white orchid in front of it, one that matches the one in your hair. Light a candle. Tell people who he is. While you are getting ready, before you leave the room to walk down the aisle with your dad, whisper, “Wish you were here.” Close your eyes. Repeat for the birth of your daughter, then the younger daughter three years after that. Wish you were here. Wish you were here.
On his birthday, May 12th, go to a bar or a restaurant and buy him a drink. Beer, tequila, it doesn’t matter. He wasn’t too discerning and you can’t remember for sure what he drank. Once when you went out with him he drank Bacardi and cokes the whole time. You were drinking a lot too back then and occasionally ordered shots of Patron for the two of you. Both of you got sick that night. When you drove him home later, buzzed, your brother said, “This is the most fun I have ever had.” You were surprised when he said that. He was probably exaggerating, you thought. Rain fell lightly on the windshield. You should have just had him stay at your place in town but you decided to drive him all the way up north. You had plans the next day.
When you buy a drink for your dead brother, set the drink in front of an empty chair at the table. Just let it sit there. If, after a while, the waitress asks, “Do you want me to take this away?” just say, “No, it’s for my brother.” She’ll look confused but will leave it there. Your friends will think you’re a nut for doing this. The ones who really love you will try and take sips from it and you will have to smack their hands away. They will pretend to talk to your brother as a way to give you shit. They will ask him if he comes here often. They will pretend as though they prefer his company to yours. “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to him,” they’ll say when you try to answer them. This is ideal because it brings his memory into focus in exactly the right way. Your friends get it.
Another thing you should do is go see Dark Side of the Rainbow at the Alamo Drafthouse. They show the Wizard of Oz and play Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd instead of the dialogue. Apparently potheads have been doing this for ages and it is badass. You bought your brother the Pink Floyd CD box set one Christmas at Tower Records in Seattle because you felt guilty for never hanging out with him. After you paid for the box set, which was way more than you could afford, he looked at you and smiled. “Thanks, sucker.”
Make sure you smoke a lot of pot before you go to the movie. You’ll have to call around and find out which of your friends still smokes pot. This will make you feel like a dork. Probably Lisette and Jack have some pot because their daughters are grown. Most of your friends with kids under twelve are too tired to smoke pot, or they are worried the kids will find out. See if you can get someone to roll the joints for you. You’ve always sucked at that but you hate smoking from a pipe. It burns unpleasantly and tastes ashy. Your brother probably had a bong. But you don’t want to keep it around the house. A joint will have to do.
You regret not visiting him more often when he was in prison. He was always so grateful whenever you did. He was there for robbing a bank. He had not been armed. A friend of yours from high school, who was a bank teller, told your brother in a casual conversation that if you wanted to rob a bank it was easy. All you had to do was write a note. The bank teller has to give you the money even if you don’t have a gun. The gun is implied and they can’t be too careful. The money is replaceable, the teller is not. Your brother did what your friend said, then he took the money and sat down at the bus stop. Fucking idiot. This is what you yelled, alone in your room, when you found out. Then you punched the wall. It didn’t do anything except bruise your knuckle. “Dammit,” you had said, rubbing your hand.
You remember the first time you came to see him in prison. He had no idea you were coming and for some reason they didn’t tell him who you were, so when he saw you he was completely shocked. Talking to your brother in prison was just like in the movies. You talked on a black phone with a silver cord, thick Plexiglass between you. Men walked behind him during the visit and looked at you in a horny way. Your brother yelled at them to fuck off. They all looked like kids even though it was a real prison, not juvie.
You remember the last time you visited him. The two of you got into an argument about the time he broke his girlfriend’s nose. She had caught him snorting lines of meth when your nephew was just a newborn. He said she was hitting him with a brush. “What the fuck was I supposed to do?” You said, “She’s four foot eleven, you fucking asshole. You walk away.”
He leaned forward and started talking fast, the way he always did when he wanted to make sure you believed him. He said, “You have no idea, you weren’t there. She was being a total bitch to me. I had no fucking choice.”
You said, “You are stronger than her and you shouldn’t have done what you did.” You ended up walking away. You didn’t look back but you thought he was probably still sitting there, talking on the phone, to your back, as you walked away. Walking away had felt good, like you were sticking up for something you believed in. Like you were sending him a powerful message.
If it were now, you would walk back and sit with him anyway. Finish out the minutes you had left in your visit. You would still tell him he was being a dick, being abusive. You’d also tell him you forgive him. You’d tell him he can be an abusive dick for the rest of his life and you’ll still love him. Because the part of him you love doesn’t change with the fucked-up stuff he does. It’s the part of him that is connected to you and the world, the part of him that is awake and sleeping. You can’t take that part of love away because he broke his girlfriend’s nose, robbed a bank, stole money from you. And you don’t give it out to just anyone who behaves well.
You think about the times you sucked as a sibling. You feel guilty for the time you pushed him out into the lake where his feet couldn’t reach the bottom and told him that sharks were going to eat him. He was five and never wanted to go swimming after that. Or the time those neighborhood kids took his Mariners jacket and put it in a trashcan and you had laughed, even though you felt bad for your brother, who was crying. Or the time you slapped him in the face when you were twelve, so hard that he sobbed.
Remember also that he punched you in the face and split your lip for not giving him the remote. He was ten and you were thirteen. Also remember he threw a rock at your forehead and left a giant goose egg.
Remember the time he said he thought you were the smartest person he’d ever met. He said “You kick ass at everything you do.” Remember how when he was little you were the only one who could understand what he was saying. Everyone said you “spoke Ronnie.” He trusted you. When he was little he used to let you dress him up. He always wanted to play with you, even if it was just Barbies. He liked your ideas. He thought you were the best artist. When he was older he wanted you to do the artwork for the book he was writing. When he described it on the phone you wrote notes. A man leaning on a street light post, wearing a hat that hides his face. Smoking a cigarette. Shadowy. You never even made a sketch, thinking he wouldn’t write it. He did write it. You have the book on a floppy disk because it has been that long since he died. Overall it reads like an adolescent dream of being a criminal. The dialogue, however, is outstanding. So natural and clear.
There is no guide to communicating with your dead brother. This is the main thing to remember. This is the most frustrating and also the most beautiful thing about it. You make the rules and it is up to you to make it happen. Dead people are lazy-asses, sitting on the island they always wanted. Therefore, you have a lot of choices. It can be on a holiday, at an awkward party, at your house, at a fucking séance. Hold a séance in your brain. Let him in. Talk to him. Let him talk to you. Be crazy enough to do that. Not that John Edward Crossing Over crap. It’s all you. You’re the medium. You’re the Ouija Board. Move the little triangle thing where you want to. And answer back. Write it down. Read it out loud. Whisper it when you’re in the bathtub. Yell it when you’re driving to work. Talk to your dead brother, his name a tattoo on your tongue, a song you know by heart.