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A Memoir of Grief

An older sister tells of her brother's death from AIDS.

When my sister and I first learned of Bobby's illness it seemed incomprehensible. Could it be happening to our baby brother--that boy so blond and boisterous, that man so handsome, funny, smart, and exasperating? From the moment he was born and lasting until his adolescence, Bobby and I were passionately attached. He was my trophy. My baby brother. Smart and beautiful with corn silk hair and wide, blue eyes.

And yet, even then his energy level and lack of restraint both pleased and mystified me. There was a perplexing blend of exuberance and desperation in his insistence on attention. His crooked smile suggested that at any moment his act could shift from comedy to tragedy. His sisters had been trained in New England restraint and rather than join in his robust celebration of being alive, we became his audience.

We didn't know then that this was the first step we would take away from him. He demanded attention, we hoped for it. He talked, he danced, he sang and joked, we watched and listened. Our no-elbows-on-the-table, no-talking-with-your-mouth-full, no-rude-conversations dinner table became his arena. I was both delighted by and critical of his cutting up. I was admiring of and frightened by his flying in the face of the unspoken rules of my home and community that one be self-effacing and understated. He was Henry James's European visiting Massachusetts. We were Massachusetts. He was Woody Allen come to dine. We were Annie Hall's family.

As he matured, Bobby went from dazzling light into shadow. In adolescence he became a "Jesus Freak," joined a Christian awareness group, and aspired to speak in tongues, a language his family wouldn't understand. He was beginning to give form to his sense of strangeness in our midst.

Yet there was something raw about his pain that made us avert our eyes. A family hinged on reserve could be unnerved by the chaos of emotion. Sorrow was dirty. Suffering was embarrassing in the way that death is embarrassing to children. There is fear of contagion.

By the end of his senior year in high school, Bobby informed our parents that he had fallen in love with a 21-year-old medical student. We were delighted. At last he had reentered our orbit; then I was informed that the medical student was a man. Back into the shadows. Now, as well as being more outspoken, more energetic, more joyful, and more tormented than the rest of us, he was our polar opposite.

By the time he announced that he was dropping out of college to move to New Orleans, where homosexuality was less stigmatized, there was little left for us to talk about. By then I had my own baby and Bobby was moved aside for new passions. Our few visits and phone conversations were forced. All we seemed to have in common was the blood that ran through our veins.

On the other hand, there were times when he would try to become exactly the person he thought I wanted him to be. He would speak of finally settling down to a career choice. Of being monogamous. Of doing good work in the community. He spoke of returning to college. Even as I nodded, we both knew that he lied. Bobby liked to lie. He thought facts made a richer brew if generous heapings of fantasy were added. By the time he stirred it up, it was enticing but dangerous to drink.

As he grew older I began to find his lies off-putting. More and more I felt that when I reached out to grab hold of Bobby, all I got was a handful of flimsy costume. There came a point when I didn't even want to answer his phone calls for fear of the false accent I would respond to as though it were completely normal. No one in my family had ever said to another living person, "Cut the crap."

By his late twenties he was calling and visiting less. There were months when he would drop out of sight. If my husband and I became concerned and called, a recorded message would say, "This phone has been disconnected." Letters would be returned, "Addressee Unknown." For the last 10 years of his life, even when we were in contact, Bobby was our "Addressee Unknown."

As I began to read the first reports of AIDS, I warned Bobby even as I knew that he would pay no heed. He had embraced recklessness as a lifestyle. I engaged in the old do-as-I-tell-you-so-that-I-may-love-you routine. When it was clear that his profligacy did not abate, I turned from him as if to say, "Okay, if you're going to kill yourself, I'll abandon you first." As though anger could replace love and insulate me against the pain of the fate toward which he seemed stubbornly propelled. Now I experience the worst of all pains: the knowledge that it is too late to remedy failed love.

But what did we know of grief? When you are new to grief, you learn that there's no second-guessing it. It will have its way with you. Don't be fooled by the statistics you read: Grief doesn't read timetables. One morning, three weeks after Bobby died, I arose feeling happy and energetic. Well now, I thought, I guess we've taken care of that. Wrong. The next morning I was awakened by a wail I thought was coming from the storm outside until I realized it was coming from me.

Grief will fool you with its disguises. Some days you insist that you're fine, you're just angry at a friend who said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Months after Bobby's death, my mother wept as she prepared breakfast. When my father asked, "Are you all right?" she said, "Yes, of course. I always cry when I poach eggs." You learn that you can cry and stop and laugh and even follow a taxi driver's command to "Have a nice day"--and then cry again.

His boyfriend George's call telling us that Bobby was in the hospital revealed our flimsy trust in his reassurances that he was being "careful." We all sensed that this was the call we had been waiting for.

"That last evening," George continued, "Bobby asked me to drive him to his favorite beach. We sat in the car, he looked at the water and said, 'Let's go back to the hotel.' We had room service--a cocktail and something to eat. He told me he was tired so I lifted him onto the bed and he seemed to sleep while I finished eating. But, all of a sudden he sat bolt upright and screamed, 'My lungs are on fire!' I raced over and took him in my arms, and then he died."

"George, thank God you were with him," was all I could say.

We are used to seeing ourselves as ordered and part of a pattern that, like the intricate design on a butterfly's wing, identifies us. You can tell a zebra swallowtail, for instance, by the display of stripes: eight on the top and one at the base of the underwing. The initial shock of loss is that the design is torn, unrecognizable, and suddenly we don't know who we are. I was the older sister of a sister and a brother. The mundane statement of my identity, the delicate stripes and colors. Now, brotherless, who was I?

A few months after the funeral my sister and I made plans to hang out in the French Quarter with Bobby's friends, to sit in the bar where he worked, to go see the snow leopard, his favorite animal in the zoo. Somehow I was convinced that there would be no resumption of life until I pressed so firmly against my brother's memory that his imprint was left on me.

"Everybody wanted to be Bobby's boyfriend," George told us in Miss Ruby's, a club that was actually just a small room in an old warehouse where Bobby used to go for chocolate cake. "He was so handsome, so smart, so funny." We listened attentively, picking up pieces of a past we knew nothing about.

Later we headed for the Corner Pocket, a two-story, 19th-century building on St. Louis Street. As we entered, George, Lee--the tall, handsome owner--and I greeted each other warmly. It was the first time we'd been together since the funeral. I had been particularly grateful to Lee for his generosity to Bobby. He had kept him on as a bartender although he was barely strong enough to stand, and when Bobby became too weak to work at all, Lee continued to pay him a regular salary.

Lee admired my outfit and grinned, "I don't really know you well enough to say this, but I'd love to borrow that dress sometime." It made me wish Bobby were here to howl his most heartfelt laugh. I think he would be pleased that I am at ease and happy here. I think he might not believe it. Yet I am comfortable with Lee because Bobby was. I love him because he did.

And as I traveled back to that place where Bobby's life was so separate from mine, I saw a life of debauchery, yes, but also sensitivity and the sustaining love of friends. I realized that I had been harboring a conceit that my failure of love was important in bringing Bobby to sorrow and a life on the fringe. Bobby, my failure, shamed and infuriated me. No wonder he laughed and talked louder and louder, proclaiming his separation. He was motivated by yearnings that had nothing to do with me.

Not only was I not responsible for his lifestyle, it was none of my business.

I began to see that my anger at him for being beyond my reach prolongs and confuses the pain of grief. Now his death reveals the depth of my love for him, and I haven't a choice but to turn the anger on myself. How could I have been so careless in love? How could I have made it conditional? "Bobby's just going through one of his phases, and at some point he'll be one of us again, and then lovable." Love unexpressed is experienced as no love at all. I know now that love is a battleground and rather than fight it out with Bobby, I was polite. I acted as though he wasn't worth fighting for.

Grief is like the wind. When it's blowing hard, you adjust your sails and run before it. If it blows too hard, you stay in the harbor, close the hatches and don't take calls. When it's gentle, you go sailing, have a picnic, take a swim. You go wherever it takes you. There are no bulwarks to withstand it. Should you erect one, it will eventually tire of the game and blow the walls in.

We cannot know another's grief--it is as deeply personal as love and pain. I can not measure my own against the sorrow of my sister, my parents, or my brother's friends who must wonder every day who among them will be next. Who must have wondered, as they marched through the streets of New Orleans during the funeral, which of their families would sit one day in the procession. I shy away from the magnitude of my brother's own grief when, upon first being diagnosed, he heard the final click of the door closing on a world of possibility. A friend of mine said of her son when he died at 30, "He was just beginning to look out at the world and make maps."

So was my brother. And then there was no place to go.

Excerpted from Landscape Without Gravity (Delphinium), by Barbara Lazear Ascher. Copyright 1993 by Barbara Lazear Ascher.