On Death

I’m wearing my dead brother’s shirt. I can’t remember ever seeing him wear it, but it was his, and now it’s mine. If you asked me what I get out of wearing this shirt, I’m not sure I could answer you. It’s just a shirt. It doesn’t hold anything that’s left of him: all that’s left of him are my memories, my family’s memories. Maybe that’s what ghosts are made of: memories and empty clothes and an over-active imagination. The funny thing about death is–and I mean funny-strange, not funny-ha-ha–the funny thing is that everyone always thinks about loss when they think about death. I used to think the same way too. Death means the loss of someone you love, and it’s something horrible, irrevocable and final, but there’s more. You never hear people talk about the things left behind, and I’m not talking about ghosts, unless that’s what you call t-shirts and memories and regret. Some things just stick around, long after the loss, and they haunt you.

When I was 28 we moved into the Death House, my sister Jenny, her boyfriend Tim, and I. I called it the Death House because, in fact, someone had died there: two someones back in the late 1980s. The real-estate agent had been required to disclose the deaths before Tim bought the house, I guess there is some kind of law about it. None of us were very bothered about the idea. The folks who had owned it before talked of the incident in a very off-hand way, said they had lived in the place for almost 10 years and had “. . . never had any trouble . . . .” How nice. Tim, who at the time was very interested in Native American culture and religion, suggested we do a smudging ceremony in the place before we actually moved in: just a formality, and kind of tongue-in-cheek . . . kind of.

About a month after we had moved in I had a dream that scared me awake: I screamed and sat straight up in bed. Mom was visiting at the time, and was staying in the spare bedroom next to mine. She came in when she heard me scream: I actually woke her up. She asked me what had happened, and I told her about my dream, about a scary, shadowy man with wild hair who was standing in my doorway, just looking at me, wondering to himself whether or not he should come in. It took me a long while to get back to sleep after that, I was scared silly, and my overactive imagination was creating all sorts of phantoms in various corners. But nothing really unusual or frightening happened after that one time, and life in the Death House quietly, happily, continued.

After Jenny and Tim and I had lived in the Death House for a while, we learned more of the story, in bits and pieces, rumors from neighbors, and half-remembered newspaper articles. Finally, my sister did some research and found out most of the story through the Anchorage Daily News archives. It was a double-homicide: a classic tale of love gone wrong. The story goes like this: Susan and Duane had been married for about eight years, but had been separated and living in different cities for more than two. They had two daughters. The wife, Susan, had moved on, apparently, because she was in a relationship with another man named Paul. Susan and Paul had been seeing each other for more than a year; Susan and Duane had argued about the new relationship on several occasions. Some time between 4 and 9 p.m. on December 2, 1988, Duane entered the house through the back door. He had a gun. He shot them both, his wife and her boyfriend, and then he left. A neighbor was later quoted as having seen Duane drive by the house earlier on the same day.

Some time after the murders occurred, Chuck, Paul’s house-mate, returned home from an out-of-town job. Chuck was the only witness able to provide any other eye-witness information about the day and night of the killing. He got home around 9 p.m., and seeing that both Susan’s and Paul’s cars were in the driveway, assumed they were asleep. He probably puttered around a bit, as one does when one comes home after having been gone for a few days. Chuck told the reporters he remembers going to bed at about 11 p.m., and he fell asleep.

” … [He] was awakened about 3 a.m. when someone opened his bedroom door and looked at him. He told police he just looked back at the man, who then closed the door and went into [Paul’s] room.

[Chuck] went to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea, then went back to bed. But he couldn’t sleep and he told police he heard movement in Paul’s room next door.

An hour later, he heard someone leave the house and start a car engine. He looked out the window and saw the tail lights of Susan’s maroon Chevrolet Beretta.

[H]e got up about 10 a.m. Saturday and began straightening the house. Susan’s jacket and gloves were lying in the kitchen and he gathered them up and went to put them in [Paul’s] room.

Behind the bedroom door was a large bundle wrapped in a blanket. It was [Paul’s] body. On the bed was Susan’s body, also wrapped in bedding. He called the police.”

– Anchorage Daily News. Marilee Enge. December 10, 1988.

Needless to say, this particular part of the story creeped me out. The first time I read it, my hair literally stood up on the back of my neck; in fact, I still get a chill now, reading it again more than ten years later. It captured my imagination in a way that news articles rarely do, because it made me think about death in a completely different way. I had never thought of death as something you can live with–share a house with, even–completely unaware of its presence in the next room, until some small occurrence brings you face to face with it. You’re confronted with death, and you realize that it’s been bundled and waiting for you just around the corner for, perhaps, your entire life. You just never realize it, until it’s time, or until it’s someone you know.

Ever since I can remember, I have always been terrified of death. I think I was four, and I must have seen some TV show that inspired me to ask what was to be my first deeply felt — and most unconvincingly answered — question. “Mom, what happens when we die??” I vaguely recall getting some speech about heaven and eternal life and happily-ever-after and such. It sounded dubious to me: like the answer I got when I asked her the Bible never mentioned dinosaurs. As children we often feel betrayed by the fact that grown-ups sometimes cannot give us adequate explanations for the questions we have. We learn to mistrust those lumbering giants, who painfully pick you up by digging their meaty thumbs into your tender armpits, hoisting you up — nose-to-nose — then telling you pungently how big you’ve gotten before dropping you unceremoniously to the floor where you scamper away as quickly as your patent-leather mary-janes can take you. This is how children become skeptics: they cannot believe that the only things grown-ups care to talk about with kids is how big they have gotten, or to ask them if they would please go play quietly in the other room. I remember being skeptical of this “heaven” Mom spoke of, that it was a place in the clouds where everyone lives together and is happy. This sounded suspiciously like a fairy tale to me, but I held my tongue, hoping to learn more later. At that time I’m pretty sure I was just desperate to forget about the whole, scary, unsettling idea of death and the inevitable, eternal mystery that follows.

Later, when I was nine, something else happened to increase my sense of disillusionment about the nature of truth. The subject, again, was death. This time, however, I was well-acquainted with the deceased. Our family dog Heidi had died giving birth to puppies. She was a small dog, and high-strung, she irritated me, but I loved her. Mom told me she was dead when I got home from school one day, the day I had been eagerly anticipating arriving home to a box-full of puppies to play with. I learned later that the puppies had been too big for her, and one had gotten caught sideways in the birth-canal, causing massive internal-hemorrhaging. Mom told me they had tried to save Heidi, but they just couldn’t. When I asked her what had happened to the puppies, she told me they had also died, but later my older sister Jenny told me that they had had to kill the puppies, because they were too tiny to live without a mother.

I was horrified, and I think I started to cry. Jenny was immediately repentant, realizing she had shared too much with her overly sensitive sister. She hugged me awkwardly, patting me in an unfamiliar way, since at this point in our lives the only times we willingly touched each other was to kick each others’ shins underneath the dining-room table or to pinch each other on the couch. She began to talk in the way that people talk when they know they’ve upset you with something they’ve said, and they are desperate to say something else to reverse the effect of that first, irretrievable, statement. “It’s ok,” she said, patting me gently, and with the best intentions, “Heidi and her puppies aren’t really dead,” she said.

I stopped crying, dumbfounded, amazed at this newly revealed plot of pain and deception that my big sister was privy to while I was not. I had to know more. “Th-th-they’re not??” I said, hoping.

“No!” Jen said, wanting more than anything to stop the crying, “She’s not dead, and neither are her puppies! They’re in heaven!”

. . . silence . . .

. . . betrayal . . .

. . . resume crying . . .

So. That was my second encounter with the betrayal of death, but it never really hit that close to home. Although my reading material was full of tragic, eloquent, young-teen-early-adult-literary-deaths, I had yet to encounter the real deal in my real life. At least I wasn’t so dumb as to actually wish for it, but still, teenagers can be stupidly dramatic. During my teen years I would morbidly do the math. As the youngest of seven children whose days of birth spanned twenty years, and whose parents were the same age as most of my friends’ grand-parents, I was quietly obsessed with the idea that I would have to not only watch my parents die, but would very likely see each and every one of my big brothers and sisters bite it, one by one, over the years. I gloried in the dismal romanticism of this idea. Me: tragic heroine, beloved sister, and devoted poetess, dedicated to memorializing the wonderment of her amazing family. I wore lots of black.

Still, death was a very distant threat.

Even when my grandmother died in 1996, and the whole family made the trip to Conrad, Montana to pay our respects, I was relatively unmoved. I know my Dad was upset, though he never showed it. I think Mom was sad, and I know that most of my brothers and sisters shared in her sadness. I probably shed a tear or two out of sympathy, simply being around that much sadness can make you catch it like a nasty case of head-lice. In truth, though, I was relatively unmoved: I hardly knew my grandmother. She was just a photograph on the wall, and a few-times-a-year voice on the telephone: a pleasant old lady who painted pictures and wore garishly flowered house-coats the few times she came to visit. She was practically a stranger. All my other grandparents had died before I was born.

Death finally hit home, however, in 1997. It was quick, brutal, and violent; in the aftermath I felt like someone who had lived through a horrible accident. While I was physically unharmed, my body reacted in ways I had never expected. Instead of this gloriously heroically-tragic figure in black that I had always imagined myself as destined to be, I crumpled–curled inward–like one of those moth-pale sea-anemones with the million hungry tendrils that disappear in an instant the moment something larger than a speck brushes up against it. I was quiet. I sat and looked off into space a lot. I sat and looked up a lot, wondering if Dad was still hanging around, ghost-like, wanting to tell us something very important. I went to the bathroom self-consciously, hoping that my ghost-dad wasn’t watching me pee and blow my nose at the same time; hoping he didn’t see me crying in the shower when I was sure nobody could hear the sounds I made.

Time moves on, in spite of all we do to hinder its passage.

I moved back to Alaska after Dad died. We had a wonderful memorial service, after which all seven of us kids climbed Lazy Mountain in Palmer to scatter Dad’s ashes. If you’ve climbed Lazy Mountain, you know that the name is a tad ironic. There’s nothing lazy about the first leg of the climb, where the angle is so steep in some spots you are forced to scrabble at roots and tufts of dirt in order to make it up certain portions of the trail. During the rainy season, the trail is often impassable, so slick and deep with mud you have to wade off into the head-tall bushes and weeds off to either side. This usually causes no harm to the hiker, though if you’re not careful you are sure to stumble into a patch of Devil’s Club or bump into a moose, so it’s best to bring a walking stick. So we climbed, all seven of us: me, at 27, Barb and Bev–the twins–at 47. Brian was there, Glen, Eileen, Jenny, me, and a few close friends of the family. Glen carried Dad’s urn full of ashes in a back-pack, his dog tagged along.

It was about noon when we scattered his ashes, gorgeously sunny, and unseasonably warm and dry for August. We could see out over the entire Matanuska-Susitna Valley where most of us had spent a large chunk of our lives growing up; this is where Dad had chosen to move, to uproot those of his children not old enough yet to live on their own, and to bring them to this wild, heartless country. It was so beautiful it made your heart break. We took turns emptying the canister: Eileen, Jenny and me. We went down to a little ledge and opened the brass urn. There was a plastic bag inside, and a metal identification tag clamped around the twisted end into which Dad’s remains had been poured. The plastic bag was thick, we tore at it with our fingers, but we were not able to pierce the heavy-duty material. It reminded me of the Visquene Dad used when he and Glen worked construction on various job sites, the heavy plastic sheeting you used to protect the floor, to cover fiberglass insulation, to protect building materials from the rain … it was very versatile stuff … and apparently it had more uses than even Dad had imagined. We finally borrowed Pete’s knife. We were laughing by then, frustrated, with sore fingers, and anxious to get this over with.

We started to pour out the ashes, the flakes and dust and bits of bone flew out in a plume, like a reverse volcano shooting sooty-destruction down from the sky instead of up from the bowels of the earth. Eileen poured, then handed the urn with the bag still in it to Jenny; Jenny poured some more, then handed it to me; I poured. I poured some more, and still more came, you wouldn’t think an urn that size could hold so many ashes. It became darkly comical. We shook the urn, frantically emptying it to get all the ashes out. The bag finally became empty enough to pull from the urn. We yanked it out, I grabbing the bag and Eileen and Jenny tugging on the urn, and there were still more ashes in the bag, were they endless? Always the sharing little sister, I offered the bag back to Eileen and Jenny, “You want to pour some more?” I asked. “Just empty it,” Eileen said, “we need to be done with this.” Eileen was always a practical and forward-moving thinker. Dad called her “Little Itch,” because she was always so busy, so eager to accomplish and explore and go and just do things.

Dad called me “Hurricane,” but that’s a different story. Nick-names stick around too, long after they’ve lost their sting – long after they’ve lost their appropriateness. Dad called me “Hurricane,” Glen called me “Juice,” though this was long before the O.J. Simpson trial. I can’t remember how I got the second nickname, I think Jenny might have given it to me when she was hurling verbal-slurs at me involving rhyming my name with various embarrassing words, then coming up with other rhymes even more ludicrous and satisfying … but it stuck around, after the original joke had passed beyond anyone’s remembering. It stuck around, another ghost.

. . . so, where was I before that long tangential slide into the tangles of memory . . .

Oh, yes. Bodies, wrapped in sheets. Creeping, lurking death that stays hidden, then leaps out at you when you least expect it. It’s like the worst game of hide-n-seek you’ve ever played. And here’s the part of the essay where I get dark, where I reflect darkly on dark things; where my sly imagination grips my reason and wrings its flimsy little neck. That kind of dark.

Cancer is that kind of dark: did I mention it? Did I mention that it was cancer that killed my Dad? You think of cancer as a long, slow, drawn-out thing, but it wasn’t, really. It wasn’t, because my Dad was never the sort of guy who went to the doctor for anything. He was a grin-and-bear-it kind of guy. The kind of guy who might sprain an ankle on the way to work, but still put in a full day then go home and self-medicate with an ice-pack and a six-pack and then go back for more; all because he had made a promise, a commitment, and he was a very honorable man.

He was a very stubborn man too, don’t get me wrong. He was so stubborn, sometimes, he terrified me. He was so stubborn that even the idea of his anger can still subdue me into a quiet, small place that I am ashamed to even admit I became familiar with. My Mom is stubborn, too, come to think of it. Fancy that. Maybe it’s Montana, and growing up during the Great Depression; maybe it’s growing up dirt-poor and Teutonic proud and completely isolated from the rest of the world. Lost, in acres and acres of dying wheat, where trips to the dentist were avoided until the last minute because they didn’t use Novocain back then, no they did not. They just put up with the pain, and went on with their lives. That kind of poor. That kind of proud, stupid stoicism. That kind of … whatever.

I wonder, really, if he ever even realized he was dying.

You see, my stoic-Teutonic Mom (Norwegian), and my stoic-Teutonic Dad (German) were, well … stoic. This means that when the shit hits the fan, nobody finds out about it. In fact, to have someone who is stoic admit that the mere possibility of the existence of shit is real, and acknowledges the havoc it would wreak should it hit said fan … that’s a big deal. So it was a big deal when Mom said, “Dad’s getting an operation. Just some exploratory stuff, no big deal. Thought you should know.” It was a big deal, but delivered in such an off-hand way, that only Jenny heard it: that foreboding rumbling beneath the surface: a warning. Jenny freaked out, bless her heart, and flew down to Arizona, where Mom and Dad had moved, in some half-baked romantic John Wayne western fantasy Dad had after he retired. Mom was just along for the ride, as long as she had her H&G TV. Anyway, Jenny flew down to be with Mom, while Dad went in to have his exploratory surgery.

So it was Jenny who called, I remember, to tell me one late afternoon at work, that when they had opened Dad up to go “exploring” like some weird medical Columbus, that they had discovered a significant sort of land-mass. Oh, hell, let’s not equivocate: they found a fucking archipelago, a completely undiscovered chain of tumorous islands that had mysteriously erupted within my father’s ribcage, abdomen, that had been there for who knows how long; and who knows how long he had lived with the discomfort and the pain and the unusual discoloration of his bowel-movements and all those sorts of things that people really don’t want to think about that much or they start getting worried about their own cells going out of whack on them and then they start worrying about dying … about how it pounces out at ya, when all you really wanted to do was put away the gloves and the coat, thank-you-very-much.

So death can sneak up on you, even while its there. It hides away in spots you don’t think to look, and it waits to present itself — and sometimes it teases — it presents itself in the possibility of death, as a disease, perhaps, that people know so little about that they are forced to remain hopeful, even when there’s really not that much to cling to. That’s another kind of stubbornness, I guess, another kind of stoic-ness: another kind of ghost. People will cling to what they want to cling to, instead of seeing what is right before them. People will see a man peeking in the room, and lay quiet, full of wondering apprehension: almost as if they’re watching a movie. People always think: it can’t happen to me, something like that could never happen to me. People are stubborn about not seeing what they don’t want to see.

In the Death House we sometimes tried to reconstruct the crime: we wondered in which room it had happened, we wondered in which bedroom the roommate was lying when the killer had come back and peeked in at him in the dark. While Tim was doing some work in one of the upstairs rooms, he found what he thought were the bullet holes in the far wall. The sheet-rock had been patched and repaired: the holes had been covered, but the evidence of the crime still remained beneath plaster and paint.

That’s another thing about death you never quite realize until you experience it; it changes you, deeply and irrevocably, and even though the damage is not evident on the outside, on the inside you remain deeply scarred, full of holes covered up with a desperate patch-job that serves only to mask the structural damage. But anyone who knows anything about houses knows that if you damage the foundation — the deep-down-insides — badly enough, that nothing is going to save that house: you might as well just rip it down.

So I still have my brother’s shirt. It says Armstrong in black letters and there’s a circle around the “A” and it’s located right over where my heart is, when I wear it. I don’t know if it stands for Lance Armstrong, or if it was just some random construction company brand he had picked up at some store that just happened to have an Armstrong logo. I guess it doesn’t matter … but I kind of hope it doesn’t stand for Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong lived.

A few years ago, after my brother Glen had just turned 50, he began to notice some changes. The most significant one was the rapid loss of weight, but like anyone, he simply chose to see that as a run of good luck. Another change was that every time he drank alcohol or coffee, his ears would turn bright red, and his cheeks … and it wasn’t just a bit of rosiness that folks sometimes get after a glass of wine at Thanksgiving dinner … you could feel the heat if you pressed your hand to his face.

But remember: a stoic family … we didn’t find all this out until later. After they were sure about the diagnosis. Turns out he had a very rare kind of cancer that grows what is called a carcinoid tumor. Basically, it’s embryonic tissue left over from when the person was still in the womb that for some reason gets reactivated and grows—very slowly—but the growth isn’t really the problem: it’s the enzymes that are released from this kind of tumor. They’re potent. They are not the sorts of enzymes you want waking up after 50-years of dormancy, saying “Gee, nice nap!! Now what can I make grow?” The redness in his cheeks was a symptom that his liver was failing. By the time the doctors finally figured out what the hell was wrong with him, it was functioning at only 10-percent. A mere shadow of its former state, I guess you could say.

There’s more, of course; I could tell you about the drug-treatments, the trips to the Mayo clinic, the hopes for a liver-transplant being crushed when they discovered the tumors had moved to other parts of his digestive tract. They certainly couldn’t give a perfectly good liver to a fellow who had tumors growing on his large intestine and stomach. Just not practical.

There’s more I could tell you, of course, but I won’t. It’s just too fresh. It’ll be two years in October. He managed to make it till his 52nd birthday. I remember I got him a card, and nothing else. Just not practical. He didn’t mind. It made me angry that other people bought him birthday presents when he wouldn’t be around much longer to enjoy them anymore, and it would be just one more thing for his wife Peggy to get rid of. I was angry, but I don’t think I was really angry about the presents, I don’t think I was thinking too clearly a lot of the time.

I remember the last thing he said to me, though, as I was bending over to kiss his cheek and say goodbye; I was heading back to Anchorage and to school. I had been driving out most nights, just for a little bit, but it’s hard when someone’s dying – you just sit there and sit there – and you’d think the time would drag, but it doesn’t. It speeds up, somehow. All I knew was that the weekend would be gone and it would be time for me to drive back to Anchorage, and I’d feel guilty for not having read my homework. Then after class, I’d feel guilty for not being with Glen, and I’d drive back to Palmer again. He stuck around longer than anyone expected; longer than the doctor predicted; he took his time and got to say goodbye to everyone he loved. As I leaned over to kiss him goodbye, he said, “It’s ok if you can’t come out next weekend, y’know, ‘cuz of school,” and I said that it wouldn’t be a problem, that I’d come back sooner if I could.

The next night was Monday night. I had been sleeping, but around 1 a.m. I woke up – I was wide awake and felt restless. Insomnia isn’t uncommon for me: yet another thing I inherited from my Dad, so I got up and went out to the living room, thinking about reading something for one of my classes. And that’s when the phone rang. He was gone.

Now he’s a ghost to me. Now he haunts me in his old gray t-shirt and I can still hear his voice. I can still hear how he sang when he played guitar with Brian, and all of us would sing together. I can still hear it, and it breaks my heart to remember it. He’s my own personal ghost, and I think about him a lot. I wonder how I could have been a better sister. I think about how I could have gone to visit him and Peggy more often. I think about how generous he was and how kind and even-tempered. Not like Dad. Maybe he was trying to make up for Dad – with his fiery German temper – he might have been Glen Junior, but his temperament was all his own. I think he’ll haunt me for a long time; maybe I have something to learn from all this, or maybe I just need to remember him. He’s still my brother.

Here’s a poem I wrote for him, its mostly true, I think – but memories have a way of getting fuzzy on you: it’s based on a story my sister Eileen told me about she and him, when they were kids, flying kites – I think I took some liberties with her memories, but I hope she doesn’t mind. I don’t quite remember the complete story anymore anyway. She was crying when she told me about it, she said, “He was the best big brother … he never teased me … he taught me how to pitch and swing a bat, he was the best,” she said. And he was.


spun spindle full of filament
stretched out and shining—stretched—
so far
in sky so brimful blue it
almost makes you cry—
the end of it—that string-part
twined around the spool—how stupid—
wasn’t tied—!
how stupid—careless—children are—
it’s lost
the kite
the bad-blue ate it up—
and happy past-time’s
flown away to sad—
the boy who held it
trailed along behind
eyes just that shade of blue as sky
to search it out—so sad—the kite—the string—
so long—ate up by thunderous
and yet he watched the sky ‘til he forgot
what bright sharp shape it held

will you remember then, the boy?
ate up by nothing thundering to life
to rend the flesh it fed upon
to silence—
rendered itself as seen in only
too-late cat-scans, MRIs, and tests—
rendered as x-ray clouds that glow
when held to artificial light.
but he would never choose that, no,
that hopeless clutch to make-believe
nor fuss about the details:
“take me home,” he said,
and so we watched
the string furl out
we knew it wasn’t tied
that there was not a knot
to stop his soul from flying
when the string—

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