For my brother Tony: May 1, 1966 to May 3, 1987
Dad and I sat next to each other at the cemetery,
folding chairs cold and hard on that spring
afternoon. He and I were holding hands, but
his wife slid her chilly fingers in between and
how quickly I pulled away, watched the men
lower your body into the mud-soaked ground.
At the funeral dinner, Dad heard me mouthing off,
“I’m never calling her Mom again.” He grabbed
my hand, dragged me upstairs and locked us
in a tiny bathroom. “Your real mother was
an egg donor,” he said. “That woman downstairs
is your mother.” He wiped his nose on his white
handkerchief, stuffed it back in his pocket.
He left me to stare at my reflection, black rivulets
down my cheeks, hazel eyes like his, curly hair.
You looked just like our mother: light skin, bright
green eyes, full lips. And now, just like her,
you had betrayed me: here one day, then gone.
You left us at 21—brown leather jacket and
blue jeans, feathered hair parted down the middle,
freckles, the bright green eyes you got from
our mother. I never wondered if her leaving
broke you, smoking and drinking by 12,
popping pills by 13, dealing drugs in your
Windsor knot and dress pants to the stoners
at our catholic school just down the block
from home. You worshiped the Doors,
danced with the gangly arms and wild heart
of a rock star, and Dad imagined you’d run off
to join a band and never come back—like her.
After your wreck on that rainy night, we found
your box of poems, foretelling a life that would
end before you aged. “Never trust anyone over
30,” the hippies once chanted, and you would
have raised your fist right alongside them.
Dear brother, this year you would be 49, far
too old to trust—and yet, I would still follow
your hunched shoulders all the way down
to the creek slithering behind Grandma’s,
pack of lifted Winston 100s and box of matches,
I’d perch beside you on a flat rock, light
the cigs against the wind, and not yet knowing
how to inhale, but so you’d think I was as cool
as I believed you to be, hold the smoke in my mouth
as long as I could stand, the stale taste of tobacco,
cotton and paper mixing on my tongue, pretend.
Every May I sift through the glut of greeting cards
with their glowing notes: Thank you for raising me,
You’ve always been there, and To my best friend.
I look for the one that says, Enjoy your day,
because Carla, as my mother signs letters to me,
was never a Mom. She and my father split up
when I was a baby, and Dad told her never to come back.
She went away to college, traveled the world,
let another woman feed me, bathe me, beat me
with leather belts. I see her in a black turtleneck and
blue jeans, svelte, five-ten, hair to her waist, bright green eyes,
cheek bones that could slice paper. She sips Scotch,
smokes Marlboro Reds, poses for art students, sketches
self-portraits. At 40, she walks down the aisle, again,
settles into a new life in New England, spends her days
in an art studio piecing magazine clippings into collage art,
teaching millionaires’ wives how to paint. We met once
in my hometown, hugged like strangers, dined on prime rib,
returned to our separate lives of sending letters
about the weather. Some friends say I owe her judgment,
others, respect. As every new spring brings
its buckets of rain, I wonder what we owe each other.