Saturday, December 11, 2010

a morning full of memories

I started writing this on a warm and sunny September day. The sky was the color of a bright chunk of turquoise, the sweet sounds of singing birds in the back yard and the chaotic noise of construction coming from the house across the street, coupled with the distant wail of police sirens, reminded me of San Francisco, and of a time I flew down there a few years ago to hang out with my older brother Jim for a week or so before the cancer that was sapping his strength left him unable to savor the warm sun and a trip to a favorite bookstore.

He wanted to take me over to this bookstore in Bernal Heights, my old neighborhood, knowing I loved rummaging around the musty used books as much as he did. It took awhile for him to get up the strength to get dressed and out the door (as much a mental preparation as a physical one) which in part involved waiting for his morphine to kick in, and then for the inevitable nausea to pass. It was difficult to witness his pain and determination to rise to the occasion. I'm sure he felt he may not get another chance to spend time with me in this way.
When we finally got out the door of his apartment, he was bundled up snugly against the warm breeze, overkill at the moment, but in anticipation of the fog that would soon come tumbling over Twin Peaks into the warm valley of the Mission District. It struck me then that I'd never seen him in more than a denim jacket layered over a sweatshirt in all the years he'd lived there. Now his body was betraying him, his internal thermostat suddenly unreliable.

We climbed into his car, and as soon as he started it up and tried to put it into gear, it became apparent he was too weak to handle the shifting and the braking and the clutch. It was a difficult thing for him to admit, this man who had until recently driven a Yellow Cab for twenty years, who knew every neighborhood, street and blind alley in the whole 49 square miles that makes up the city of San Francisco. We switched places, and I got in the driver's seat, but professing that I had been away too long and the city had changed too much, I made him guide me over the familiar streets from his apartment to Bernal Heights. 

I did manage to parallel park his car, touchy clutch and all, in a tiny spot facing uphill on Cortland Street across from a coffee house where we had espressos and pastry to fortify us before attempting to browse the bookstore. When we finally made our way across the street and into the store, the books seemed to revive him a little, but I could tell he was already exhausted. I remember thinking later how grateful I was that we had that afternoon together.

Weeks later, he lay propped up with pillows in the living room on a rented hospital bed, his feet sticking out from under the  blanket, its light weight too oppressive for his fragile bones.  I remember he wore clean white socks, because the coolness of the slight breeze from the open window cut across his bare skin like a glacier carving a valley across the landscape.  His left arm, by now shrunken and bony, nevertheless still bore a deep tan: the badge of a longtime cabbie. It looked odd now, as if it belonged to someone else.

Now all we could do was to try and keep him comfortable. The whole family gathered in his little apartment, sleeping on the futon or the floor or in a chair at the old kitchen table, quietly waiting.

Pumped full of morphine, sometimes he was here and then he was there, and when he returned, he'd give us a report. His son Casey and daughter Lily kept a notebook to log those reports from wherever it was he went.  After returning from one such sojourn into the unknown, he told us we needed to clear some of the furniture from the room to make space for all the kayakers.

It's hard work, this business of dying. I wonder if that final moment when we move into the unknown is similar to the moment we enter this life --  but instead of crying noisily, the silence delivers us into the embrace of loved ones who have passed before us.

So when I started writing this it was a warm and sunny September day... as I finish, it's a cold and dark December morning, and the anniversary of my brother's passing. He was a man of extraordinary intelligence, wit and grace, and I sure do miss him.

You can read a bit more about my big brother here.  


foolery said...

This was lovely, Jane. It must have been the hardest and the easiest thing to write, ever. Sending you a big hug in my thoughts.

Aunt Snow said...

This is so beautifully written. What a wonderful last memory of your brother. Wonderful because you made him real to ME - someone who never met him, never knew he existed until I read this. And you made me mourn his passing, even those years ago. What powerful words.

Glad you're back blogging.

San Diego Momma said...

Your raw, beautiful words resonate in my highest self.
These times with our loved ones were gifts; I must always remember that.
Thank you for this.