By Lisa Torcasso Downing
THE LATE EVENING SKY is black, overcast—the atmosphere dissected by a misty line of streetlamps. My window is rolled down, my hand raised to the night. Salt air blows through my fingers.
“There it is,” he says, followed by, “Jesus.”
I see the yellow light of the rental car’s blinker flash on the damp asphalt; we turn onto Legendary Drive in Destin, Florida. We lilt with the car into the Lowes parking lot and stop at the back where we were told to meet the black van with the tinted windows.
“I can’t believe this,” Mickey says. He leaves the motor running, the lights on.
In the weak lamplight, I examine him; his temple is graying, his chin beginning to sag. I feel my age in the joints of my shoulders and wonder where he feels his.
“Now we wait,” he says, scoffing a little as he glances at me, his eyes looking helpless.
I nod and turn away. I don’t have many words tonight. “It’s like a drug drop.”
Mickey’s seat groans as he shifts his weight and drops his head against the headrest. His exhale is a whisper.
WINTER 1971. The Miami Dolphins have just lost the Super Bowl, which is disappointing. But Mammoth Mountain has a solid twenty feet of hard-packed snow, which is awesome. My little brother, age 8, lifts his arms while my mother ties the racing bib over his parka. Number 29. Mark can’t hold still, never could. He bounces at the knees and rocks back and forth in his ski boots knocking them against the lodge floor. This race is for tourists, duffers from Los Angeles who fancy that the cold wind whipping through their hair makes them competitors, challengers, brave conquerors of their environs.
And this race is for Mark.
With bib snug, he bolts from our table to the staircase, descending it as if on a ski slope, not stepping, but leaning so that he thump-thump-thumps all the way down. Curious heads turn to watch and, as he reaches the bottom, he musters his natural second-grade swagger and heads to the ski rack. A minute later, his K2 120s snapped on, he heads to the chairlift. The rest of his family—his parents, my brother Mickey, and I—settle in at the bottom of the race course.
We watch Mark as he waits in line for his turn, see him jump into the starting gate as his number comes up, watch him fly down the hill, zigging back and forth between the slalom poles, arms spread a little too wide. The expression he wears shouts, “Get out of the way!” He skids to a stop with a wide, triumphant grin. But it fades when he learns an impossible piece of news: He isn’t the winner; his time isn’t the fastest of all.
Of course, Mark is the only one who’d expected he’d win. He is, after all, a full decade younger than the next youngest competitor, at least fifty pounds lighter, and a good foot shorter. He hasn’t learned about physics yet, or probability. He only knows the joy of desire, the belief that such joy is inevitably met. No, Mark doesn’t win the race, but he wins the applause—this little guy who skis like a bird with a broken wing, the kid with the nerve to take on the grown-ups and skid to a stop with a heart full of expectation. Maybe he doesn’t win the race, but he doesn’t finish last either. He seems to be considering this fact as he looks into the small crowd standing at the end of the course, cheering his chutzpah. He quickly raises another smile, finds his mother, and asks if he can do it again.
MICKEY AND I see the black van at the same time. Something in my stomach grows hard, weighing me down. The driver of the van knows what kind of a car to look for and pulls up beside us. He, too, leaves his lights on, though he shuts his engine off.
“You ready, Sis?” My brother’s hand is on mine. I shake my head no but my other hand reaches for the door handle. I want to stay in my seat, make Mickey take the walk, but I get out as he does and round the rental car.
The driver of the van has already reached the van’s passenger door. He is a clean-cut man of about thirty. I watch as he opens the door and reaches past a brown cardboard box for a clipboard. The box is maybe sixteen inches high and twelve inches wide. I can’t take my eyes off that box. The top is taped shut.
The van driver hands the clipboard to my brother. “Sign here. And here.”
As my brother signs, the van driver removes the box and extends it for my taking. My little brother. Mark. I see my hands reach out. Ashes to ashes. He is heavy; much heavier than I had expected.
THE SUMMER OF 1978 is warm and the air at Magic Mountain is thickened by a cocktail of stale popcorn and body odor. Mark, 15, and our cousin Little Mike, 10, stand looking up at La Revolución: a looping steel coaster. Mark says it’s treason, the way Six Flags painted up the ride in the colors of the Mexican flag and dropped its American Revolution theme, but Little Mike only nods. He’s too young to remember it any other way. He just knows he doesn’t want to ride it.
“Let’s go,” Mark says, stepping toward the line, which stretches clear back to the Log Jammer.
Little Mike hems and haws for a minute before finally admitting, “I’m afraid.”
“Close your eyes,” Mark says. “You won’t even know you’re upside down.”
Little Mike shakes his head.
Mark pauses, thinks, watches a shapely teenage girl walk by, her hands sticky with cotton candy. He turns back to Mike, green eyes alight. “Look, kid, you know you’re going to ride this roller coaster someday. There it is. And here you are. So why not now?” He watches as his cousin’s bugged brown eyes follow a car full of screaming people down the initial drop. The car hits the loop; raised arms point toward the earth then circle aright again as the car speeds around the banked track.
“No one’s dying,” Mark says with a shrug. Again, he steps toward the line.
Little Mike gulps and follows. They take their place behind a guy with a tattoo of a baby on his back. He tries to listen to the incessant small talk Mark is famous for producing, but somehow the screams keep getting in the way.
And then it’s over. They sailed down the drop, through the loop, and around the bends. As they climb from the coaster’s car, unmaimed, Little Mike’s heart is beating faster than it ever has. “Let’s do it again,” he gasps. And Mark grins as he leads him to the end of the line.
I SIT WITH the cardboard box on my lap. The van’s engine turns over and the vehicle backs out, leaving us in the dark.
“I’m not ready to go,” Mickey says. I want to scream that no one is ever ready to go—especially not Mark.
Why am I in this parking lot, clandestinely collecting my brother’s remains? Because the night before the service, his widow decided she couldn’t do it, couldn’t drive to the funeral home in Fort Walton Beach and bring home an urn instead of a man. So she arranged this, for some anonymous employee to hand Mark off to his brother and sister in the parking lot of a home improvement store. Only a signature required.
I hate her. I’ll never be able to forgive her.
MARK WAS NO angel. Some might have called him the black sheep of our family, but if they did, we would’ve taken them down. Sure, sometimes Mark lived beyond the rules, but his nature was one without guile. One day, I heard his voice singing a Zeppelin tune behind the basement door. I opened it, wanting to see what had propelled him into that unfinished rat haven. He greeted me warmly, ushering me into “the farm” and giving me a tour of his two “potted plants,” each with its own name. I warned Mark he could get us all arrested, but he laughed and reminded my “sweet little Mormon self” that he not only knew all the police officers in town, he partied with them. This was, after all, the 1970’s and he was, after all, Mark. He joked that my new religion qualified me to take his title as Black Sheep of the Family, thank you very much, and would I like a toke?
MINUTES TICK BY as Mickey and I sit in the parking lot, my hands resting on the top of the cardboard box like the hands of the priesthood bestowing a blessing. The grief is astonishingly bitter, a harsh taste to my soul, and before I know what I’m saying, before I remember who I’m sitting beside, I ask, “Can we say a prayer?”
I don’t know if my older brother is the praying type. I see both discomfort and longing in his eyes. “I’ll do it,” I offer. “I’ll say it.”
Mickey nods. “That would be nice.” And, head bowed, I search for words that might connect to something.
I thank God for my brother. I thank God for his joy and his life and for the fact that he made everyone who knew him better. I ask to see Mark again someday; ask that he be allowed to prepare a place for our family. I ask God to take care of him, which seems so strange on my tongue because, finally, in death, Mark no longer needs the doctors or the nurses or hospice or any of the other caretaking that accompanies a six-year war with Merkel Cell Carcinoma. I thank God that his pain is ended. I ask him to help me not be so angry.
Or at least, I think I did.
And then I asked my remaining brother to hold the box so I could buckle my seat belt.
MAUI, 1986: MARK, 23, asks for a Heineken as he belly ups, surveying both the beachside lounge and the grass-skirted serving girls. His eyes fall on one young woman, a blond with high cheekbones and a delicate, if sharp, nose. She looks at him, smiles, then takes an order from a table of conventioneers. Her smattering of freckles is not lost on Mark, nor her ocean-blue eyes. He is smitten. Day after day, he returns to the tropical lounge, watching this girl, making her laugh, feeding his heart to her one piece at a time until he knows he can’t live without her. A few short months later, he is back in Los Angeles packing a suitcase, a ticket to Maui in his back pocket. He brings her to the mainland where they marry in a little white church on top of a hill.
At the reception, I propose a toast to my little brother, to his new wife. “You better be good to him,” I say, “Or I’m coming after you.”
OKALOOSA ISLAND REMINDS me of the blade of a knife as we drive the Emerald Highway toward Santa Rosa.
“We need to pull over before we get to Mark’s house,” I say. I like saying that: Mark’s house. I like hearing his name. I like the reminder that, as a contractor, he built his own place. “We need to take him out of the box before Nena sees it.”
We turn onto Nursery Road, and just beyond the stop sign, Mickey pulls the car onto the shoulder. I open the box and wiggle free the Styrofoam padding atop the urn. It looks purple in the dark. I tug on it, pulling at the lid until I realize how stupid that is. I ask Mickey to hold the sides of the box as I remove a piece of the side paneling. We reach in and pull out the urn. I place it in my lap, hands resting on its cool porcelain. We drive a block further and stop in front of the house that Mark built.
We climb the steps, ring the bell, and wait. The bay side of the island is quiet and dark. Mickey is carrying the urn. I asked him to, saying it was too heavy for me, but that isn’t the truth. The truth is, I don’t have the emotional strength to be the person who presents my brother’s widow with his remains.
The light flips on and the door opens. We are greeted by Nena’s friend. Part of me hopes Nena won’t be home, but then, there she is in the passage connecting the dining and living rooms. Her eyes are wet and her hands trembling. She receives her husband and, in this light, I now realize the urn is actually a vibrant green.
I want to run away, but I stand there. Speechless. I listen as she thanks us for bringing Mark home. She places the urn on the table and strokes it. As I watch, I realize how deeply I love her and that I’ll never be able to repay her for loving my brother as she did.
VALENTINE’S DAY 2012. Nena knows that Mark is too weak to make the drive to the hospital for his blood test. It’s been weeks since he voluntarily ate or drank anything. He has been sleeping for weeks, literally, waking only briefly for morphine. She calls the doctor, asks for someone to come to the house to draw his blood, but no one is available today. As she returns to Mark’s bedside, she surveys his hollow cheeks, the shape his shoulder bones form beneath his yellowing skin. And suddenly she knows. She kisses his forehead and goes to the living room where she can make a call in private, in case he is conscious enough to hear. Her voice cracks: “I don’t know what to do anymore. He won’t wake up and I don’t even want him to wake up because he’s in so much pain.” But before she finishes the conversation, she hears Mark calling.
He’s sitting up in bed. He hasn’t sat up on his own in a month. His eyes are wide and something black is sliding down his chin. “Help me, help me,” he begs, and then vomits dark fluid down his chest. She grabs a cup, dumps its water on the carpet, and makes a feeble attempt at catching the waves flowing from his mouth. Between heaves, he gasps, “Help me. Oh God, please help me.”
And then he lays back. She cleans him, gets him new bedding, and calls her mother—thank God her mother lives nearby. Then she makes another call and the hospice worker reads a list of questions over the phone, one after the other. Nena answers them.
My phone rings at 2 a.m. Even before I pick it up, I know.
THE CEILING OF SAINT RITA’S resembles the inverted hull of a ship. As I sit in the front row with my grieving mother and father, I’m aware of its symbolism: We are passengers in mortality, sailing under the sea that is heaven. But the message seems trite today, so intangible as to be irreverent. We kneel, and Father Collins in his purple robe holds the Eucharist high. Bells chime behind him. The body and blood of Christ transform from wafer and wine in front of my eyes. Through his suffering, Jesus rose, became spirit and then body again, and so will Mark. This is what they say. This is what I believe.
My father’s aged hands clutch the partition in front of him. His knuckles are misshapen, his nails cracking, his flesh spotted by age. He told me he can’t do this, can’t say good-bye to his son; told me last night he would go to sleep and not wake up today. But here he is. My father. Beside him, my mother, standing shoulder to shoulder. Beside them, my brother. Beside us all, Nena, whom we will always love because she loved Mark enough to walk with him through the valley of the shadow of death. And all of us on display in front of a congregation of strangers who were no strangers to Mark.
I slip my hand atop my father’s. I glance at his face and see that he is weeping again, his eyes not on the urn before us, but on the enlarged photo of his baby, his third child, second son, the light of all our lives, Mark.
I wish my father would grasp my hand, let me feel him holding me, but he doesn’t. He grips the handrail for dear life. And I sense how very alone we all are.