What Do You Do On A Dead Brother’s Birthday?

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For “Bruller Raymie”-Feb 8, 1932-Oct 26, 1977

Now that they’ve all gone off
and left me swimming around
in a tankful of life that sometimes
seems to have more craggy rocks
to stab an unwatchful eye or
to snag a careless flailing limb
than it has cute little plastic islands
with palm trees for lounging during
an impromptu vacation,
I seem to have more time
for looking in an unforgiving mirror
that judges me, wrinkle by wrinkle,
that captures a shy smile sneaking out
into the light like a cold, naked hermit crab,
shivering, scouting around for a new shell.

If I squeeze my eyes shut, watching the colors
on the back of my lids and wishing hard,
I can see scenes starring familiar actors
in movies made long before my time.
She wears a red sweater with a cameo brooch
pinned over her heart, an early Valentine gift
from my father, bought with money saved
by walking to work on the Brooklyn Bridge,
cheating the noisy, crowded subway dragon
of a breakfast of his tasty nickel fare.
They hold their firstborn infant son,
fat-cheeked, in a white bonnet that boys
often wore in the 1930′s.
My father runs to grab his portrait camera,
his pride and joy, second only
to his young, dark-haired wife and son.

I know they don’t see the silver cracks
in the deep blue skies that cover them
as did their wedding canopy only
a short time ago.
They can’t yet imagine their two girls,
years apart, sliding into life like ice skaters.
They can’t imagine how their boy’s,
grandparents will boast when
he eats five white rolls spread thickly
with chicken fat at their kitchen table,
or that their boy will one day paint
sand dunes and willow trees on canvas,
and play saxophone melodies
I can still hear,
that haunt me long after his death.

They hum sweet sleep tunes to their child,
joining an odd chorus of one grandpa’s prayers
and the other’s political slogans
shouted out with fervor.
The grandmas cook old-country dishes
unknowingly feeding the lurking diabetes monster
who will visit this child one quiet future day,
slowly nibbling away at his organs, limbs and life.
Listening to their baby’s soft breath bubble,
watching the red ribbon tied to his crib
to keep away the evil eye,
they can’t see the Marine who defies his family
by enlisting and, on Parris Island, is beaten
because he is a Jew.

They can’t see him at his son’s wedding,
sallow-skinned, fighting fatigue,
the same night he greeted his new kidney,
a gift he wasn’t really expecting,
that was barely unwrapped and used,
when his heart refused his new hope
and quit, leaving his prosthetic leg
on the bedside chair, next to the
table easel and paint set I sent him.
They can’t see his grandchildren,
the ones he will never meet,
or baby Dylan, the first great-grandson.
They can’t know that the red ribbon,
the prayers, the blessings, the birthday wishes
on forty-some-odd years of candles
might as well have never been,
but I know.
I remember.
I sing Happy Birthday
sitting alone, waiting for the snowstorm.

6 thoughts on “What Do You Do On A Dead Brother’s Birthday?

  1. Ur words r so powerful .they go straight to my heart.i identify so much with u and wait patiently for ur next post.ur such a wonderful poet and touch me in a way ,like never before love u. Diane

    Sent from my iPhone

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