Not Fine, Never Fine
1984. My brother, Michael, is the first to die. He is the first in our family to stare down into the abyss of mortality and not return. I can’t square it. He, so pure of heart, deserves to live. My mind runs through my family’s recklessness. Their luck. Their full-bodied embrace of denial.
* * *
1970. The brakes squeal. The scooter fishtails as my father saves himself and sends my mom flying through the air, the force of her body colliding with a stone abutment. She screams in pain, her back hurt. She is terrified to move. They are stranded at the tip of Barbados, no transport and no phone, my father unhurt, working on his tan while my mother lays splayed out just as she landed, sobbing. A local saves them and takes them to the one hospital on the island. Unbelievably, my mom’s spine is not broken. She will be put back together, but her back will never be the same. My father will say, “Thank God you’re okay. I don’t know what I would have told the children if you’d died.”
My father never apologizes to my mom, instead a family rule is created. The only rule we ever have. No motorcycles or scooters. Too dangerous.
* * *
1981. My father lies in a hospital bed, the staph infection coursing through his bloodstream. His mortality is a question, his death an option on the menu.
Will he respond to antibiotics? Will the transfusions work? We wonder. He looks untroubled which only adds to the pool of rage so large we can’t contain it. It seeps out of us, gathering at our feet.
“Why did you go in the ocean with such a large cut? In Hawaii? Why?” We ask. And ask again when his answers feel insufficient and inconceivable, with no thought to us.
“I was there. I wanted to swim in the ocean, and so I did. I rinsed it out,” he says, like that’s a valid reason to risk his life.
“It’s bacteria. You can’t rinse it out enough!” we plead. The damage is done, and yet we want him to understand, to change, to care about us. We are desperate.
“I’ll be fine.” He closes his eyes, finished with us.
“Fine. We’re going home to sleep. If you die, you die.” We say. We can be cold too.
The transfusions work. We never talk about his brush with death again. It manifests itself in my refusal to enter tropical water with even the tiniest of cuts.
* * *
1982. The phone rings. It’s late. My brother, Peter, has been shot in the face.
“It’s a miracle he’s still alive,” the doctor tells my mom over the phone.
In the upside down world of our family, it makes perfect sense that Peter would claim our final miracle. He has already taken everything else from us. My innocence. The air in the room when he enters. What there is of my father’s love.
He comes home to recuperate, drink the homemade soup my mother helps him eat.
“What happened?” I ask.
“An accident. He’ll be fine,” my father tells me.
He is more than fine. He walks away from his gunshot wound right back to his drug-dealing, feeling invincible and appearing uncowed.
* * *
1984. My brother Michael hikes back to his car at St. Mary’s Glacier in the Rockies of Colorado. He is the least athletic of the five of us kids. There are no iPhones. No internet. To know what is happening in baseball, TVs, radios and portables must be tuned to different channels, different frequencies.
To survive in my family, I must be tuned to different frequencies, always turning the dial hoping I’ll land on the best way to proceed. I tried to swallow the fear, choke back my father’s elixir of lies. I tried to forget what I wanted and repeated his mantra, “I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
But I’ve never been fine and neither was Michael.
Michael didn’t feel right during his hike up to the glacier.
“I think I’ll head back to the car,” he told his best friends.
He didn’t ask for help, determined to walk back to the car on his own, despite his dizziness. A friend offered to join him, he waved them off, “I’m fine, I’ll be fine.”
He was not fine. He lost his glasses, he lost his way. He walked off a cliff. He fell. He died.
“A good way to go. He lost consciousness during the fall. He wasn’t awake when he hit the ground,” the sheriff said, as consolation. There’s no good way to go. I imagine when he stepped forward and felt nothing but air, he felt overcome with panic that he was about to die or experience life-altering pain. I doubt he thought, “Phew, what a good way to go.”
He didn’t feel the blow that killed him. I would tell people that.
“My brother died. He fell off a cliff.” People laugh at that. More people than you would imagine laugh at that, like it’s a funny way to die, a prank. Then they straighten up, set their sad frowns.
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry,” they say.
And I say, “Oh, he was unconscious, he didn’t feel a thing. It was a good way to go.” Why do the bereaved so often end up comforting those who barely knew the dead? I hate it.
Death is final. And unforgiving. When they called to tell us, “He’s no longer missing, we found the body,” howls escaped me. I could not control them. I went to my room. To hide like a weakened animal. I was not fine. Michael was dead. I will always be grieving him but then, then I began to feel the rage pulse through me.
“Why did God take him?” Of course. But also,“Why not give our family’s allotment of miracles to someone worthy of them? He was always so cautious! Thoughtful!”
When Peter heard the news, he turned to us, for once telling the truth, “I know you wish I died instead of him.” I did not scream, “Yes!” But I did not say, “No.”
I wanted to say, “You used up our miracle!” The one who least deserved it. How dare he get shot and live? Michael was taking a hike with his friends, he deserved more. He deserved more life. But the math of mortality is fucked. Just ask anyone who’s been left behind.
After Michael died our unlikely gang of relatives, our family, pulled inward. Our last attempt at what families are meant to be. Close. Loving.
We put so much into the act. We went to extended family events. We took loving family pictures. The oldest of my now three brothers, Peter, the consummate ladies’ man, tried on a fresh persona and proposed to his girlfriend. His new warmth was unpracticed and wild, but there I was, smiling like my life depended on it in his wedding pictures. I went all in because I wanted to believe that something worthwhile could come from our profound loss.
“If we find and love each other, Michael’s death will have had a purpose.” A comforting lie I tried out from time to time.
The tears came when I was alone, staring at the bay or watching a Kleenex commercial. It became a family joke,
“Alyson will cry at anything!”
And I would. I still do.
I no longer apologize for the tears, no longer shake my head, embarrassed at the tangible proof of my vulnerability.
“That made me cry,” I’ll say to my children, stating the obvious and owning it at the same time. They nod, unbothered. To them, emotions are not something to hide but a natural part of life.
I mourn my brother, decades later. I mourn our family in separate jagged pieces, unable to come together and form a whole. The only wholeness I could pursue was mine. The acceptance of what was lost was an essential step on the journey.
Reaching out to another and admitting, “I’m not fine” is the work. It is both terrifying and necessary.
Alyson Shelton wrote and directed the award winning feature Eve of Understanding. Currently, she’s finishing up Issue #1 of Reburn, a comic with artist Elise McCall (Spy Island, Man-Eaters). Her essays have appeared on MsMagazine.com, Hobart Pulp, Bending Genres, Little Old Lady (LOL) comedy blog, and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. Check out her website, www.alysonshelton.com or follow her on Instagram and Twitter @byalysonshelton.