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and 'The Bear.'
I live my life around the date July 18, my brother’s birthday, the way I live my life around October 18, 2016, the day he died. Photos pop up on my iPhone screen and I look at the date first, organizing them mentally as “brother alive” and “brother dead,” studying whatever may have changed in my face. July 18 each year comes on like a slow-crashing 50-foot wave. This is what happens.
There have been moments since my brother passed that I have felt complete again. They’ve been fleeting flickers of completion. In those flickers, I forget he’s gone. In the flickers, he’s here, where he’s supposed to be. He’s coming down the stairs while I make a cup of coffee. He’s walking toward the bathroom while I’m flushing the toilet, ready to ask how long I’m going to take. I don’t hear him; I feel his energy. A phantom, but not. When I don’t hear his voice, calling me Ace Boogie or a crude word, depending on his mood, that’s when I remember.
The only time I’ve seen this depicted is on The Bear, where the main character, Carmy, has lost his brother to addiction just four months before the show takes place. He’s underwater in a way I recognize. Depleted down to the soul. When he clutches his chest after a phone call asking for his brother, he says to another character, “I felt like Michael was alive for a second” and seems to have a panic attack.
That’s what I was doing in the first year after Brian died, just trying really hard to get on with life and being interrupted, constantly, by panic attacks. That’s what it is like when someone passes unexpectedly, when—in the show, in my life—they’ve pushed you away so that you don’t see them at their worst and then one day you’re shocked by a phone call.
There’s an opposite reaction, too, when the void of my brother feels so huge that maybe I will disappear into it. I get a feeling of vertigo when someone I don’t know asks about him, not knowing he’s passed because I refer to him in my essays, or casually asks me how many siblings I have, just making what’s supposed to be normal conversation. It’s like I’m falling through the floor.
Brothers. A complicated relationship. The way Elisa Gonzalez characterizes it in her poem, “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on The Iliad”:
Mischief companion. Brother. Listen to me
plead for your life though even in the dream I know you’re already dead.
How do I insure my desire for grief is never satisfied?
Mischief companion. Brother.
There’s also “My Brother My Wound” by Natalie Diaz:
I never knew I was also a lamp — until the light
fell out of me, dripped down my thigh, flew up in me,
caught in my throat like a canary.
I never knew I was also a lamp — until the light
fell out of me
Brian would be 32 today—is 32, in some ways. Last year around this day I was assigned to write about food and a death by suicide, same as this year. Cancer season convergences. It’s a common thing, losing a brother, which is why I write about it, to make people look at it. Last year I ended up in the ER on my brother’s birthday, having cut my finger with my immersion blender. That finger is still numb where it was cut. Getting into some bullshit—that’s one way to keep him alive. But this year I’m not letting myself cook. I start to be agitated once July rolls around, a frayed nerve, and funny enough, this time I got the worst contact dermatitis I’ve ever had from cutting up a mango and making jam. Even when I am conscious of the problem (that I’m likely to hurt myself through carelessness around my brother’s birthday because I’m sad) and doing my best to avoid it, I’m awarded a physical manifestation of my psychic pain.
In the last few months, I’ve gotten new pictures of him. A roll of film that had been in my teenage camera for probably twenty years developed to show two pictures of him in a T-shirt I remember so well. I asked him to pose or maybe Cameron did—the photos aren’t very well composed, so it could’ve been her, a toddler at the time—on his way back into the house. He was always coming and going without explanation. My mom was always calling me to find him, desperate, and there was this one night when I was at the diner with my friends, agitated because of his disappearing act becoming my problem once again, when I heard another table say, “Oh, BK is here.” “BK?!” I said, angry. Found him, accidentally.
My brother was like that. Like Mikey in The Bear, he left us with a friend who hangs around; the friend once drank a whole bottle of rum I’d brought back special from Barbados. The show is deeply triggering to me in a way I enjoy because it brings to the surface so much that the world has forced me to ignore or not talk about all the time. I was sent a hard drive’s worth of photos I thought had been lost and there were tons of pictures of my brother, young and mischievous long before things were bad. I know these will probably be the last of the “new” pictures of him, another level of mourning.
The Bear shows how the equilibrium of a family with three kids is thrown totally off kilter when one dies. My sister and I take this out on each other, this exhaustion at being each other’s only one when that’s not how it was supposed to be, when Brian was supposed to pick up the slack. The energy and joy of Mikey as the fulcrum is shown late in the show, in episode six. You see Carmy whole in that scene; you see him alive in a way he isn’t in the rest of the show, until the final moment when he realizes what he has a chance to have, thanks to his brother. In that moment, the whole cast is transformed, happy again for a moment, because in that moment, it’s like he’s alive. Grief is a series of flickers.
The day my brother died, I told my two oldest friends that he was the one who wanted OK Computer, as though this was some confession: Originally, my brother was the bigger Radiohead fan, because he liked the cartoon video for “Paranoid Android.” My parents bought me Duncan Sheik’s debut that day at the mall. The Bear ends with “Let Down,” Mikey’s smile flashing again, alive. It also ends with me sobbing, feeling understood, if only for a flicker of time.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be a date-caramel tart with a tahini shortbread crust. I have vastly improved the tahini shortbread since last year’s recipe, and I’m excited to talk readers through the entire testing process for this, because it began as a very different idea. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
For Harper’s Bazaar, I wrote about The Bear in more detail. I loved this show so, so much, for the love it shows to food and its characters (if not its city!).
For Gawker, I wrote about the rise of the recipe developer as a “cool job,
I’m going to be teaching in spring of 2023 (more on that soon, but it won’t be a class anyone can sign up for, though perhaps I’ll do one of those if people are interested) and so I’m preparing my syllabus in depth. It’s fun!!! I dig this!!!
Nothing exciting, thus the moody bodegón.