I’ve only written about losing my brother in terms of food. I don’t know why this is, because he didn’t even particularly care for food. When I wrote about eating oysters, it was because I saw our divergence around eating as an unbridgeable aspect of the distance between us when he died. It also is just my own limit as a writer: I need food. It’s the organizing principle of my mind.
In July, around what would have been his 30th birthday, I was feeling miserable, for that obvious reason. I blamed my sinuses, as I do, and I took to bed for the week and got nothing done. Then, one night, I dreamed about my brother, Brian. He was barbecuing, and he spoke to me. This was the first time since his passing, four years ago as of yesterday, that he’d talked to me in a dream and I didn’t start screaming at him or crying hysterically or even hitting him. I had dreamed once that we were happily driving somewhere that seemed like Rome, both of us in the backseat, like we were kids. He said, “It looks like Rome,” and I started to yell: “How would you know?! You weren’t there with us!” Poof—he was gone. Yet when he was in a dream of mine and cooking, I couldn’t get mad at him for dying. Whose trick was this, his or my brain’s? Don’t answer that.
This is the first year since he passed that I haven’t been back on Long Island to eat oysters and get drunk, to look at his grave and feel bad for feeling nothing when I’m there. For me, he’s not there; he’s practically everywhere else. Since that barbecue dream, I’ve felt a sense of wellbeing I haven’t felt in years. I know it’s impermanent, as is everything in grief. I know I’ll go back to yelling at him eventually. I’m still mad. I’ll never not be mad. But it’s nice to get a taste of calm, of knowing he’s ok.
Brian died what people call a “death of despair.” I don’t blame him. He was 26, which is also the time in my life when I felt the most despair, the most hopelessness. “Why don’t you go to yoga?” my boyfriend at the time said to me, trying to avoid having to deal with my unhappiness himself. “That always helped you.” It turned out that he was prescient. Yoga gave me something I needed and made me vegan, and that (along with other things) eventually ended our relationship. That one comment put me on the road to not hating life. I’m easy. Brian wasn’t.
My brother’s life was very different from mine, in ways I don’t feel like talking about publicly, but I also wish he’d given me more of a chance to tell him he still had time to change things. I had told him that on the phone months earlier; I told him that on the phone whenever he called to ask questions about writing or living in the city. I told him he could do both. I guess I never said it in the right way. I always figured he’d outshine me, as a writer and as a child of our parents. He has, in a way, but not how I thought he would. I thought he’d be the better writer, with more money, always better looking—his green eyes more vivid, so much so that sometimes looking right into them startled me. He was only 26, though. If I could erase all the bad, stupid, cruel things I did in the first 25 years of my life, I would. They were essential years, but they were years of growth, not the years that define who I am. Brian shouldn’t be defined by them either, but they’re all we had. Maybe the dreams are the extension, the reality that couldn’t be on this earth.
After four years, it’s still difficult to write about him as he was and not his relationship to me. The mourning phase continues to be selfish, centered around what I lost—a brother, a friend, a rival, a foil, an absolute clown of the highest caliber, a person who could read me like a book, who told me to “man up” on a day when I wanted to tear my life apart. (I tore it up in a more focused way, thanks to him.) His jokes, his faces, his sadness, his talents, our summer vacation days as kids eating Ellio’s remain locked in me, for me.
I write about what it meant for me to lose him because I write, and also because I am chronicling the specificity of my loss. Not long after I got the phone call telling me, out of nowhere, that he’d passed, I began writing his eulogy in the backseat of my friend Doug’s car as we drove to my childhood home, though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I kept writing it over the week until his funeral, but the priest said I couldn’t read it in church. Cruelty, I thought at the time, but at the funeral I could barely stand up from the pain, from a hangover caused by trying to numb the pain. I had to say it at the funeral home, in front of his casket, weeping. In his eulogy, I talked about him as he was, and afterwards I had to sit down on the floor, not a chair—a longtime calming instinct of mine, to get on the ground. Some people didn’t know how I could do it, the writing or the reading of it. But it was all I had available to me to cope. It’s as natural to me as sitting on the floor when I’m overcome with anxiety.
She just won the Nobel for literature, so there are many Lousie Glück quotes going around. This one resonates:
Writing is a kind of revenge against circumstance too: bad luck, loss, pain. If you make something out of it, then you've no longer been bested by these events.
I’m bested, though I put up this fight.
Too many people, hundreds of thousands, are grieving right now, and what has bothered me about the discussion of that is the idea that any grief is universal, that anyone understands the grief of someone else. You don’t. My sister and I both lost a brother; both of us lost someone different. Everyone will dream their own dreams; need their beloved to find their specific language in the subconscious to get through to them.
I wonder if Brian will be barbecuing again next time, or if he’s learned new techniques. I’d like to see him frosting a cake or doing some elaborate French dish—finding joy where he never found it in life, was never allowed to. I’d just like to see him, doing anything at all. But I know I can’t beg. He comes to me only when I need him the most, which is how we came to each other in life once we reached adulthood, however brief his was. On earth, as it is in heaven.
On Wednesday, in the paid-subscriber discussion, we can talk about grief. What does it mean to you? What does it mean right now?
Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Vallery Lomas—the first winner of The Great American Baking Show, which never aired. We’ll discuss her inspirations, her upbringing, and the cookbook she’s working on.
I did a #PineFor guide to San Juan for Pineapple Collaborative! Very cute.
Book research, per usual, and the new epilogue in the paperback edition of Patti Smith’s Year of the Monkey as well as continuing… MY STRUGGLE! Book 2. I’m reading all of them in the hardcover Archipelago editions, because I want my bookshelf to look completely deranged in the K section.
I’m very sick of cooking! Oh, so bored of cooking! But I received Ottolenghi’s Flavor in the mail, and I will use it to conjure up the energy to cook.
Alicia, this is so beautiful. I'm crying a little in my bed this morning.
Your grief may be "selfish" but your honesty keeps him as spiky and slippery and not flat as I'm sure he was in life. That's the best possible tribute to him, I think.
Grief is an unfolding, an unraveling of ourselves from someone, sometime, something. At the same time is sitting with the ‘truth’ and the present moment. It’s pure acceptance what we’re able to feel in grief-even as we actively work to escape. The beauty and pain are one. I feel that in the way you share your dreams, the pain and beauty of what you shared and who you are. Thank you for sharing this and for being vulnerable. To more vulnerability and connection.