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Main | I Wouldn't Be Caught Dead In Black »

I Wouldn't Be Caught Dead In Black: Part Two 

At the City Winery June 23, I’ll be one of twelve writers, straight and LBGTQ, reading a personal essay commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Mine’s called “Original Thinkers.” As one of the participants in the Loft’s afternoon show, I’ll be allotted five minutes on stage, which is enforced by 650; the event’s producer. That number reflects the maximum word count permitted in each piece. Meaning, since I lose focus and I wish to submit, I’ve got to expeditiously get to my point. I wish myself luck.    

Thirty years ago, my brother Paul dies from AIDS. I’m wanting to write about him and our relationship. But I’ve been blocked, scared or lazy. I’m with him in the doctor’s office when he gets that diagnosis. I hear and simultaneously repel the information. It’s too much to bear. Our connection’s reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel.  We’re dependent upon each other for emotional support. When he goes, I predict I’ll remain an empty shell. He seems to know more about me than I do. That is until I see myself in Caroline Macfarlane’s twenty-minute documentary “Falling Forward.”  It’s title, my motto. I say: make all the mistakes you can. But make sure they're ones that move you onward.             

I put myself inside his apartment to get the feel. It’s March 11, 1989. I'm in the green-painted interior of what he calls his phone booth, which to an outsider would be a broom closet. But I adhere to the owner's vision. There at my ear, a yellow receiver plucked from the cradle of a yellow wall phone. It's his nurse informing me what I've guessed. I bang my forehead fast, three times against the narrow frame of the door. A masochistic gesture. I’m sure of it. But I’ve got to do something. My brother will be forever and always missing in action. I’ll be alone on the front, the survivor of what feels like a car wreck; his inert body atop a single bed inside the Harvard Infirmary is proof.

This past Monday, he puts himself there. For weeks, he's lacked energy to get himself up from a wheelchair, sporting 100 pounds on a 6-foot frame. He's stopped teaching at the Harvard School of Design and the Boston Architectural Center.  His light blue eyes with their yellow flecks now have a new hue. They're dark blue. Failed retina transplants.  He's blind. A visual art lover assigned to darkness. He wants out. I don't blame him a bit. Lucky are the ones who commandeer their final exit. But I’d fall on my knees and give a thousand thanks, if my supplication could add decades to his life.

On Wednesday, he's on a morphine drip. By Saturday morning, he’ll be dead. I dread what I must do next. Communicate this to my parents, who are of the mind, until recently, he'll get better. He tells them he's sick. But it's chagas, schistosomiasis and myocarditis; diseases he gets in Brazil in the Peace Corps. He fears the truth will make them ashamed of him. Our father will blame our mother for making him soft. Our mother will have an anxiety attack. Whereas, I see this as nonsense. Keep his secret unti I can't. And when I reveal it, I add this, “Write him a letter. He needs to know you love him."   

My mother answers the phone. I hit her over the head with this. “Paul will be dead Saturday.”  She asks, “What should daddy and I do?”  “Do whatever you want,” I say. Then I hang up. A better move than my natural instinct, yelling at her. Knowing what I'm dealing with are bachelors, both of them, who reproduce. Sitting on parental instincts, while remaining decent, honest, reliable folk.    

Friday night, I ask his doctor, “May I sleep in the extra bed?” He says, “Sure.”  Good. I'll be with, near, close to him when he issues his last breath. The exact reason why I change my mind. I don’t know if I have the stuff inside of me yet, to handle this and stay upright. Instead, I climb in and give him a hug. He screams, “Get out. You’re aggravating my shingles.”  Which relegates me to the chair. Reading aloud a New York Times book review of a volume chronicaling the battles of World War One. An interest of his. Whether he’s listening or not, I can’t tell. His eyes travel back and forth;  as if he's doing a sight inspection of the ceiling.

As I say, “The Battle of Ypres is where the Germans employ poison gas.” His lips move. I hear, “It’s the second battle where it’s used on the Western Front.”  This catches me up short.  With a BA in American history, a Master’s in City Planning and a PH. D in American Studies, his brain hungers for more. I sob. Take stock of myself, catapulting from one distraction to another, doing what my father labels as "chasing my tail." 

I've an attribution for this. It's my obession with the atomic bomb. Hand over my head, kneeling underneath my elementary school desk, I begin waiting for the on-coming, expected, catastrophe. Asking my dad repeatedly, forcing him to look up from his accounting ledger, "How do you know when you know yourself?"

He says continuously, "Where do you get your thoughts? Go out and play ball." I say, "I can't do 'A my name's Alice and my husbanf's name is Al. We live in Annapolis. We sell apples.' Not when the Iron Curtain’s shut. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are dead. Adlai Stevenson’s smart and loses two elections. And the Dodgers leave Brooklyn, where everybody loves them.”   

My solution to clear my head, speak to brother. I say, "I keep trying to fit in. It's not working." He says, “Good. One day you’ll stop. You've got to know this. You’re an original thinker. You alone have to sort yourself out. Trust your gut. Carry an imaginary machete. Cut out all what brings you down.” And like magic, I'm back on track.  Thinking maybe one day, if I stay at it, I'd could even become someone I could admire. 

When I do, I write about my brother.  


City Winery. 155 Varick Street.

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Reader Comments (12)

Brilliant, sad, lovely tribute! Thank you!

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack

It's only through time do we bear witness to who we are.
Thank you.

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJane

This is a beautiful tribute to your brother, to your relationship, and especially to the wonder you are!

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJanice Benenson

To you who knows me long; let's marvel in our continued affection.

June 9, 2019 | Registered Commenterjane

Sad, Jane, but also inspirational. "You alone have to sort yourself out." The last week I found a card from Sister Johnel Ruder, a nun who, for the three years of fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, had been my favorite teacher. Despite my leaving the Church and becoming an atheist, then a secular humanist, we stayed in touch until she died nine years ago. During1966 when I married Judy, I didn't hear from Johnel--until almost a year later when she wrote that she felt I had to make my own decisions (about questions I'd asked her about what I should do about the Church, marriage, or returning to the seminary I'd once been in to become a priest) and so she'd kept quiet. "I felt," she wrote, "that you had this decision to make ALONE." Almost the same wording as yours. A year after that--on Ash Wednesday 1968--I left the Church. Gave it up for Lent is how I put it. I'm sorry for your brother's pain, and yours. I'm sure he would admire--as I do--how you've done since his death. Despite your doubts about yourself, you have brought much joy to many people, and the world is a better place for it.

June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDen Adler

Jane, Paul is and has always been your guardian angel. A person is only dead when we stop thinking about them. Paul is very much alive and your writing introduces him to so many people who didn't know him before but now have the pleasure of meeting him. I wish I was able to attend the event on the 23rd. I know one thing, Paul will be there..


I admire you!! Your thoughts and your writing is incredible; I am always amazed at your uniqueness. Your brother sounds equally as impressive and wonderful. I am sorry for your loss (medicine has come so far, it is so sad it wasn't able to save him 30 years ago) and know he would be so proud of you.


June 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMeryl Fell

What a beautiful post. Good luck at your City Winery show! I love and ditto all the previous comments.

June 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGail Mardfin

Dear Jane,
This and your last post have been extraordinary, very touching and insightful. So glad to know that you have come so far. Thank you for sharing. The journey continues...
Love and best wishes, Joe

June 10, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Jane this is beautifully written. It is one of the most touching things I've read in a long time.
It's wonderful!

June 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSheila Evans

A touching tribute to Paul and his memory. Your words are an inspiration to all those who have loved and lost and I am uniquely fortunate to being connected to you by blood. Your thoughts, wisdom and humor when we last met remained with me well beyond the evening. Regretfully life has gotten in the way of seeing you on 6/23 but be assured our reconnection is real and I look forward to seeing you soon.

June 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

Your love for your brother is so beautiful and I understand why you miss him dearly. He gave you words of wisdom, follow to your happiness. Beautiful piece , you will shine at the winery.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJudyL

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