Sunday, March 14, 2010

Anniversary of A Brother's Death: In Memoriam

I posted the following remembrance of my brother’s death on this blog in 2008.  As the anniversary comes around again this year, I’m re-posting what I wrote in 2008:

Today is a day of remembrance. On this day in 1991, I stood beside a hospital bed and watched my brother Simpson die. He was 39.

This was the first death I had witnessed. To say that the experience completely changed my life would be understatement. I can still recall—though with no ability to enter that kairotic place again—the shock of seeing someone I loved suddenly no longer alive. Suddenly dead. To see someone who is one instant breathing and the next not.

This was a death we had all been expecting, though that expectation did nothing to minimize the shock of witnessing it. My brother had, for years, drunk himself into sodden oblivion—determined, consciousness-annihilating bouts of binge drinking, involving a closed bedroom door, bottles of whiskey, and himself alone in bed. As the drunken bouts became more frequent, my mother—who kept him with her—responded by doing what seemed the only possible thing to do: she left him alone until he sobered up again.

Those alone times must have been horrific. In the day and a half that we stood beside his hospital bed in 1991, I noticed that his toenails were broken and bloody, the result of stumbling about the house blindly drunk. His knees were blossomed over with red welts from days of lurching through the house alone. He looked like a veteran of a brutal hand-to-hand battle.

My brother and I had never had an easy relationship. We were close in age. Simpson had come a mere sixteen months after me, as my father completed a law degree that my mother always claimed to have earned, researching his papers, writing and typing them. My brother’s birth was too soon after mine for a mother whose emotional equilibrium was always fragile at best, who danced her whole life beside a fathomless dark chasm of self-loathing, of unquenchable thirst to have her worth affirmed by someone, anyone. All she wanted was to be loved. But no love was ever sufficient to satiate the thirst inside. My mother was clearly unprepared to deal with the demands of two children one after the other, along with those of a husband whom a neighbor once described as “a right nice man, if he would ever grow beyond twelve years old in his head.”

Early on, Simpson and I became playthings in bitter parental struggles over which we had no control, and which we could not begin to understand. These seemed to peak at night, when my father came home, as he fumbled at doorknobs and dropped keys, trying to sneak into the house drunk again, bright badges of red lipstick smearing the collar of his white shirt. Invariably, my mother would be waiting in the dark beyond the front door, the tip of her cigarette glowing angrily in the dark, her arms drawn tight about her body, ready to do battle: to confront, to rip, to tear and rage.

The predictable upshot of the nightly rows was that my father absented himself from us more frequently, eventually abandoning us for a good part of my seventh year. A year in which Simpson entered first grade, and I sought to continue what had become a parental ritual, walking him to school with my hand in his, teaching him when to doff his cap and when to keep it on his head, how to spot the playmates who would encourage him to roll his nickels into gutters where they might never be retrieved, and thereby attract the undesired attention of a principal who, I now realize, perhaps pitied the poor little semi-orphaned children of the absent father, the not-quite-composed mother.

Simpson quickly repudiated my in-loco-parentis guidance, as he entered the wider world of the schoolground and learned that there were possibilities other than family—our sad little family with its tight conspiracies of silence as we dealt with anyone outside our tortured circle. School made me more introverted, slower to disclose myself to anyone except a select few.

By contrast, it made Simpson the self-assured hero, the one who could tackle harder, run faster. I buried myself in books, Grimms’ fairy tales, tattered Victorian novels harvested by a teacher aunt from her school library as it weeded unread old books. Simpson played, and excelled at playing.

My father finally came home that seventh year of my life, bandaged from a near-fatal car crash in northern California. Within days of his return, I overheard him telling someone on his office phone that a woman had been with him in the wrecked car. Innocently (or not? Did I sense already that there were sides to be taken, that I could become an agent rather than a pawn in the games I did not understand?), I mentioned the conversation to my mother. Hell broke loose.

My father repudiated me, told me I was not his son (though, of his three sons, I look most like him). I belonged only to my mother. From that day on, Simpson became the anointed heir and model son, the one to whom footballs were lobbed, the one taken, when he was in college, on trips by my father to visit his mistress in south Louisiana.

I had long known, of course, that I was not the son my father wanted. As early as age three, I was keenly aware of how I disappointed him, when he took us on a ferris wheel ride in an amusement park, and I shrieked so loudly and constantly that the carnival man had to stop the ride and let me off, while Simpson sat contented in my father’s arms. I was the proverbial sissy-boy son of the would-be-macho Southern father, the one whose face looked like the father, but in whom the father would not see his face mirrored.

And why remember any of this, now that my father and brother are both dead—now that both died drunk? In part, I remember because I have to do so. They are gone. I am left. It is the duty of those left behind to remember. To eulogize, but with an honesty that struggles to limn the faint outline of the one remembered, the one we shall never know as he knew himself, since we live in other skin. In remembering, we recreate the one re-membered; the most difficult, the most impossible, task of remembering is to transcend the very perspectives that make memory possible and imperative for us.

I remember, as well, because this first death, of a brother whom I loved despite the mine-pocked landscape between him and me, changed my life. Though by the time of Simpson’s death, I had come out as a gay man to my family and friends, Steve and I still kept silence in our professional lives. We saw no other way. As theologians in Catholic institutions, where silence about one’s sexual orientation was (and usually still is) mandatory, we believed that, in living discreetly, in doing our work punctiliously and fulfilling all of our duties, we would be accorded the same respect, the same circumspect refusal to inquire about domestic arrangements, accorded our unmarried but straight colleagues.

We were wrong, as it turned out. It mattered—more than anything else: more than our work, our commitment to the schools in which we taught, our personal and professional integrity. It mattered utterly and ultimately, the fact of our being gay, the fact of our living together without apology.

At the time of Simpson’s death, I was being offered tenure at Xavier University in New Orleans, where I had taught for seven more or less happy years. Steve, by contrast, had just gone through a brutalizing experience as the first lay theologian teaching at the local Catholic seminary. He had come up for tenure, been voted unanimously by the seminary’s students and faculty to receive tenure, and had then been unilaterally denied tenure by the seminary rector, who told him that the seminary could not afford to pay the salary he commanded as a lay theologian. 

Said salary was $15,000, the same salary at which he had been hired in 1985. Steve was booted as the spring semester ended, long after most institutions had hired faculty for the fall. When he was denied tenure, he discovered that his retirement benefits—a pittance—were to be absorbed by the diocese, per the fine print of diocesan rules he had never thought to read when he signed his contract. The following year, the seminary hired two priests to replace him. A year or so down the road, it hired another lay theologian—an ostentatiously married one, with a new bride fresh from the Orient who lived with him in a suite provided by the seminary. The rector who denied Steve tenure, Msgr. Greg Aymond, was subsequently made a bishop and is now a rising star of the American bishops’ conference.  He's now an archbishop, in fact.

But that’s another story. At the time of my brother’s death, a resolve formed inside me—a bright and shining one, an obdurate one as hard as coal turned to diamond by raging fires—never again to pretend, deny, disguise who I was. I would continue to maintain the professional code demanded of Steve and me as theologians in Catholic institutions. I would keep my “lifestyle” at home, a personal matter. I would walk that thin line that the professional code of conduct, wink-nudge conduct, required in church institutions.

But I would never again allow the hard-won insights derived from my experience as a gay man who no longer apologized for his identity to sit idle as I wrote or taught. Those insights were me: they were the substance of what I had to offer as a theologian. I would allow them not merely to intrude into my discourse, but to weave themselves throughout anything I thought and wrote and taught.

My brother’s death taught me that life ends. Through the kairotic exchange that anyone undergoes, as she stands beside the deathbed of a loved one and watches him stop breathing, I learned what books could not tell me: that life is there, one minute, and gone the next.

Witnessing such an exchange forces one to re-examine everything. Why live at all, why write about God or love or justice or peace, if one cannot risk everything to bear witness to the one life, the unique life, the singular vocation, that has been granted to oneself?

These are the recognitions to which my brother’s death brought me, as a gay man and a theologian, in 1991. They are recognitions on which I have continued to build—because I must: because I continue living and life is a gift given for some purpose—recognitions by which I keep him alive in some way. They are recognitions by which I give his too-brief and tormented life some meaning.

Patrick Simpson Lindsey, requiescat in pace.