[This is the second 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.]
I had plans to visit Mark and mom back in March of 2020, by myself. I had arranged the trip months earlier, before the COVID-19 pandemic blossomed. My intent was to take a short break from my own parenting responsibilities, going on 15 relentless years, and to provide some respite to Mark, who was surviving also-relentless years as mom’s caregiver. Mark had a couple heart attacks over the prior few years, and I could tell that he was emotionally bone-weary. He would often make comments about being okay with dying, being ready.
This was mildly terrifying.
I wanted to visit with Mark in person and offer some gratitude to him for the daily grind he put up with. I intended to give him some rest, and to spend some child-free time with him and mom. But the pandemic hit and no one knew what was going to happen. With mom’s age and Mark’s heart health, we couldn’t risk bringing the disease to them via air travel. (The first vaccines wouldn’t be available until late 2020.) After a brief discussion with Mark in February, I cancelled the trip.
About half an hour after learning of Mark’s death, some five months after the cancelled trip, I start mulling the bitter fact that coronavirus took away my last chance to see him alive, my last chance to hug him, sit with him in the yard looking at stars at night or watching hummingbirds in the morning, make a good meal for him, potter in his vegetable garden with him. Even worse, I start thinking about whether a week’s respite for him, back in March, might have changed the outcome I was staring at: my brother collapsing in sudden death on the kitchen floor, probably after dipping into crank despite the state of his heart.
Foolish to imagine I could have made a difference, but I’ve survived half a century fighting off the sense, in the manner of OCD, that I’m responsible for everyone and everything that goes wrong on earth. Even worse is the simple fact that I can’t remember my last conversation with Mark.
About that crank – not crack, but crank.
Meth, speed, ice, poor man’s coke. It was an addiction Mark faced off with for much of his adult life. When he was on it, he had what I called raccoon eyes, unnatural dark patches under his eyes that were a giveaway. I remember first noticing them at my wedding, then for some years they were gone, and then I saw them again the last couple times I visited him in person.
Meth is a really bad idea when you’ve had two heart attacks and need some repair work on your heart. Thus, I hypothesize that meth played a significant role in causing Mark’s death. But that’s a superficial, non-philosophical way of looking at this story. The more important questions are humanistic, not anatomical. Why did Mark turn to crank? Why did he struggle with addiction? Why would he use a drug that he knew could kill him?
In the last few years of his life (it’s still very hard for me to say that, so different from “recently”), Mark and I would dance around the subject of mental health. He was bound up by stigma, well-trained by my mom and our culture to evade the painful likelihood that depression, anxiety, stress, and maybe some other labels were in play whenever his life fell apart. I was walking a different path, following my daughter Jesse’s massive mental health challenges to a stuttering awakening about myself, my history of depression and anxiety and trauma, and my ongoing need for therapeutic supports. I didn’t know how to invite him to cross the bridge with me, without coming across as arrogant or bossy or smug.
I would occasionally ask Mark, as gently and indirectly as I could, whether he was doing okay emotionally. He would inevitably say, “I’m fine, I’m okay.” But he would yell at my mom over little things and then hate himself for it. He would pretend he was okay with his life, but I could see his self esteem was in the toilet. He lived a strange life, with a handful of half-feral rescued dogs to sleep with at night, fully dependent on my mom’s financial support. Instead of seeking the help of a therapist, maybe making some tough decisions to extract himself from a very unhealthy co-dependent living arrangement with my mom, I think he turned to crank. It was probably easier than the Herculean task of overcoming stigma and false shame. I wish I had been able to offer him a stronger hand to hold. I wish I could have smashed stigma for him, with him, before it was too late.
Mark’s death during a pandemic, 2000 miles away, has us in a pinch. COVID-19 has made common things like travel and funerals difficult. Air travel is not an option – there’s not a chance my kids are going to make it through a 5 hour flight, wearing masks, without personality-annihilating emotional and behavioral explosions.
But I have an extraordinary husband who resolves all the questions. Monday morning, less than a day after Mark has died, Anthony announces that we need to make the 30+ hour drive to California to be with my family and attend whatever funeral can be mounted under COVID strictures. We’ll eat out of coolers along the way and stay in clean, national-brand hotels with safety protocols that meet our standards.
By the end of the day Monday, we’ve made boarding arrangements for the dogs, set up caretaking visitations to our gardens and fish, packed, and rented a car.
We have to rent a larger car because we will gouge each others’ eyeballs out if we have to spend 30 hours in our little station wagon, over the course of just three days. Anthony exceeds my expectations, which are for an SUV of some sort. He comes home from the rental agency in an enormous minivan, with three rows of seats spaced so far apart that we can meet CDC social distancing guidelines in one vehicle. We fill available storage spaces with two coolers, one big suitcase, a bag of shoes, random sundries, pillows and blankets, 50 electronic devices and charging cords, and two Razor scooters.
The scooters are Jesse’s idea. There’s room for them, so we say yes instead of arguing.
I’d like to say the drive goes smoothly. But Jesse in a car for 30 hours in three days is impossible to describe, bordering on unbearable. It is a test for her and everyone around her. Verbal and physical tics, emotional jags, anger and fear and rage, sorrow for the loss of her uncle, cruelty and loneliness and desperate need are all bound up in one little volcanic wisp of a 15-year-old body. Add two exhausted and grief-filled parents and one pissed-off little brother, and it’s not pretty at times.
There is much yelling. Everyone feels awful afterwards.
Still… at some level, it does go smoothly. All eyeballs are accounted for by the time we reach Stockton, California. The scooters pay off, because the kids use them at longer rest stops to loosen up and get rid of some energy. We never get lost, and we find good hotel stops along the way. We drive through extraordinary western landscapes. The weather is good to us. We keep trying to get along.
It almost feels like a mini-vacation at times, though that fiction always fizzles for me. We’re on our way to bury my brother.