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What Happens When Everyone You Love Dies?

 article about about death

This article belongs to D.E.A.T.H theme.


Western civilization has one great taboo - death. We sweep it under the carpet with all the other dust bunnies in hopes it never mutates into something we will have to fight with a vacuum cleaner that shoots lasers.

I know death well. I spent many long evenings on the ocean floor conversing with the hooded master of the living.

Before I was 30 I had lost all my grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents and one brother. And I don't mean "lost" - like at the mall. Or "Lost" - like the TV show. I mean lost, like gone, finished with the corporeal, no longer of this material plane, over with living.

My dad had one foot in the 1950s, but was so in love with remote controls, cable TV, and the latest Polaroid camera he couldn't stay in the past forever. My mother was in love with being a housewife, mother of four and a "giver"--she celebrated life. I arrived late on the scene by anyone's standards. An afterthought to the first three - I was celebrated in family lore as "not a bastard."

On Saturdays, at 6am in 1970, my brother, Eric, would be rolling in from an evening in NYC selling Owsley's Orange Sunshine at the Fillmore East and various parties in the tri-state. My father would be leaving for his sixth day in a row at the job, and the two would pass each other in the driveway. Beside's dad's cutting, "Some people have to work for a living," not much was said between father and son.

He was like if John Belushi, a large leprechaun and a Hells Angel had a kid. A maddening social commentator whose nighttime antics were often illegal and dangerous--he likened his gusto lifestyle to pearls on a string, individual gems that together made a life worth living.

Eric, who died in 1992, would run up the steps of my parent's two-story suburban home and sit on my chest until I awoke. I think he loved that my 7-year old pupils were as big as his own. We would tip-toe downstairs, pour ourselves some liberal bowls of Frosted Flakes and turn on the TV. Lancelot Link, Bugs Bunny and Underdog would have us rolling around the carpet like hyenas.

Three decades later found me wandering the Westside of Candlestick Park looking for my brother's house. "Whatcha doing in this neighborhood, man?" A local had accompanied me on my walk. "We got everything in this neighborhood. Birds, trees, drive-by shootings. What you looking for, cuz?"

"My brother, Eric"

"Oh damn, your brother is Eric. OK, OK, no problem. He lives over there. Tell him James says hello. Respect, man, respect."

I wasn't sure how Eric managed to terrorize all the people in his rough neighborhood, but his morning routine was always the same. Wake up early, wander to kitchen in underwear, open fridge, crack a beer and scream at the top of your lungs: "Ladies and gentlemen, live from Los Angeles, The Doors! Bump a bump a bump a dah DAH! I woke up this morning and poured myself a beer!" In apartments, houses, complexes, brownstones--his morning act never wavered - I suppose that helped create his giant persona.

Near the end, I drove four hours, as I had every weekend for months, to see him in San Francisco. His second wife, Marie Elena Merchant Espina, who spoke five languages, and was one of the first women airplane mechanics, had grown more than weary of Eric's insatiable thirst for booze and getting high. I had received a call he was in the hospital and as I reached his room, all I saw was an empty bed. I touched it and it was warm. A nurse interrupted my sinking thoughts. I asked, "Where's my brother?"

"Eric, very mad. He pull out all his needles, yell at everyone and just run out of room. Hurry you can catch him."

I ran through the white halls looking for my brothers hulking 240-pound bare ass flapping in a hospital gown. But that bastard was faster than I ever supposed. By the time I had found him at his home, he had already finished a 12-pack and a bowl of crack. Wanting to snuff him out with a pillow crossed my mind - instead I just left.

Word from "the authorities" came that his body had been found. I organized the cremation and flew his box of ashes back to NJ with me. We shared the same seat. The box weighed several pounds. I told the person sitting next to me in the airplane, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." After losing my parents and everyone else, I began to feel that I was actually getting good at this death business. Letting go of everything that ever meant anything to me. Another tool in my skill set that was sharpened on sorrow.

The rest of the sibs and I, along with Eric's wives and children, snuck his ashes into an Orthodox Jewish cemetery and committed a crime against state and religion. He would have liked that.


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