Friday, March 7, 2008

Fishing for Edward

Nobody talks about my brother, Edward, anymore even though he died of heart disease only eight months ago on his 36th birthday. The newly dead, unlike the newly divorced, are rarely discussed -- the word "dead" hardly ever used -- because the closeness of it all makes it too uncomfortable. --This could happen to my family. This could happen to me.--

Yet, when comfort is offered, it's often packaged in haunting phrases like, "He’ll always be with you. You're not alone." Okay. Where exactly? Latitude? Longitude? Floating in my green tea chai latte? The yogis say he's in my heart, the rock climbers say he's in the mountains, and my shrink thinks he's lurking in some ethereal plane that I could reach if I would just shut up and meditate. Wherever he is, I hope it's not heaven because from what I understand about heaven, those bastards can see and hear everything, a regular Homeland Security. And...well, that's just icky. I really don't want my baby brother in my bedroom, bathroom or um, a certain sports bar where my pseudo-vegetarianism (and pants) often drop away.

So I'm searching. Fishing. Seeking. Rummaging. Engaged in a manhunt. Edward’s a fugitive and I'm Tommy Lee Jones. Relentless. Inexhaustible. Unshaven.

I’ve looked for my brother in all the familiar places. His bookshelf where I thumbed through all the books I’d given him over the years, rereading the inscriptions. To my brother, the adventurer…To my brother, the storyteller…His favorite author was Jeanette Winterson, which I find amusing because lesbians always made him a bit squeamish. Gays and Republicans confused him because they threw into question his understanding of the natural order of things.

I looked through his desk at work as I packed all his personal belonging. Books on engineering, calculators, protractors, strange rulers and other drafting gizmos, packets of Vitamin C and Ibuprofen, a near empty bottle of Priolasec, pictures of his children, and of course a birthday card from his co-workers, one they’d illustrated and signed the morning he didn’t come into work. I wept when I saw the single red apple in his in-box. He was the only person I knew who believed in common adages like, “an apple a day will keep the doctor away.”

Months later, I looked in his box of ashes which were sealed in a plastic bag and closed with a simple twisty-tie, the kind you usually find on a loaf of bread. I stuck my finger in the dust and was surprised to discover it was cooler and softer than I imagined. I stirred a bit; it was hard not to. But then what to do with the dust that clung to my finger even after I tap, tap, tapped. I couldn’t wipe him on my jeans. Or rinse him off in the sink and send him into the public sewer. Blow him into the air? That seemed rude. Lick my finger? Gross. And weirdly cannibalistic. WWED – What would Edward do? We settled on the jeans.

The day of the funeral, Edward’s two-year-old daughter began her habit of clutching a chicken egg she’d pilfered from the refrigerator. She cradles it in both hands, bringing it up to her ear and listening or whispering secrets into its cool shell. When asked to hand it over, she frowns and clutches it protectively to her chest, declaring her job is to keep it warm. And since Alejandra has spent her short life as a bit of a soothsayer, we don’t argue. When she says trouble is coming, it always does. When she says someone is hurt or needs help, they always do. The morning Edward died, she woke up at 4 a.m. screaming and inconsolable. So we tip-toe around Alex and her egg, respecting her intuition.

Still struggling to form words, Alex hasn’t yet learned how to be stoic, to hide or seek comfort. She just lets herself feel it all, experiencing great sweeps of sadness followed by flashes of real joy and silliness, embracing both with equal fervor, shared with her companion, the egg.

On the third day of her egg vigil – she even sleeps with it – I get the idea that maybe she really does know something we don’t. Maybe Edward is in that egg. Admittedly, grief makes you a little crazy.

“Honey, can I hold that egg for a minute?”

“No! My egg.” She holds it high above her shoulder as if I’m going to make a grab for it, which is actually my next move.

“Come on, sweetie. Just for a minute. Then I’ll give it right back.”

“No! My egg.” She gives me the darkest glare I’ve ever seen on a child so young.

Fortunately, she’s short and skinny and easily overpowered, so I wrap both my hands around the egg and try to screw it out of her grip. She lets loose a ravaging scream, bringing her mother into the room, yet still she refuses to let go. Suddenly, both our fists loosen and the egg slips, hits the kitchen floor and smashes, the yolk, broken and spreading.

Both Alex and I drop to our knees sobbing. My sister-in-law stands over us, her hands on her hips, drained and dismayed, unable to muster the energy to scold or comfort. She grabs a kitchen towel, throws it on the floor, then puts her face in her hands and walks away.

Weeks after returning from New Mexico, the Ranger looked grief in the face and decided "enough was enough" and took me to where no cell phone, no email, no ichat, no search engines could possibly follow. Crater Lake. On the way, we stayed the night along the Umpqua River so he could throw in a line and hopefully catch us dinner. And on the deck of that fishing lodge appeared a tiny, delicate black cat, who when she saw me, immediately glued herself to my leg, completely ignoring the Ranger.

Now, it is my understanding that the world is divided into two species: Dog people and Cat people. And I am most definitely a dog person. I've even been called a Labrador retriever by some because I'm friendly, energetic and willing to let just about anybody pet me. Cats know this. When they see me coming, they scurry under beds, leap up onto kitchen cabinets, catapult themselves through window screens. So, as a Lab, I really didn't appreciate this asthma-inducing varmint weaving itself around my feet in some sort of drunken figure eight.

But then it hit me. What if this is Edward? Returned as a stray girl cat. Ooooh, he'd be so pissed. Wondering what he'd done to deserve this karmic joke. But no. That's ridiculous. He's even more of a dog person than I am, once creating a huge family showdown when our father threatened to shoot Edward's mutt, Lucy, after she made enchiladas out of Dad's chickens. Nope. Edward a cat. Not possible.

I kicked the little pest aside, grabbed a book and a blanket and settled into a deck chair. Immediately, the critter jumped on the table next to me, purrred, then rolled onto her back, squirming and gyrating like a Hooter's waitress working for tips, her eyes squinty, checking my level of resistance. Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I gently poked the cat's belly with my coffee spoon and whispered, "Edward, is that you? Edward?" And sure enough, the cat's writhing became more furious and strangely joyful, her front paws whacking the air with abandon. Could it be?

But then the dilemma. If I scratched her belly and it wasn't Edward, I'd risk an asthma attack for no reason. If it was Edward...well, that's a little weird, a little too hill country...scratching my brother's belly? Hmm. And if it was Edward, well I couldn't just leave her, I mean him, here in the middle of the forest with these grumpy lodge owners. I'd have to catnap him/her.

Suddenly, Miss Kitty straightened, rolled over on to all fours and stared me down, unblinking, as if she herself had a decision to make. Not a trace of irony or amusement.

Nope. Not Edward.

The search continued. This time, inside a gloomy document, the autopsy report.

Brain: 1570 grams
Spleen: 250 grams
Liver: 1710 grams
Right Lung: 770 grams
Left Lung: 940 grams
Right Kidney: 180 grams
Left Kidney: 180 grams
Heart: 480 grams

Reading my brother’s autopsy, stamped and sealed by the Office of the Medical Investigator, I felt my chest splinter, not by the details of dissection: his ribscage cracked, his brain scooped from his skull, organs weighed, noted and recorded, but rather by the signs of help desperately given. It is these knowingly futile attempts that stop my breath. “Evidence of medical intervention includes an endotracheal tube inserted in the trachea, defibrillator pads, and an intravenous catheter inserted through the skin of the left antecubital fossa. An Ambu bag is present in the body bag.”

What the report doesn’t say, what the doctor explained over the phone: Edward had been dead for many hours, rigor mortis had already set in and all that hustling and buzz, the three rounds of epinephran shot directly into the heart, the paddles, the zap, the furious calls to the waiting cardiac team, all that was for the family, for show, for comfort, for legal reasons, to protect the “chain of evidence.” Elvis had left the building long ago. The only job that really needed doing was for the police to take their photographs.

I suppose we’re lucky – if that’s the word—that this fatal arrythmia hit him while he was asleep in bed and not while shuttling his son to soccer practice or speeding down the Interstate. He died “safely” not a threat or harm to others and he would have appreciated that. Edward didn’t even kill spiders so a five-car pile up would have been out of the question.

The first night I read this report, I dreamt of Edward’s brain, free of his skull, settled stoically on a stainless steel scale that’s gently swinging as if the hands that cradled it were just out of frame. When the brain dies, where does the mind go? Science tells us we have four minutes between the time our heart stops and our brain, deprived of oxygen, begins its cellular breakdown. But what happens to the data? The childhood traumas. The engineering degree. The climbing adventures. The fear of dying. The love affairs. The disappointments. Where do they go?

In my dream, they are still locked in his brain and my job is to free them, let the monkey out of the cage, and do what with them, I’m not sure. But I’m frantic because I don’t know how to do this. I don’t have the tools or the knowledge. I’m scared because time is running out. Pretty soon the doctor will return Edward’s brain to his skull, pull his face back over the bones and sew him back together so the funeral home can dress him up in a suit and lay him out like a Thanksgiving turkey. I have to hurry. Wait! Wait! I haven’t figured it out yet!

I awaken, sweating and gasping, and elbow the Ranger in the kidney to make sure he’s still breathing. This is my new midnight ritual. Waking and shoving. The Ranger groans a complaint and rolls over. And there in the dark with only the roar of the ocean, that damn surf that will never stop and give me peace and quiet, I know it’s true. All of Edward’s memories are gone. I was too late.

Of course I’ve considered the possibility that maybe Edward doesn’t want me to find him, that he’s avoiding me because of all the torment I gleefully conducted on his childhood. I was a chronic pincher because his high-pitched shriek was so incredibly rewarding and even though he threatened to tattle, he never did because my promise of harm was far greater. Or maybe he’s angry because when I left Albuquerque to drive around the country for a bit and clear my head, I promised, promised to return. But didn’t.

Or maybe he just can’t be found. Maybe death is death. And hope is hopeless.

Or maybe my yoga teachings will prevail. It is when we stop struggling that we realize what we want, we already have. Which means I would have to quit searching, dreaming, poking small animals, nosing around paperwork, asking questions, looking up at mountains and along forest trails. I would have to stop. Let go. And let him come to me.

Once, when we were climbing with another team, also a man and woman, but these two were married and not getting along very well, the husband, having topped out much more quickly than his wife, rappelled down, packed his gear and started back down the trail. Edward shook his head, untied the wife’s safety rope from around a boulder that secured it and snapped it into his own harness. He stayed with her until she was safely down. Later, he warned me, “Never leave another climber on the rock. Never. No matter what.”

Now, the most frequent dream I have of Edward is of the two of us simul-climbing up a steep, smooth granite face. We are roped together as Edward moves ahead and places bolts for protection. If one of us falls, we both plummet. I can’t see him but I know he is ahead of me, somewhere. I glimpse the heel of his shoe, sometimes the edge of his backpack. But I’m so exhausted that these sightings might very well be rooted in dehydration and muscle aches, or maybe my weary eyes are playing tricks. Only the tension in the rope tells me there is weight on the other end.

I am bone-tired, even in my sleep. I know this is a dream. I could just release the carabineer on my harness, let go and rest.

But I can’t stop looking for him. You never leave a climber on the rock. He’s my brother, after all. And I am his big sister.


Kylita said...

Once again, Sea Otter, for me, a connection is there. I had just read and replied to your email and was thinking of your brother's photo in the terra cotta colored t-shirt, perhaps in our 2nd communication, just thinking about that photo. Then I got onto your blog and there he was ... and I just finished reading your words and I thank you from my heart that you woke up my tender Soul to cry deeply for your loss, my loss, your little niece's loss, somewhere my niece and nephew and my brother's grandsons' loss ... the Earth's loss, and I applaude your courage in saying Truth as it is ... and I know how tenuous that courage is. I honor you in your grief and searching, and I will always be glad to hear about your brother. Our "baby brothers" are the reason we have become friends, and you know we are.
I am sending you the words to the song by Mocedades called Eres Tu/ Touch the Wind by regular email, SisSTAR. Thank you so much for your bravery. xoxo

Erin said...

How haunting I find your final image: catching glimpses of Edward as you toil upward - still connected but with him always just slipping out of sight.
One way(and there are so many)to see this is not as a situation in which one of you is left on the rock: but that Edward made the ascent and reached the top much more quickly. That's a long, long rope...and while it's still connected, and you still feel the tension on the other end, you have a long way to climb still. I'm not trying to create some weird heaven metaphor here, either. You will always be roped in to Edward, but make sure that you know your friends, those who love you, have you on belay and we are also holding tight.