My brother is dead and I am still alive.
My brother’s name is Manny. Manny was born in January of 1987, when I was two years old. He was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, even though no one in my family looks like that. He was born with a handful of non-standard learning needs, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, formerly known as Sensory Integrative Dysfunction). We shared bunk beds until we were in High School, which I still continued to sleep in until I went to college. Against the predictions of many nay-sayers from his earliest years he learned to talk, walk, write, read, drive a car and work a job. He started his own business in 2014, entirely on his own (although I did give him feedback on his webpage design and shoot photographs for the website). He visited me for the first time in Los Angeles earlier this year, which made him desperately want to move there. And now he is dead.
The first time you hear that someone you love is dead, the inclination is to disbelieve. At least, that’s how it was for me. The reason for this is simple: For as long as I have known my brother, he has been alive. This is a simple fact, one with no margin for error and no possibility of being misconstrued. When my Dad told me that this simple fact was no longer true, it simply did not compute. It was a direct affront to a truth so basic that when it finally broke through my confusion a moment later, it started wreaking havoc on my psyche pretty much immediately, deconstructing and reconstructing reality with a terrifying, menacing efficiency. And though the pace of the menace has slowed, it is this changing of fundamental fact that now, upon returning to an emotional stasis, continues to undermine me at every turn.
I was in San Francisco when I heard. My family lives in New Jersey. Between fits of hysterical sobbing, I managed to: call a friend; speak to my Dad on the phone several times; have the aforementioned friend come to where I was staying; book a plane ticket; speak to my mother; have my friend drive me to the airport; speak to my sister; board a plane; fly across the country. When I arrived in Newark just before midnight, I was still an emotional wreck, with the added bonus of having eaten virtually nothing all day. In the car with my sister and her boyfriend (who I have only known a short time but already feel a distinct kinship with and affection for), I continued to sob, or joke around, or say nothing. I watched a shooting star careen alongside and above our car as we drove to my parents’ house.
Time is not a flat circle
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. — Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five”
In the week or so since my brother’s death, I understand time in a markedly different way. The scale of my own life appears smaller and more insignificant than before. As I said my last goodbye to my brother last week, my father and I alone with my brother’s body in a funeral home chapel, I felt on both a gut and spiritual level a connection to virtually every human who has come before me. I could see stretching out behind and ahead of me the lineage of men and women burying people they have loved. And in so doing, the progression of time and its march forward became somewhat meaningless to me.
Later that evening, the feeling deepened as I drank expensive Scotch with a man I haven’t seen or spoken to in years, but who at one point was my best friend, and my sister’s boyfriend. We drank the delicate tincture known as alcohol, perfected over millenia, that so many before me have used to dance or to drown out tears, to celebrate or commiserate. And again I looked behind and before me and saw all men and women, doing as I am, and again my connection to the human experience became more plain.
Time, it would seem, really may be an illusion. As Vonnegut so eloquently surmised, maybe it really is just a single panorama that is already complete. And while we spend our lives slowly scanning its horizon, moving from left to right and marveling at each new revelation, the painting was always there for us to enjoy as a whole, if we could only see it in its entirety.
We sort the mail, build sand castles, solve jigsaw puzzles, separate wheat from chaff, rearrange chess pieces, collect stamps, alphabetize books, create symmetry, compose sonnets and sonatas, and put our rooms in order, and all this we do requires no great energy, as long as we can apply intelligence. […] Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways — miracles of pattern and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe. — James Gleick, “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood”
I have been in Surf City, a small town on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, for four days now. I am with my family, and my sister’s boyfriend is here. It is the Perseids meteor shower, and every night I have ventured out onto the back deck or the beach to look for shooting stars. I have seen some magical ones. Last night, while talking with friends on the phone, I saw one enter the atmosphere straight ahead of me, coming down in a path perpendicular to the horizon, burning a bluish-green color like phosphorescence. It glowed bright and big, careening toward the ocean, its reflection equally luminous and more dazzling, until it burned up completely just shy of landing. All of these rocks, which have hurtled through the cosmos for time immemorial, are now suddenly succumbing to the fate of their timing, velocity and trajectory, burning up as they enter our planet’s atmosphere and then ceasing to exist, with maybe a few witnesses to their singular moment of brilliance.
Last night, the idea of sleeping in a bedroom alone was impossible to grapple with (since my brother died, I have had someone in the same room as me every night), but sleeping alone was something I wanted to do, so I grabbed a throw blanket from the couch and slept on a deck recliner under the stars. I awoke to the sun just below the horizon, then drifted in and out of awareness until 8 a.m. I then put on my bathing suit and walked out to the beach, standing with my feet in the breaking waves, and then eventually fully submerging and swimming back and forth. I’ve been in the ocean easily six times today.
Every time I wade into the surf, I feel time continue to wash over me, whispering its self-reflexive immutability in my ear. I feel my blood rushing through my veins, I feel the air entering and leaving my lungs. My own biology is a cacophony of defiance against entropy, against inevitable universal heat-death. I am witness to my own life in a way I never have been before. And every time, I am reminded that not a single molecule of my brother’s body is fighting that fight anymore, and all the time that has passed since I first heard the news of his death collapses in on itself.
The process of moving on is really the process of re-learning how to live, integrating a new and intrinsically insufferable truth into your world view. Someone you love is dead; it is a finality that has no analog. Nothing to fix, nothing to take back, nothing to work to improve. I feel uniformly that I have failed everyone I know who has lost a loved one. Now that I know this pervasive sense of loss and have had the benefit of a house full of supporters during mourning, I realize how I have tried unsuccessfully to be present for my friends and family who have experienced this before me. I can at least forgive myself insofar as I could never have known any of this without going through it myself.
Moving forward, I find myself trying to grasp at reins I had previously held only tentatively in search of a sense of purpose in life. But the search is no longer for a higher-order purpose such as a career path. It is for a sense of purpose on a visceral and fundamental level: of each breath, each gesture, each laugh. A purpose to quixotically resist entropy; to see the landscape of time in its entirety; to find the meaning in life, not in harmony with death, but in spite of it; to claw my way to every small, futile victory, and to burn phosphorescent like the shooting star I have always been, on a collision course with some alien atmosphere over a black ocean, hoping to have even a few witnesses to whatever dazzling light I can muster.