Guernica Magazine

Where Disease Stopped and My Brother Began

Coming to terms with a sibling's suicide. The post Where Disease Stopped and My Brother Began appeared first on Guernica.
Barry Lyndon poster (detail) by Joineau Bourduge, copyright Warner Brothers. Collaged by Ansellia Kulikku.

It takes three separate visits to the apartment before I can bring myself to approach the bed. Shoved into the corner between a brick wall and a window, slants of light catch the dust drifting to its puckered surface. To open the blinds means standing on the mattress. I call for someone else to draw them up. With the light of day, I see brown rumpled sheets, I realize he had slept with the pink featherbed that had been mine as a child. Hanging above: a cracked frame contains a snow-covered cemetery; one of our father’s nude watercolors bears a mottled female face and ends just below the darkened folds of her equally overwrought pubis.

I start on the floor by the bedside table. A battered red set of drawers, a piece of junk, like most of the apartment’s furnishings. Beneath the bed, the dust has piled in plumy neglect. Unopened condom foils, more overworked paintings, spine-cracked books. A single fallen pill.

When I first got the news, I imagined myself prostrate and moaning, face buried in the must of his pillow. I sped south, 205 miles to his home, to inhale those last warm-blooded minutes. I assumed I would reach through time to his fog of thoughts and extract all the reasons why–understanding is love’s other name, says Thich Naht Hanh. But the gruesomeness of cold limbs reaches me first, and on the floor I remain. I edge around the low wooden bed frame on hands and knees, thinking, It must have been this that left the gashes on my mother’s shins when she fell.

I can’t imagine. But I do anyway.


The first time I come to my brother’s apartment, my job is to find some clothes in which to cremate him. As I enter the lobby of his building, I wonder if when he crossed that marble floor he had already determined how his night would end. There is rice in the cooker–he had made himself a meal. His belongings are strewn about. I rummage through his washing machine, smelling dirty shirts and occasionally keeling to the floor.

I want to find the right thing, something to capture his essence. But there is little that is adequately animated among his effects. I keep scouring the small space looking for some piece of him lodged within his junky items, but mostly it is just that—junk: holey pants, ratty button-downs, a vinyl sofa the shade of a cocktail olive, hodgepodge accouterments, like the tattered, yellow gingham frog that had been part of our childhood collection, the Ziploc bag filled with his baby teeth. On the windowsill is a thick volume, pages glued shut, the front cover with hinges that open, and inside the crude square he had spent a long Christmas Eve carving out with an X-Acto blade. World’s best granny reads his grade-school-like scrawl beside the smiling photograph of our maternal grandmother fixed inside. That year—he must have been a sophomore or junior in college—we all got personalized variations on these books: glued and hacked-out volumes, fitted with whatever images had been on hand. Having frantically carved through the night, he was visibly tired as he doled them out, but we kept to our customary script. Neat. Oh, sweet. OK! These labored gifts were not out of character.

His lack of capital participation had always been a marked quality. I think I saw it as a quirk, maybe a stubborn virtue. He used to visit me in New York, showing up with no more than a toothbrush jammed into his back pocket. He quietly mocked our lifestyle, all our stuff, our far-flung travels. He met our ambitions quizzically, but celebrated small feats. He was drawn to heroes of human proportions: the procrastinator who embarks upon, but doesn’t necessarily complete, the long-discussed project; the junkie who tries to kick the habit; the dog rescuer; the functionally depressed; the single mom; the part-time musician; our father, following his own bouts of mental illness.

All the same, I rifle through the apartment, trying to unearth some piece of him, something I can take and ever cherish. I settle on an old banjo, its neck lined by a careless Sharpie marker. I take a diaphanous plaid shirt, and an equally threadbare cerulean tee, and swamp around in them while morosely thinking, limb of my limb. A friend, one of the dozens who sent emails, wrote: We called him “Country Ben” because it looked liked he had stolen his clothes from a scarecrow. My mother claims bags of clothes. His beat-up Gitane racer now stands in her dining room. His good shoes wait by her front door.

Apart from a smattering of images, the only photos he has are from three rolls he shot fifteen years ago on a cross-country trip

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