Gary Lee Barlow
The uncanny, says Freud, isn’t the perfectly strange: it’s the half familiar. I see so many faces, hear so many voices. I know them not, yet well; their words, my words merge and I cannot remember what news-reel in my semi-conscious dream state, they poured out of behind these burning eyelids. Eyes that hurt this moment, not in surprised delight, but out of recognition because as I watch him, I know in my chromosomes he is my brother – Dead. Alive. Dead again and I know for sure. No. I only recall how much my actual brother looked like me, like my father did, or do I look like them? Early June, 1992. I sat at the foot of his bed in St. Luke’s Hospital. I’d had to drive to Cleveland, Texas with my mother to a dilapidated rental property we owned. A woman had called and said my brother was there -- and very ill. I drove my mother to him, down that shanty-town road to a wormwood shack. I had to pick him up in my arms and carry him to Momma’s deep blue Deville. We had made a bed for him in the back seat, and once I got him situated, we drove back to Houston in silence. I knew the family secret, about my Bubba, Gary, but could not speak it. Not to her.
Once in the Emergency Room, the doctor asked Momma how long he’d had Lupus. His skin was mottled, lumpy, from exposure to sunlight. It had looked much worse than it really was for as long as I could remember, and he smelled pretty badly too, something bathing did little to remedy.
“Since puberty,” she answered, adding that it was never treated and went undiagnosed, “or if he knew, he did not tell us,” she told the doctor, but that is not what troubled Momma now. She knew he was dying. We were all surprised he had lasted this long, but still there were those other issues about his life – things she never could acknowledge.
I sat at the foot of his bed that second day at St. Luke’s and watched his face. He, the oldest, her only son, and I, the youngest living child, were most like her in ways only the intimate would note. He was only 5’6” and I two inches shorter. Our other sisters, much taller, like Daddy. I watched him breathe and sleep. At 54, my age on my next birthday, his dark curls and heavy beard had very little gray, except around the edges. I envied his long dark lashes and his beautiful face, the one nature gave him, and I mourned that he had not cared much for it himself, but instead tried to look tougher, grittier, dirtier and meaner than he ever could be. Yet this self-neglect, what I naively believed was an act of a simpleton, was his way of surviving; He died on June 29th as we watched and prayed a Novena for his final peace. My Momma watched, silently cried, and I saw resistance leave her, futility set in; she had finally let go of all of us. We three daughters in the room were stronger than her only son, born on her birthday…in letting go of him; there was also no reason for her to fight her own demise. We didn’t need her severe mercy like he did.
Today as I watch someone else’s son, who is perhaps 16 years younger than me, as I was sixteen years younger than my brother, Gary Lee, I am shocked by this half-familiar face, this gentle voice, and yes, I am shaken. Serendipity happens when we least expect it – there was a time in the 1980s when I could not cope with these sudden shocks, more alarming than an unexpected electrical current in my body. I thought it was magic, superstition, or worse, schizophrenia, but no, it is true recognition, perhaps a bit mingled now with my own God-consciousness working itself into the world. Once though, in graduate school, the doctoral program I barely started and never finished, I met a robust fellow named Harry, who turned out to be a close relative, but it was not a relationship either of us willfully acknowledged. We shared a very close family name too, a rare one, Momma’s maiden name, from the same place in time. All I could do was swallow hard and walk away. It was the late 80s, Houston, and he was a “real” white guy; his lineage more legitimate than mine. That same face was on Momma’s mantel – Grandpa Louis Sidney, a direct descendant of Louis Le Pelletier de la Houssaye.
And yet, here I am again speaking of another man as my brother. He has my brother’s face and as I watch him, it brings me to tears because I loved my Bubba – my fragile, girlish incompetent foolish Bubba – here I am reinvoking lives, branches diseased, ending painfully and much too soon. His illnesses were the night side of our lives, both the ones we talked about and the ones we could not address, or in those times, none of us were equipped to address. I never knew what my brother died from in the real. His Jewish doctor, Doc. Harold Schwartz, was a life-long family friend who was always protecting Momma. She thought Bubba had cancer, but it was the 90s and there wasn’t much my brother had not done in the undertow years. I had seen many of those quickly withering men, stricken in the prime of life, but no one in my family said a word if they knew. Again, it was the early, post 1980s era in America. Death and disaster from a malicious Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was in the news and all over the community, but not a part of our lives. There was silence.
Brother’s death wasn’t mentioned much. He was an anomaly in a family of overachievers. Even though we were fraught with a violent history and troubled times, my parents succeeded well as educators and providers of food and shelter to their own and many other people’s children. My sisters went to college. They had babies and husbands. I was the child in the house. Bubba was the failure, a barber who did not work anywhere long, who chained smoked Buglers’ tobacco, self-rolled, and pot when he could get it. My parents had no idea what marijuana was, and called me a liar and a troublemaker when I complained. I almost hated my brother, but like my parents, I too felt sorry for him because I knew he wasn’t smart. Smarts were the ticket in my family.
But not emotional health. Not truth. Not for people who had to spend their lives denying all kinds of truths just to survive. What we knew was how to keep our business and our thoughts to ourselves lest someone really got hurt. It was pure wisdom. It worked sometimes.
He has been dead now sixteen years. Momma has been dead twelve years. My father died in 1984. Today I see them in unlikely places, in the voices and faces of relatives I barely know; some of them actually claim kinship, like Jeanne, my cousin and Cursillo sister. Some not, like my black, staunch Republican niece, who was raised with me, yet rarely claims our marginal side of her family. Except for validity, I cannot tell the difference between these white and black sides of my family. It makes no difference anymore, if it ever did, except when I remember the folks I loved and how they hesitated to say so many things about their lives, lives they felt were unfulfilled. Lives never truly lived.
My sorrow is that I cannot make it up to any of them. Not even telling tales out of school will help them now, for I cannot fix or transform the past. I can say with certitude that I really miss them, their still silent beauty -- their knowing and believing in all the truths we still can’t speak. Truths about what bloodlines really do, and how some things are passed on without anyone’s permission. I am still his sister, still their daughter, still.
And yes, I do know all my brothers and sisters whether they know me. Or not.