I've mentioned here in the past that my brother Simpson (Patrick Simpson Lindsey was his full name) died on 14 March 1991 at the age of 39, as my mother, my brother Philip, and I stood beside his hospital bed. He died far too young after years of uncontrollable alcohol abuse. This was the first death of a family member at which I was present--the first of several to follow, including my mother's death.
As I do every year, this year, I marked this painful anniversary by spending much of the day thinking about my brother, his unhappy, too-short life. About what might have been . . . . I listened to music much of the day (especially to various versions of Moses Hogan's arrangement of the beautiful old spiritual "We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace").
And I wrote the following as a memorial reflection which is less tribute to my brother than a meditation on some of the difficult memories of our childhood, which have always seemed to me to account--at least in part--for the fact that both my brother and my father died drunk, while I seemed to be 1,000 miles outside the circle of their brief, tragic lives:
I was seven when my father left me.
I think so. I think it was seven.
The thing is, I have no memory of his leaving. And I should add that it was us that he left, not only me.
Though it has always felt like his choice to leave me.
It has felt like that after I began to remember. I say “remember,” but what I mean by that word is picking up broken pieces of memory like shards of a mirror no longer intact.
I see only what those broken shards reflect back to me. Tiny glimpses that don’t form anywhere near a complete picture.
It was us whom my father left, as in my mother, my brothers Simpson and Philip, and me.
Some memories of that year have always been sharp. I remember so clearly
・Reading Grimms’s fairy tales over and over, the princesses who defied their father’s wrath and went each night under the ground to wear away their shoes as they danced with joy.
・The old man in an antique car who parked outside our house each night, and threw me down a well of dreams as I fell asleep.
・My mother telling me there was no such old man, no such antique car, no such well with openings in the side marked for different kinds of dreams—a flying dream if I fell down this chute, a magic dream if I ended up in that other chute.
・No well that gave me nightmares when I failed to propel myself into one of the chutes leading to other more pleasant dreams and fell to the bottom of the well.
・Walking to the store with my brothers, buying bottles of Coke, and having them tear with their cold sweat through the brown paper sack in which we carried them, breaking on the hot sidewalk.
・Pretending not to know the word “vegetable” when the teacher asked us in school if anyone knew that word, though I could see it on the window of the store across the street and knew it perfectly well.
・Discovering that scooting with my crotch across the monkey bars on the school playground resulted in a good feeling, one I sought out by continuing the scooting.
・Telling no one of the discovery, since guilt somehow attached itself to the pleasure.
・Dreaming that I had married my mother—dreaming this over and over—and feeling this, too, was wrong.
・The brightly colored book of bible stories my parents gave me when I learned to read, with the story of Moses’s death at the door to the promised land, which made me cry every time I read it.
・And, yes, one specific memory of my father’s absence: the sandy, gritty ice cream my mother begged from his parents, who, my mother insisted as we complained, had given us the off-scourings of their little corner grocery store.
I do remember his coming back. Not the event itself, but the aftermath of his return. I remember standing in front of my class in school, singing Christmas carols with others who had been asked to sing in front of the class, and being interrupted. Your brother, the messenger from his teacher said. Your brother needs you.
My brother was in tears, sitting in his first-grade classroom, and I was to console him. Our father had returned home in bandages, and Simpson expected him to die.
I put my arms around him as he sat alone in his desk, weeping. I told him our father wouldn’t die, that he’d heal from the injuries he’d had in a car wreck in California. All would be well by Christmas time, which was fast approaching.
Weeks later—this I remember well, too—my father took me one day with him to his office. I heard him on the phone.
He told a friend a woman had been with him when he wrecked.
I went home and told this to my mother. Hell ensued. Shouts were shouted. Things were thrown.
My father sat us three boys down around the kitchen table and told us that our mother and her family would never tell us this, but her older brother had shot himself. He had committed suicide.
And then he told me (who was often compared to that older brother of my mother, a man who loved books and whom I was said to resemble) that I was not his son.
No son of his would betray him as I’d done. From that day forward—I remember this well—Simpson became his son.
And so it went. And then we moved. Tears in the car as we drove away from our house in Little Rock, I clutching a doll, incurring my father’s wrath for the tears. And for the doll.
For being someone other than the son he wanted.
For being not Simpson.
And all of that I remember very well.
But the blank months of my father’s disappearance, his months away from us, are simply not there in my head.
Have never been there . . . .
And I don’t have a clue what that can mean, whether I’ve torn a painful page from my mind’s trove of memories and tossed it on the trash heap of my childhood.
Or whether I actually felt relief when my father was gone, and my brothers and I had our mother to ourself. When I had her to myself.
And for some blessed months of my childhood, I didn't have to feel the keen disappointment I caused him by not being his son, by crying in fear when he took us on the Ferris wheel, as Simpson lay content in his arms
while I clamored to be out, out, out . . . .
while I clamored to be out, out, out . . . .