I twisted Constance’s arm until she said that I could post her essay.
The story is raw and totally unexpected.
“Lynda asked me if she could post Emotional Rescue, an essay I wrote about the days after my brother died in 1976. It’s about the ways we carry each other through difficult times. And the spontaneous generosity of spirit that loss often inspires. I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of that generosity and, twenty five years later, I put it on paper.”
Constance Costas, originally published in skirt! Magazine, Charleston – 2000.
The casserole ladies came to our house on a clear October afternoon when I was fourteen. They bustled through the front door with card files and turkey Tetrazzinis like paramedics arriving at the scene of a terrible accident.
Left on our own, our family might have slumped, slack-jawed to the floor, but there was a funeral to plan, sympathy notes to file, and so many rolls to butter.
I kept to my room, mostly. Tears came like waves of nausea. And when they let up, like a pause in a rainstorm, I’d pat Cover Girl foundation over my red cheeks hoping to look, somehow, normal. Crying has rearranged my features. My strawberry-glossed lips won’t fool anyone. My eyes fill until the tears spill over, sending rivers of black mascara running down my cheeks. I suck in my breath, run cold water on a washcloth, and start again.
Once I pulled myself together, I tiptoed through the upstairs hallway, pausing on the landing. Behind my parents’ bedroom door, their voices are muffled. I kept on, down the carpeted stairs, hoping to blend in, undetected. A casserole lady spots me from the kitchen, smiles brightly, and sets me up on a counter stool with a butter knife and a platter of turnover rolls. Blankly, numbly, I buttered, pretending I am thankful to have landed this job.
As news of my brother’s death spread, the house filled with friends, teachers, cousins, neighbors, a carload of Dartmouth boys. They came as soon as they heard. Somewhere else in the house, I had a mother and a father and another brother, but we were all so limp with grief we had little to offer each other.
Then from the hallway, a hubub of voices. Among them, I heard Chris’s rich, raspy voice. He and my brother had been friends since high-school, or maybe forever. Bear of a guy with dark hair and soft cheeks that flushed pink; Chris was the bad-boy, the one who dropped out of college and was tending bar in a restaurant downtown. A graceful athlete, my brother edited the school newspaper and could take his pick of colleges.
As Chris strolled into the kitchen, I could feel the balance of power shift in my favor. He took the butter knife out of my hand, placed it on the counter, and shot the kitchen ladies a ‘whose idea was this?’ look. Then he steered me past them and down the basement steps. He settled into a chair and leaned forward, looking at me like he’d had the wind knocked out of him. “Listen Sugarbear,”, he began, “when I was at Tulane, some messed up people ate mushrooms on purpose.” He searched my eyes for signs of recognition. “It was like doing drugs. Understand?”
I nodded, yes, even though I didn’t know what mushrooms and drugs had to do with each other.
“Your brother wasn’t like that.”
In the weeks before his death, my brother had been home, recovering from a car accident. He’d carried his lanky frame on crutches, then a cane. He’d just started walking, tentatively, on his own. But weeks of slow progress had made him restless and, in a fit of boredom, he had picked a wild mushroom in the yard, identified it in a library book, and taken the tiniest bite.
That night, the mushroom sent a fireworks display ricocheting through his brain. He’d been violently ill, hallucinating. While he was in the hospital, my mother gave the doctor a brown-paper bag with a mushroom inside that matched the picture in the book. “Test it,” she told him, frantic with worry. “Something is wrong.”
Three days later the doctor released my brother from the hospital and threw the paper bag in the trash. “He’ll be just fine,” he told her. Weeks later, the fireworks came back.
My brother was heading to Charlottesville to see some old friends but, instead, he went to our house in the mountains nearby. He wrote a rambling note, pulled the car into the garage, slid Miles Davis into the cassette player, and listened to the purring engine
until he was gone. When they didn’t hear from him, my father drove to the house, down ninety minutes of highway, and found him there. Later, they would say, it was somewhere between a suicide and an accident. An accidental-suicide. I didn’t understand it all, but Chris was the only one who would tell me.
Hours after the funeral, when the crowd that filled our house had thinned, the casserole ladies labeled and froze the leftovers, wiped the Formica clean, and promised my mother they’d be back, each one a different day, before they went home.
But Chris stuck around.
“I’m going up to Charlottesville tomorrow. Wanna come?” I always did. In the weeks that followed, Chris took me with him everywhere he went: fraternity parties at UVA bars in Shockoe Slip. Unfailingly polite, he’d introduce me to his friends and offer me a cold beer. He taught me how to mix a mimosa and beat the St. Elmo house pinball machine. On long stretches of highway, he’d turn up the radio for a slip-sliding Allman Brothers guitar riff and say “Oh, he loved this one.”
When he threw parties at his apartment in the Fan, I’d be there, nursing a warm beer and watching a bong the size of a yardstick circle the room. I didn’t really belong there; but I didn’t really belong anywhere else, either. My friends in ninth-grade were sympathetic but my wounds were a little too fresh. I was the accident by the side of the road, both fascinating and repulsive.
After a few months, Chris’s calls less often. He eased me back into my world so gently that I never noticed exactly when French class and Cotillion came back into focus.
Years later, after we’d both grown up and moved away, I bumped into Chris at a Christmas party. “Remember how you used to call me Sugarbear?” I ventured. “I just want to thank…”
“It was nothing,” he shrugged. “We had some fun, didn’t we?” “Hey, I want you to meet my wife…”
I hadn’t thought about Chris in years, but the memory of his kindness swam into my consciousness the other day, as I lay limp on a massage table. I’d had second thoughts as I rushed to make the appointment, pressing the gas to get through a yellow light. What was I thinking? I fumed, as I sorted the laundry-list of obligations that weren’t going away — pick up the prescription, get cash for the babysitter, call my editor back — I don’t have time for a massage.
But in the dimly lit room, as a woman named Vickie tucked the sheets and towels around me with the tender concern of a new mother, I decided to surrender.
“I think I’ll just be quiet,” I told her.
As she slid her capable hands over my skin and pressed her fingertips into my muscles, I remembered how Chris had patted the passenger set of his tan Volkswagen Beetle and said, “Get in.” And I drifted back to 1976 and replayed the whole relationship over in my mind. Only this time, I’m in my thirties but Chris is still a 21-year-old bartender.
He was just a kid, really. And then it hits me. No 21-year-old boy chooses for his sidekick a 14-year-old girl with a bad haircut and a broken heart. When my world fell apart, Chris had scooped me up and let me stay a while, in his.
Two tears collect under my closed eyelids and spread like crescent moons until they spill out of the corner of my eyes and down my temples. They are fresh and new; nothing like the salty tears of old sorrow. I didn’t know it then, but I’d been on the receiving end of an act of grace.
A kindness so perfect, it took twenty years to grasp it.