The Many Writings of
The following is a true story. I wish with all my heart that it wasn't. It contains harsh language and harsher situations. It is most definitely not for children - Barry.
The dreams were bad, the recurring ones. My own psychic vomitus; stuff I'd left unresolved from the previous day, previous year or years. Things that I'd stuffed down in a welter of pot smoke, wine, frenetic sex and useless daydreams. Waking was hardly better. The first half-hour or so of stumbling through the apartment, making morning noises, little half-grunts and sniffles, making coffee, trying to adjust all over again to the confines of my life. Then I'd remember and it would shock me all over again.
Michael was in a hospital, dying. Nobody would tell him outright, but we all knew. I think even he knew, somehow, but nobody would say the words. Grins were pinned on prior to entering the darkened room, and checked at the door when you left.
At first he had visitors; friends from the business, people I'd never met. "Just look at this guy, will ya", he'd say, jerking a thumb in my direction. "Built like a brick shithouse, my brother." The tones of lifelong envy and the bitterness over his tattered body making me wince, smile and stick out my hand.
They say that dying people have heightened, exaggerated senses, that they can hear though walls, see what's on your mind, smell your discomfort with their unflattering, gradual erosion. The oncologist waved me down the hall to the nurses station. A safe distance, he judged, from the super-keen ears of the wreck in the bed. He couldn't hear us there, but I could still hear him, dimly, puking up the popsicle he had tried to down.
"We are scheduling another round of chemo for him next week", he said. He was fresh from two weeks in his Maui condo. His tan was radiant and his sport coat an immaculate, tawny counterpoint to his snowy dental work. After a lot of back-slapping, guy-stuff joshing and a couple of down-at-the- heels jokes, he had let my brother ease himself painfully back into his mountain of pillows and tangle of tubes and motioned with his eyes that he wanted to see me outside. Like Michael wouldn't get it.
"No", I said. "Just stop fucking with him. Just stop. He's dying. At this point you're just fucking with him. It's time to stop".
His shoulders, in their expensive padding, slumped a little. Then he brightened, recomposed his hail-fellow-well-met smile, and said, "Well, when the pain gets too bad we can just dial him out." I felt like I'd been gutshot but I was beyond shock. Dial him out. "We'll just raise the Dilaudid and dial him out." He repeated it, and then said it again in case I hadn't been paying attention, or my ears were clogged with incredulity.
"Yeah, whatever. Just stop fucking with him. I was real articulate in the crunch. I wanted to bloody his Hollywood smile, but managed a grunt and an obscenity. Big brother, the protector.
We shook hands firmly, dryly. The manly thing. I think he had a golf date, or surgery. I shambled back to the room. The seventy-year-old, who'd been forty a few months before, was waiting for me. A week's brambly growth encircled by hair that had gone shock-white, wiry and unkempt waited restlessly in the nimbus of hospital bolsters, trying vainly to find some comfort.
"Raise my feet a little, ok?" "Sure thing," I mumbled. "Wait a sec. I'm gonna try to pee." I helped him get his feet over the side of the bed. The vertical, stapled gashes down his front and back made every movement a torment. He wanted to show me he could still walk. He slowly wrapped a punctured, swollen hand around the wheeled chrome tree and hauled himself to the stoop allowed by the wounds and the sutures. Shuffled slowly the three feet to the can, making those little whuffy grunts that had become his new music. As he peed, he smiled and looked at me; see - I can still do something, even if it is only this, this simple and basic human function, like a grown-up. I smiled back, unwilling to show anything but pride and support for his flow.
The little parade of bags, siphons and piping scuffed back to the bedside. After a few minutes of stifled pain, we were plumping, adjusting, raising and lowering, trying to find him a few minutes of comfort in his countdown, his denouement.
He had lost his smell. Everyone has their own signature odor. His was gone, replaced by the generic stink of chemicals, hospital, suppurating wounds, industrial aerosol. When I hugged him, what was left of him, I think I missed that the most. His Michael smell.
From the start everyone had exaggerated his odds of beating it. Zero percent was somehow magically, alchemically transformed into bigger, hopeful numbers. They blew so much smoke up his ass. They saw how much he wanted to live. A young man dying of an old man's disease. I think they meant to be kind. The surgeons meant to be kind when they shredded his guts and put what was left of his stomach up under his shoulder blade, an unhappy hostage in the pneumothorax, a loner in hostile territory. A desperate, cartoon gamble that destroyed the little time he had left. They meant to be kind.
The night before the surgery, I took them all out to dinner. Michael, his wife and the baby they'd just adopted and our mother. A cortege. "I'm gonna beat it. I want to be a dad, play with my kid, he said. But he didn't touch his food. A couple years later, I found the matchbook I'd taken from the restaurant, crumpled in a jacket pocket.
I was the first one to see him after the surgery, Dasha and I. The surgeon was concerned because he'd been under, entubated, they said, for eight or nine hours and he wasn't breathing on his own. The body, knowing what lay ahead, trying to opt out. I'd been cut, years before, and knew that he could hear everything around him, but his limbs were powerless. I knew he was scared. In the ICU there was no one around him, just beeping, sighing machines and sounds of feet and scraps of voices filtering through chemical fog and searing pain.
"The operation was a success," I whispered in his ear. Dasha was afraid to touch him, her face flat and gray. "You've got a tube down your throat because you aren't breathing on your own. You have to remember to breathe." His chest took a big heave, and then he forgot. I put a hand on his shoulder. His wife's tears splashed on the bedrail opposite. "Breathe." His chest took another heave and his head gave a small nod.
"I love you," I said. We had waited in the hall, Dasha squeezing my hand and shaking. She was afraid of what she would see, her life in a stasis of airless ruin. She waited until I'd parted the curtains and waved her in. "I love you, Binky, she said. "Breathe."
"See if you can get him started," the surgeon had said, his mask pulled down around his neck, weariness and the weight of unjust affliction making him squint in the dim light of the waiting room. "I think we got it all, but he's not breathing on his own. He should be."
Around us were other little clumps of pathos, relatives in bright SoCal casual, trying for cheerful in desperate opposition to their fear, waiting for a word, a nod, a thumbs up or down. Mostly just holding themselves or each other, like we were, hopeful and afraid.
"Breathe." I must have said it a thousand times before they took the tube out. There were others, tubes I couldn't see, drains and shunts and hoses. The phone next to the steel-rimmed bed rang, I'm sure by accident. "It's for you," I whispered. His right hand came slowly off the covers, the middle finger raised. "You're gonna make it," I fumbled. One moment of hope. That's what I got.
Out on the sidewalk, Mom and I had nearly made it to the car. She stopped short, struck up against the wall of sickening realization. Arms clinched around my neck, sobbing into my shirt, her body shaking. "It's not fair. It's just not fair," came out in hot stabs of maternal agony, the worst blight upon the living. "No," I said, "it sure as hell isn't." The elder son, the comforter.
"How does it look? he asked. He couldn't see his back. The foot-long incision running down his gut he could see, the metal staples making it look like a skewed ladder climbing the pale hill of his stomach. He couldn't see the rest of him. I tried to make my voice clinical while I described the scimitar-shaped wound that traversed his side from back to front, starting up at his shoulder and passing under his arm and up to his collarbone.
"That's not all, is it?"
"No." No point in fibbing, minimizing. "You've got a big tube coming out of a gash in your back. It's the drain from your lung."
"Oh. I guess that's why I can't get comfortable."
"Yeah. I guess."
A couple days later the surgeon came in and withdrew the hose in one long, deft motion. Michael said it felt like someone removing a sword. He said it made him shiver.
"I'm gonna beat this", he said. When he could walk without help, they discharged him. He was back in a couple weeks later. He'd puked blood in his bathtub and couldn't get out. His stomach, in its alien environment, wasn't doing its lifelong job. "Did they think it would? I wondered. "Did they really think that was going to work? Or is he just a lab rat? My brother, the lab rat.". And I'd light a joint and let the horror of the day flush and fester.
He didn't come out. He refused visitors, drew the curtains closed to shut out the harsh Santa Monica sun. He refused the tapes I offered; he didn't want his new daughter to see him. He thought it would scare her. He couldn't eat. He couldn't shit. His body was rejecting everything but the bags of nutrients, anesthetics, chemicals pumped into his veins to keep him alive. His twilit world shrank to the size of his bed and the extent of his carefully titrated pain. His eyes turned yellow. He went insane. Little green men visited him at night, sneaking into the room and bouncing on his bed and laughing at him. His wife and his mother took turns doing twelve-hour shifts, shooing away the gnomes, holding his withering hands and listening to his rants.
They finally sent in some kind of counselor, when they knew, and it was senseless to deny it any longer. The counselor told him to imagine that he was in a balloon, a big, bright balloon, up high in the sky, and that he was just looking for a place to land, a place to set down his balloon. Something shifted. He called in Dasha, and they thanked each other for the life they had had together.
I had to say my goodbyes over the phone, in a noisy, crowded green room after a concert. I was cushioned, removed somewhat by distance, by the awful, contrary absurdity of it, of my own health and life and success roaring in my head, by the white noise of loss. They held the phone to his ear and I told him I would always love him, and that his family would be safe, and I don't remember what else. I had a finger stuffed in the other ear to drown out the hubbub around me. I wanted to scream, but these were his last moments. I had so much I wanted to say, but encroaching death trivialized most of it and made me thick-tongued and awkward. Then I was pulled away to sign autographs.
There was an obituary in the paper, and a memorial service. Once again I was on tour. I sent a tape.
It was maybe two weeks before I could cry. I was trying to sing, sitting in a scalding shower in a hotel room in, I think, Fukuoka. Hotel rooms are good for grieving. Splatter your feelings and rage and tears and leave the detritus for the maid, with the used towels and crumpled papers and sheets and little strips announcing that your toilet has been sanitized. I was trying to sing a simple song, a song for myself, something to gauze over the awful ache I couldn't seem to untwist from, and I don't know, it just started. I began sobbing and then I couldn't stop, relieved and terrified. The water pouring over me was an encouragement, an ally, a wise and understanding friend, inviting me to join it's gush, to commingle and rise and pour my own poison tide down the steamy drain. I raved and cursed and screamed and spat and the water kept coming down, beating on me, drawing out my own endless bitter flood.
We had nearly killed each other once. Sibling rage for once uncontained, hate the only constant between us. We came so close that it scared us into silence and distance, each of us retiring to our far corner of the country. I don't remember clearly what the fight was about, probably a girl, a woman, one of us had and the other didn't. That's what it was always about, in a way. Who got, who didn't. Who got the love, who got nothing. It couldn't be otherwise then. Always a winner and a loser. There wasn't enough love in the universe for us both, not enough air on the planet for us both to breathe.
In the stifling moment when the call came, "Michael's dead," at three in the morning, alone in a cut-rate motel room on an ugly winter interstate, the thought came to me unbidden and unwelcome and unexpected, but not entirely. "I won." Maybe I thought that selfishness could hold back loss, that it would plug the oubliette blooming in my heart, that it would be the stick in the croc's jaws. It stopped being clean right then, the pain. Now it was slagged with shame and I burned at the prurience of my own thought. I had gutted myself, my own childhood now excised and inaccessible.
It was easier when Woody died. I hadn't called him Dad in years. He, at least, had had the opportunity to live, even though he'd largely ignored it in favor of his brooding, internalized little world of fear and nicotine, coffee and crossword puzzles. He'd put his massive shoulders to the tough job of abdication. Life was too big a thing, monolithic, too uncertain, unmanageable, unpredictable. Responsibilities were rough stones, heaped on the hod across his back, and when the weight became too great they crushed him. He seemed only too glad to be rid of them, to drop the load one stone at a time, surreptitiously, so maybe no one would notice. But he'd at least had the chance. His life and death held a hint of the savor of fairness, a dim concept, a smoke-like wraith I pawed at and passed my hands through, trying to get a grip on its scrawny neck, trying to wring reason from its pinhole mouth.
Out on a boat, just past the breakwater at Marina Del Rey, Michael and I and the skipper and a small, oddly-heavy oblong packet wrapped in red silk on a pewter tray, pitching in the swells and readying ourselves for the final act of putting Woody's ashes into the Pacific. I had driven up from San Diego on a day off from singing, an absurdly sunny day in a rented convertible. The carnival of billboards and glinting, speeding cars on the solid urban stretch up the coast making me unsure of where I was going and why.
The skipper, appropriately somber, came upfrom below deck bearing the tray, the redpackage topped by a rose, perhaps two or three. Michael's eyes were red, his belly and his hands shaking. I had never seen human ashes, the oddly coarse reduction of a person. The skipper, I don't remember his name or the name of his boat, slowly unwrapped the parcel, the ashes stirring in the sea breeze. Gripping a stanchion, Michael's eyes never left the package that had been the vessel of all his hopes for love, charred to nothing. I reached out and scooped up a small handful, feeling the small bits that still held a hint of a man, the contour of something recognizable. I said some kind of goodbye and threw them over the side, the wind spreading them. Michael, pale and afraid, reached tentatively into the pile, his hand a carbon copy of the ones now reduced to cinder, crying too hard to articulate. He quickly flung his little mound into the sea, then stared at the residue left on his fingers, little flecks of unfulfilled longing. He didn't know where to put his hand then, whether to rub it on his pants, somehow be clean of being shut out of a man's heart.
I took the tray, one end of the red silk flapping loosely in the breeze, and carried it to the side. It weighed more than I had expected. Michael's eyes tracked the ashes with a look I'd never seen, naked sorrow and loss and anger and disappointment in a green blaze. His shoulders shook and he gripped the side of the boat with large white knuckles, his fingers digging into the wood, feeling for support that would never arrive. I don't know what took hold of me. The big brother attitude, the irreverent chemical-anger-induced acid that posed as my humor, my last chance to, what, speak my heart, my first chance to be free. I tipped the tray slowly, the ashes hitting the ocean with a hiss like amplified rain, a surreal, completely unexpected sound, louder than the wind, carrying knifelike over the steady rumble of the boat's diesel and the slap of waves against the hull. I opened my mouth, my heart rising, not knowing what words would form, if any. "Dad, I'm buying a motorcycle."
Everything paused for a moment. I waited for an angry god to smite me, for some terrible and swift retribution for my glib last words, my penultimate betrayal, my final childish slap at a father's worst fear. The wind and the boat and the susuration of the ashes dissolving in the sea receded, and all I remember was the shock and transformation on Michael's face. My vision blacked and narrowed to a visceral tunnel, a tiny microcosm inhabited by two beings, siamesed by remains, by a swatch of cindered cloth. A deep, phlegmy laugh broke from his throat, he was doubled over on the deck, holding his stomach with one hand, pointing at me with the other.
"I'm going to tell - I'm going to tell everyone you said that." He laughed and choked and laughed some more. "Go ahead, I said. "Go right ahead." I whooped with relief, and we hugged each other tightly and pounded each other's backs.
We sat up on the bow for the ride back in, each of us holding a rose, the stems encased in little glass tubes to keep them alive. "I guess it's just you and me now, he said, and more tears came. I put a rough, fraternal arm around his neck. "Yeah, you and me."
Last update: October 8, 2001
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