We all had a sickness after our brother Scott took his life. We don’t talk about his death and its power over us; rarely do the four of us kids even speak, and we were once a bustling, intimate family. We loved each other with such devotion and intensity and ferociousness we made others feel inadequate; we were so close we were constantly falling over one another’s feet. Limb over limb. This joint touching that one.
We nod to one another now. Nod, offer half-lit smiles. We text and email but seldom do we call. When we’re in the same room, we pretend there’s something much more pressing at hand. We thank God for the small wonders of childhood curiosities, the sun setting, insubstantial talk, our smart phones. The wind, traffic, breaking news.
The four of us linger in that space of what if. Our parents do, too, so if you’re doing the math and counting right, there are six people, at any given time, trying to find solace in questions that cannot be answered. We loiter in the gutters of each other. We pause and stare, but quickly—at hairlines, jawlines, swollen purses of skin under red, cashed-out eyes, scabs we won’t let heal on our knuckles. At the shabby shorts we’ve been wearing for three days in a row; splintered toenails, the teeth we’ve let chip and erode, grow yellow. We wonder, and this is without question, will I fail you too?
It’s been just over three years since my brother Scott swallowed a bottle of booze, slammed down pills from a suspicious pharmacist, and threatened to shoot his two beloved dogs before he put an antique gun in his mouth, tilted his head back, and pulled the trigger.
The tilt is what startles me most; it shutters me quiet. The tilt, because in all of his shame and indecency and white trash heroism, that is where he found his grace. He must have been so elegant then. So certain; so beautiful.
In my darker moments, of which there are too many to count, his neck is altered just so. I reenact the dance, the denouement. It is crushing to think about. It is satisfying, in the worst possible way.
I would like to have had a few last moments with him. I think this often, the way one might think the post office closes soon or we’re out of milk in the house or I ought to feed the cat. It’s become redundant, standard, rote.
There wasn’t much left of him when he died. Arrowheads he’d collected from the canyons of Colorado. A dozen aloha shirts, all of them a size too small. A toothbrush; a comb carrying the last strands of his red, unkempt hair; an empty money clip. Piles and piles of unopened student loan bills, and empty yogurt containers filled with pennies, his initials tattooed on the bottoms in a black Sharpie. A bottle of Patron Silver, just the top knocked off. The pajama bottoms Mom bought him the Christmas before, VHS tapes of his favorite comedies—Jeff Foxworthy stand-up routines and Chevy Chase classics—and CDs he promised himself he’d listen to in the new year. A few framed photographs, bubbled and mildewed around the edges, and rolls and rolls of stale Mentos. A robe he liked to wear on cold mornings and an old eelskin wallet and a cellphone he didn’t know how to use and had never memorized the number to anyway.
His girlfriend called me incessantly in the days after his death, demanding ransom for a body that was no longer breathing, promising me the rest of his things in return. She needed a thousand dollars to cover his cremation. I didn’t have the money. I never sent it to her. He burned away, without my contribution. His ashes were sent in the mail.
Arguments could be made that it doesn’t matter. They say the soul lives on and geography is just a construct and love never dies. All of which could be true; all of which I’ve come to know to be true. But I’d like to offer my other thoughts on the matter and say bull fucking shit. I’d like to be honest and say: I’d like to hug my brother again, goddamn him. I’d like to walk into a room that was once his. I’d like to touch his things, admire the pottery he once made, smell him—that rust and sadness; that once-good-life—and hear him until he finds his way back into my ears again.
Scott had a habit of creating ceramic houses with dangerously sloped roofs. When I can’t sleep, I shuffle through the paltry remains of my parents’ lives and find pieces of art he made when he was child. My mother keeps these in sacred spaces, although they’re hidden and covered in dust and cobwebs from cane spiders. The one I love and hate most is an ugly brown house reminiscent of the seventies, its awnings crooked, its chimney distorted. His initials—SCR—are scrawny things, scribbled into the clay like an afterthought. Still, I touch it. Still, I turn it around and around in my palms, looking for him inside.
I would like to say I’ve had it the hardest since he passed away. This is delusional, I know, and outrageously selfish. But grief itself makes us greedy for what we’ve no longer got and downright disfigured in our thinking. I was the first one to receive the phone call about his death, late in the night, shortly after New Year’s Day came to the disappointing halt it always does—the champagne bottles empty, the TV murmuring reruns, the cheese platter edging towards decay. My mother- and father-in-law had just gone to sleep upstairs when my phone rang and rang and rang. I didn’t believe what Scott’s girlfriend said when I finally called back, but who would ever want to; who would ever be capable of doing so? Your brother shot himself, she said, and across hundreds of miles, I could see her at the sink of their clean house in the suburbs of Denver, a vodka and soda in her skinny, shaking hands. He’s dead.
I didn’t act so much as I reacted. It was loss at its finest: The baby sister on the other end of the call, the phone falling from her hand, her husband, after wishing his parents goodnight, suddenly beside her, picking the phone up off the floor, speaking loudly, asking questions, repeating answers, trying to hold onto her. The rooms of my house were without warning deathly large, terribly lonely. I slammed my head into its walls, bruising my forehead, my lip. Later I’d understand that I was trying to blast out of my skull what was real and true and one hundred percent permanent: My brother was not coming home for Easter. I would never hear his wild laugh again. He had committed suicide. He was, as his girlfriend said, dead.
I picked up the phone again; I did. I called my parents’ house, spoke with my mother, endured the three minutes of her shouting his name in her home halfway across the world from his. Persevered as I dropped the call, my mom’s echo of my brother’s name, the relentless Scottie! Scottie! Scottie!, sudden, killing, thrashing in my head while I kicked the Christmas tree, shaking its lights, as my husband found the phone, talked to my father. Broke the unbearable news.
The aftermath of my brother’s death remains vague to me. I called loved ones. I sent off emails and Facebook messages to aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, but not without two shots of Yagermeister and half a six-pack in me. My parents refused to accept calls; my siblings could not be found. For whatever reason, I felt it was my duty to alert others. Flowers arrived on my doorstep but I lacked the energy to take them in. They lingered in the strange January heat. Most of them died, but the orchids persisted, and I eventually brought them in.
I took two weeks off from work. Two weeks, and I can’t recite a damn thing about what happened during that time other than a close friend from Southern California arrived, demanded I read Franny & Zooey, and brushed my hair when I couldn’t find my hands. When I recall her presence in my home, it’s filled with pot smoke. Her kinky hair, and a trip to the city where we drank giant glasses of beer. The fact that she shared a birthday with Scott. The words of Salinger, seeping into my skin, making sense only on a subliminal level.
I forgot to feed ice cubes to the orchids. My husband gained so much weight I could no longer find his cheekbones when my hands circumferenced his face. I took on work with deadlines I couldn’t meet, and edited pages with half-blind eyes while my husband came home, vomited, showered, vomited again, then pretended that life was good while he cooked dinner.
The Russells that are left—the four of us siblings, my parents, the six of us whole—have forgotten how to live.
My father’s days of valor are over. I don’t blame him: A man can only take so much. His eyebrows bristle straight away from his forehead now as if he can no longer see himself right in the mirror. He speaks to himself when he showers; he talks to his feet, the interior of his truck, the bottom inch of yellow in his beer bottles, the rubber tree he pisses on outside. Many nights he’s bombed out of his mind, and dinners cobbled together with what money we have left—a pork chop, sticky white rice, frozen lima beans—are eaten in front of a TV with no clear purpose besides showing advertisements marketing what we might never have again: Clean fingernails. A house with a fence. Clothes without holes. My mother disappears into novels borrowed from the library and returns to reality only when it’s demanded of her. I have a brother who lives on a boat, parties probably too often, and reads and rereads Moby Dick. My sister is deadened by the depressions of the ignorant choices she’s made—the man she married in waste and haste, dead now; the two children to whom she gave birth, both of them in and out of jail—while my youngest brother speaks in brutally short sentences and takes hammers to sullen, unknowing walls without reason. He’s gotten skinnier in the last three years. We all have.
Minor disturbances accost us. Phone calls unsettle us; voicemail is terrifying. I don’t answer most of the calls that come in because they make me think of the last conversations I had with Scott. His voice: Gin-toned and metallic, scissored and ragged and full of edge and panic and decay as he asked me for money before his girlfriend picked up on another line. His mania full-blown, scattered skyward.
Our last phone call was on Christmas, eight days before he died. I was on the beach, drinking a beer. He was in Colorado, drinking bourbon. He had a job interview at a family practice in the foothills above Boulder shortly after the new year. He was sparkle and hope, and as my feet dug deeper into the sand I’d always known, I listened closer to the lightness in his voice. It was encouraging. It was petrifying. He knew where he was going. He just wasn’t sharing it with the rest of us.
It would be dishonest of me to say I haven’t contemplated suicide in the enormous battlefield of grief and regret that is losing a sibling. But I’ve never been as bold as my brother was, and so I’ve done so in far less efficient ways. I’ve driven across freeways, whipped out of my mind, a bottle of absinthe in my cup holder, a beer, a water bottle filled with what booze I’ve managed to scavenge at arm’s reach, a steely part of me waiting and hoping to see police lights behind me, my back right tire a spare. I’ve walked through taverns alone, across beaches barren of footprints, down streets and up streets and into cul-de-sacs barefoot where I was the only white girl anyone could see for miles. I’ve talked to vagrants. Strangers. I’ve let my heart loose to toll takers, bank tellers, cashiers at Safeway, tattoo artists. I’ve been assaulted, thrown, concussed. I’ve slammed my surfboard into waves beyond my ability to survive. I’ve spent days without eating or sleeping, until the whole world took on this luminous, haphazard glow that promised I won’t be around for long. Here, then, is a different hue.
Time is recovery, it is said, and I hold on to that; I hold on to that like a lifeline. But the rope to that boat frays at times. It disintegrates altogether.
I disintegrated after my brother died. I did all of the things one is supposed to avoid at all costs after a family member dies. Convinced a new grandchild would diminish my parents’ profound sorrow, I tried to get pregnant and failed, and learned that I would only be able to conceive with divine, very expensive intervention. I had an affair. I was diagnosed bipolar. I left my husband of twelve years, my job of nearly eight. I gave up my cats, my furniture, my first editions, my clothes, my keepsakes—my life. I relocated 2,600 miles away from the state I’d called home since finishing high school. I stopped paying all of my bills. I got a tattoo, then another. I ended friendships and working relationships without tact or grace; I disappeared whenever I could, only to sit on the sand and stare out at the sea for hours and sometimes days on end. All of these actions were nothing more than a way to distract myself. None of these actions did much good.
The entrance to the property on which we now live is ugly. My parents and my brother Darren and his family moved in three days after Scott’s death; I followed eleven months later. It’s knee-sickened scraggleweeds, bottle caps, mushed cigarette butts, shame and hard-earned pluck and we want to get by but we lost our license to do so smashed brown and yellow and crisp under our feet as we walk to the mailbox, hoping a check has come in. It’s a quarter of an acre burnt bitch-orange by the foulest streetlight in all of Maui Meadows. It bears down on us, asks us our secrets, demands answers to questions we no longer, as a family, understand. We will be prettier soon, I will one day say to a neighbor pleading for a better view. We’ll put the gate up. I’ll make sure my niece and nephew wear clothes. The dog with dots will get regular walks. I’ll stop smoking, if it bothers you. Please, please let me know.
Somewhere down on the property, someone is always asking for Scott in an oblique way. One child has a headache; another, a bruise. A car is starting against its will. Lava rocks are piled into a child’s wagon, towed to the property line. Someone is throwing a piece of plywood into the wretched grass. Someone else is applying lipstick, hoping for a better life. My mother has a growth on her nose that makes her dermatologist uncomfortable. My father is hip-deep in debt, and earlier today I watched his heart bend before his knees. He rested for ten minutes, and I touched his calves while he curled up in his box of a room and let his chin rest against his hands. When I went in and covered him with a blanket, he thought I was his cat.
We’re mending, in small stitches. We find grace when we can; we grip it until our knuckles stiffen and grow thick. In a cup of coffee in the first sigh of morning, the light peach, the sun kind. In a conversation we manage to endure without averting our eyes, searching for the nearest escape. In the smiles we offer, and actually mean.
We often don’t mean a thing.
There is a larger story here. There is a larger story that involves neither you nor me.
It is Scott’s story. And I will tell it best as I can.
In his final days, I am sure of this:
He feels unwelcome wherever he goes. He is a blight upon landscape upon landscape upon landscape.
He cannot get away from the notion that he is no longer wanted. That he is no longer needed. As a husband, a father, a doctor. A son, a brother, a cousin, a friend.
He searches for meaning, necessity. He searches for a way to be relevant again.
He can’t control the way his mind now works, and it angers him—the way it folds in directions he hasn’t given it permission to before it seems to splinter whole. He has so much to do that he doesn’t know where to start.
He realizes the looks he gets when he’s out in public. When he’s home, he doesn’t really notice the hole in the armpit of his shirt or the way his teeth have gone so bad from meth that they warrant others to look in other places if he smiles; he forgets the condition of his skin, potholed by acne and booze and bad decisions.
And he thinks: If you only knew. If you only knew the man I once was.
Once: He was in an emergency room on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was an ER doctor there, his glasses fitting and tight, white coat like a cliché. The city pulsed around him, this thick, ticking thing of headlights on high and ghosts in driver’s seats and bottles rattling around in the backs of Hondas. Lines of cocaine thin as Latina’s eyebrows on dashboards bending from the sun and age and abject neglect. The Civic arrived, its windows busted loose from fists. And the man came in, the man who had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the head, but didn’t aim right. He couldn’t aim right. He’d shot out his own eye.
My brother doubled over him. My brother’s hands were twitchy things, like birds just learning how to fly. There was blood. Viscera. He willed his fingers to stop trembling; he willed his mind to focus. The man died when he turned away to call in for more help.
Once: He was alone on a back road in Kentucky. He didn’t have a girlfriend then; he had trouble keeping track of what was expected in a relationship. Call him a bastard, call him a genius, but he lacked the everyday knowledge that keeps most of us afloat in this fragile world. Gas. Groceries. A budget. Teeth. Everything beyond practicing medicine and tequila and drugs and his next high, all shapeless and vague but promising and urgent as breath. He broke something then, and I still can’t tell you what.
Kentucky blurred, became the Rockies; those white, mean things in the distance. On his way towards a little family practice, hot cocoa in the morning, children with sore throats, something burst. I wasn’t there, along the way, so I can’t tell you, word for word, how the accident happened, but when his truck blew up, it took the moon.
Scott knew Darren’s daughter Simona for only a short time—his niece; the little girl he would have been most fond of in the world, as I am. She was a baby before he left, three teeth in all the wrong, gummy places and a penchant for raw bacon that confuses us all. Were he here, he would have hugged her, and never let go.
She asks about him sometimes. She says, What happened to Uncle Scottie? I cannot say he was in immense pain, because I don’t know what kind of pain he was in. Once 27% of your body is burned, who knows what happens to your mind, your soul, your heart, your ability to believe in a God? And I cannot say, with all sincerity, that if I had been in that much pain—of losing my limbs, my livelihood, my life—I would not have done the exact same thing he had. And I ask the stars: Who knows where half his body went, and the rest of his Scottieness was waiting to get somewhere else?
I had an English professor in college who thought Shakespeare was greater than Marilyn Monroe. When his sister unexpectedly died, he walked into class and said, What is life without a punctuation point?
And so it is. We will never be an exclamation point, an ellipses, a question mark. We must all leave with this: a period—solid, and utterly irrefutable.
I talk to him too often lately. I have a friend and client who knows all too well about loss and searching; who has led me, in her own unseen ways, towards shoving these haole feet harder and harder into rocks and dirt and Mother Earth and getting on. When I recently spoke to her, I said, I cannot find my brother. I can’t. Few understand this. And if they do, they’re not willing to admit it.
So, I keep saying, Scottie, where do you want me to go? Where? Where can we meet again? I slammed myself into the ER for a panic attack yesterday, god fucking damn you; still, you weren’t even there, were you? And couldn’t you have pressed pause on a VHS to tell them how to take my blood?
The day before, Simona and I were talking. With her new Uncle Ben—my love, and what I thought, briefly, might be my new life. She asked about Middle Earth, where her Uncle Scottie is now; she asked if she needed a flashlight when she got there. She said it got really hot. Convinced it was, she said she’d never need a sweater, and walked out of the house and forgot to close the door.
Tomorrow, we’re going to have a second ceremony for him. We’ll have to park a good ways from where we used to live on Black Sands Beach. The salt lagoons, I want to tell him in advance, are gone now; the egrets, too. When Ben and I went there the tide pools were flushed so thin we could no longer see the urchins. And when we arrive, I will say this:
Ben won’t be there. Neither will your girlfriend; the one who saw you die; who told me she found chunks of your skull in the weeks after your death, scattered around your bedroom floor like sand. Craig—ex now, on his way to becoming a father with a woman who can conceive—won’t, either. But the rest of us will—Justin, and Anuhea, who calls herself Lily now and played Atticus Finch in a play. Darren. Violeta, whom you fought with so much but who is our sister not by marriage but by a love that is indestructible. Jonke, because she’s coming home to Maui (and she didn’t even know why). Rafael, who looks just like Darren, has the brain of Justin, and wants to know all about you. Cynde, who is a size zero now that Rod has died. Mom, who will throw yellow roses into the whitewash because she hates getting into the ocean beyond her knees. Daddy, although I can’t promise you he will get out of the truck.
And I will chuck my dress off on that black sand that means-up my feet. I will thrash my toes against the lava rocks until they bleed so you know how much I love you. I will be the first to jump off at the point, and I will dive down to where the family laid you to rest, where you wanted, always, to be.
I hope to find you there. I hope you’re in your white coat. And when I see you, I’m going to grab your big, knuckly hands and thrash my huge feet against yours until we are limb over limb; this joint touching that. I’m going to say, Good god, Scottie, there was so much left to live for.
Before you can answer, I will swim to the top. Simona will be there, blonde hair like mine and all of us Scotch-Irish who can’t keep our troubles to ourselves standing on the beach and waving me back to shore. And she will say, Aunt Robyn? Where have you been? And do we need a flashlight to get back there?
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.