My brother Phil was a kindly man who chose his words with care, who’d shared the Bronx home of my early life where the white soot of forgetting had done its work, who’d conducted legal business in those two vanished towers. His gaze revealed openness, quizzical humor, a quiet, diligent mind. Yet within his natural bonhomie,he kept much in reserve, and so you could sense that any knowledge of him would always be partial, would always end in mystery. An easygoing man, large in size and spirit, generous and warm to all, he was the embodiment of home and family, a brother whose unconditional acceptance inspired trust. As adults, we’d always lived at a distance from each other, and that minimized my brother’s capacity to infuriate with procrastination and stubbornness. He was diagnosed with diabetes over twenty years before his death, and for much of that time, he kept this to himself. He worked hard and he got things done, but his solitary effort to battle his illness made his excruciating slowness worse. It wasn’t wise to ask my brother to drum up a document or a street address. It could take months.
Even so, we’d always gotten along well. Phil was two years older than myself, the quiet son in a loquacious family given to quick wit, verbal swordplay, cruel barbs. Phil was good-humored, but slow on the attack. With teenage arrogance, I assumed that my brother wasn’t too bright. Yet in time, the silence between his words taught me to recognize that same place of silence in myself, the inner room where my writing would take place.
As the last year of my brother’s life went funneling through that tragic September, he threw off sparks, quick glimpses of who he was. We spoke often. It was through the lens of that awful moment that I came to know him.
In my back yard in Toronto, there’s a garden — a small space alive with the fragrances of basil and tarragon, oregano, lemon balm and wildflowers. There I took refuge on that hot September afternoon, and as tragedy unspooled from the world, a flowering squash vine born of a stray seed in the compost bin was making its way along the south wall of our house. I began picking off the giant yellow blooms, too late in the season to set fruit, fat bees still buzzing inside them. Surrounding me were chunky yellow chrysanthemums and clumps of Black-Eyed Susans, purple clover and delicate poppies swaying on tall stems. Long ago on Boston Road in the Bronx, we lived in a house with a fenced-in garden full of brilliant gold and purple irises, a backyard hammock and nothing much to worry about, apart from the dangers behind the house: a vacant lot off-limits to kids, a weed-filled terra incognita, no doubt full of monsters lurking in the tall grass. The house and garden no longer exist.
Earlier that day I’d spoken to my brother. He had clients in the towers, and a few weeks back, he’d signed off on a business deal at a place now vanished from this earth. I saw them fall down, Phil kept repeating.
I hadn’t watched TV and I didn’t witness the towers’ collapse. In my own garden, I was busy pulling weeds from the tarragon, breathing its scent on my hands which also contain my mother’s hands because on a terrible day like this one, she, too, would have kept busy. I deadheaded flowers, feeling the heat of the sun on my skin. I have no imagination. Who would have thought? A writer spends her days inventing scenarios, believing that there were places in the mind that decency holds in check, locked barriers that prevent imagination from becoming invention. Not so for everyone, it seemed.
The flowers before me were lit as if from inside, their green leaves almost transparent in the light. In this humble place, I could witness the miracle of photosynthesis, the biochemical grace that made life possible on earth. My plants were creating their own food, dining in the presence of sunlight. I was moved by their solemn beauty, their frailty. Years ago, my mother kept a garden and inspired my love of flowers. About politics and war, she kept silent.