Where have I been? Blogs are supposed to be lively and current, and The Bright Edge has been quiescent for a long while. Here’s why.
I’m working on a memoir. I’ve never told the story of my half-brother, Mike. After my parents died, long after Mike died, I’m finally ready. I’m well on my way to a first draft, and it’s been a fascinating journey. Here is the intro, to give you a hint of the book to come.
Angry shouts fly through the open kitchen window like sprays of buckshot. I can’t unravel the words, because I cup my hands tight over my ears to block the sound.
A swirling column of dust specks gives me a focus for displacing my fear, a desperate distraction. I track the journey as each dust mote floats from deep shadows into blazing sunshafts.
I remember a blanket of summer heat; I still can smell the oil-stains on the concrete floor of the wood-framed garage attached to our little suburban house. I remember tucking and folding myself into a ball, squatting in my t-shirt and shorts, jamming my hipbones against the wall, trying to disappear.
I was six. My teenaged brother, my mother’s son from her brief and disastrous first marriage, was screaming at my mother in the kitchen. Mike towered over Isabelle, arms braced around her, caging her against the wall. His anger poured out, resentment at my father—his stepfather. Frustration, rage. My mother did her best to speak calmly, to talk him down.
Terrified, I ran out to the garage to hide.
I can reclaim few memories of life with my brother, Mike, beyond that summer day in 1957. Though I shared a bedroom with him for six years, I’ve blocked nearly every memory, even the good ones. The great tragedy of my mother’s life, Mike has long been gone. My mother and father, Isabelle and Don, are gone. No one survives to answer questions. And my mother and father weren’t eager to talk about Mike even when they were alive.
I knew my mother saved the newspaper stories documenting Mike’s death. I had read them when they hit the front page of The Denver Post in 1976, and for many years I felt I had no need to revisit them. When I finally got around to asking my mother about the file’s whereabouts, Isabelle told me she destroyed those stories because she found them too painful to keep. I was startled, but I knew I could reconstruct Mike’s last days in the news archives when I reached that point in my life when I would need to revisit his death.
After Isabelle died in 2002, I said offhandedly to my father that I wished Mom had saved those clippings. Don told me that when he saw Isabelle toss the envelope, he pulled it from the trash and hid it away. The file existed after all—a sheaf of yellowing sheets and decades-old correspondence to document Mike’s difficult life in and out of our family.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Don had the file, given my father’s fondness for list-making and timeline-constructing. He documented his family life as he documented his scientific research and fieldwork.
In my own time, I surely would want to reread those letters and stories. But not then. My own children were still middle-schoolers, Mike’s story was too complicated, my needs lay elsewhere. I was relieved to know the opportunity still existed, preserved in a file drawer in my father’s bedroom.
A few years ago, on a visit to my father in his Denver apartment, Don told me he had set aside the file. He felt it was time to pass it on, that I should take it. But when I left for home, I forgot the envelope. “Forgot.”
Don was then in his nineties, with macular degeneration taking nearly all of his sight. When I asked about the envelope on my next visit, he said, with anguish, that he had thrown it away by mistake as he was culling old papers. He had thought to toss something unimportant, but he misread the label and tossed the “Mike” file.
Disappointed, but philosophical, I reverted to my assumptions about the necessity of archival research. I knew I could rebuild the public chapter of Mike’s story, at least. And then, at the beginning of 2011, we moved my father from Denver to Salt Lake City, to live near us as he approached 95. We cleaned out his filing cabinet, and there it was, the envelope marked with my mother’s block letters, “MIKE.” The file had nine lives, and my father hadn’t jettisoned it after all.
Don lived only a few more weeks. I left his papers in boxes for months. When I unpacked them, there was the clasped manila envelope again, all that remains of Mike’s stories, along with a scatter of photos in our family albums.
The envelope feels incendiary. It’s taken me a year to open it. But, now, I do so. Finally, I’m ready to grapple with Mike’s life and death and to follow the story of my mother and her lost son wherever the details lead, further and further into the dark recesses of my family—and behind the doors I’ve barricaded in myself.
Salt Lake City, February 2012