Improvising a Bone Graft


“Form—it’s because there are consequences.”

—Lisa Robertson, Nilling.

I turned to the internet after my brother died.

The call came while I was putting on my makeup at the kitchen table. I watched my husband’s face drain of blood. I heard him say “Are you serious?” in a tone I’d never heard before, can’t articulate, and hope never to hear again. He hung up the phone. He told me to sit down.

That day passed in a haze of shock, vomiting and Ativan. Thank god for the Ativan.

Some time later that night, numb, medicated, breathing shallowly, unable to eat or keep down food,  I sat down and created a WordPress site. The first post that I wrote included the following text:

My name is Nikki Reimer. I was an only child for six years.

My beautiful, talented, sweet, smart, amazing, lovely, handsome, wonderful brother died in his sleep at the age of 26.

This is for him.

I used a quotation from the book The Outsiders as the site tag line: Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. I chose the quotation not remembering that the band that had hired Chris as their touring guitarist throughout 2011, The Dodos, had taken to calling him “Pony.” I then uploaded six photos of Chris taken in 2010, drank enough vodka to become completely anesthetized, and went to bed.

I’m not sure what drew me to the Internet. Shock is a protective mechanism; it keeps the mind from having to process too much all at once. I stayed in shock for a long time, and while I was there I spewed my emotions all over Facebook and Twitter, neither thinking nor caring about the effects my emotional vomit might have on readers, friends, and strangers.

Most responses to my online grieving were supportive and compassionate. A community of friends and artists held me up through their words, their books, songs, poems, cookies, candles and collages mailed from all across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. I met and grew close to people who had also lost people suddenly and tragically, or who had also lost siblings early in their lives.

One poet wrote her condolences to me on Facebook, and added, “If it was one of my siblings, I don’t think I would ever stop screaming.”

I thought of her comment many times over the first twelve months, because I never did stop screaming.

Every day over that first year, I screamed. I wailed, sobbed, and tore out my hair. Chris’ girlfriend and I both started Tumblr grief blogs into which we still pour our pain every hour, every day, every week. I picked Twitter fights with strangers. Considered suicide. Committed Facebook suicide.

After one such public flame-out—I’d renamed myself “Bag of Dicks Reimer” on Facebook and changed my profile picture to an unknown woman ugly-crying—my husband, compassionate but firm, suggested that I was spending all my time inside the internet because I was trying to find my brother. That it was time to put down the iPhone.

He had a point.

However, I kept searching, I kept screaming, and I kept writing. Very gradually, this frantic activity ceased to be simply an expression of emotional distress—what the grief experts call “searching behaviour”—and started evolving into a digital, extended elegiac project. I wrote prose poems for Chris, then collaged images, then sound pieces. And then I created an interactive website hosting a series of multimedia pieces that combine my work and his: Let’s Improvise a Bone Graft.

tumblr_m121gy5ASD1qacmb1o1_500But before that: I was posting on Tumblr. I posted the 19 minute ambient track released by his label, Flemish Eye. I posted a green St. Patrick’s Day milkshake: “Wish you were here.” I posted a photo of the obituary I wrote for a local music monthly: “I did this for you because I love you. But I never fucking wanted to have to do this for you.” I posted songs he liked, reblogged fan and friend reactions to his death. I posted a screenshot of a Skype call with our parents: Mom’s forehead in shadow, Dad’s blue eyes deep navy with sorrow. I posted quotes I found on grief and the grieving process, and an acoustic cover an indie musician had done of Women’s “Black Rice.”

I posted from Vancouver, where I pined for my brother and the life we shared in Calgary. I posted while my husband and I packed up our apartment and loaded the U-Haul. I posted when we stopped in Kelowna, where I let some of my brother’s ashes go into the warm waters of Lake Okanagan, on the beach where we had played as children. I posted when we arrived in Calgary, while I sorted through boxes of childhood mementos. My first haircut. His first dance recital. A paper Valentine he made me when he was four.

Rifling through Chris’ bookshelf one day, I pick up a tattered copy of Ulysses I’d lent him. Out falls a postcard I’d sent him several years back: Robert Johnson with a hand on his guitar and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Moments like these feel like intratextual, metaphysical messages from beyond. I photograph my hand holding the book with the postcard inside, and it becomes part of Bone Graft. It also inspires another part of the project: a listing of some of the many musicians who died before the age of thirty. Their names and ages scroll up the screen over writing from Chris’ notebooks and a sound piece by me. It’s layer upon layer of memory and loss and object and rage and grief and love.

Now Chris can no longer be found physically anywhere, it is true.

His remains are shards of bone and ash in small memorial urns taken by his closest friends, and a larger urn that is heartbreakingly equal to the size and weight of a newborn baby, the size and weight he was when we brought him home from the hospital in 1986.

But another part of Chris, a part that is closer to his soul, continues to live, online, in the music that he wrote and played, in pictures and videos and interviews, in cached pages of the initial shocked responses to his death.

This online afterlife is somewhat ironic. Chris was deeply ambivalent about the internets, and self-promotion in general. He’d talked his best friend Marc into quitting Facebook several years ago. In the last months before he died, he’d mentioned to me that he was considering joining Zuckerberg’s empire in order to keep in touch with people he’d met on tour, but he never did.

This gives me pause, when I think of how public I have made my grief.

After he died, a small part of the internet briefly lit up with the news of his death. I would type his name into Google (piningly, searchingly), and the suggested search terms, in order, would be: “christopher reimer cause of death,” “christopher reimer women,” “christopher reimer death,” “christopher reimer pitchfork.” I screen-capped this search because it was so heart-stabbingly horrible; because it magnified the horror of the situation to me; because Chris had a minor indie-music level of notoriety, so of course when he died people would be curious, but also fuck you it’s none of your business; because I could hear Chris’ voice in my head, and the particular inflection his voice would take when he would say of something horrible,  “That’s horrible.” And that’s what I heard, when I looked at these algorithmic search term suggestions: “That’s horrible.” The image is now a part of the Bone Graft project, assembled together with lines from Roman poet Catallus’ elegiac dead brother poems.

I loved my brother with a fierceness that is not ashamed to stand howling and naked in the middle of the road, and what I miss is the material essence of him. The only thing in the world that I want, and can’t have, is my brother’s arms around my shoulders, his infectious laugh, his shit-eating grin, his middle finger pointed at me in response to sisterly teasing. His “jerkface!” in response to my “jackass!”

Instead, I am left with the objects and the digital artifacts that Chris left behind: half-soldered effects pedals and lead dust all over his bedroom. Unreleased ambient tracks on his computer. Pictures from tours. Funny drawings. Scraps of writing.

Chris and I always communicated through gifts and offerings of art passed back and forth. When we were children, he would co-star in all my overbearing older sister plays, his timing and ability to memorize his lines always perfect. When we were teens, we played a sort of word association game, building these post-modern tone poems: “Perspicacity.” “Perestroika.” “Muffin top.” “Piston engine.” We would never talk about things like this, we would just start them up spontaneously, riffing off each other’s energy.

After I moved away to Vancouver, I would send him books I thought he should read. He would gift back such creations as a mix CD with a hand-sewn brown kraft cover screen-printed with a collage of a map and our great-grandfather’s face, or a set of stickers made from his abstract sea creature drawings. When I moved out, I’d abandoned our Baba’s high school t-shirt, a white 1940s cotton short-sleeved tee with red ribbing at the sleeves and collar, and an insignia that said “Saskatoon Tech” over the breast. Chris took to wearing the shirt, which made me remember that it was awesome, so I wanted it back, and he’d always say, “nope.” So smug, eyes twinkling. “Nope.” Years after I stopped asking about that shirt, it turned up in my Christmas present.

The kid always had perfect timing.

After he died I leafed through the notebooks in his room and found a series of poems. My musician brother was writing. I was heartbroken all over again to find this because I’d never known that he was writing. Maybe he didn’t think he’d written anything good enough to show me, or good enough to show me yet, but these and other snippets of prose and poetry that he wrote have a spark of unpolished brilliance to them. And since it’s too late to tell him this, I’ve folded his prose fragments into the Bone Graft project, collaged against my textual or audio responses.

amplifiercircuitMy project is extended, circular and labyrinthine. It is an electronic elegy that I do not believe could be a book, because a book is too linear. I need it to resist closure. Death is final, sure, fine, but in grief there is no such thing as closure. There is ebb and flow of emotion, and there is learning to live with the gaping wound, but there is no close. The acute distress does ease with time, and you might emerge stronger from having lived through the loss, but that doesn’t mean you are ever ok with it. A cousin asked me if I had closure the day we had my brother cremated, and I almost punched him in the face. I might still punch him in the face, if the mood strikes.

I live within a morphing, evolving digital grief, and so I am writing a morphing, evolving digital lament. I am seeking out possibilities for circuitous routing. I am searching for electrical feedback. I continue creating in order to continue living with the absence.

Though my brother is dead, I continue to follow the pictures he posts. I continue to respond to his text messages. And I hope against reason that wherever he is now, something I’ve created might slip like a postcard out of the pages, into his lap.

Nikki Reimer’s first book of poetry, [sic] (Frontenac House 2010), was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She has published three chapbooks: that stays news (Nomados Press 2011), haute action material (Heavy Industries 2011) and fist things first (Wrinkle Press 2009). Poetry, artwork, and criticism have appeared in various places, online and off. A second poetry manuscript is forthcoming in 2014. Reimer recently attended the In(ter)ventions Residency at the Banff Centre. She currently lives in Calgary, where she is a director of the Chris Reimer Legacy Fund Society. Visit More from this author →