Death is a mystery , and burial is a secret . —Stephen King
February burials in Buffalo are brutal. Shovels are useless; they can’t strike into the frozen-solid ground. A tractor’s backhoe hollowed a rectangular patch for my brother. Nobody wanted his remains to be placed in cold storage till spring when Earth thawed. Everything needed burying without delay. A prolonged farewell would have ravaged everyone, especially Dad.
Dead brother, my eldest sibling, left home right after high school to live on his own. For him, college was never in the cards. Dad helped him get a job on an automotive assembly line and by twenty-one, he was married, divorced, a father of an infant son, and dead. Research theorizes that growing up in a household of domestic violence makes children more susceptible to suicide. Our lineage includes a stockpile of abuses.
For a time, our home life had pastel shades of darling domesticity. A playful bucking horse and a pony trotted about our enclosed pasture kicking up their heels. During the holidays, our family walked the neighborhood, house to house, holding flashlights as we sang Christmas carols. There were vacations to Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland.
A murder-suicide plot was scripted into dead brother’s suicide letters. His mind was muddied with a Romeo and Juliet fantasy— of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep . A blueprint had been drawn of the burial plots he’d planned for himself and his ex. I learned those savage details, enshrined in secrecy, because I was a shadow on the wall listening to whispers. Did he want his misery to end in martyrdom? My fear of him when he was alive had been authenticated.
A birthday card was found addressed to me. Confusion existed because his seventeen-year-old ex-wife and I shared first and last names. The childish card, adorned with balloons, was held for a time by the police as evidence, then kept by my parents for sentimental reasons. Months later, it was consigned to me. It paired his suicide with my turning fifteen.
The crisp evening two cops pulled into our long blacktopped driveway, I heard their static, crackling walkie-talkies. I saw a moonlit tree in the distance, its bare branches casting a shadow of deformed fingers. In our pajamas, my parents and I stood together as the lead officer spoke. She (meaning me) should probably leave the room . I didn’t budge. Dad didn’t flinch. Whatever you have to say to us you can say in front of her.
Your son has been found dead.
As Dad reached for his car keys, one of the officers countered Jack, there’s no need to identify the body. Little was left of him.
There are four stages of human decomposition: Stage one, commencing immediately, is self-digestion, autolysis. During stage two, the body bloats and putrefaction kicks in, alarming neighbors who complain about a foul odor. Stage three activates decay wherein tissue decomposes and the cadaver loses the most mass. Stage four advances to skeletonization, and pairs with a children’s song : The foot bones connect to the shin bones, the thigh bones connect to the hip bones . . .
Dad again reached for his keys and one of the officers stopped him cold by responding His body was found when neighbors complained of a foul odor .
I ran to my bedroom, closed the door, and crawled under the covers. Dad tapped the door, entered, and sat at the edge of my bed. I held my breath, pretending to be asleep. I placed blame on my parents for the constant fighting that birthed a household of frightful tension. Dad’s words collapsed into guttural sounds of sorrow. His ungodly wail frightened me, but couldn’t silence my thoughts. Why did you ever hit him?
At his wake, I wanted to feel something. What I felt was finality—as in gone and it was over. His death didn’t surprise me. The whites of his eyes had always shimmered with sadness and madness. Even the dusting of freckles across the bridge of his nose expressed less beauty and more fragile defeat. I knew we’d lose him and when we did, I felt lightened. When I was seven he harmed me in a way that complicated my grief for him.
Dead brother’s favorite silk shirt hung, unharmed, on the back of a wooden chair. Three bullet holes to his head lurked as a nonsensical rumor. Some said he used a rifle, but a trio of slugs to the temple using a long-barreled musket is an impossible task. Firearm. That much I know to be true.
Unmoored, hunkered in an oversized fabric club chair, wanting to vanish, I sat outside the viewing room of my brother’s wake. His closed casket rested on a catafalque, a decorated raised stand. It was cold outside and the pinging and banging racket of the baseboard heater chorused with the refrain I’m so sorry for your loss. Seventies wall paneling paired perfectly with father’s polyester forest green leisure suit. For each sorry for your loss condolence, Dad’s baritone voice quavered thhh-ank, unable to complete a thank you.
Twenty minutes at the funeral home was all I could take. Without a coat, I walked a short distance to the Lemon Tree, a diner that served curly fries to classmates after basketball games and sold Swedish Fish candies by the piece. Every day, the same waitresses filled squirt bottles with ketchup and mustard and let us drizzle swirly patterns over our fries. Sometimes we’d get out of hand and spritz each other with condiments as they yelled at us to stop. Ice-cold Cokes quenched our thirsts and washed the saltiness from our palates. I wanted to feel normal, and not be the girl from that family.
Nobody expected me to enter the Lemon Tree. Stares fell around me as some of the customers may have been in mid-sentences of killed himself while others, listeners, visualized the chosen weapon— gun, rope or plastic for suffocation? My one job was to be in dutiful attendance at the wake. By breaking away I declared that I’m not one of them . However, my defiance registered as shock. Back then it was easy to ignore my determination, ambition.
I spotted a familiar face with suede-brown eyes, a girl who was nice to me in homeroom. She was at a table with three friends.I sat across from her. An offering of curly fries was pushed my way. It felt good to be there. Nervous laughter about something in gym class was shared and someone asked if I wanted a Coke. Seeing ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, and removing the thin, disposable paper from the straw—those tiny simple and normal things became my ballast of stability. It was then that I recalled how dead brother listened to Peter, Paul and Mary. Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet , b ut the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat. It was time to walk back.
The cold snap of the outdoors entwined with the feeling that time was frozen. It awakened me. I wanted to retain a detail, a keepsake, to honor the brief moment where memory begins. Above me were scatterings of birds on a telephone wire. Knowing the sightlines from their avian hangout spot were obstruction-free brought me comfort. Those small birds, perhaps chickadees, hadn’t migrated to the warmer weather. They survived by going into states of torpor, hibernation—when they slow down their heart rates, metabolism and body temperatures. They triumphed in the harshest winter months.
After my brother’s decomposed body was boxed and lowered into the ground, Mom went to a psychic. Go to church and light a candle for him, then go into a house where all the rooms are made of wood and enter left, turn and take another left, go straight and then make another turn. Do not make another left . . . devil. Make a right.
Mom drove to the church. The cathedral doors were closed at that time of night. She could have gone to the rectory but didn’t. She came home and entered the wooden rooms, took a left, another left, then went straight and right. The psychic’s directions landed Mom back into dead brother’s former bedroom. He left home at nineteen and the boyhood space had been emptied and repurposed. A folding table and chair converted the area into an office where I wrote stories and Mom paid bills. We had different ways of organizing our things, hers kept in various stacks and mine secured inside a single binder.
Mom visited the psychic again and was told not to look further into her son’s death. It’s too dangerous. A trio was involved with his murder—two policemen and another person. She consoled Mom for not lighting a church candle by telling her the intention to light the candle was what mattered. You had the intention.
I never told dead brother I loved him. My fear of him was too great. It’s doubtful we ever had a conversation beyond pass the pepper or pass the salt. At his wake I felt paralyzed. My stiff sibling body, containing motionless emotions, was not unlike a cadaver pulled from a freezer inside a stark, gray morgue.
So many people expected me to cry. I disappointed them. The husband of my horseback-riding instructor sat on the floor next to me. The angle at which he was sitting required him to look up at me. He sat there talking about stupid things, trying to make me laugh. Many times in the past when he watched me ride, his gaze had felt inappropriate. I finally laughed, not because he said anything funny, but because he seemed so damn dumb. Had he forgotten how he acted? Did this funeral parlor moment touch his heart? I just couldn’t take part in the proceedings.
Brother’s unidentified body is something I didn’t want to happen to me. Before he was discovered and viewed by strangers, then zipped inside a black body bag, toe-tagged and moved to an icebox, I imagined that his identity mattered, and held its own goodness.
explain it like i’m five , a website, states that coffins were once hexagon-shaped to accommodate larger bodies, broader shoulders, the crossing of the corpse’s arms, and the bloating caused by decay. Nobody could tell me what to feel about brother’s death—especially my parents, who always told me without further explanation: Stay out of your brother’s way. He’s a difficult kid. Leave your brother alone. On my own I learned what they might have meant. Bereavement doesn’t have a shape and won’t fit neatly into a box.
I adored my collection of stuffed animals lined up in rows according to size, wore children’s clothes patterned with zebras and giraffes until seventh grade, and turned seventeen before menstruating. Staying small was a means of protection.
Many years later at forty-six, another brother, my Irish twin, thanked me for numerous things I had done. Mom was newly dead, and Dad, four years later, would be lowered to the ground or sprinkled as ashes. Eldest brother’s death left me knotted, silent and separated from my family. Mom’s death ruptured me and broke my muteness. I spoke up. I yelled. The note of thanks came with kind counsel: I see your side and how hurt you are. I hope you see that I mean it, my thanks, and that I see your pain. I do not know if the pain you feel has made it impossible to see anyone else’s, or their points of view. For that I am sorry as well, as I do love you.
Most of my life, I couldn’t see past my pain. Nor had I spoken about it. Soon after the I-see-your-pain email, I filled out the forms to receive dead brother’s certificate of death. His death haunted me. Most of the details I had overheard from my parents or from another source I won’t name. I expected to read “three bullets to the head” written like a Dr. Seuss nursery rhyme. Would you like them here or there? Three bullets to the head? I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere.
Occupation : Production worker
Business or Industry : automobile
Name of firm or company : Chevy Mfg.
Veteran of U.S. Armed Forces : Marines
Date of death : 2/21/79
Found : 4:45pm
Age : 21 years
Immediate cause : Shotgun wound of chest
Specify if accident, homicide, suicide, undetermined, pending investigation : Suicide
Date of Injury : 2/7/79
Injury. Injury felt so right a word. Of all the strange words that appeared on the death certificate, it was injury that made me cry.