“He’s gone.” The words came across my cell phone with a finality that hit me in the back of the throat. It was Thanksgiving Day and my older brother – the fast-talking bodybuilder, the guy with a quick wit, the family man that was always laughing – had left us. After getting the short straw and Type I diabetes at age 11, he had overcome the odds at every juncture. But he could not overcome 2020.
They say siblings are your first friends – your link to the past and bridge to the future. As I took in the news of my brother’s death, I was taking on water – drowning in last words and lost moments. I could not find air. I rushed outside. I could not call out. Every human within ear shot was confined to home by state mandate. There would be no shoulder to cry on or consoling hugs. There would be no ‘I’m sorrys’ or back rubs. It was cold-turkey grieving on Thanksgiving Day.
Chris had just texted us the day before to tell us our uncle had died. Uncle Michael was larger-than-life. He was a wise-cracking, mountain of a man who taught us how to water ski and cheat at cards. And within 48 hours, we would lose Uncle Robert to COVID-19.
It was hard to fathom – three family members in four days. It was too much in a year that had already been too much. Six degrees of separation, seven degrees of isolation, 6 feet for 15 minutes in a 24-hour period – our kingdom for a mask.
It was a year in which we stood at the edge of existence and stared into the abyss — each with our own version of the bottomless pit. Death became a hashtag, life became a meme, and surviving became a highlight on a cyber feed. We were all living under the grid and over the rainbow save the zooms, hangouts and CGI crowds – manifestations of the life we could no longer have.
I found a photo of my brother as a toddler in short pants and red suspenders. Another as a smiling teen in front of a Christmas tree in the backroom of the house we left thirty years ago. He strikes a pose on a weekend back from college. He leans against his first car in cut-off jeans; his eyes are so clear they seem to look into eternity.
There is a picture of us sitting in front of pumpkins at a local farm store circa 1970. I remember that day well. He didn’t want to sit next to me. Typical sibling wrangling. My mother petitioned him to get closer. He refused. He had a jawbreaker jammed into his cheek. I had just finished a cherry one that was all over my lips. I was wearing my mustard-yellow stirrup pants and paisley coat. He was in his herringbone sweater. I turned away from him in disinterest. I was a tough, little girl. He made me that way. My mother pointed her manual-focus Canon camera with the folding fan flash, the shutter snapped and the moment was frozen in time. What I would give to move closer to him now, to not have turned away that day, to have seized that space between us in my 8-year-old hands and held onto it forever.
The drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for my brother’s “Celebration of Life” was long and lonely. It would be outdoors, masked up, and around a table of framed photos. It was the best we could do. At a rest stop somewhere between Indio and Blythe, I screamed into the desert in existential protest for all that I had lost. The place was desolate save a large saguaro cactus that stood watch over the picnic area. It was a massive, columnar tree. It had seen its share of weary travelers and truck drivers. It had survived the rumble of the freeway, the fumes, and waterless seasons of soaring heat. Its pleated spines and tough skin were welcome defiance in a world of harsh indifference.
My mother always said that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but He was giving me so much all at once. As I motored through the dune-backed moonscape, my mind shifted back to easy rooms and soft furniture, snow men and sea shells, lightening bugs and barbecues, stick ball and Halloween, banana seats and little league.
I still have my brother’s number on my cell phone. He’s still smiling from his Facebook page. His big, bold purposeful life endures in a fixed-length contiguous block of virtual memory. Technology is cruel that way – a cyber head fake, a digital ruse. Much like the “social” distance that has kept us apart.
There are no do-overs in forever. There is no encore after curtain fall. We don’t get a second shot at a last goodbye. So, when this great sequestration is over – shake hands, bump fists and high-five. Hug everyone you care about and never let them go. Say ‘I love you’ every waking moment, and never let physical distance come between you and your family again.