A Year of Losses, Part One
It all started when Toni Morrison died. A year of losses that set off a cycle of transformation.
Toni Morrison died August 5, 2019. I thought of her as my literary mother, my mother of books, the woman I hoped I was becoming more like: unafraid, spiritual, a linguistic fucking genius. She was roughly the same age as my mother; she had lived in Syracuse before I was born, leaving a spiritual vibe in a city that already has a lot of writerly vibes. (I currently live a block or so between where Raymond Carver lived, and where David Foster Wallace lived. I won’t even get into Mary Karr. This city is rich.) I admired the trajectory of Ms. Morrison’s career, that she’d given herself her own name, that she’d raised her children on her own terms, that she gave space and life to her creative work above everything else. She wrote expressly for black people: that was not me, but it spoke to me as a person on the margins in other ways, and her intention behind it meant everything. Her intention said Fuck your ideas about what might sell. I write what I write.
Her passing felt heavy to me, sad in a way that is unavoidable, that is natural in its progression. It was the springboard for a hell of a year ahead.
My brother had been in decline for months. He’d been essentially homeless, living with a friend who had finally asked him to leave at the end of May, and I ended up putting him up in a Motel 6 for the entire month of June. I had some free nights; it was relatively cheap; we used some money he had from selling a piece of music equipment. And in the meantime we tried to figure out where he could go, and what he could do. He couldn’t live with me. I was already living with four other people in an 1100 square foot house, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I couldn’t live with him. I had lived with him, as an adult, for 18 months, which ended in me basically running away to Philadelphia and not talking to him for more than a year.
It’s fraught. He’s almost ten years older than me, but he was placed rather explicitly in my care. He doesn’t need care. He lives with bipolar disorder, but he’s functioning. It’s more that my parents didn’t want the burden of care. So they trained me up for it. When a responsibility like that has been with you that long, it’s a hard habit to let go of. It’s hard to understand it, objectively, and it’s hard to step outside the only role you’ve ever known.
I ended up placing him with a neighbor who let people stay at his house, rooms for rent, without a lease, something my brother could afford, or that I could afford in case of emergency. He was slow-moving, slow-thinking, had a hard time getting through paperwork for services, getting to doctor’s appointments, getting around in general. It was familiar, and jarring: he reminded me of my dad, before he died, when he was 88. Except my brother was 54.
It got worse. In September he was basically unable to get out of bed, afraid of falling, unsteady on his feet, and he started slurring his words. When he called me, afraid, and unsure of how to get help, I told him I was going to call 911. I told them I was afraid he was having a stroke. I knew mostly likely he was not having a stroke, unless it was the world’s slowest stroke that was taking six weeks, or six months, or six years to manifest fully, but I knew that if I said that, they would move fast, and they did.
The EMTs were young white guys in their twenties. They stood with that air of relative authority: feet planted apart, hands on belts. They asked my brother some questions. One of them asked me some questions about medications. He said to me, “He’s not having a stroke,” and then added, “is he on something?”
This has a long history in my family: is he on something? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes in the past, he has in fact shown up at my house, similarly incoherent, high on about 20 mg of Xanax. (You read that correctly: I am not exaggerating. No, I do not know how he is not already dead.)
“There’s a lot of beer cans in the recycling,” the EMT suggested.
“Other people live here,” I said. “He’s not drunk.”
I finally got them to agree to take him in. They made some calls; they decided to take him to Upstate. A year later, I am fully aware of how strongly privileged a scenario this is: even in a setting of poverty, the fact that my brother is a white man saved him from being treated severely by police. He could have just as easily been tazed, or suffocated while being restrained. He could have been shot by the police, for being in mental distress, many, many times over in his life. But in all honesty, being white, and having white people advocate for him while being in the right neighborhood has saved him again and again.
It’s not the first time I expected my brother to die. I saw him in the emergency room, where he didn’t understand why he was there or what was going on. He thought he was being punished. He thought it might be jail. A doctor came in and explained that his lithium levels — lithium was a drug he had been prescribed for years to treat bipolar disorder — were off the charts. They needed to bring them down, possibly with IV fluids, and possibly with dialysis. They moved him to the ICU, where he fought them, physically wrestled with any treatment they tried to give him so that they called me in the middle of the night, the only person available to give them any direction, and asked for my permission to give him dialysis. “Without it, he will die,” the doctor explained to me. But he was fighting it so hard they had to sedate and restrain him. I told them to go ahead.
In the meantime, my mother, living in a tiny town north of Seattle, in a trailer with her brother, was also in and out of the hospital. This wasn’t new for her. She suffered from COPD, and frequently had bronchitis or sometimes pneumonia. She was a smoker, she lived with a heavy smoker, and she didn’t move much anymore. None of it was good for her 89 year old lungs.
On the phone, my mother said to me, “I wish you would come visit.”
In the ICU, my brother looked around to see if anyone could hear and then called me closer, and said “You have to get me out of here. They’re like, keeping me against my will.”
I had no intention of getting him out of the hospital before he was well enough to go. I also had no intention of dropping the thousand or so dollars it would take to fly me to North Western Washington at a moment’s notice. I did what I am best at: I went on autopilot. I took the phone calls, I made the hospital visits, I made follow up phone calls with doctors and psychiatrists. I felt nothing.
They managed to flush the toxic amount of lithium out of my brother’s system, and he learned very basic things again, like walking, and writing his name. They put him on a new drug that made him giddy at first, and then stabilized. He still talked his way out of the hospital earlier than recommended. They had lost all of his belongings at the hospital, so I literally had to bring him home in a new outfit, like a new baby, without any identification.
My mother called. I didn’t want to tell her about Joey in the same way I didn’t want to tell Joey about Mom. I didn’t want either one to worry about the other; I just wanted them to get better, without the added burden. But no matter what, I was always in the middle of their conversations, the triangle point in their hesitation to talk directly to each other.
She called from her own phone in the hospital room in a town I had only visited twice. I hadn’t seen her in five years. I asked her why she was in the hospital, knowing that she sometimes didn’t tell me the whole truth about what was wrong, and believing that the hospital was probably the safest place for her.
“Well,” she said. “I actually had a small heart attack.”
Small was actually pretty major. It was also the exact same way my grandmother, her mother, had died in the 70s, before I could really remember. She had a heart attack; she went home and appeared to be doing better, and then she went back.
My uncle called with reprimands. He told me I needed to get out there. He is not my favorite person. The fact that my mother chose to live with him after my dad died was a point of contention between us. All he had ever shown me was general misogyny and racism, homophobia, (all in very colorful, hateful language) and a lack of respect for my mother’s lungs. I was sure that if I boarded a plane and took off for NWW, my mother would die on my way there, and I’d be left with him and his family, none of whom I wanted to see.
When she died, I didn’t take their calls. I blocked the rest of their numbers, many of which had already been blocked in my phone. I left it to my oldest brother, my mom’s first born, to deal with a local funeral home, who called me to collect my half of the fees. And for my shipping address.
People don’t always know how to react when someone dies. People are afraid of saying the wrong thing, the wrong way. And what are we apologizing for? Why is everyone sorry when someone dies?
I texted my friends the morning my mother died. Most of them knew she’d been in the hospital, that it didn’t look great, and that my brother had just gotten out. I said something similar to all of them: Hi. My mother died. I’m fine, I just can’t talk right now. I got the usual string of apologies, I love you’s. My friend Meggan suggested a gratitude chain, which even now makes me tear up, that in the center of that storm, she had the substance to step back and say, let just say what we’re grateful for. It went on for about twenty minutes. I felt oddly better, although still empty.
There was no service. There was no obituary other than what I posted on facebook. I didn’t get together with my siblings. There was no repast, no graveside prayer, no communal grief. We just shut up and went on with our business like nothing much had happened, and like nothing much had changed.
And then she came in the mail. The mail carrier wouldn’t leave without a signature. I didn’t know how or when or what might arrive. They handed me a small Priority Mail box with a large neon orange sticker on the side: CREMATED REMAINS. I signed for it, and left it on the dining room table. My younger son came down, expecting something from Amazon, and said, “Ooh, what did we get?” and then “Oh. It’s Nana,” in our deadpan typical humor style.
And then, and then, and then. We had the holidays. The pandemic hit. I quit drinking. People took to the streets for racial justice — again, and still. My book came out. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.
I lost people when my mother died. Beyond my mother. In many ways, I lost my oldest siblings, who have nothing left to tie me to them. I had friends who showed up, in the best ways, which are really just the ways that people love you while letting you be yourself, with hugs, and lunch, and not talking about it. And I had friends who slipped away, unsure of how to deal with my grief. I texted one of them in Philadelphia, desperate for just a long hug at the beginning of winter, at the start of the Christmas season, which was already a hard time for me and my mom, and now I was doing it without her.
He didn’t answer. I texted again, and said something like, “The fact that we are in the same city and you cannot be bothered to see me when my mother is dead breaks my heart.” Crickets.
At the end of June, I cast a primary vote for Joe Biden, even though Bernie Sanders was still on the ballot in NY, and then I took a spectacular fall on the walk home. I fell onto my knee with such force that I almost somersaulted forward. It ripped open my knee in the shape of heart. In my own defiance to feel anything, my body produced its own literal bleeding heart on my knee. It knocked me off my feet for a few weeks, wrecked my regular schedule of hiking. I started writing out morning pages where I felt like a house on fire with anger and grief and shame. I burned everything I wrote. I stopped drinking because it felt like lying and my body was on fire with truth. Like all at once my body was Cher in Moonstruck, slapping Nicolas Cage across the face: Snap out of it!
In that space of cleansing, of delayed mourning, I did the other thing I do best: I made a reading list. I started with The Bluest Eye, and I added The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, and Tara Westover’s Educated. I wanted to read myself whole again, even if I was struggling with writing anything, language was a constant comfort to me. It’s what my literary mother, Toni Morrison said that kept me going: “We die.” – “We die,” she said, like she was speaking directly to me about herself, about my mother. “That may be the meaning of life,” she said. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”