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Wednesday, 07 January 2009

I Just Got Off the Phone

By Lia of the Yum Yum Café blog

I just got off the phone with my daughter. I’m sitting in the middle of George’s living room in a sea of paper, overwhelmed by remorse. And bitterness. Remorse, for the wreck of a relationship my younger brother and I lived these last 50 years, practically our whole adult lives, and bitterness for being given this task of sorting through his papers.

It doesn’t feel right. George was such a private person. He lived his life at a distance. Now, in death, all of his personal contacts and communications lie open to me. Blank exposure.

My heart hurts. My eyelids are sandpaper. My soul is beyond weariness. These last weeks, sitting at his bedside, listening to his minute, but momentous struggles to breathe after a lifetime of chain smoking, were agonising. Yet, as I just told my daughter, they were not as agonising as his trails.

Whoever says death is easy, just doesn’t know. It’s gruelling, gruelling, hard labour. I’m not sure there is anything like heaven on earth, but there sure is hell on earth. That’s what George lived dying his lingering death.

What I can’t understand is how he could waste what little breath he had to continue our eternally stifling conversation. Going back, over and over again, to his dark haunting childhood days. Shedding streams of tears over our father’s cruelties. Obsessively nurturing his adoration for our mother.

He said that his only consolation was the hope of rejoining our mother’s spirit. He yearned for absolution for the life he spent in silence and secrecy. He constantly apologised for his shortcomings as a brother, particularly his inadequate ability to forgive or forget.

Oh, those last days… I became so weary of our conversation. Travelling the paths of his early childhood memories. I don’t remember any of those incidents happening, whereas he seemed to recall them in fine details.

Why would he want to revisit those times? Why couldn’t he just cast off their weight? They strangled him as much as the lifetime of cigarettes. Now he’s dead.

I am so weary. My heart feels bruised. He is no longer here to tell his stories. Incidents I’m not certain ever happened other than in his mind. Finally, he can stop revisiting them, over and over again, like the beads of the rosary he held in his hand. Our mother’s rosary, now buried with him under the earth.

I’m scared of the silence. My heart no longer feels. So I call my daughter far away and feel the distance of our relationship. The burden of words left unspoken. Her lack of willingness to reach out to me after all these years. Life is so imperfect.

I just got off the phone with my mother. She’s in D.C. clearing out my uncle’s apartment. She says she is exhausted. She doesn’t have to be doing this. I offered numerous times to go down, but she won’t let anyone else do it. It is as if she is creating this self-inflicted penance for the years of estrangement to her only brother. Her little brother who was once so adoring of his older sister.

I’m trying to be patient, understanding of her situation, but truthfully, I’ m doing nothing more than trying to suppress my frustration and anger.

She just told me that she had to order a shredder yesterday. When I asked why, she mentions discovering some inappropriate letters. When pressed, she says “pornographic” letters. My heart skipped a beat. She’s been shredding the erotic love letters of her brother. The playwright. The loving, lusting, passionate written voices of his lovers. Lovers, whose existences she knew nothing of. Stories speaking of passions she most likely never felt. Intimate reflections she never partook upon.

When I asked her if she couldn’t have saved them, couldn’t have just sent them to me, her curt “don’t be silly” was enough to send an echo of shocked disapproval down the telephone line. She then ended the call abruptly.

I know it’s hard for her to know there is a distinction between erotica and pornography. It is probably equally hard for her to accept the fact that those letters most likely were of artistic and literary merit. The thing that makes me both sad and mad is the fact that she would never believe that her brother consciously chose to keep those letters as part of his legacy.

Even if he lived a life secluded from family intimacy, he lived fully and with great intent. It was just that his intent did not include her for the last fifty-five years.

I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, those letters were his story. Now, we’ll never know. Instead, we’re left with a slew of newspaper articles written by strangers, journalists, chronicling his successful career as a playwright. There are also a few slim pickings from vague childhood memories collected sparingly during his rare visits to family gatherings (sitting on the corner sofa brooding in a cloud of smoke).

And, lastly, the vision of paper shreds strewn across the floor of his living room apartment.

I just got off the phone with my sister. She’s really angry at our mother, the selfish, self-centred, master of denial, and twister of reality. Our mother has gone and got her mad again. Our mother, who probably has never known what it is like to act upon another’s sage advice such as let me come down and help, is doing the best that she can do on her own with a situation that is very much beyond her.

Though to concede my sister a point, our mother chose to be alone in D.C. cleaning up after her brother. Which doesn’t alter the fact that she’s sitting there in his apartment suspended in a purgatory state between martyrdom and despair. The whole situation would almost be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

She sent me a pile of George’s letters last week: “to keep for the kids”. She’s talking about my children, who do not remember ever having seen him, and not my sister and me. I can’t help to think that she sent them because he was a well-known writer, possibly of some historical significance, and not because the content of the letters would be meaningful for them.

What if my uncle left those letters behind for my mother to read? To remember. To look at anew with her old aging eyes: eyes, which now should be able to read between the lines. I read some of those letters last night and couldn’t stop crying for the obvious adoration he felt for my mother as a very young man. They were letters written by someone who wished to share his inner yearnings without burdening the person too obtusely. They shone with a small candlelight of hope; for understanding and sympathy.

There was an underlying plea throughout the letters for my mother to ask him the simple question, “What do you mean?” in return for laying his soul open. What do you mean when you speak of your inner torment, your religious uncertainty and your distaste for our parents’ small suburban existence, and your abhorrence for our father’s patriarchal bullying.

He was trying as quietly as a desperate younger brother can to say, “Accept me for what I am.”

But no, our mother was too blind to recognise The Truth of our uncle’s homosexuality. The eternal bachelor. Such a shame he never married. Or, for that matter, my sister’s homosexuality. Such a nice girl. Such a shame she remained childless.

Is it any wonder her brother surgically removed her from his heart and placed her on the periphery of his life? Is it any wonder my sister feels only a smallness in her sympathies for my mother’s purgatory? There is no one left to tell my uncle’s stories because no one listened to them when they were first spoken - no one he knew and loved and hoped would understand.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


A beautifully told story of broken relationships.

It is such a waste when one family member cannot accept the difference of another.

There is a sub-plot here that needs to be explored. Why one person gets locked in rigid, judgmental thinking and loses so much in the process.

What a moving and well-written piece! The three voices tell a compelling family story.


I once knew a family with pretty much the same dynamics as the ones in your story.

The intolerence to the differences in the lifestyles of the family is so sad.

George was a success with everyone but his own father and his sister.Just think what they both missed by not accepting their son and brother for what he was; They gave up a lifetime of being proud of him and watching him succeed.

They foolishly traded that enjoyment and those memories for a prejudice I'm sure they couldn't explain.

I loved this story told from three view-points. It begs to be expanded, since the issues it deals with are germane to so many families: death, suffering, disappointment, lack of understanding, breakdown in communication, remorse. I was particularly moved by the sister's response to her uncle's erotic life - that kind of understanding and compassion is the key to breaking down barriers.

Thanks for sharing, Lia.

This story brought tears to my eyes and heart. It can be such a struggle to see others with open hearted love, and it is so necessary in order to make contact with each other.

What a well-written story that reminds us all that there is always another side to anyone's story. And how much we miss if we cut our ties with our family.

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