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dark early…

October 29, 2017

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It was exactly 48 years ago in downtown Buffalo, New York. Being late October, before Daylight Savings Time rolled back the clock, it was deeply dark.

In the black night, I cracked awake with a fevered start: glanced a dim “7:34” on the clock – yelled “SHIT” and jumped out of bed, no shower, popped on clothes, grabbed books, and ran to Main Street to catch the 7:51 Niagara Frontier Transit bus to get to school by first class at 8:30.

Out of breath, I saw no one at the bus stop. It was silent. I looked at the watch I had feverishly slapped on my wrist – it said “6:45”. In my assumed incompetence, I had not seen the actual time, but presumed I had failed.

I was 14 and alone on Main Street in 1969 because my mother was home several hundred miles away with my father who had never left, and my brother was in the room next to mine in deep repose, his body processing the remnants of whatever substances he had taken, inhaled or drank the night before.

As I walked home, I was breathing heavily, recovering from panic in the dark, my mind racing over my assumptions and terror. The bruises, stiffness and crotch rot from the last 2 months of my first football practices were manageable, but more present now that the adrenaline abated. It was silent and the night was only broken by street lights – the dawn was over an hour away.

I entered the dark, silent house, trudged upstairs in a blackness that was not just the absence of light. I was alone.

My bed was a mattress, my clothes were in a dresser and there was a box of my other stuff in the naked room. My light was the central ceiling bulb set in the cast 1870 plaster rosette, 10 feet above. The silent home smelled of oil fired furnace soot, as the heat had popped on in the last week or two.

I had, for ten minutes, known what I and my siblings had been told, – that we were apt to fail, to make mistakes, to simply screw up. It was inevitable – our incapacities were simply part of who we were, failure was simply part of our lives.

My 19 year old brother could dull that drone with drugs to the point where he was simply not present – despite technically being in loco parentis for me as I attended a day school 20 miles north of downtown Buffalo. To escape that conclusion 5 years ago, my sister had taken a VW bug to California, only to return to our hometown in Westchester to marry a man, who she then divorced with the help of my parents, but now lived with – then and now. For my mother, her avoidance was being a moving target via her circuitous transit between homes. Our family thus orbited my father, whose lode star was a Wall Street legal practice, and who was drunk after 6:30 every night.

We were all alone in the dark.

But this AM the black pre-dawn was an unmistakable metaphor for an early life led in dark isolation. In retrospect, the 6:45AM alarm had not gone off yet, but I had fulfilled the inevitabilities of incompetence we were schooled in and assumed I had snoozed through it. I was first scared, then terrified, and then simply hopeless as I returned to shower, re-dress, then calmly catch the bus.

I would come to master football, have a nice pair of refinished rooms in the attic above my stark 1969 bedroom, find a deep and abiding friendship, college, career, marriage, children – but my brother went from salvation to salvation, never finding the answer to the indictments he suffered. His talents were simply broken by fulfilling the expectations of incompetence so loudly and unrelentingly conveyed to him in the years I knew him.

His own nice room on that upper floor became filled with cigarette butts, leftover cans and trash, Playboy posters and “stuff”. Since he kept his door tightly shut, I only heard the sounds of rolling and smoking joints, the occasional loud music, but mostly experienced his absence as he was most often “out” – skipping classes at Buffalo State or being a clerk at Delaware Camera Mart, photographing weddings, or going to places I never heard of.

His solace, then and for the rest of his life, was that he always – always – paid his own way. Perhaps his last salvation was, after the passing of my mother more than 15 years ago, that he used the money left to him to become a woman. A full change I never saw, because some things did not change.

Despite all efforts, he, then she, simply opted out of all contact. His life appears to have continued to be self-medication and work. In this way perhaps he-then-she unknowingly emulated our father’s final years. His room never ceased being a place to discard the leftovers of his-then-her living, fully immersing him-then-her in the rejected pieces that had been used and then abandoned.

I know this because my sibling died 4 weeks ago today, and, after they found him, I was found by the local police. In the intervening weeks I have sorted through some of his life, and am still dealing with its meaning. I am still, largely, in the dark. His place of living was filled, often to the ceiling, with discarded pieces and parts. There are signs and evidence of a deep isolation and devotion to desperate control.

I process these intense evidences that are in a vacuum, and part of me lives in those rooms – back before the sun came up in 1969, and a couple of weeks ago when I broke into my brother’s repossessed house. It will take some time for me to accept the scenarios that are now so extreme.

My fears are now tempered by 62 years of survival. I know the unmerited gifts of love and Grace that seem to have escaped my brother-turned-sister, and the sustained and sustaining isolation seem as dark and hopeless to me as that late October morning.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2017 5:03 pm

    First of all Duo, I am sorry for your loss and grateful that something in you is strong enough to speak about it. But it seems this loss wasn’t recent but only recently completed. I appreciate how you describe your brother’s struggle as a fight for control in the midst of an inner dialog with incompetence. I get that. Not wanting to fight that battle is one of the many things that keeps me from adopting that next great diet.

    But let’s say, just for fun, that control exists but it’s not found in us. Let’s imagine that at the end – after the end – your brother found a control he didn’t have to be competent enough to possess. And let’s say that the control rested in the competent hands of someone both lovely and loving. Then the pile in the picture above starts to look a lot more like the cover of the New England Home book above. It was was a try at a life. Just like your try and my try.

    And the good news, friend who I really don’t know, is that only one try mattered. And Jesus was not incompetent. And so one day you and your brother will sit together and say “It was dark early. But it didn’t stay that way.”

  2. December 13, 2017 3:58 pm

    thank you for this…

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