In late summer, my brother went into the hospital, suffering from pancreatitis, and we flew to White Plains to see him. Although he couldn’t speak to us, I felt certain that he was aware of our presence, that he must have felt our affection for him. He’d get well and we’d celebrate together at Christmas, relieved that this crisis had passed. Yet my brother had been ill for many years and he didn’t allow us into that part of his life. Hoping for the best, Brian and I had offered encouragement whenever we could. It wasn’t enough.
We flew back to Toronto. It was a Monday morning, August 19th, and that evening, my brother’s heart stopped seven times. He was revived each time but one. We were told that he fought hard to live. Knowing Phil, he didn’t want to leave us, and he didn’t leave this world in peace.
When my brother died, I remembered my illusions about those charred buildings at Ground Zero — that soap and a scrubbing brush might just scour them clean.
The truths that are the hardest to face are the ones that make you feel helpless.
We drove back to White Plains for the funeral. At the service, I was asked to be a lector. The text, from the Wisdom of Solomon, read “The souls of the just are in the hands of God.” After a year of such calamitous loss, I would have preferred that Phil’s soul remain with us. Maybe it has. It’s said that for a writer, the dead never die, never stray too far. Words are a gift of resurrection; they return the dead to life, and they act as prisms refracting pale light into a range of colors. This may be true, but I’m not yet certain if these words are large enough to embrace Phil in his complexity — sometimes infuriating and always human, yet in the end, his deepest self unknown.
There were days when I felt that my brother was a victim of 9/11, and that this horrible shock and its aftermath pushed him to a premature death. This is the novelist’s instinct at work — trying hard to piece together broken shards, to coax meaning out of the random details of two senseless tragedies in the same year. I’ve stopped myself from doing this. Some calamities mean nothing. Their horror is their truest lesson, and our unflinching gaze at them is our only hope that they will never happen again.
Brian and I once hoped that we’d retire close to Phil and Joanne. Now we’re left to remember my brother in his kindness, his humor and intelligence, his soft-spoken generosity. Often I wish I could talk to him. Sometimes in my heart, I do. After so many years of absence, I’m not sure where we’d discover common ground. Even so, his presence would have been a comfort.