Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

(It is Valentine’s day. It is also my brother’s birthday, who passed away 3 years ago.)

Dear C-

I can hear the hiss of wet tire against wet road before I even get a chance to look out the window. It’s 6:01, and the morning is still black. (You were not a morning person. I am like Dad in that way).

I start my tea kettle and pour 1 Tbsp of loose green tea leaves into a strainer. You told me that coffee is good for you because it has high levels of anti-oxidants. I don’t care that you were a chemist, I still think you were trying to excuse the 3 liters of coffee you drank daily. I don’t have the nervous system for that.

The light coming from the streetlights through the kitchen window are wavy and smeared, and the red tail lights from a Mazda waiting at the stoplight are reflected 6 times on the asphalt below. Every light strung around the lake is echoed again in the air. Rain.

“Yay!” I let out a giggle. “I love it when it rains! Don’t you?” There is no one else in the kitchen. I pause at the fridge.

I’m headed back toward my bedroom to write, my sacred little cave with the mahogany desk that puzzle-pieces together, no screws, no glue, and perfectly matches my Japanese tatami mat bed—completely unintentional. I am very fond of these two pieces of furniture, which instantly felt familiar. They feel like remnants of a past life, and thus proof of reincarnation. We may go but we are not gone.

On the fridge are two photos of you and me. One is at your graduation from UC Davis. It’s what you would expect from a college graduation photo capturing two siblings. You’re standing upright, facing forward and decked out in graduation garb. A diploma is in your left hand, the right folded gently over. You have that soft, sure smile that comes with well-earned pride. I’m beaming more than I would have expected, my arm wrapped around your shoulders, the free hand pressed against your forearm. My head is nestled on your shoulder, leaning in. White, blue, red and gold balloons fill the background.

The other picture is from a few years earlier, although you’ve got the same blonde goatee and round “spectacles”, and I’ve got the same messy (and identically blonde) hair pulled back into a bun. I’ve got my arms wrapped tight around you, playfully squeezing as hard as I can. I’m looking at the camera with a dopey smile, content to have caught my oafish brother in my arms. You’re looking straight on, too, giving that faux-pained expression. You are not tolerating well this careless display of sisterly affection. The eucalyptus trees that would later be taken down about a year after your death fill the background.

These two photos are the only ones I have of you in my new apartment, the place where I’m steadily building a new life past your death. (You would like it. It’s very cozy. You’d walk in and make a loud joke about how it’s nicer than your place, and that I’m just trying to show you up.)

In both of these photos, I’m hugging (or trying to hug) you. It’s very clear to me that I adored you in an almost sloppy way. I was like a small puppy—the kind that always wants to play, constantly jumping up and yipping and insisting you match her with equal enthusiasm. But at some point the relentless energy and naivety of this demand for play would get on your nerves.

I am still that puppy.

You did, of course, adore me back. But you did what any brother must do with a younger sister who habitually insists on playing with his toys, hanging out with his friends, and wanting to be his sidekick.

You teased me.

Not to be deterred, I took this as instigation for more play! And in the spirit of our new game—as you were flicking my ears and pulling my hair—I made it a point to show you as much unfettered affection as humanly possible. (In fact, I remember the very moment the camera snapped that second picture, I was in the middle of delivering on my threat that if you pinched me one more time, I’d give you 5 hugs. I had to make a game out of hugging you, because you rarely let me.)

It’s strange. I’m turning 30 this year. You only made it to 31. I haven’t thought about how it will feel to pass you in age. I’ve never known being older than you…but I suppose one day I’ll find out what that’s like.

God damn it.

I miss you. I miss you deeply. I had no idea. Perhaps now more than ever, now that the shock and denial and anger and confusion are gone; now that I am past the milestone of the first year and the rebuilding of the second; now that I have let go of needing to coddle Mom and Dad (being the only child is foreign, how do I do it without being able to consult you?); now that I’ve learned how to coddle myself through the loss;

Now that I am beyond the soul-searching and why-asking and even past the grief work of crying and expressing and then making art out of my pain—

Hey! I wrote, performed and produced my own show! It’s about all this! You would have been so proud, so so proud, I just know it! You’d have been in the front row and said very little afterwards, but you’d be beaming even more than I would have expected, your arm wrapped around my shoulders, maybe your other hand pressed against my forearm. You’d touch your head just once to my shoulder, and lean in. You’d whisper very softly, for only me to hear, “I’m proud of my little sister”—

Now that it’s been 3 years; now, now, now that I finally arrive upon the doorstep of Acceptance—

I have nothing but missing to show for it.

I am still holding you, you know. Each little sentence I write pins small bits of you to the page. You have evaporated away from form, and your slow disintegration into memory is incense that disappears and settles into the air, on window sills, behind the furniture, mixing with dust. Not there, but there.

It’s nice to know that when we go, there’s not much left of us but a little bit of light and ash, which is felt.

§1203 · February 14, 2011 · Narrative, Over in Oakland, Unthinkable Loss · · [Print]

4 Comments to “Happy birthday! You are dead, but I wrote you this letter”

  1. Roya says:

    beautiful. I always think of Chris today. Love.

  2. Kathi DeJong says:

    We celebrated your birthday today, too, Chris. We put flowers on your bench in the rain and went out for sushi tonight, drinking a toast to our beautiful “Topher”. We all miss you. Mom and Dad.

  3. formerstudent says:

    I know everyone who was in Baby With The Bath Water and Antigone thinks about Chris everyday. I know I could never forgot how invested he was in those two productions and our lives. I like to think a small piece of him is in each of us that were lucky enough to be in his theater or chemistry class. Every time I hear “Damn that’s an ugly baby” I get a little tear.

  4. Shannon says:

    Thank you so much for posting this comment. It’s beyond touching to know that his students still think of him ~

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