[This is the first in what will be a series of not-stand-alone posts about my brother Mark’s death, which occurred on Sunday, August 2, 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Long-running, self-indulgent lamenting is what we’re talking about here, with a loose idea of building this lament in elegiac past/present prose couplets as a meaningless and misguided nod to meaningless classical forms. Because I think this last bit would have made Mark laugh at me, in wry puzzlement and love.]
It’s a Sunday evening in the summer of 2020, in the heart of the COVID pandemic. I’ve called my mom because I’ve just gotten word from my brother Ted: my brother Mark, who lives with and looks after mom, is being rushed to the hospital after collapsing. I need to find out what hospital Mark’s being taken to.
Mom responds to my query with clarity: he’s not going to the hospital, Carla.
“He died.” She blurts the two words out in a gasping whisper. Her voice is so quiet I can barely hear it. Mark died, he’s right here, he collapsed in the kitchen and I couldn’t wake him up. He was warm and then he got cold, the paramedics tried to wake him up but they couldn’t.
“Oh no oh no oh no.” I hear the words but don’t quite know that my own body is speaking. I gag as I push down sobs and the crushing feeling I remember from 19 years earlier.
In 2001, two days after 9/11 and on my birthday, my dad died. He had endured an emergency heart surgery and several weeks in the ICU. Mark hated seeing him that way, suffering and hooked into a phalanx of machines in a corporate complex full of strangers, wires and tubes and whirring and beeping and everything that isn’t human and home. When dad finally experienced full systems crash, Mom and Mark rushed to the hospital and quickly signed whatever needed signing to remove life support, and sat with dad while he took his last breaths.
A few moments later, Mark called me from the bathroom in dad’s hospital room, where he had taken refuge from whatever weird things mom and an uncle were doing. I thought he was calling to wish me a happy birthday, but no. When I finally understood the message he was delivering, grief engulfed me with heaving animal noises. Mark waited me out peacably. For years after, he would remark on my reaction with what seemed like bemused wonder. It always surprised me that he recalled it so clearly, through the filter of his own loss in that moment. He would mention it, shake his head, and laugh ruefully. “Dude, that sucks that dad died on your birthday. That just sucks.”
These memories flick through me in a heartbeat, 19 years later. I know I have to be present and calm for mom, because she’s more than 2000 miles away, an old woman in her house with her son’s dead body, paramedics doing paramedic things, her closest family more than an hour away. So I push it down.
Mark showed me the way. I’ve got this.
Mom and I manage a moment of shocked, shared grief, and then we agree that I need to call Ted and Eric, my alive brothers who think Mark is still alive. I hang up and gather myself, sitting alone in my bedroom, leaning into the corner of the house so I don’t fall down. I know Anthony and the kids can hear me from downstairs, I know that they know something is terribly wrong. I heave with sobs for a few minutes, breathe deeply and slowly in the way years of therapy have taught me, and successfully avoid vomiting. I push it all down and wipe my face off.
My mind is racing as I make my first call to Eric, who is just 14 months younger than Mark. Eric and Mark are tight. I’m remembering how hard it was for Mark to get me to understand that dad had died, how much that frustrated him; and so I won’t be using euphemisms like “gone” and “passed” and “at peace.” I have to get the message through quickly, like a Deacon Jones head slap off the line.
Eric answers the phone and busily lets me know he’s busy getting ready to go down to Stockton for Mark and mom, and I think he asks me about hospitals. I can’t remember all the words, because I’m pushing so much down emotionally. I think I ask him if he’s in a safe place so that we can talk, and then I tell him. Mark isn’t going to a hospital. He died.
Mark is dead. He died. He’s in mom’s house right now, in the kitchen.
Eric breaks into feral, grunting sounds, animal noises of suffering grief that I recognize. As my heart shatters for him, I finally understand Mark’s remarks through the past two decades, about my own reaction to the news that dad died. It wasn’t bemusement Mark felt. It was responsibility – for a moment when he caused me so much pain. I hold onto that connection and it calms me. Mark did so many hard things. I can do hard things too. I need to cause another brother pain now.
I call Ted next. He’s on the road to Stockton already, still believing Mark is alive and en route to a hospital. I deliver the news. His grief expresses itself quietly, like a shift in the breeze, a whisper; but it’s still a sledgehammer. He pulls over to the side of the road.
I keep pushing it all down, and we get to the practical business of dealing with the messy fact that Mark is lying dead in Mom’s house.
I loved living in Seoul, Korea as a little girl. It was a vibrant, third-world urban mess with family and a grandma who doted on me. I hated living in Stockton, California, where we moved when I was 10. I never felt like I fit in there, and I was very lonely. Life was complicated because of my parents’ volatile marriage, financial insecurities, and sibling challenges. Belatedly, I see that racism also played a heavy hand in my youthful American experiences. So I went across the country to college, and other than a brief year after getting my undergraduate degree, I left California and never looked back.
If I was the prodigal daughter, running as far away as I could, Mark was the son who stayed. Stockton was the place for him, near my mom and dad and his childhood friends.
With Ted, Eric and me in more distant locales — I the furthest away — Mark carried on best he could with the increasing obligations of caring for aging parents.
Mark visited dad every day in hospital at the end.
When mom had a stroke some years after, Mark was the one her husband John called. Mark called 911, got her to the hospital, tended her through her recovery, managed her medications and doctors and therapists.
When mom fell out of bed and broke her hip, and John was too out of it to know what to do, Mark was the one who figured out something was wrong and, once again, called 911, got mom to the hospital, took her through another long recovery.
Mark was the one mom called when John died in mom’s home — the same home where Mark would die. Mark gave John CPR until the paramedics arrived, though the effort could not save John’s life anymore than the EMTs could safe Mark’s.
Mark was the one who moved in with Mom after John’s death, because Mom couldn’t successfully live alone anymore.
When mom was hospitalized for two or more weeks during the pandemic for fluid around her heart and lungs, Mark would drive to the hospital every day and just sit outside by the entrance. He wasn’t allowed in, of course. When I asked one day why he went there anyway, he replied, “I don’t know. Maybe I can get in today. I need to be here.”
Mark wasn’t perfect and he dropped balls and he had lifelong addiction issues. But he was always there. The rest of us came when we could, and left when we needed to. Mark’s world was with dad and then John and always mom, in a cycle of co-dependency. It was a burden and journey that I imagine broke his heart.
Back in Stockton, Mom’s at home with her dead son and a couple paramedics, and Ted is still more than an hour out.
A paramedic has told me they’re going to leave before the coroner’s office gets there, so mom will be alone with Mark’s body and needs to not touch it. I try not to lash out as I explain the obvious to him: you can’t leave an elderly mother alone in a house with her dead son and expect her to leave his body alone! What are you thinking?
I make some calls, Eric makes some calls, we start working all the things out. I ask my alive brothers to please drive safely. I can only lose one tonight.
For decades, Mark has been the one who navigated with mom through the impossible moments. Who will do it now?