It takes three separate visits to the apartment before I can bring myself to approach the bed. Shoved into the corner between a brick wall and a window, slants of light catch the dust drifting to its puckered surface. To open the blinds means standing on the mattress. I call for someone else to draw them up. With the light of day, I see brown rumpled sheets, I realize he had slept with the pink featherbed that had been mine as a child. Hanging above: a cracked frame contains a snow-covered cemetery; one of our father’s nude watercolors bears a mottled female face and ends just below the darkened folds of her equally overwrought pubis.
I start on the floor by the bedside table. A battered red set of drawers, a piece of junk, like most of the apartment’s furnishings. Beneath the bed, the dust has piled in plumy neglect. Unopened condom foils, more overworked paintings, spine-cracked books. A single fallen pill.
When I first got the news, I imagined myself prostrate and moaning, face buried in the must of his pillow. I sped south, 205 miles to his home, to inhale those last warm-blooded minutes. I assumed I would reach through time to his fog of thoughts and extract all the reasons why–understanding is love’s other name, says Thich Naht Hanh. But the gruesomeness of cold limbs reaches me first, and on the floor I remain. I edge around the low wooden bed frame on hands and knees, thinking, It must have been this that left the gashes on my mother’s shins when she fell.
I can’t imagine. But I do anyway.
The first time I come to my brother’s apartment, my job is to find some clothes in which to cremate him. As I enter the lobby of his building, I wonder if when he crossed that marble floor he had already determined how his night would end. There is rice in the cooker–he had made himself a meal. His belongings are strewn about. I rummage through his washing machine, smelling dirty shirts and occasionally keeling to the floor.
I want to find the right thing, something to capture his essence. But there is little that is adequately animated among his effects. I keep scouring the small space looking for some piece of him lodged within his junky items, but mostly it is just that—junk: holey pants, ratty button-downs, a vinyl sofa the shade of a cocktail olive, hodgepodge accouterments, like the tattered, yellow gingham frog that had been part of our childhood collection, the Ziploc bag filled with his baby teeth. On the windowsill is a thick volume, pages glued shut, the front cover with hinges that open, and inside the crude square he had spent a long Christmas Eve carving out with an X-Acto blade. World’s best granny reads his grade-school-like scrawl beside the smiling photograph of our maternal grandmother fixed inside. That year—he must have been a sophomore or junior in college—we all got personalized variations on these books: glued and hacked-out volumes, fitted with whatever images had been on hand. Having frantically carved through the night, he was visibly tired as he doled them out, but we kept to our customary script. Neat. Oh, sweet. OK! These labored gifts were not out of character.
His lack of capital participation had always been a marked quality. I think I saw it as a quirk, maybe a stubborn virtue. He used to visit me in New York, showing up with no more than a toothbrush jammed into his back pocket. He quietly mocked our lifestyle, all our stuff, our far-flung travels. He met our ambitions quizzically, but celebrated small feats. He was drawn to heroes of human proportions: the procrastinator who embarks upon, but doesn’t necessarily complete, the long-discussed project; the junkie who tries to kick the habit; the dog rescuer; the functionally depressed; the single mom; the part-time musician; our father, following his own bouts of mental illness.
All the same, I rifle through the apartment, trying to unearth some piece of him, something I can take and ever cherish. I settle on an old banjo, its neck lined by a careless Sharpie marker. I take a diaphanous plaid shirt, and an equally threadbare cerulean tee, and swamp around in them while morosely thinking, limb of my limb. A friend, one of the dozens who sent emails, wrote: We called him “Country Ben” because it looked liked he had stolen his clothes from a scarecrow. My mother claims bags of clothes. His beat-up Gitane racer now stands in her dining room. His good shoes wait by her front door.
Apart from a smattering of images, the only photos he has are from three rolls he shot fifteen years ago on a cross-country trip en route to college in Portland, Oregon. At the time, I was so proud—tickled, really—that he would want his big sister to come along. We packed into my grandmother’s old Honda Accord: me, Benji, Greg—a frighteningly aggressive kid who drove at 90 MPH and has since died of an overdose—and Andrew, a loping, dreadlocked dreamer who was barefoot until Ohio because he had forgotten his shoes and who, in lieu of cash, carried a glass water cooler filled with marijuana buds that he planned to use as barter on our journey. It was Benji who set our course, charting a snaking route of detours to ensure we would hit up Carhenge and splash in every major river. We slept outside wherever we wanted, scaling a hill behind a sleepy diner, climbing the crumbling ravines of a low-lying butte. There, as we made camp, my brother seized the tarp and raced flapping up the slope, whooping to the reddening sky as I marveled at his freedom. Only once did we stay in a campsite, a beautiful wooded spot beside a Native American burial ground in the Nebraska sand hills. For days, fat August storms rolled in our stead. Each night brought a new precipice from which to watch the lightning cleave some far-off distance. In Nebraska, the hairs on my arms stood alert; the ground beneath us seemed to pulse.
Pictures from that day show my face peering from a jungle that fills the entire backseat of the car. Andrew found a harvest of pot growing on a dusty patch not far from a gas station where we’d stopped on the ribboned highway. We picked as much as we could fit into the Honda, without any real thought as to what we’d do with so much feral herb, as Andrew put it. He foraged for us regularly—chives, prickly pear, blackberries. I admired his singular fascination with plants and rocks, soil types and minerals. His ambition was to read the earth and find healing in it; today he runs an ethnobotany clinic in Kentucky. That night, in the sand hills, he prepared bhang over an open fire, pulverizing the buds and leaves between two flat rocks, and cooking the grounds with milk and sugar. We drank cup after cup until we were too full of milk to drink any more, the effects pleasant but subtle, the evening cast in purple hues, the look of the green rolling distance like waves held in time.
Two days later, at the edge of the Tetons, we parceled the marijuana out into paper lunch bags, tying each one off with purple hemp twine. Benji made some kind of signage that Lewis Carroll would have approved—Try Me! Go There! Up Here!—and we placed everything in what we hoped was an inviting heap by the entrance to the national park. The campsites there were all full, so we left the car in an open lot, eased through a chicken-wire fence, and started up the only visible path: a steep and rocky stream. We couldn’t get lost as long as we stayed in the water, so we splashed on and on, hauling our things, with the vague plan of finding a clearing where we would make camp for the night. But the dark crept in, rising steadily from the forest floor, until only the treetops remained in the light. Clouds gathered. The storms had finally reached us. When we got back to the lot, the rain was pooling in graveled divots. We aligned ourselves like logs between two pieces of tarp and promptly fell asleep to the beat of water on crumpled plastic. At some point in the night, there was a most terrible smell. Looking back, I want to describe this odor as rancid, even cadaverous, but my research in the intervening years has suggested that a bear’s summer diet is full of nuts and berries and other inoffensively scented fodder. But I swear that night I smelled carrion, and maybe that carcass is what spared us, made us no more than an object of pawing curiosity. In the morning, we all traded stories about the panting, the snorting, the rustling of the tarp, trying to outdo each other as though we hadn’t all been sandwiched between the same two strips of polyurethane. Andrew stalked the lot looking for prints, but the rain had come again in the night and removed any trace of our visitation.
Just before I gave birth to my second child, a daughter, my brother got engaged to his girlfriend. The proposal was the capstone to an extended celebration in honor of their two years of togetherness, but had been in the works for some time. The previous Christmas, we had talked him out of a plan to hide my grandmother’s diamond ring in a box of the girlfriend’s favorite breakfast cereal, and leave it wrapped and waiting for her to discover, on her own, under their modest tree. That holiday season, he was also revved up on a plan to install the capital’s homeless population in the Trump International Hotel under the name of Hulk Hogan. We were generally, but gently, discouraging.
But this time, in a cabin he had rented in West Virginia for the purpose, he proposed and she said yes. Then three days later, he went out and didn’t come home. The girlfriend got a text in the early morning saying he had fucked up and was putting himself in the hospital. But we called around to all the hospitals and he wasn’t in any of them. His phone was off. We called the cops. And then we started to get scared. For almost eighteen hours we heard nothing. I spent a sleepless night maneuvering my belly, trudging back and forth to pee, thoughts fluttering around the sorts of dire scenarios that feed on the pre-dawn. The next morning, as I made my way to my final obstetrics visit, I remembered his work line and texted him. He eventually wrote back. He had taken himself to an alcohol treatment center, but he couldn’t talk. I pressed him for a name, then called said facility. He wasn’t there. I texted him back, and he gave me the name of a different place. He wasn’t there, either. The day wore on. He was at a hospital. No, a hotel. But in Virginia. No, a rehab spot, fifty miles away. His girlfriend, now fiancée, got into his tablet so we could hone in on his maneuvers. Sixteen cab rides in a day, like a Ping-Pong ball through the city. Girls on Tinder. Girls on Facebook. Backpages interactions. A boutique hotel. A lavish dinner. Two in the same night. When I said I was going to drive the 205 miles to come and find him, he agreed to let up, and that night my mother cornered him in his bachelor suite and drove him to the hospital.
The last time I spent with him was in Brooklyn, a few weeks later. He was medicated and sober—he had memorialized his last drink with a new tattoo—but was still very high. He met his new niece. Jostled his nephew on his lap. He gave us a cookbook of Mexican recipes for children, while I choked on the exuberance that he always provoked in me, because I felt foremost a need to communicate to him my anger for having let us think, even for a night, that he was dead. I hugged him only as we said goodbye, tugging on the ragged red brilliance of his beard, and told him that he could never scare us like that again. My comrade against the routine bullshit, I need you to always be OK, I said.
Toward the end of my freshman year of college, I heard an All Things Considered episode on the biology of suicide. The short report, which went inside the lab of Dr. J. John Mann at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, struck me at the time as a violation of my extremely romantic views on mental illness. I was enamored of the idea that mental suffering conveyed the inevitable anguish of the more intelligent and sensitive human. The modern lunatics, I read with gusto, were our former saints and seers. How exactly, I parroted Arthur Kleinman, can you diagnose depression when all of life is torment? The categories in the DSM were punitive labels of nonconformity, or so I scrawled in papers thick with wincing words like hegemony and problematize. Nowhere in my conception of mind-as-floating-consciousness did I consider the fundamental biology of the brain. Madness, I so wanted to believe, was akin to resistance. Depression was a humane response to inhabiting our troubled world.
Winter of that same year, 2000, I was hospitalized for suicidal behavior and wound up on the psychiatric ward at Columbia-Presbyterian. Depressed and anxious following a sexual assault, I didn’t remember much about smashing flatware in the dormitory kitchen, but there were the gritty cuts that plagued my palms and elbows in the days thereafter. In spite of the three weeks I spent confined with some flagrantly psychotic people, I continued to nurture my special views of the mind. My depression deepened me, I believed. It made me interesting, somehow worthy, even if most of the time it left me laconic and immobilized by dread, hungry for any sort of upper that might help me cross the bog of doubt. Even as I dutifully swallowed my ration of Zoloft, Clozapine, and Risperdal, even as I shuttled twice a week to see a therapist, I scorned the notion that my altered moods might owe to more elemental forces. I clung to my idea that my suffering was housed in some elusive place, as ephemeral, and as necessary, as my own soul. If it was a result of biology, then was physiology my fate?
My paternal grandfather rode the pendulum between soaring enthusiasms and flattened sadness. An inventor who courted both great wealth and bankruptcy, he occasionally terrorized his wife and children, who also looked to him as the apotheosis of paternal power. His youngest son, my uncle, has suffered alcoholism, depression, and psychotic rage, while pinning his hopes and means to interests as varied as hot air ballooning and the New Haven Shakespeare players; he once rewrote King Lear to cast himself as Cordelia, the beloved but exiled daughter.
We averted our eyes from my own father’s unravelings, until he was too crazy for us to tell ourselves it was a fluke, a phase, or an evolved quirk of personality. By the time he entered the psychiatric unit, he was in an advanced state of illness. A political scientist by training, an economist by trade, he was a man who believed wholly in the wisdom of the free market and devoted the peak of his career to devising liberal correctives for foreign governments, opening borders, adjusting tariffs, drafting plans to help informal workers adjust to the shocks of a capitalized world. He read Nietzsche and Hegel for recreation. He took notes in his strike-marked hand on the biographies of world leaders that we plied him with each Christmas. At dinnertime, he soliloquized on free trade, structural adjustment, Joseph Stiglitz, the Chicago School. He underscored his remarks with outstretched middle fingers, waggling these digits over our otherwise silent table.
The erotic watercolors were an early clue that something in his mind was shifting, but one that we determinedly ignored, even as they piled up around the house. For Christmas, my junior year of college—as I trailed behind my cohort because of the semester I spent in recovery—he sent me a trio of paintings collectively titled, Mothers, do you know where your children are? Waiflike bodies wound in orgiastic coils; eager scenes of underage cunnilingus; distorted faces and small peaked breasts. Mom, I complained, with undergraduate earnestness, he doesn’t understand the difference between a naked and a nude.
We’d bake cookies and visit him on the unit. He was keen to introduce me to Katie, his daughter. As in, me. Also to his mother, as well as my mother, and my scholarly godfather. All the other patients were, it seemed, characters in a play he believed had been written and orchestrated for his benefit. Each was there to impart some lesson, some obscure bit of wisdom. The writing is marvelous, just marvelous! Every action and interaction was a test: the wobble of the metal chair, the glare of the lights in the common room, the impermeable nature of the yellowed cement walls. Each step required tremendous concentration. I have forgotten how to walk, he said, before hurling himself down the hallway. Leap of faith, he cried. Leap of faith.
After his second stint on the ward, my father received a provisional diagnosis of Pick’s disease, a rare kind of progressive dementia, or frontotemporal lobar degeneration, which can be characterized by behavioral changes, the development of obsessive routines, sexual preoccupations, and acting inappropriately in public.
It was a cruel and fast-acting sentence. And yet there was something oddly reassuring about locating these struggles in the structure of his brain—as opposed to the heart, the humors, or some other supposed moral center. Here was a container for all his unsavory, mysterious behaviors. It meant he couldn’t help it, he couldn’t help himself. But the moment was short-lived; the diagnosis was discarded promptly thereafter, just another misinterpretation of his inscrutable ailments.
Still, I lumbered in the face of reading my brother’s episodes as evidence of something deeper, more fundamental than “bad behavior.” I wonder now whether I’ll forever hold myself hostage to that failure. I recognized the manias; how could I not, when my phone rang five, six, seven times a day? He had plans: he’d bought a planner, he was going to buy a movie theater, a bowling alley, a storefront church. He harbored this fantastic scheme that was going to put an end to racism. He fell in love, serially, continually, loves layered one atop the other like tissues in a box. He drank, started early, went deep into the night, staggering quantities of beer and occasionally whiskey. He drank so much he blacked out but still, miraculously, functioned, a whirring autopilot. Once he tried breaking into our neighbor’s apartment, convinced it was our own. Another time, he biked miles outside Portland, coming to only as he was huffing his way up a steep incline, baffled as to how he got there. He didn’t use harder stuff—my mother and I used to take some small solace in that—but there was one combustive relationship with a junkie where he would get off by fixing her. He flew her to LA, they stayed at the Ace Hotel. I know because he charged it to my credit card. But I liked to think that there was a fixed boundary where disease stopped and my brother began, a preserve of consciousness where he observed with the same cool distance the elevator hauling up and down.
In his diary, my brother writes about the sweet spot as the ascent begins. The soaring possibility, the inherent hope, the belief in destiny. Kay Redfield Jamison, in her account of living with bipolar disorder, offers that it “is an illness that is biological in its origins, yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it, an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering…”
As my father’s illnesses eclipsed my brother’s suffering, it became a noble cause for Benji. Our father was someone he could save, someone whose virtues were revealed in the struggle. His second tattoo was an honorific. Pop read the cursive script embedded in an anatomically correct inking of the heart, which was wreathed in dollar bills and pierced through with a paintbrush.
My father was cogent enough in the ambulance ride from hospital to hospice to ask where we were going, but not so clear-headed that he understood my response. He had one more “good” day before making a concertedly inward turn. Speechless, with only one eye that blinked open to wander the room. His older brother wept in his wheelchair; his only grandchild, just shy of a year, crawled on the floor. In the middle of the night the call came that the end was imminent. I stopped to feed my son. A second call came as my milky breast still ran into his mouth. My mother and I drove the long mile to find his body still warm, both sad and grateful that he had spared us his exit. We sat with him as his skin changed texture and grew cool to the touch. All the while we were calling Benji with first urgent, then reconciled, then sad messages. Benji missed the morbid theater of the funeral parlor, the vulva-pink room with picture windows, the menu of death care add-ons, the vaguely Southern accents. Just two years later his own body would lie cold in a kitsch-filled room. I screamed for his Lazarus return, but he came back to us as ash.
In the NPR radio report: Early-rising researchers scan the medical examiner’s daily docket for those deceased most likely to have taken their own lives. The team races to get permissions from the victims’ families, and then, during the autopsies, which begin at eight a.m., remove half the brain for further scrutiny. The organ, we are told, is “then cut into thin, thin slices. Looks kind of like a meat slicer in a butcher shop.”
At the turn of the millennium serotonin is enjoying the full limelight of mental health research. SSRIs are consumed by nearly 10 percent of the population, and the neurotransmitter shoulders responsibility for regulating our moods, tempering our reckless urges, guiding our decisions, and, as Mann’s group finds, pumping the breaks on our desire to die.
Other researchers at the time have begun to parse apart the urge from the means; that is, the desire to die—feelings of “perceived burdensomeness” and/or “thwarted belongingness”—versus the capacity to take your own life. Some propose that the capability is acquired over the lifespan: it is not a native possibility, but rather an option that comes gradually within reach. Some have since begun to suggest that suicide is a disease unto itself, a preventable form of death.
A number of bioethicists have courted controversy for making the case that those with mental illness have a right to die, just as terminally ill patients have a right to refuse treatment. Those with “repeated bouts of severe depression” “rationally might prefer dignified death over future suffering.” The Swiss Supreme Court ruled that the mentally ill have a constitutional right to assisted suicide. A court in the Netherlands deemed that suffering is suffering and it doesn’t matter whether the cause is physical or emotional.
But we try, however feebly, to prevent. There are now predictive tests that score an individual’s likelihood of killing himself. In 2017, a computer algorithm read fMRI activity to successfully identify suicidal inclinations.
Mann has gone on to propose refined tests of the serotogenic system, using brain imaging and blood-based biomarkers to predict who might be at an elevated risk. His novel work has come to center on what is known as the diathesis-stress model, which attempts to portray psychological imbalance as the result of the interactions between life experience and underlying—i.e. genetic or biologic—vulnerabilities. The theory holds that if the combination of exposures and predispositions exceeds a threshold, the individual is likely to succumb to a disorder, like depression or PTSD, or in the case of Mann’s field, to death. There is no consensus on what constitutes said threshold, but researchers maintain all the same that certain genetic architecture is better able to withstand stress. Some of us, it seems, are rendered in thatch, while others are made of steel; how else are we to make sense of why one soldier comes home untroubled while his platoon-mate returns irreparably touched? Or why one sibling enters the world through the open door, while the other uses it to make his exit?
Back in Mann’s lab, the researchers speculate that the roots of suicidal behavior may be more fundamental than once assumed—embedded in the very neurons with which you entered the world. One neuroscientist offers, “You may in fact be born with your biological risk for suicide.”
A Thursday morning in a sunny June, one week before the solstice, brought bouts of heavy rain. My husband has biked my son off to preschool before continuing on his way to work, and I have this precious hour, alone with my growing beam of light. I nurse my daughter. I watch her roll around on the floor. I chatter and am sure she understands me. She smiles when she looks up at me, extending her arms to the sound of my voice crossing the room. She cranes her neck, tracking my whereabouts.
I load her into a carrier on the front of my chest. Secure the ribbons of her hat under the folds of her chin. The broad brim makes her face appear flower-like. The day is so bright, so clear, I pause to take a picture of the two of us heading to what will be our respective days: hers with a nanny, mine at a desk. I call my mother after I drop her off. I do this several times a week to exchange status reports: dinner menus, language acquisition, milestones of physical development, projects, goals, plumbing woes, aches, pains, vacation plans, who’s heard most recently from The Boy-o. I complain that he hasn’t called me, even as I say I understand his need for space. The deal since he left the treatment program is that he has to respond when I text, but he’s done so only sporadically. The last was: I’m OK, I’ll call you later. But he never did.
Her voice is panicked when she picks up.
Is everything OK?
Benji did not show up for work this morning.
The street reels vertiginously. I bowl over and suppress an urge to wretch. I know immediately.
On the other end of the line, I hear my mother’s determined click-clacking down the pavement. Her sensible heels filled with stockinged feet. I can see her free hand swinging, doggedly propelling her down the street to his apartment. He just took a sleeping pill. Maybe he missed his alarm.
I’ve already started shaking, but I’ve been tagged “it” in preserving this illusion, so I simply state, OK, when she says: I’m just going to wake him up.
I go home to make a sandwich, knowing I won’t eat again for some time.
I think, I should be a healer. I’ll treat the trauma of this world.
I think, I don’t know if I’ll be able to carry this weight for my mother.
Then I start making lists of things that will need to be done, of people I will need to call: my agent, my editor, the magazine staff, the folks at the university where I’ve just launched a consulting project, that pastor we used for my dad, the ex-fiancée, the accountant, his friends, his sponsor, former neighbors, our sweet-faced cousins…
Thirty-five minutes later my mother is screaming into the phone and I feel like a bit actor cast with shitty lines. Oh no, no, no, no. The call log shows that we spoke for only fifty seconds. The world remade in under a minute.
Kate Spade died nine days before my brother did. Then Anthony Bourdain one week before, and as we tend to the funeral arrangements and the bureaucracy that mortality requires, the media is abuzz about the nation’s rising rates of what The Economist labels “deaths of despair.” The New York Times runs an editorial calling suicide an “intractable public health crisis.” Each trigger-cocked article links to hotline resources. The experts scuttle in, carting their well-worn adage: a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
For centuries, suicide was a moral issue; be it good or bad, brave or cowardly, it was cast in terms of choice. Epictetus said that all roads to Hades are equal. The possibilities for departure and persistence exist side by side. Remember that the door is open.
But during the nineteenth century, as the study of the psyche became a more formalized affair, the taking of one’s own life was recast as the desperate signature of an imbalanced mind. Melancholia was a prime culprit. Durkheim coined anomie to describe the alienation resulting from periods of pronounced social churn.
Decades after Durkheim, the sociologist Robert Merton revisited his theory. Writing not ten years after Black Friday, Merton proposed that anomie occurs when there is a rift between society’s norms for success and how one achieves these goals. What he describes is essentially the sense of drift that follows the breakdown of the social order—the hopes and promises on which our development is poised no longer hold.
We’re again in the midst of what commentators feverishly insist is the breakdown of the Dream. The rules have changed and it’s anyone’s guess how the current churn will spew us out. Are we confronting a most visible symptom of epidemic mental illness or seeing a new facet of the world we’ve created? Work no longer guarantees reward. Education no longer guides momentum through the social strata. Crooks have claimed the seats of power, and social interactions have been reduced to prefab symbols through which one can scroll to find the most LOL-fitting face or steamiest pile of shit. In my brother’s final texts, a yellow frown accompanied messages like not feeling great and been pretty down.
But we are no longer all that interested in understanding anomie, or the social dimensions of depression. Even as one might link the rising rates of mental illness and suicide to the global convulsions underway, we’ve fixed on neurobiology as the primo facto explanation for what ails us. Epigenetics and environmental factors are said to play a part, and ample research dollars go to investigating how combat, assault, and childhood adversity shorten telomeres, alter gene expression, and alchemize our internal chemistry. But science is not up to the task of looking at how as a society we are traumatized, how we are collectively and overwhelming exposed to uncertainty. Our insistence on the quantifiable, the reproducible, makes us less confident in describing what it is we see.
Beginning in the 1950s a movement took hold to prevent these needless deaths, and today we march, we fundraise, we rally to dispel the darkness. My mother-in-law just the other week suggested that I attend a charity dinner to end suicide. We want to “fight” suicide, to “defeat” it, to “triumph” over it, in much the same way we charge into battle against breast cancer, obesity, or illiteracy. There is something so particularly American in this quest to conquer death. It is lodged in our bootstraps lingo of overcoming, and in our fervor we leave little room for choice. We’re bewitched by the narrative that hardship makes us stronger, that trauma works to not just wound but to enrich the soul. And we simply detest the idea of a death too soon, even as we hungrily feast upon such stories.
Jesus also died at thirty-three. The pastor inclines to bold comparisons. He didn’t know Benji, he doesn’t really know our family. We found him more or less at random when my father died because we were in search of a formal—i.e., religious—conclusion to a life that regarded the church with nostalgia and a sense of obligation. As we did for my father, we sit in the pastor’s ground-floor office in the Georgetown Presbyterian Church and try to summon details relevant to the deceased, or at least how we want him to be publicly remembered. We are not going to use the S word, but we will, we decide, be as forthcoming as possible, without actually revealing much. Died unexpectedly following a long struggle with depression, reads the obit. Likewise, the service will allude to illness.
“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”
The pastor also happens to be thirty-three. A graduate of Wesleyan, an unlikely man of faith. He is achingly tall, and speaks in a rushed monotone that does little justice to the Rumi poem we selected for the service: This longing you express is the return message/The grief you cry out from draws you toward union/ Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.
Like my brother, he is into bicycles and rock ’n’ roll. My mother wonders aloud whether his was the life intended for Benji, one spent helping people navigate their existential needs. Benji was a coffee snob, he went to metal shows, he maintained an alternate email under ilovethor, his first tattoo was the promotional poster for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon: a shotgun, splayed legs, and a red rose under the heavy heel of a riding boot.
The pastor seizes on Benji’s work as an outreach specialist at Pathways to Housing, a noble non-profit that tries to provide homeless men and women with their own apartments. It was hard and frequently frustrating work that had him running in circles between the VA, the courts, the hospitals, shelters, select motels, and a number of trash-strewn parks in downtown DC. During his up periods, you could want for no more committed ally of the cause. Only weeks before his last round of mania emboldened him to new heights of destruction, Pathways gave him an award in recognition of his unflagging dedication to the dispossessed. He loved the work. My guys, he said proudly of his homeless clients. In his email signature: The struggle is real. He would call me to recount the absurdities of the system. We half-joked about developing an app that we would call Needly, whose function morphed depending on his moods. But up and up he went and the work became another skin of agitation, a piece of the grandiose order of things, my guys need me. He tore endlessly around the city, increasingly obsessed, increasingly ineffectual. During the service the pastor paints him as a friend of the downtrodden, a champion of the meek, insensible to hierarchy, standing among a sea of brothers. If but for the grace of God go I… Benji made his way through encampments, he patrolled the underpasses, he brought succor to those without. Aloft on the romance of the building parallel, the pastor continues: Jesus.
Our relatives, dressed in black, clutching wads of dampened Kleenex, nod somberly. Yes, of course, this man of God is calling my brother Jesus Christ. Benji’s friends—the bearded, tattooed, pierced, dressed-in-vibrant-colors, dismissive-of-propriety crowd that rustles in the backmost pews—appear also to digest this comparison without trouble. But maybe only for lack of attention, this environment being far too inapropos for the life they’ve come to mourn.
From my front-seat position, as I keen and clutch my mother’s hand, I hear my brother’s guffaw, his knee-slapping woodpecker laugh, as one friend described it, and for a moment I can’t wait to tell him all about this crazy afternoon.
I am sitting on the floor of the bookstore Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, where their extensive children’s section includes a collection of titles about death, dying, and bereavement, looking for something that might help me explain what has happened to my three-year-old son, Finn. My mother and I pluck through titles with dismal names like What’s Happening to Grandpa and Where’s My Sister? We settle on a book, simply for the name, Finn’s Feather—which appears to be about a little boy whose sibling died and who found a feather that is supposed to be a reminder or a symbol or some sort of talisman.
We never had the heart or the nerve to give it to him. Instead, my mother sat him down and explained, Uncle Benji died. That means he won’t be with us anymore. He was very sick and the doctors couldn’t help him.
Was he in the hospital?
That’s right. Uncle Benji died and we are very sad. But he will always be with us in our hearts.
I know! I can rescue Uncle Benji. I’ll turn him into an animal.
What sort of animal? My mother asks.
A bird. And he will fly in the sky and watch me.
Finn has just seen the movie Ratatouille, and now tells me he wants a pet rodent.
We can feed him snacks.
OK, let’s give him a snack. What snack should we give him?
But Ratatouille died.
Oh, no, what happened?
He didn’t want to live anymore.
One license plate reads: IAMLOVED. Another: SENDHELP. The board outside a Baptist church is between announcements and the crooked parade of movable letters simply states OVERWHELMED.
There are signs everywhere. A sparrow hopping through interstitial shadows becomes a message-bearer for bipolarity, or a symbol of eternal passage. Double rainbows arc in the clearing rain shower on the afternoon of the funeral. The wind gathers at a distance, talking through the trees. I suggest to my mother that the natural world is always trying to communicate with us. But this provides as little comfort as my remark: our grief is our communion.
We’re having dinner, my mother and I, at the table on her little deck. It’s dark and we have candles going, and this giant moth—a hummingbird moth!—keeps dashing toward the flames. It goes for our cheeks, wants to nest in our hair, tries to settle on our arms. It’s Benji! It’s Benji! My mother is so anxious for a visitation, to feel him, somewhere. But the moth is intent on being a moth, and dashes into the fire. I hurriedly extinguish the light. It nosedives into the open wine bottle, which I partially upend and then re-cork. It tries to bury itself under the grid-work of the table and I shoo, shoo it away. For her, I must preserve this presence. The Benji moth can’t expire on my watch.
Several times a week, a plane falls from the sky. Sometimes I’ll look out the window over the wing to see it rotating toward the earth, then round and round as we spiral down and down. Sometimes, I look up in time to trace a clear sweep into an ocean, a mountain, the city streets. Other times, I don’t even realize I am on a plane until it starts careening to the ground. Most recently we landed in the middle of Manhattan, spinning laterally nose-to-tail until we hit the pavement with a thud, knocking our heads against the ceiling. The light was shining too bright, says the captain, we didn’t see that the engine had failed. If you can, you’ll want to refrain from work or too much stress today…
My mother keeps telling me that my daughter is just like Benji was as a baby. Laconic is her adjective of choice, but this I think is a misuse, as this preverbal girl has yet no means of being Spartan in her speech. I think she’s grasping instead for a word in the family of placid, serene, equable. She’s a peaceful, easygoing baby, content so long as she’s on or near me. In the month after the death, she’s noticeably plumpened from near-constant suckling. There’s comfort in that, in the feeding, the holding, the gurgling continuance of life. I’m grateful for the obligation to attend to immediate needs, even as I struggle to attend to them. I wake up and she’s inexplicably there in my dark bed. A thud in the middle of the night: she’s escaped my senseless arms and hit the wooden floor. I’m not sure whether to take this comparison as an honorific or a curse.
Even the Dalai Lama has a fear of flying, which is to say that despite all the mental discipline and reckoning with the temporality of things, he still harbors a fear of death. In some way we all spend our lives in worship or subversion of this inevitability. Or maybe the Dalai Lama’s fear of flying is actually a guise for his fear of sharks, as he once confessed to a reporter. The plane will plunge into the ocean and, having never learned to swim, His Eminence will sink into the seabed and there be eaten by a great, dead-eyed creature of the deep.
Therapist One says it seems like I have PTSD and that I should work with a trauma specialist.
Therapist Two codes me with Adjustment Disorder or AD, in which the person reacts to a stressor with emotional and/or behavioral symptoms that are beyond what would be expected for the event.
Therapist Three twirls the outsized diamond on her tanned finger and says, Yah, it’s all so intense.
I’ve developed a tremor. My very cells ache. I feel like I’ve caught the flu. Light is too bright, noises too loud, I’m overwhelmed on crowded streets and subway platforms, there’s too much to keep track of. Hypervigilance, nods Therapist Three. All my old griefs remained tangled in the branches of my mind, but this, this resides in my body. I’m being cracked open, remade, bathed by the firmament.
I have a packed slate of upcoming travel—at some point I will have to stop all this postponing—but the very thought of boarding a flight makes my chest constrict in dread. I will be a soup of panic, praying, gasping, striking bargains, clinging to my babies, searching the attendants’ faces for signs that something is amiss. My mind lurches between a reasoned appreciation of my own anxieties and a seductive interpretation of fear as a form of supernatural premonition. I am scared because I know this is the form my end will take.
The police in their rounds of the apartment keep returning to two notes on the coffee table. Ah ha! They pounce repeatedly, thinking they’ve found the missing piece. But both scraps of paper are notes from my mother—one welcoming Benji home after the inpatient program, the other a tally, billing him $84 and change for the cigarettes she brought him over the month of his stay. Expensive habit her pen exclaimed and underscored.
A small Post-it beside the bathroom mirror gives pause. No Feelings. But this, we are told by a friend, is a reference to Sid and Nancy, a favorite movie and the accompanying Sex Pistols soundtrack.
I return to my trundling pilgrimage around the bed. I search again through the drawers of the bedside table; the cops had removed the bottles emptied of his antipsychotic prescription and assembled them in a sad collection on the Ikea kitchen/dining table. On the windowsill are some old packs of cigarettes, and a few beat-up books. The Way Things Work leans against an arty-looking volume titled A Four Chambered Heart, a collection of erotic stills that I read are “an ongoing collaboration with the intention to explore the aesthetic and conceptual potential of pornography as a medium for ideas.” I put the book in the large bag bound for the trash. There is also a worn-out copy of the novel Hausfrau about Anna, an American expat living with her Swiss banker husband in Zurich. A caged woman, hers is a circumscribed world from which she tries to escape with visits to her analyst and brightly worded trysts. The New York Times says the book is “obviously something of a ‘Madame Bovary’/‘Anna Karenina’ mashup featuring the expected secrets and lies, faithlessness and despair, the untimely end, the inability to find relief from misery even in death.” When I pick up the book it cracks open to page 146, where a pink sticky notation tape has been placed above a short paragraph.
“Do you know the German word Sehnsucht?” Anna shook her head no. “It means disconsolate longing. It’s that hole in your heart out of which all hope leaks.”
Later that night, after my plane’s precipitous descent, it occurs to me that we are all held in the cradle of this word. Sehnsucht. Like Rumi’s call and response, it is both cause and, now, consequence.
The last time I visit the apartment, it is with Benji’s ashes–a heavy canister in a hateful canvas sack. My mother and I light a candle. We grasp for words. We want to broker some sort of farewell, before we pack his remains into the car and drive north up into the Hudson Valley. We have rented a house in Woodstock, with the understanding that having relinquished his physical body we want now to call his spirit home. My mother recites an incantation, Boy-o, we summon you here in order to release you. She needs to feel him, to know that he is OK out there—out there being the newly animated world of whispering trees and message-bearing birds. Before each meal we hold hands and offer words to or about him. Sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes it’s a labor. Some of our guests blench at anything that approaches prayer, but I don’t really care, and try to conjure phrases to bring comfort to my mother or to my own stunned heart. Phrases filled with words like glory, solace, eternity, words that ordinarily would scarcely cross my lips but that now fill my head as I stroll around muttering an unending eulogy. Perhaps this panegyric is how we now communicate, I offer to the hand-held silence around the dinner table. We look for signs in earnest here.
There is a clearing before the elevated deck and the view extends north to the undulating range of Overlook Mountain, which changes in color and composition depending on the hour and quality of the day. My mother saw in its profile an outline of my brother’s resting form. We watch storms gather, the iridescent drift of sun-showers, afternoons of cloudless blue. We turn around in circles following the trails of the Milky Way, charting the course of the moon, the erratic movements of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. My husband likes to tell us that pueblos errantes was a post-Colombian term for planets. We watch for shooting stars.
And every day we go to the river. We had lots of ambitions at the outset—each day could bring new trails and vistas—but with the exception of treks to the Tibetan monastery, where the prayer flags stretch like a tattered rainbow across an overgrown slope, we limit our excursions to the river. Creek, really, if we’re being proper about it. This singular journey is all we can sustain. Gather the kids, pack the snacks, car seats, blankets, sunscreen, repellent. Down the mountain, it’s a circus of unloading and tracking the parade of bodies.
But I love sitting in this river. I want to teach my eyes to see. Maybe the world is rustling in communion, if you have the means to sense it. The water flows cold, shocking then numbing my legs as I perch on the small cascade. From source to greater source, molecules descending and evaporating, beading on our skin, continuing through the night. There is nothing to control here, I can only watch, the lazy mirror of the pool above me, the small torrent at my feet. Down the way a bit there is a swimming hole, where my son likes to go this deep. He splays his ten fingers above his head, his sign for the most, the all of it, the biggest things in the world.
We return up the mountain, toweled dry. My son runs into the house. He’s flushed. He wants everyone’s attention.
I saw it, he bops on his tanned and sturdy legs.
Saw what? asks my mother, ever primed for hope.