I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.
Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.
Who is ever prepared for that call?
Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.
Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.
So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.
But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.
While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.
His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.
Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.
It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.
He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.
The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.
My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.
As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.
As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.
I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.
I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.
When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.
A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.
It is 1966 and I’m struggling
to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”
needle-dropping on my turntable
when my brother calls from next door where
he and the neighbor are watching a movie
and the 16mm projector jammed.
“Can you try to get it going?”
A simple problem to diagnose:
the worn sprockets on the well-watched film
have twisted over one of the feeders.
The curl in the plastic needs to be freed
and the film rethreaded. I start
the old machine and in the square of light
thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom
appear grainy black and white images
of a truly epic blow job
in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips
and sinuous tongue slaver up and down
a monster phallus glistening with spit
for longer than I would have thought possible.
My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder
at the animal rawness of it
as though it is a documentary
about an encounter between two apes
and the camera morbidly scientific
instead of pornographic—exactly
the opposite of erotic, with
a sound track filled with soggy sucking
and a man’s hammy moaning
tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.
When another actor enters the scene
and begins to take his own clothes off
I judge I have seen enough and leave them
to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest
blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return
to the silence of my own room
where I take up my guitar again
and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder
to let the hard vibrating wood
ring the bones of my head like a bell.
The second time, 1971,
we stay in the Southfield apartment
where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.
My brother needs a ride to a job
to meet a friend, this contractor,
he tells me, and he can’t drive himself
since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.
I am in another room, this time reading
(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)
when his spare and stricken figure heaves
into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”
he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp
at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub
he had fallen into once while stoned.
This is the time when he makes phone calls
day and night cadging prescriptions for pills
from shady physicians. He tells them
he is a cancer patient from out of town
grappling with terrible pain. He makes
his voice quake in pretend agony.
He directs me to a cracked and potholed street
on the east side of Detroit where we roll
to a stop outside a house with black paint
hiding living room windows and high grass
gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car
uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged
up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.
It occurs to me this is not about a job.
No light escapes from the front door
that cracks to allow him entrance.
A minute later he is out, walking fast.
“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.
“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,
this time for real. In his lap he cups
something small, like an animal he shelters
and gives me a sidelong glance that says more
than I want to know about fear and shame.
For the rest of the day he wanders around
the apartment with a spoon in his pocket
and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.
‘Seventy-seven, in another room,
grading essays for my classes at Wayne State
when my brother phones, which he never does.
Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow
fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”
I don’t even remember why he said
he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.
He must have been desperate indeed
to try me. But I am through granting favors.
I blame him for every unhappiness
visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.
“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.
It is the last time I speak with my brother.
Years later he is dead, found in a room
at the Y in downtown Honolulu.
Today, older than he would live to be
I imagine bars of tropical sunlight
peeking through his window blinds, striping
his decomposing body, his mouth twisted
in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild
as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,
melting after seven undiscovered days,
across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman
in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes
and died alone, without family, friends, job,
or money, having lost, along with his
precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance
that some indifferent lips might try,
tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-
abandoned, back into despondent life.