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Monday, August 22, 2011

Thoughts of my brother, on hearing Romeo and Juliet

This morning, as I drove home from errands, music from the soundtrack to Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet came up on my iPod. I suspect that many people get teary when they hear this music: because of the sad story with which it is associated, because of their own lost loves, or because the music is intrinsically poignant. I have another reason: I hear the music and think of my brother.

David was a brilliant pianist. When he was young, when people still expected achievement from him, many thought he would have a career in music. He did some composing, mostly freeform and improvisational, but it was the way he played that hit people hardest. He was always unabashedly emotional, a thorough romantic, and his music was that in spades. I especially loved to hear him play Romeo and Juliet. It was the perfect marriage of music and musician. One of many tragedies concerning my brother is that there are no good recordings of his playing. The only one ever made was destroyed in a fire, about two months before he died.

I expected to outlive my brother. He was older. He was mentally ill for most of his life. He sometimes cut off all contact with me or our parents or both, for months or years at a time. He was often unable to work; he lived largely on disability and assistance from our parents. His judgment of other people was unreliable and led him into strange and potentially perilous associations. In his youth, he used many recreational drugs in various combinations; later, he took psychotropic prescription drugs whose side effects needed close monitoring. I would not have been surprised if he died of those side effects, or were found dead on the street, or simply disappeared without word or return.

What I didn't expect was that he would die of lung cancer. It shouldn't have surprised me: he was a heavy smoker for decades, almost a chain smoker. I would have had more warning if he had told me, when his beloved cat died, that she died of lung cancer.

We were close as children. Our relationship changed forever when, in his days as an evangelist for drug use, he gave me an "Alice B. Toklas" brownie and lied to me about its contents. I ate little of the brownie, and it had no effect on me, but the lie destroyed something between us. As he grew older and stranger, I learned to distance myself from him and from his troubles. When he jumped off a building in case he could fly, and broke his neck, I visited the hospital and wrote a poem about the leaves in his hair, but I was neither desolate nor terrified. I was relieved at his full recovery, but not deeply thankful. I followed subsequent hospitalizations, relocations and adventures with little emotion or engagement.

David was a paradoxical combination of generosity and need, egoism and selflessness. He was a wonderful friend to some; he was a heartbreaking disappointment to others, including the woman to whom he was briefly engaged. He escaped his own problems by helping others with theirs. I, by contrast, became cautious in exposing myself to the needs of others. When David had money, he lent it to near-strangers or gave away the things he had bought with it; then he would need rescuing to pay the rent or buy his medicines. My parents did the rescuing, often with strings attached that twisted and almost strangled their relationship. To avoid such unintended consequences, and to protect myself and later my own family, I made a vow never to lend him money. He only asked once.

After I moved from California to Indiana, he came for one visit. He met my older daughter when she was two or three. It was the only time he saw her.

We spoke on the phone rarely. In his latter years, he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome. I never knew when he would be resting. It was a good excuse not to call. If I called, I never knew whether he would be irrational, or hard to understand, or querulous, or demanding -- or my loving big brother, my only sibling, sharer of my childhood. Often, I didn't take the chance of finding out.

After his diagnosis, we spoke more often. I thought of addressing the unfinished business between us, the old hurts, and decided against it. There was no ongoing problem to solve, little to gain. We chatted about little things; we talked about my children. I am no singer, but sometimes I sang to him over the phone -- lullabies, folk songs, anything soothing. He was lavishly appreciative.

My younger daughter wanted to meet her uncle while she could. She and I went to visit him in Palo Alto, California in April 2005, just after she turned nine. They bonded immediately. She doesn't play the piano, but they played duets together. They made silly noises together. She is a dancer, and she danced for him, and he delighted in her. On this same visit, I read him some of my picture book manuscripts; he praised them. We dredged up memories from the years we had lived together. Just before we left, we celebrated Passover, in the lovely little yard outside his small cluttered apartment. And we heard him play Romeo and Juliet -- the first time for my daughter, the last time for me.

We planned to come again in June. But before we could, a fire in his apartment -- possibly from a cigarette, possibly from bad wiring -- destroyed the apartment and most of his possessions. He was found wandering in the street, incoherent. His health declined rapidly from that day on, and he died in June, hours after my daughter graduated from 3rd grade. My parents, both my daughters, and I came to Palo Alto in June for a memorial service with his friends.

We got our first dog that September. We named her Davida, which not everyone in the family thought appropriate. It turned out to make sense, in a way. David and I had both liked walking at night; we were less awkward, most relaxed and loving with each other, on such walks. Now, I had a reason to walk at night, every night.

Sometimes I talk to Davida about my brother as we walk and pause and walk again through our quiet neighborhood.

And every time I hear the music from Romeo and Juliet, I tear up, and I cherish every note.

3 comments:

Judith Newton said...

This is beautiful, Karen!

Danusha Goska said...

very hard to read. I think you should try to publish it if you haven't already. It's excellently written.

My heart goes out to you. Don't let it make you any sadder than necessary.

Sam said...

((hug))