My Brother's Voice
My brother’s voice from the Other Side has been honed by time and, undoubtedly, his experience of being dead. (Who says the dead know immediately how to be dead?) Nowadays, I can almost always understand what he is saying, an improvement from my confused, ricocheting thoughts and feelings immediately following his passing. My Mama says she needed no training wheels to comprehend the messages her dead son leaves her in innovative wrappings. Take the story she told me of how she found a flattened, silver Jesus charm of rotund and garish proportions ornamented with rust and dirt on the scorched ground paving the way to that palace for budgeting consumers, Costco. The silver winked conspiratorially, shooting rays of blistering Arizona sun in her direction and suddenly she was awash with inner knowing: convinced that – though my brother’s allegiance to Jesus was rivaled first by his devotion to Luke Skywalker, and later on to Marihuana – there was no doubt: this was Alexander saying hello.
Two days after he died, Alexander came to my oldest sister and gave her his trademark hug – leaning in, reaching his paw-arms out, sticking his butt in the air like a giraffe at a water hole and pulling you in, somehow using both his weight and your own. Businesslike and generous is how I remember his embrace – his missives at greeting and parting, his innocence in those times of my complicated feelings towards him, towards the madness and addiction that licked his face constantly as puppies do, with abandon and ignorance of their own sharp teeth. (Just thinking of this reminds me again that my brother is dead, and I am surprised.) My brother, this jet-lagged twin of mine, born exactly two years to the day after me. Alexander, my birthday present.
On our first birthday after his death, Alexander did indeed leave me a concrete birthday present. I was walking out in the desert, choosing to wander alone on an earth as bald and clear as the sky. It was there that I found, on the road, a small plastic skateboard, the kind that Alexander used to play with when we were kids. When I saw the little Young Justice skateboard, I knew it was from my brother. No, it’s not that the skateboard reminded me of Alexander. My brain did not go through a linear series of associations – rather, touching the skateboard caused my heart to unfurl suddenly into a magnificent flower of knowing, that my brother sees me, that he loves me, that he forgives me, and that our love is stronger than the death that we mortals take so seriously, but that anybody who has died knows – is only an illusion that can never keep true love away.
Hard at work in the business of inter-realm communication, my dead brother packs objects and experiences chock-full of intuition-triggers that set us off, wailing celebratory sirens. We don’t need anybody to believe us to know Alexander remembers us. This knowing is a strong, resilient creature, big and explosive and forever.
The problem with grief, however, is that it resides very much in the corporeal nature of this world. No matter how much I know that my brother is well and communicative, the animal body that I am craves his presence on this side of things, in the here.
My youngest brother, planted solidly in the here and now, believes death means my brother is gone Gone GONE, and we must swallow these bitter pills every day if we mean to stay sober and collected. Unlike his careening musician’s life, when it comes to grief, this youngest brother maintains strict materialist principles. However, even this brother has been gifted by our dead brother Alexander’s inventive post-mortem gestures. One night, my youngest brother came home to the Bemowo apartment in Warsaw where we had grown up, and where my brother Alexander had one day injected himself with too much morphine. The place was dark and weird, in the original definition of the word: fantastic, strange, concerning destiny. The shadows hung long and breathed deep. My youngest brother groped the thick curtains of darkness for something to ease his anxiety, to settle him into the deep sleep of people who expect to wake up the next day. At random, he picked up a Harry Potter book, and dropped it open to an arbitrary spot. And there, between the pages, rested a marihuana leaf, forest green, dry and inviting. He crushed it in our dead brother’s grinder, rolled it in our dead brother’s cigarette paper, lit it up with our dead brother’s lighter, smoked it, and went to sleep.
And yet, still this youngest brother of mine did not recognize that our dead brother Alexander has so much love for our family that he spends his time in the afterlife pulling it together like a puppet pulled up from listlessness and decay. That he draws us closer together. That this is what Ancestor means.
Other people choose to invest their faith in the material crack-hearted monotony of a drug habit that my brother Alexander grew from scratch and nourished for years and years. They secretly or not-so-secretly believe that my brother’s drug use had cunningly addled his brains so he no longer knew neither the world nor himself. Convenient, that. Straight from Cuckoo’s Nest, that. As if drugs conducted my brother, like those ants who go looking for death in a cow’s cavernous mouth under the influence of a sinister bacterial intelligence. As if he was so far gone that we – his blood – could no longer claim to know him at all. “We choose what drives us”, these people tell me. Convenient. We choose. We become. We choose what we become. This philosophy, the image of a blind clock in desperate slurring search for its clockmaker, does not get to the heart of my brother’s life, and so – though I could cite various studies on addiction or use petty anecdotes coined by patient men and women who were found by Greatness while sitting very still and conducting through themselves only air and nothing more – I want to tell you instead the story of my brother, who was never patient, never meditated, and who conducted many manic substances through his body in order to find in one of them the path to Eternal Bliss. My dead brother, who was deeply afraid of dying of a miscalculation, and who eventually did just that.
I can’t promise you that this story will be absolutely True. My family is far too fragmented and opinionated (the whirling dervishes of the Polish Diaspora) for my stories to be anything other than a piece of our mosaic. And yet, having listened to many bland versions of my brother since his death, I have learned that Truth is important, and does not blemish. The Truth of my brother’s impatience, anger, jealousy, paranoia, illness, meanness, and the drugs – this Truth does not deter from his love, his kindness, his generosity, and his genius. White -washed portraits of my brother, springing up since his death like car salesmen in America, disorient me and make me feel like I am losing him faster, like he never was. I don’t want people to soothe me with inoffensive statements about him – I want them to reincarnate him, and nothing less.
Alexander came to me the day after he died, delighted to feel the Arizona sun again. He had always wanted to come back, he said, to finish his third degree of Masonry, and to smoke good weed, the lack of which distressed him deeply during his time in Poland. “You never pay attention to me, Klara,” he complained in his deep bass as I told him of the errands I had to run before leaving for his funeral. His presence grew and grew, full-fledged, three-dimensional and full-bodied from a vague obsessive dumb grief, so real that I knew that this was a gift from my now dead jet-lagged twin who wanted me to remember not the content of his character, speech, or actions, but simply his animal presence, his breath beside mine, and the way I was focused on him in Pride when we were together.
It was the first time I considered that presence speaks louder than character or actions. Though, maybe all people who grieve think this way, especially if the man-boy-brother they grieve was conducted by many substances in life, pulled in all different directions by them, whirling like a confused compass crippled by forces it cannot see.
My brother hung around at his funeral, when the sober and sobbing family and friends rolled themselves into the church like sisyphian rocks up a hill. I stood on the balcony in the church, holding my violin, trying to understand what the priest was saying in the muffling echoes of a huge church when Alexander dropped a harrumph into my ear. “He didn’t even know me, and he made up all of that?” He coughed, amused and surprised. “I’m trying to listen,” I told him. “Fine,” he sauntered off, and went to go sit on his coffin, swinging his legs. He could have left then, perhaps. Still, he stayed around. Later, my sadness would explode unexpectedly in various parts of my gut, the country, the world – the world of my body. My brother climbed into my throat and lived there, in a heaviness that produced phlegm every day: the memory of wanting to call him on Skype the night before he died. I never did call him then. The last memory I have of my brother is from Warsaw, six months before his final flight to outer space, when, in the early hours of the morning after a wild-eyed and substance-infused night, I saw death in his face and I was scared. I’d never seen anybody turn grey in front of my eyes before. I did not know how to save my brother. I did not know what I could do. Helplessness stamps us hard, like a boot kicking the dirt. Why, my Soul, is it that we are to love one another without being able to help?
Alexander could have left me with the grief. He could have left me with the sadness, with the meaninglessness, but, beautiful and playful trickster as he always was, he played for me one last yo-yo trick, one last paradox. On the first anniversary of his death, he came to me in a dream. His body was all light. In that dream, he showed me, as never before, that every single moment of his life – even the ones full of absurdity and confusion and pain – was all about love. His beginning, his middle, his unexpected end. The delight and the loss. The wandering. The sun and the moon. The times we were together. I had never seen, before then, the true totality of a person’s life – I had thought about it, of course. I had thought about what it means to be born, to live, and to die. But I had never had somebody come back to me from the other side, and say: don’t worry. It was all about Love anyway. Look. Do you see how beautiful life is, in every single moment?
I woke up then, crying, and wrapped in a profound peace. Every moment felt slow and warm, like the way sheep wander against each other while grazing, rubbing each other’s sides with their wool. And I knew that it was true. Love exists in the core of every moment of this life, for me also, now, as it did for my brother, then. And he is still with me, my young-brother, my Ancestor.
Even though I have been writing unbelievable things here, I want to assure you that I do not, not-believe in my brother’s death. However. What could the however be? Dead means Dead means Dead. What sort of denialism has this crazy cooky sister cooked up and force -fed as her dead brother’s last meal? What did she choose to snort (in denial), to swallow (in denial), to shoot up (in denial), to rub in (in denial), to melt on her tongue (in denial), to drink (in denial), to confuse her own veins with criss-crossing directions (in denial) so that she may have one moment more with her brother?
Only this: There is a reason why Ancestors are a tenet of every pre-monotheistic spiritual inclination and why the Catholic Church has saints enough to displace every politician in the world. There is a reason why in Shakespeare, ghosts come back to haunt their children and their murderers (because ghosts always come bearing the truth of who we were in relation to the dead), and why it does not matter how imperfectly I loved my brother – full of pride and worry and frustration and anger. Because, (and this redeems me, and perhaps others too), we loved each other. Because my brother wouldn’t come otherwise, bearing his face as an offering to trade with mine. (I carry my brother in my face, I carry my brother.) I know now that the moments in life when our kaleidoscope of senses thicken with grief, those same moments thin the cryptic veil we will all cross someday – scrape at it as with a spoon in an underground jailbreak – and we hear, as never before, echoes coming from the other side, some sound that takes the loneliness out of grief, that makes grief abundant and fragrant and reminds us of the Truth of our own, beloved, nature.