I didn’t see the physical mess: I smelled it. A noxious odor—a potion of blood and paint fit for the three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Earlier that day, my brother stuck a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I knew him to be dramatic, but this 30th birthday celebration took the cake. He blew his brains out instead of the candles, and I’ve had a headache off and on ever since. What could Robin have been thinking during his last moments? Did he waver, sitting on his bed, the barrel of the hunting rifle in his mouth? Come to think of it: rifles aren’t designed for shooting backward unless you’re Annie Oakley or Buffalo Bill. It must have been tricky, balancing the gun without accidentally shooting himself in the foot.
My mother had my brother’s body removed from his bedroom before my father arrived home. It would have killed him, she told me later. Too late: It “killed” him, anyway. In a matter of hours, he’d aged far beyond his sixty-one years. His blue eyes turned milky, his once taut, wrinkle-free face sagged from the weight of grief. The grease stains on his khaki pants could just as well have been puddles of dark tears. I knew then that he’d never be the same. He would no longer be the tough, World War II vet who never talked about the war but a man crippled by death—death more horrific than the senseless slaughter of men in the army air corps and the troops on the ground.
My dad teetered on the edge of the abyss. But I’d save him. I’d be his safety net. We’d work as a team like the Flying Wallendas. The show would go on. At least, that’s what I had hoped.
I was wrong.
My mother’s show went on without a hitch: she threw one hell of a shiva (seven days of mourning for the dead). She greeted people at the front door as if this were a swanky dinner party, telling mourners where to hang their coats, where to put the plates of food they’d brought, where the other guests had congregated. She wasn’t acting like a mother whose son had just killed himself—all broken up, wailing at the gods for having taken the second born of her four children.
Some might label my mother an Amazon woman (not to be mistaken with female employees at you-know-where). Strong and fierce, my mother didn’t show a shred of weakness in the days following my brother’s suicide. I never saw her cry; in fact, a year passed before she let down her guard and wept somewhere in the midst of a glorious Japanese garden—far, far away where no one could see her, where no one could label her as weak. The appearance of strength in the face of tragedy—of control—mattered more to my mother than the sympathy and support she deserved but would never accept. Maybe growing up with an emotionally distant mother who wanted to paint instead of parent and an erudite father who always took his wife’s side forced her to fend for herself, care for her two younger brothers, (both terrors), and to keep one foot in the future, at the ready to vanquish insult and quell insecurity. My mother was damaged but, oh, so proud.
I don’t mean to turn this into a PBS show á la “Finding Your Roots,” but my mother paid a guy named Alex E. Friedlander, Ph.D., a hell of a lot of money to compile a two-volume tome detailing the history of the maternal side of the family. The books each weigh almost five pounds and might have been better used as free weights in a home gym. I had hoped that the over 3200 total pages would have given me a window into the dynamics of my family and the ways in which their beliefs, culture and personalities might have affected my mother. Instead, From Suwalki to St. Ignace (a barn burner of a title) gave me heartburn: It was like reading the most tedious philosopher, all in hieroglyphics. Thus, I’ve had to do my own genogram and sleuthing to decipher how my grandmother (“Bert,” to me) cared more about her arched eyebrows than she did about my mother, “wore the pants in the family,” (a cliché, I know, but my thesaurus can’t do any better), and suffered several “nervous breakdowns” (a sturdy, old term)—breakdowns remedied only by solo trips to the East Coast where she painted red barns and seaside landscapes. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to “see” that my mother felt unloved, often abandoned, and without a close family member who could and would fill in the gaping holes. She learned early that to show her vulnerabilities would invite—at least, in her mind—an onslaught of recriminations about not being the strong older sister who could handle even the most challenging circumstances with grace under pressure. She was no Hemingway.
Friends and family congregated around the dining room table where a spread tempted even the most bereaved: raisin, onion, plain, poppy seed bagels, cream cheese, lox, onions, kosher salami like the kind my zeda brought to our home every Sunday, corned beef, tongue, sliced turkey, salami, pastrami, roast beef, egg salad, tuna salad, dill pickles, borscht, apple strudel, noodle kugel, blintzes, chopped liver, cinnamon rolls, assorted cookies—a Weight Watcher’s nightmare. For a brief time, the chazerei (junk food) provided a false sense of just another late April afternoon with the promise of rebirth in the air. People patted me on the back as if we’d just struck a business deal that would make us all rich. Your brother was a wonderful man, they said, and, with time, things will get back to normal. They must have read Kubler Ross the night before and figured that I’d get to Stage 5 (acceptance) sooner than later. Well, they were dead wrong: I’d never accept my brother’s suicide or the fact that he didn’t even bother to say good-bye.
The smell, the antiseptic, newly-painted walls, the missing Hendrix and Stones posters, the sports trophies most likely stuffed in the basement all conspired to turn my brother’s bedroom into a nothing-bad-happened-here space that I’m certain met with my mother’s approval. The only remaining item—a large drawing pad opened to a blood-spattered poem—sat atop a chrome-legged nightstand next to what had been my brother’s single bed. For a fleeting moment, I thought maybe I should sign in with my name, address and email. But this wasn’t a guest book. It was my brother’s swan song, a suicide note of sorts. I never knew my brother to be a poet and, based on this thing he wrote, I would have recommended—if I’d had the chance—that he stick with his day job. But I guess when you’re about to “off” yourself, you can’t be at your artistic best.
A fire is cold compared to the fever that rises each day in my head
Day reaches for night and
Night becomes the day
In that manner I pray
God grant me the power to reach for my glory
And the key mystically moves with my will . . .
If death be life
As life is death
I yearn that coming with all my might!
Let me see the light
That burns within me
For I cannot withstand the pain
I should have saved my brother. I had the chance. Maybe two years before Robin killed himself, he came for a visit. Well, a visit is a tad inaccurate: the airline flight he was on made an emergency landing in Chicago, and my brother was kicked off the plane for making a scene. The airport security put him in a cab and sent him to me. Just what was I supposed to do? I was an ex-teacher, not a goddamn therapist. Besides, Robin had stopped listening to my advice a long time ago. He’d been such a sweet, malleable kid who let me pass judgment on his girlfriends and pop the pimples on his back. To me, he seemed your typical boy growing up in the 1950s and early 60s. He loved sports; even at 5’6”, he made the varsity basketball team. He liked girls (so no repressed sexual identity thing going on.) He rode a motorcycle. He didn’t study much, still got B’s. Ran for student council and won. Endeared himself to my friends who thought he was the coolest younger brother a sister could have. I agreed.
And then everything changed: he got on the Timothy Leary bandwagon and “Turned on, tuned in, dropped out.” He left the University of Colorado at the end of his sophomore year and began a ten-year odyssey of drugs, overdoses, and scuffles with the law. In the latter self-destructive category, he had apparently ventured to Mexico, most likely to score some good pot. (He wasn’t yet hooked on heroin). As the story goes, he was arrested and, while in the back seat of a cop car en route to the local jail, he jumped out and somehow managed to escape. Sounds like a movie, right? Maybe staring John Wayne (Oh, wait, he was too damn straight and probably never smoked a joint in his life. So, how about Peter Fonda or Dennis Hopper from “Easy Rider” fame?) Now I can’t swear by these details, but that’s the tale I was told. By then, I was engaged to my college “sweetheart,” living in Boston, teaching English to eighth graders in Marblehead, MA, about a 45-minute drive from Charles Street where I shared a second-floor flat with three other women. Point is: I was too busy with my own life to think much about Robin’s which, based my research for Brothers&Sisters, my book about siblings, was a normal stage for young adults. And the truth is: I didn’t want to think about him and face the fact that my sensitive, loveable brother had gone off the rails.
But somehow my brother heeded the call and made his way home in 1968 to stand up as a groomsman in my first wedding. (I’ve had two.) His blonde, wavy hair grazed the shoulders of his black tuxedo—an incongruous combo, part hippie, part meet-me-at-the-church (in this case, home substituting as temple) on time. His Lewis Carroll grin dazzled in the July sun: I didn’t know whether he was delighted for my good fortune (He would have been wrong on that score) or if he was stoned. Maybe I could have pulled him aside and attempted to hear him out. Maybe the connection we’d had years before was still there. But I never took the time to find out. I changed into my going away outfit, an off-white, linen number with a thin blue leather belt and a wide-brimmed hat with a blue leather band to match. I rode away to a you-made-a-big-mistake Bermuda honeymoon that I’d won on a local Boston radio station for guessing, based on daily clues, what was in the iconic black box and to a marriage that ended seven years later.
The doorbell rang. Jesus. If I were a religious person, I would have begun to pray. But I wasn’t sure I even believed in God but was certain that whatever I’d learned from Mrs. Gilbert in those Sunday morning Hebrew school classes wouldn’t be of much help. I walked down the three flights of stairs from my apartment to the front door and opened it. The man standing there looked like a soldier gone AWOL, dressed in disheveled camouflage from head to toe with black, lace up boots and some screwy red bandanna wrapped around his head. I thought of calling the local Army recruiting station. Instead, I wrapped my arms around him. Just don’t stand there. He followed me up to my third floor apartment, sat down and stayed put. Well, this is a surprise. If I’d known you were coming, I could have made plans. You know, a nice dinner, a movie . . . something. Silence. So, you were on some kind of trip. LOL. One of those “I’ve got to’ get out of here” kind of trips? About then, I wished I could get the hell out. The tightness in my throat felt like I’d been strangled by the umbilical cord that connected me to my mother, to life, to anything better than sitting here with my catatonic brother in the middle of a summer afternoon. The best I could do was stand up and head toward the kitchen. How about something to eat? You must be hungry. I know I am. I grabbed a handful of Sara Lee coffee cake that I’d bought the day before at Treasure Island and dangled it in his direction. Nothing. Okay, you don’t want any? You sure? How about just a bite? You’ll feel better. Crap. I was channeling my Jewish grandmother. I stuffed the coffee cake down my throat. My stomach roiled. I couldn’t breathe. What had I done to deserve this? Okay, so by then, I’d cheated on my first husband. He was a lousy lover and a continent away from his feelings. But he’d been a safe bet with a promising future, and I opted for security instead of passion. Was Robin’s “visit” some karmic payback for having been unfaithful? Desperate, I considered calling the therapist I’d seen when my marriage was on the skids. But the shrink and I hadn’t talked in years. What then? Call 911? And tell the dispatcher what? That my brother wouldn’t talk to me? Hey, my brother doesn’t talk to me, either, she’d say. There are more important things in life like the guy who found his wife dead on the kitchen floor. Slam.
Droplets of sweat dribbled down the inside of my breasts. Should I ask my brother whether or not he was thinking of hurting himself? Wouldn’t that make matters worse? Give him ideas he’d never consciously considered? For God’s sake, what was I thinking? He’d already overdosed at least twice and seemed quite ready to give it another go—only, this time, making sure that he got it right.
My brother may have had an exit plan, but short of hurling myself out the third floor window onto Cleveland Street, there was nothing I could do to get away. Why hadn’t I taken more psych classes, instead of the twenty credit’s worth of mandatory education courses to earn my teaching certificate? I walked toward the windows at the front of the apartment and stared down into my neighbor’s front lawn—overgrown, crowded with dandelions and weeds that turned what should have been a vibrant green carpet into what resembled a garbage dump for Mother Nature’s mistakes. Maybe Her mistakes were my reward: the dense excuse for a lawn might break my fall and prevent a long recovery.
I turned and looked at my brother. He hadn’t moved a muscle since he sat down in the chair. For a brief moment, I thought maybe the sculptor George Segal had slipped into my apartment and created one of his life-sized models lost in his own universe. I blinked hard. Nope. It was my damn brother who might as well have been a piece of sculpture made out of layer upon layer of paper Mache. If only I could unroll him one piece at a time until I reached into his heart center, into his soul. I would stroke him and soothe him and tell him over and over again how much I loved him.
Instead, I kicked him out.
You’ll have to leave. I’ll call a cab. Go back to the airport. Here’s money for another ticket. I stuffed fifty bucks into his pocket. This time don’t make a damn scene. Sit in your seat like you’ve sat here for hours without saying a word.
Growing up, Robin and I had been best buddies—that is, after I recovered from the insult of having been knocked off my throne as the oldest and “only” child. I was around three when I got the news, handed to me in true Dr. Spock fashion. (All the rage in 1948.) A cozy family sit down in which my parents (Read: My mother) waxed eloquent about all the perks of being a “big sister”— teacher in training, surrogate mother in training, diaper changer in training, probably house cleaner in training. If it had been published, The Super, Incredible Big Sister would have been a perfect book to share. For a time, I fell for the party line. But when Robin was born—when I saw him cradled in my mother’s arms, sucking away at her swollen breast—a sickening terror that years later I identified as my body’s reaction to stress—coursed through my veins like menopausal angst. Who did he think he was, anyway, stealing the show? It’s a long time ago, but I like to think that I gave my parents a “what for” and regressed to a bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, trash-talking ingrate little girl. I remember standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. My mother sat up in bed, supported by a pile of pillows. Slurp. Slurp. Robin had robbed me of sustenance. Slurp. Slurp. In all of her Dr. Spock speak, my mother never mentioned that the breasts I’d traded in for a sippy cup would never be mine again.
Around age two (I was five), Robin was whisked off to the hospital with what was diagnosed as a case of twenty-four hour polio. As the story goes, the hospital staff refused to allow my mother to stay with my brother overnight. It was the first time mother and son had been separated for more than a few hours. As a five-year-old, I couldn’t have known these details. In fact, I don’t remember much about this whole polio business and how, when he returned from the hospital, Robin had stopped talking and screamed every time he saw someone in white. (So much for the Clara Bartons of the world.) But then Genevieve showed up. That I remember. My mother was pregnant again with my younger brother just three months and six days after Robin was born. (She’d fallen for the old wives’ tale that if you are nursing, you can’t get pregnant. Surprise!) Genevieve may have been my mother’s savior. But to me, Genevieve had moved in like a wayward relative with no place to go and became a ghost-like presence whose job, I now understand, was to help care for Robin.
Genevieve, whom for some reason we called “Traini,” (Don’t take the spelling as gospel) lived in a room up a narrow, winding staircase that led to the third floor. The slanted nooks and crannies, the odd-shaped windows, the dusty velvet chair frightened me: I don’t think I’d ever spent more than sixty seconds in that room until my desire to see for myself how this interloper cared for my brother trumped (You should pardon the expression.) my fear. Maybe she was planning to kidnap him or, worse yet, sell him to the highest bidder. With her scruffy bun atop her head, unremarkable skirts and sweaters, brown lace ups that only old ladies dared wear, Traini smelled of down and out, not of up and coming. I was my brother’s protector, a faithful older sister who had by this time morphed into one of Dr. Spock’s foot soldiers. No one—not this Traini woman, not the mailman, not the guy who drove the Good Humor truck—would harm Robin under my watch.
I sneaked up the stairs to the mysterious third floor. The floorboards screaked just loud enough to blow my cover. But Robin was whimpering, and my approach went unnoticed. I peeked into the open door just like I’d done when Robin was a newborn, his blonde hair barely visible, hidden by my mother’s swollen breast the size of a rocket ship. Traini cradled Robin in her arms and rocked back and forth. I despised this woman. Maybe I was jealous of the exclusive attention she paid my brother. Maybe I understood on some level that caring for Robin was my mother’s job and not that of a stranger. I made up my mind right there and then to sabotage this woman and get her removed from our home as quickly as I could. I don’t think I was successful. Just as I can’t remember when she stationed herself in our home, I can’t recall when she left. And I wonder now what my father thought about all of this and whether my mother’s relationship with her oldest son was forever damaged. Years later, did he blame her for my brother’s suicide? I’ll never know. My parents died ten years ago, my father three weeks after my mother.
There’s a black and white photo of Robin and me taken in the living room of our summer home on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. The clapboard cottage sat on a bluff overlooking the lake. On good days, the beach below was wide and welcoming. We’d run down the trampled grass path on the side of the cottage, throw our towels and other paraphernalia on the sand, and race to see who would be the first to jump face down into the lake. I didn’t care about what I looked like in a bathing suit or that I couldn’t see a whole lot without my glasses. I was brave, confident and oblivious to my thick ankles, muscular legs, wide hips, and, at some point, a mouth full of metal braces and the piece de resistance, a pair of pink plastic glasses that, by then, my mother had stopped painting every night with nail polish to match my next day’s outfit. (She was a clever one, my mom). On windy summer days or days after a storm, the beach seemed to disappear. The putrid smell of dead fish and the tangled necklaces of seaweed, broken shells, and fish spines forced us inside where we played “Uncle Wiggly” or “Shoots and Ladders.”
In the photo, Robin squints into the sun streaming in through the row of windows facing the lake. I’m sitting on a chair with one foot on the seat. Robin is perched on the arm of the chair, his left arm draped over the back. He’s wearing a pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt that accentuates his tanned arms—arms not yet sculpted by years of playing basketball and other sports. My rolled-up jeans showcase a leg with an imperceptible ankle that resembles a channeled Doric column. Not sure why I’m wearing a long sleeve checked shirt, but the bandanna wrapped around my head pushes enough of my brown hair away from my face and accentuates my high cheekbones, eyebrows not yet tweezed, and an angular shaped face with a chin not quite pointed but almost. Robin’s front buckteeth remind me of Howdy Doody’s bright white choppers. I stare straight ahead and, without my glasses to hide my crossed eyes, the right eye heads a bit too far to the left. But there we are—brother and sister, maybe nine and twelve, best buddies who could never have anticipated Robin’s troubled future and my eternal sadness at not being able to stem his pain and make him whole.