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Original Essays | August 21, 2014 1 comment
Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
Ghosts of My Brotherby Julia Scheeres
That's what I set out to do when I wrote my memoir, Jesus Land. I was weary of mourning my brother David in silence. Even after 20 years, the merciless fact of his death stabbed my heart like a steak knife whenever I thought of him. I felt compelled to record his footprint on this earth, his fleeting, tragic, graceful life. What better way to immortalize him than in a book?
I knew David better than anyone. From the time he was adopted at age three until he died in a car crash at age 20, we were in constant contact. We were the same age. We shared classrooms, church youth groups, even a reform school. It fell on my shoulders to keep his memory alive. This was a heavy burden.
My family is Teutonic, stolid, Midwestern. We do not emote easily. We avoid squirmy topics of conversation. We bury painful events under layers of silence, avoidance, and belittlement. When David died, this approach no longer worked for me. I went from the relatively carefree life of a college sophomore to utter devastation. I wrote bad suicidal poetry and was plagued by chronic migraines and a budding stomach ulcer. I dulled the ache with valium mixed with cheap whiskey and cigarettes. On weekend nights, as my classmates engaged in youthful bacchanalia at parties and clubs, I got hammered in my car, then took my place among the ranks of the defeated the homeless, the schizoids, the misanthropes in the periodical room of the local library, hiding in literature, unable to stand anyone who so much as appeared happy. I was miserable and wanted everyone else to be, too. Camus, Sartre, Kafka these were my dark companions.
Eventually, I outgrew the bad suicidal poetry and wanted to write down the truth. I thought recording David's life in vivid detail would help mitigate the pain of his death. Indeed, it has. But when I first sat down to the task, I was emotionally paralyzed. How do you translate someone's life into words? Was it possible to capture both the hard facts of a person's reality and the essence of their humanity? Was it presumptuous to even attempt to do so? What would David think of my undertaking? For several agitated days, I stared at my blank computer monitor, these questions seething inside me.
Finally, in an effort to get something on that screen, I jotted down a few physical facts of David's life:
1. He weighed 2 lbs. when he was born.
Then I added some emotional facts:
1. He was frequently harassed by racist bullies.
There is a blur between the physical and emotional facts of David's life, and this is where his story lies. He wasn't all saint. He wasn't all victim. If I had to select one adjective to describe him, it would be hopeful. Hopeful that people would love him back. Hopeful that he would be accepted. Hopeful that things would get better when he turned eighteen and was in control of his own life.
I have a box marked "David," where I keep everything related to my brother. His life, in mementos. These include yellowing letters. A lifetime of photographs. A cassette tape of the '80s new wave band A Flock of Seagulls. A Purdue Boilermakers jersey. His National Guard manual. The green notebook in which he'd started his autobiography. His death certificate.
Combing through these physical artifacts and dwelling on the significance each one held, I fashioned a narrative. As I immersed myself in his life, I began to dream about him on a regular basis. He'd appear randomly as a colleague at the newspaper where I worked, offering to make a few phone calls so I could meet a deadline, as a customer in line behind me at the grocery store. I'd be ecstatic to see him, but he'd shrug off my excitement as if nothing unusual had happened. As if he weren't dead, and had as much business going about his worldly affairs as the next person. I got the feeling that he approved of my writing endeavor.
I tried my best to make him a whole person in my book, to create a nuanced and complete portrait. By the time Jesus Land went to press in Fall 2005, I felt I'd accomplished this goal. I had managed to create, so I thought, the definitive account of my brother.
But then the emails started coming. People who knew David and had read my book sent me their own recollections of my brother. These, by turn, baffled and thrilled me. How could I possibly be learning new things about my brother two decades after his death?
A few examples:
A neighbor girl now woman wrote that David used to leave notes on her towel when she sunbathed in her front yard, waiting until she ducked inside for a drink or to use the toilet to deliver his missives.
What am I to make of this? I picture my brother hiding behind a tree, watching a girl in a bikini and must remind myself that he was not a creep. He was an awkward, lovesick teenager. That he was Black in rural, snow-white Indiana, and more than a little gun-shy from a long line of unrequited crushes.
An email from my former pastor addressed the same topic. Over lunch at a pizza joint one day, "David wanted to talk about his feeling that he never seemed to fit in with other people," my former pastor wrote. "He was black, but he didn't talk and act like black people. He didn't want to....When he started thinking about dating and girls, he said 'who would ever want me? The black girls will think I'm too white and the white girls will think I'm too black.'"
It was the conundrum of his life. Never being enough of one thing, always being too much of another. Black, adopted, beaten down. All those squirmy topics we never discussed and I so wished we had.
"I lost touch with Dave after he started doing things I didn't want to get involved in," wrote one of his high school chums. Repeated emails asking the sender what, specifically, he was referring to went unanswered. Drugs? Street theater? Plasma donation? (I know David did sell plasma at one low point.) And the message brought up additional questions: Did I have a right to know anything about my brother that he didn't reveal to me himself? Was this a post-mortem invasion of his privacy?
Another reader said he met David shortly before his death. He had purchased the house in town that we abandoned upon moving to the country. One spring day, the man wrote, David drove up with a couple of young men and rang the doorbell as his friends waited in the car. "He wanted to prove to his friends that he had indeed grown up in a magnificent, grand house," the man wrote. (Indeed, the house was a lovely, windowed, three-story affair.) Reading into the tone of his message, I suspected the new owner didn't quite believe that a black youngster ever lived there, either. It was something David ran up against every day of his life, people's assumptions based solely on his surface color.
These emails made me realize that there is no way to contain a person in a book. David's life was much too far-reaching and intricate to be summed up in 350 tidy pages. But by writing down my best recollections of him, I believe I gave him depth and soul.
Since Jesus Land was published, I have received hundreds of emails from readers around the world saying they feel as if they knew my brother, and mourn his death. This is the greatest response I could hope for. David is cherished by more people than he could ever imagine. He would be flattered.