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Distance – Cold Turkey Grieving on Thanksgiving Day
“He’s gone.” The words came over my cell phone with a finality that hit me in the throat. It was Thanksgiving and my older brother—a fast bodybuilder, a smart guy, a family man who was always laughing—had left us. After acquiring the short straw and Type I diabetes at the age of 11, he had beaten the odds in every situation. But he could not overcome 2020.
They say siblings are your first friends – your connection to the past and your bridge to the future. When I received the news of my brother’s death, I took over the water – drowning in last words and lost moments. I couldn’t find air. I rushed out. I couldn’t call. Every person shot in the ear was confined to their homes by state mandate. There would be no shoulder to cry on or comforting hugs. There would be no “I’m sorry” or back rubs. It was cold turkey mourning on Thanksgiving.
Chris had texted us just the day before to tell us that our uncle had passed away. Uncle Michael was larger than life. He was a smart, mountain of a man who taught us how to water ski and cheat at cards. And within 48 hours we would lose Uncle Robert to Covid-19.
It was hard to fathom – three family members in four days. It was too much in a year that was already too much. Six degrees of separation, seven degrees of isolation, 6 feet 15 minutes in a 24 hour period – our realm for the mask.
It was a year in which we stood on the edge of existence and stared into the abyss—each with his own version of the abyss. Death became a hashtag, life became a meme, and survival became one of the most important aspects of cyberflow. We all lived under the grid and over the rainbow, except for zooms, hangouts, and CGI crowds, expressions of life that we no longer had.
I found a photo of my brother as a little kid in shorts and red stockings. Other than a smiling tin by the Christmas tree in the back room of the house we left thirty years ago. He poses on the weekend after college. He leans against his first car in cut-off jeans; his eyes are so clear that they seem to gaze into eternity.
There is a picture of us sitting in front of the pumpkins at a local farm shop circa 1970. I remember that day well. He didn’t want to sit next to me. A typical sibling fight. My mother asked him to come closer. He refused. He had a jawbreaker stuck in his cheek. I had just finished the cherry one that was across my lips. I was wearing mustard yellow pants and a paisley coat. He was in his herringbone sweater. I turned away from him disinterestedly. I was a tough little girl. He made me that way. My mother pointed at her manual focus Canon camera with the folding fan flash, the shutter clicked and the moment was frozen in time. What I would give to be close to him now, to not turn away that day, to have grabbed that space between us in my eight-year-old arms and held on to it forever.
The drive from Los Angeles to Phoenix for my brother’s “Celebration of Life” was long and lonely. It would be outdoors, masked and around a table with framed photos. It was the best we could do. At a rest stop somewhere between Indio and Blythe, I screamed into the wilderness in existential protest against all that I had lost. The place was deserted except for a large saguaro cactus that stood guard over the picnic area. It was a massive, columnar tree. It saw its share of weary travelers and truck drivers. It had survived highway rumbles, fumes, and dry seasons of heat. Its wrinkled spines and rough skin were a welcome defiance in a world of harsh indifference.
My mother always said that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, but He gave me so much at once. As I drove through the dune-backed moonscape, my thoughts drifted back to simple rooms and soft furnishings, snowmen and seashells, bugs and barbecue lighting, bat balls and Halloween, banana seats and a little bride.
I still have my brother’s number in my cell phone. He is still smiling from his Facebook page. His big, bold, purposeful life spans a fixed-length contiguous block of virtual memory. Technology is cruel in this way – cyberhead fakery, digital trickery. Much like the “social” distance that has separated us.
There is no reflection in eternity. There is no encore after the curtain falls. We don’t get a second shot at the final goodbye. So when this big sequestration is over – shake hands, pump fists and high five. Hug everyone you care about and never let them go. Say “I love you” every waking moment and never allow physical distance between you and your family again.
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