Elegy to a brother, part 5 – hummingbird

[This is the fifth in 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 remembering and lamenting is what’s supposed to be happening here. But there seems to be less lamenting and more healing in my heart with each installment.]

On the day of Mark’s funeral, the sun is shining and the air is warm. We get to be outside at the cemetery for the service, and this is much better than a stale-aired in-door experience. It feels casual, like Mark would have preferred, and Mother Earth is coming through with a beautiful day.

Our eldest brother Ted shows up in shorts. I mock him for this, but he has the right answer: they’re nice shorts, and it’s really hot today, and Mark would prefer everyone to be comfortable. Mark was the consummate slob and, as far as I could discern, did not care in the slightest about decorum and formality.


Mark dropped a million balls in his human life, but he rarely let down the little creatures of earth he decided to care for. The hummingbirds who resided in the trees in Mom’s yard made his list. He kept hummingbird feeders on the patio, and they were always properly stocked. He would sit outside in the mornings, contemplative, often stoned, and make observations. The hummingbirds were very important to him.

He observed the neighborhood hummingbird patterns with curiosity and childhood wonder. He knew where they lived, which trees they descended from to visit the feeders. There were several different breeds that frequented the feeders, Mark explained. They took turns, in a particular order and at different times of day, like a timeshare. He liked that they shared instead of arguing and battling all the time.

Occasionally, I would be outside at the right times to observe some of the action. Watching the wee blurred figures — flitting around too fast to see clearly for more than a split-second at a time — I could understand Mark’s love for them. They lived ephemerally, grateful for what was given, not greedy in their behaviors, too flighty to stick around for any attachment, little puffs of whimsy.

More than a bit like Mark.


The funeral service is what it is. There are Korean pastors (did they speak any Korean? I can’t remember). There are prayers and readings, there is some form of sermon. There is eulogizing by brother Eric. There is an unscheduled, pretty bizarre, and overly-long share by Mark’s friend and fellow pot-grower J-. Is there singing? I don’t remember, but probably.

I’m sitting in the front row of seats next to Mom, holding hands, sniffling, trying to remember that my dress is short so I need to keep my knees together and sideways on this uncomfortable folding chair. She hasn’t been able to shed eye tears since her stroke, but her bitter sorrow is weeping from every cell of her body. I remember that at some point I’m sitting next to Eric too, and he’s also suffering badly, but was he between me and Mom or on my other side? I simply can’t place the order of things, it’s all muddled in my head. My memory is a mosaic, not a line.

But I think that doesn’t matter, as I sit here more than two years later. I’m beginning to understand that what matters is the mythology we build as we rescue ourselves and each other from the moments of deepest grief, a combination of actual facts and wishful thinking. Technical accuracy isn’t important.

And so this one true thing happens as I sit uncomfortably in the front row of chairs on the cemetery lawn, trying not to get bored or distracted or irritated by ritual banalities, keeping my knees together so folks won’t see my underpants:

A perfect red-headed hummingbird flies up to the floral wreath sitting on the easel next to the speaker dais. It stays for much longer than a hummingbird should.

It is a moment of pure, breathtaking magic.

I gasp. Eric startles. We look at each other in wonder and actually smile.

Maybe it’s just coincidence. Or maybe hummingbirds are everywhere all the time and I just never notice, except today I’m under duress and everything is pouring into my perception because lots of crazy chemical things are happening in my body. Maybe the whole of life on earth is an empty, chaotic anarchy with no meaning at all.

But that won’t do.

The mythology begins to spin up in an instant. Mark’s spirit send the bird. Mother Earth sent it to say goodbye to him. It’s Mark himself, come to tell us he’s okay – a parting gift from my fay, sweet, gone brother.

I can shape the myth any way I like. Whatever myth I choose, I see that there is a piece of what made Mark beautiful in it, and there’s as much joy as there is grief in that.

Elegy to a brother, part 4 – weed(s)

[This is the fourth in 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 remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward, and perhaps some odd humor in this episode.]

Mark was a natural born gardener. He loved to grow edible things: tomatoes, cantaloupes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans, cucumbers, marijuana.

He kept gardens at my mom’s house and at one of her rental properties, where his friend J– was a tenant. He was devoted to his plants with a wonder and joy that infected me. He watered, fertilized, even occasionally weeded. He loved bringing vegetables into the house for mom and sharing them with others. Mom would give his beautiful vegetables to church members and neighbors, proudly bragging that her son had grown them. He’d get on the phone with me and go on and on about his plants and his harvests, the excellent pickles Mom had made, the delicious salsa J– made.

If I was in town at the right time of year, he and I would head over to the local nursery and buy seedlings for him to plant. When I built and established our own vegetable boxes out front, early in the pandemic, I thought of him as we filled the boxes with soil and chose the plants to grow. I didn’t know how much the simple pleasure of growing and harvesting vegetables in my yard was connected to him, until he was gone.


There’s a quirky issue I decide to deal with while we’re in Stockton for Mark’s funeral: all the marijuana.

Mark has collected 6 or 7 plants in large black plastic nursery pots. I think only three of those are legal. There are rules and limits in California for how many plants a non-dealer can have. Based on my experience with Mark’s poor decision-making, I am certain he has exceeded those rules and limits. Mark also has a couple plants in the ground, among the vegetables. Having weed in the ground in a personal residence is definitely illegal, as far as I know.

I infer from the placement of the in-ground plants that Mark has been tactical. The bigger of the two plants towers at about 7 feet tall, its diameter exceeding my 5-foot wingspan significantly. It is magnificent, and it’s also begging for a police visit. But he’s got it next to the pole beans, which tower even higher and wider in a dense, thriving thatch that makes it nearly impossible to spy the weed from the road.

Well played, Mark.

What I can’t fathom is how Mom has never noticed. The scent alone is unmistakable. Then again, maybe she did notice but simply admitted defeat.


Mark used to sit outside at night in the darkness on Mom’s patio, surrounded by his pack of semi-feral dogs, smoking and playing poker on his phone. When we were in town, Anthony and I would frequently join him. We haven’t smoked anything in decades, but we would bring out our drinks and catch the fresh air, talk a bit. During one of these moments, Mark chattered happily about his pot plants, in his superficially cheerful way. They were growing well, the buds were going to form up soon, these were special cultivars that were intended for a certain type of high, he could only have this many or that many, these pots were the right size, he had a couple extra over what the law allowed but that was okay, if he got the good harvest he expected he’d be able to share with friends, he promised he wouldn’t sell any and get arrested, he told mom they were tomato plants.

Hold on now.

You told her what?

Yeah, he laughed. She asked what they were, and I told her they were tomato plants.

I was filled with dissonance. Mark was caregiver to Mom. He wished her well. How could he lie to her like this, possibly endanger her with the law by having too many pot plants on her property? He relied entirely on her for income, room, board, clothing, basic needs, everything. What was he thinking?

I always struggled to find my way through my feelings, in moments like this. I was angry at Mark for the selfishness of the situation, and yet I also knew him not to be selfish. Maybe addiction played a role, but it felt like more than that. He had been a crank dealer early in his adulthood, and maybe he was a little too comfortable with the idea of making a bit of side money that didn’t come from Mom. Maybe he was compelled to do risky things as a sort of middle finger to Mom. Maybe growing excessive quantities of pot brought him a gardener’s happiness. Maybe he liked having gifts for friends. Maybe he was just a walking sack of unadulterated impulsivity and nihilism.

Where I inevitably ended up was, maybe he deserved my compassion and acceptance, because his life was pretty shitty. Maybe all those unanswered needs swirling around his mental health, all the stigma attached to his life’s journey, all his failures and stumbles and falls, all his loneliness… Maybe all of it felt a little further away when he looked at a bunch of thriving weed next to the beans and zucchini.

The next day, I sat outside with Mom and Anthony in the morning, enjoying the patio’s warmth. We were all facing the array of potted plants.

Mom remarked, “Mark is growing those tomato plants, but there are no tomatoes coming in.” She looked puzzled.

Anthony and I glanced at each other and tried not to laugh. Anthony commented dryly and quietly, “Those aren’t tomato plants.”

Mom was oddly firm in her reply. “Yes they are. Mark said so.”


As the funeral day approaches, there are in fact authentic tomato plants in Mom’s vegetable bed, and they are in fact bearing fruit. I’m going to leave those of course, but Anthony and I decide to get rid of the false tomatoes for Mom’s sake. We dig the plants out and throw them street-side, roots and all, hoping someone will just take them and that the police won’t drive by at the wrong moment. The guy next door takes a couple of the pots of pot, and the remainder we give to Mark’s friend Doug. I think Doug ends up taking the dug-up plants too; he has to use his trailer to fit them. It’s a bonanza.

Later on, I stand and stare down at the hole left in the vegetable garden, shaking my head and trying not to turn it into a banal metaphor for the hole Mark’s death will leave in my life. I pick green beans and tomatoes and zucchinis, all planted and watered by Mark in the months before he collapsed. There are so many that we’ll never be able to eat them all, but I don’t know how to leave them on the plants to wither and die.

I carry piles of vegetables into the house. Mom and I marvel at the bounty Mark has left behind.

Elegy to a brother, part 3 – re-arranging

This is the third in 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 remembering and lamenting is what’s happening here. Onward.]

Preparing for a funeral is an odd business, especially in the COVID era. There are no vaccines yet, and we have no idea how any of this is going to go. Mark’s funeral has to be outside, and it can’t have very many attendees, and there will be no modern screen on which to stream photos, and scheduling it takes some time. But that is all in other people’s hands. The only thing I can add is empty whimsy. I do this by putting together a couple foam-board photo displays and ordering flowers.

The photo foam-boards are very low-rez, low-tech, and low-skill. Before we leave Wisconsin, I rifle through my physical photos and grab a random assortment of old Mark pics. I spend a bit of time on my computer and print some more recent pics onto regular paper, because that’s all I’ve got. I throw that all into an envelope and the envelope disappears into the cavernous rented minivan. In Stockton, I buy a couple poster-size foam boards and I use a glue stick to stick photos on them. I hand-write some words – birth date, death date, brother, friend, son, that sort of thing.

I get Mark’s birthday wrong but no one even notices until after the funeral.

It’s not well done, but it’s done well enough. Mark would appreciate the effort and laugh, I think.


Many many years ago, while I was still practicing law and experiencing unholy levels of stress and anxiety, I did a lot of knitting. It was neurotic and intense, of course. I made original-design Irish fisherman sweaters covered in extreme cabling for Anthony and lace blankets for various babies, working from a couple encyclopedic book collections of stitches. Once I made Anthony a sweater out of a gorgeous nubby grey-brown wool, but the dimensions didn’t come out quite right for him. I took it with me to California that Christmas and offered it to Mark.He put it on. The sweater didn’t reach the top of his pants, and the arms went halfway down his hands. But he claimed he loved it. I sort of believed him.

Eventually, Mark admitted to me that he wore the sweater occasionally as a novelty. He would put it on when friends were over. He demonstrated for me.

“Do you like this sweater? My sister knitted it.”

<A perfectly timed pause as he looks down and takes in the overlong arms and short torso:>

“She’s a lawyer.”


In addition to the photo posters, I remember to order funeral flowers. I go to FTD.com and look through the funeral wreaths. I want to get one of those big ones that sit on an easel. But as I stare at the bleached-out white-flower samples, I just can’t. It’s all so blank and cold. Through the computer screen I can practically smell the stink of lilies, the stench of death rites. If I get one of these wreaths, I’ll feel it grimly judging Mark and me and all of us. Mark deserves something more joyful and glorious to send him off. He doesn’t need to be judged anymore.


Back in 2001, there were a lot of flowers at my dad’s funeral, and a lot of flowers were delivered to mom’s house as well.

I didn’t understand the scope of it until Anthony and I went over to Mark’s house a couple days after the funeral. We walked into a sort of wonderland. Mark had taken home as many of the funeral flowers as he could. He disassembled them and filled every vase, bowl, and glass, every flower-capable vessel in his house, with his own re-arrangements of flowers, large and small. Every table and shelf was covered in flowers, hundreds of flowers, no exaggeration.

I don’t think Mark was using crank at that point in his life, but he might as well have been. He was buzzing, mentally and physically, like a bee in the heart of summer. He pottered about the rooms in a nervous fuss, describing what he was thinking about with the arrangements, adjusting flowers, moving containers from here to there, checking the water, describing to us his artistic thinking and decisions. This flower here because its color goes with that flower; this blue arrangement, this yellow arrangement, these tall, those short.

I thought it was a very beautiful and very, very strange way to cope with the grief of watching his father die.


The flowers for Mark’s funeral have become weirdly important to me too. After spending unreasonable amounts of time making a decision, I order a multi-colored easel wreath through FTD.com, to be delivered to the cemetery.

When I get to the funeral site, under a small tent on the lawn at the cemetery, the wreath has already been delivered. It’s huge and fantastic and colorful. There it sits, monolithic and perfect next to my sorry-ass foam board photo displays.

The humans at the funeral look at each other meaningfully and cringe through the awkward moments and touch each other for support and cry and hug and breath. The wreath does not care.

After the funeral, the wreath heads on to Mom’s house, where it gets set up poolside. I finally take a closer look at it and see there’s a card. I open the card.

It’s not my wreath.

This enormous, gorgeous, rainbow wreath has been sent by a thoughtful cousin who lives in Seattle. My $300 wreath has not arrived. Damn. But apparently, I’m not the only one who understood we shouldn’t say good bye to Mark in all-white flora. So that’s good.

I call the local florist and there’s been a mixup. She thought the funeral was tomorrow. There is sadness in her voice. I know what Mark would do, and it’s the same as what I do: I tell her to send the wreath over to Mom’s house. We can enjoy it poolside along with the cousin’s wreath.

My wreath arrives on its easel a few hours later. It’s beautiful and colorful and all the right things, inane and whimsical and I don’t know why we do so much with flowers when a person dies. Why? Why cut a bunch of beautiful living things off from their mother plant and send them to people grieving for a death, just so we can watch more things wilt and die? Why can’t we do something more permanent, more… alive?


A couple weeks ago, for about 20 seconds Mark was still alive. Sometimes this happens with me, and then I have to say goodbye to him anew. This is how I remember the most recent round, through the hurricane haze of emotions:

I was going somewhere or coming from somewhere, in the car. I pulled into wherever I was landing. I was thinking about all sorts of things in my racing-thoughts way and a thing came into my mind that made me chuckle and roll my eyes. I reached for my phone, thinking, “oh this’ll make Mark laugh, I think I’ll give him a call.”

I had the phone in my hand before I realized there is no longer a Mark I can call. I experienced it physically, just exactly like I’d been punched lightly in the gut. My shoulders hunched and I bent forward a little, and my breath left me in a small puff. I put the phone back down and tried to re-arrange my mind to reality. When I succeeded, I wept for a little while and then carried on.