January 1, 2010
On this day exactly twenty years ago I lost my mother and my youngest brother. I've written about this on previous January 1rsts. The date because of it's neatness — January 1, 1990 — gives me an absurdly simple way measure the the time from that day this one. Sometimes in conversation someone will ask how long ago they died, and I always resist the urge to give the questioner an exact tally with months and days attached. Stating the elapsed time so precisely seems too intense, but the calculation is automatic and needs no mental machinery. Recalling death anniversaries not just by years but also with months and days was something my grandmother would do. She carried around the dates of her 9 brothers and sisters who preceded her in death. None of her siblings, except maybe Tio Tibero, fell on easily divisible days.
At the age of 22, twenty years would have seemed an eternity to me, and yet nothing about those terrible days has faded. After being told the news and summoned home, I remember standing on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street and hailing a taxi. In the cab I spun one of the buttons on my shirt back and forth until it broke and held that button in a tightly clasped fist all the way back to Texas. On arriving to my house which was strangely full of people, an aunt hugged me deeply and whispered through tears that she would fix my shirt. Wordlessly I handed her the button.
Christopher would be 39. It's hard to imagine he's been gone a year longer than he lived. Back then I was skinny but he was skinnier. We both carried cameras everywhere. I can't picture him thick and middle aged as I am now, still lugging a camera around. When he comes to me in dreams he is always young. Sometimes 19, sometimes 12, sometimes 4. In those dreams am always 3 years older. We play, or torture each other, or look at stars as we often did. My 5 year old son, Raul Andres, with his mad creative bursts of bookmaking and deep love of robots channels him sometimes. And sometimes when I reading to Raul Andres I get the sense memory of myself at 8 reading to Christopher. Often I am reading from the selfsame heavily worn books we read as children complete with our childish crayon annotations. Raul Andres happens to love the same stories and laughs in the same places.
My mom would be 65. She was only 3 years older than I am now when she died. But at 42 my life with kids is just beginning, while at 45, her life with kids was ending. Was she really younger than me now when I left for college? She complained bitterly of empty nest syndrome when I left. The scope and shape of her life versus mine is hard to reconcile. These days in my dreams of her she is always 45 and I am whatever age I am. In those dreams I am going about my life and will suddenly notice her in the corner of the room watching silently. I find myself asking questions, trying to fill in the holes, but she vanishes when I approach. I wonder if she will remain 45 in those dreams when I am an old man.
The deaths left me keenly aware of time and it's strange fluxuations. In the immediate aftermath, my old life, the life of a few days before, was suddenly distant. Thinking a week or a month or a year into the future was impossible. With all my nerve endings exposed, I existed rather than lived suspended in an excruciating endless moment. For some months afterward, the date had a gravity which I orbited at various speeds without regard for anything else. I focused on the timeline. Days would tick by painfully and yet everything seemed to be moving at lightning speed. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, one day it was over. Through a mysterious combination of good friends, travel, art, and love I reached escape velocity. I woke up, blinked my eyes in the bright sunlight, and time itself was righted, the continuum of my own life while disturbed was comprehensible again, and I could appreciate my strange new life without being tethered to a catastrophic moment. I don't know exactly how it happened, but I think it was because I realized at that I had a choice and I choose to move forward.
Someone asked me the other day whether experiencing tragedy at a relatively young age had made me more or less able to deal with tragedy now. I answered, no. You can't compare loss. Each one is uniquely capricious and each one ricochets through family and friends in unpredictable patterns of destruction. The irony of tragedy is that it is the inverse of friendship and love. The more you give of yourself, the larger your network of potential grief, but then again, the more people you have to help pick you up when you fall. We're all more vulnerable than we know, but we're stronger too.
So it's been twenty years. Mom, Christopher, you'd barely recognize me now, but I'd hope you'd be proud of the family I've created. We have fun. I miss you guys.