As the black velvet wintry curtain settles on the world outside my kitchen window, I am grounding myself in the rhythms I know nearly by heart. In the teeny stumps of clove, in the slicing of the onions, in the bay leaf pressed against the slab of beast.
When the not-yet-winter light, the stretched-thin light of middle December, slants in, it’s brisket weather once again. And this year, more than most, I am leaning into whatever is familiar, whatever might bring me a sense of rootedness in this sudden state of disorientation in which I find myself.
My brother, my just-younger brother, the one I’ve been sidling up to ever since his birth two years after mine, awoke a week ago with a lump the size of a grape on his neck. When it ballooned, within hours, to avocado-sized, he drove straight to the ER, a room we’ve visited far too often this long autumn. Before lunchtime, he’d been zapped through the CT see-through machine, and told he needed to run not walk to an oncologist, a noun that makes your insides shake like jelly, a noun that shoots you through with shivers you cannot shake, no matter how many sweaters you wrap around your shoulders, no matter how many hot baths you soak in.
He’s now seen the oncologist, he’s had the needle slid into his neck, the cells extracted and sent off to the lab where someone whose brilliance in all things pathological I am so grateful for, I am counting on, where someone we will never know will peer into a scope and spell out the cold, hard science of all that lies ahead.
We’ve been through a lot, this brother and me, over the decades (trust me, that’s one short string of words packed with understatement, profound understatement). While my other brothers have tales of shared soapbox-derby cars, and U-Hauling trailers across the Wild West, of sleeping bags under stars, and criss-crossing the country for concerts of The Who, the adventures I have had with my brother are ones across and into the deep caverns of the heart, back alleys of the soul.
Ever since we were little, when I used to tiptoe down the hall at night, perch myself on the end of his twin bed, listen to the baseball games on his staticky transistor, pull back the curtains and count the stars, we’ve shared a certain fluency, spoken in our own form of brother-sister secret code. Whether it was knowing kicks under the dinner table (an art that comes in handy with five kidlets and a wordsmithy dad sardined around the oval kitchen slab), or the shared whispers in the way back of the station wagon as it rolled across the countryside, en route from our grandma’s Cincinnati to our Chicago, the only two points on the family map that shone with honest-to-goodness incandescence.
In short order, we’ve shouldered each other through the same grade school, high school and college campuses (though his years in Milwaukee were far more animated than mine; say, the night he decided to direct traffic on the city’s main east-west boulevard with the stop sign he up and lifted from the sidewalk), we’ve borne each other’s griefs as we first buried our father, and later my brother’s first wife, who’d died of a melanoma gone ugly wild. And I’ve leapt on more last-minute flights — with tickets grabbed and paid for while sprinting down the concourse — for him than for anyone else in my life. Every single time, it turned out to be — for both of us — something of a life raft.
For reasons that nearly escaped us this past spring, on the Sunday after Easter, as COVID reached its vernal apex, and all things actual turned virtual, my piano-teaching brother (with perhaps the biggest heart known to humankind) left behind the high desert of Arizona after 35 years, and moved home to the house where we all grew up, the house where he and my mama have waited out the loneliness of this awful isolated siege. He filled her house, and her heart, with days and nights of music, of simple conversation, and with his signature brand of serendipities and joy rides. Hot dogs and fries at 3 in the afternoon, who says you can’t so indulge? Making video recordings as she rode her “red convertible” tractor mower, hiked the woods, or pressed the wrinkles from the church’s altar cloths, her weekly spin through priestly laundry, who says those treasures don’t belong in the family archives? Oh, he kept her laughing, all right. Kept her on her toes. And praying. Especially when she knew not what else to do.
And now, as this ugly awful “lower-case c” (his vernacular for the diagnosis at hand) creeps out of hiding, he is here, where once again — and emphatically — we can harbor him, and shoulder him, take him and his newly-moved-here beloved (whom we adore, by the way, for her unflappable capacity to bulldoze through any brick wall that stands between where they are and where they need to go, and for loving him in the way he’s long deserved), we can take them by the hand across the uncharted topography of ologists — oncologists and otherwise — and the cutting-edge arsenal they’ll employ to do the job, the holy job of zapping chaotic trouble-making cells, to kick them clear into oblivion, so help us God.
While we wait and wonder, wait and worry, wait and pound the heavens with our ceaseless prayer, I am straining to ground myself in the familiar, in the kindling of the winter’s lights in this season of unexpected shadow.
I am reaching for those rare few things that remind me of years and seasons past, when the darkness was not so thick.
As the kitchen fills with updrafts of clove and peppercorn and bay leaf, as the sinew of the brisket beast gives way to succulence, and the house swirls with the scents and sounds of Hanukkah, a festival of light if ever we needed one, I inscribe my prayer and my heart into each one of the words I’ve typed here. My heart, it seems, prays best against the percussions of the keys as I press my finger pads up and down the alphabet.
So consider this my prayer, my love song to my Michael, and with each word, may healing come. May burdens lift and be unloosed. May you swirl, dear M, in all the radiance you are, my blessed glorious brother whom I love. Whom I have loved since the beginning, our beginning, yours and mine entwined.
In an ordinary year, this post might have been about the birthday of the chair, 14 this year (tomorrow, in fact). But this is no ordinary anything, and the birthday ceded to my brother. The marking of time, though, the remembering back to why I first decided to pull up a chair, to invite you to do the same, brings to mind this one simple truth: it’s because I believed then and now that all our stories, the humdrum quotidian stories that unfold right here in the confines of our old familiar homes, they belong to all of us, they are all of ours. I unspool these ordinary tales from the files of my life because our stories, yours and mine, aren’t too too different, no matter where or who or when. The characters and setting might be all our own, but just beneath the surface we find the pulse beat of universal truths and narratives. We all have someone we love who will wake up one day with a diagnosis that takes our breath away. So when I tell these ordinary tales, my hope is that you might slide into the narrative, think of your own brother or sister, your own someone you love, think of your own times when you could not breathe for the fear pressing against up your chest. The hope, ultimately, is that we all share — and find each other — in the messy, gorgeous, never-ending human narrative….your story is my story, my story is yours. With a tweak here or there….
Bless you, each and every one, for being here, for pulling up a chair, a heart, and all the wisdom and goodness and gentle kindness you never fail to bring here. You have made this sacred quiet space everything I believed it might become. Thank you. Love, b.
Now, what are the rhythms that steady you, that ground you, when your world is hurling upside down?