It is days like today that I wish I believed in a god.
My brother Scott would have been 35 today. He’s gone now, having passed away almost a year ago on October 7, 2012. Yesterday was eleven months since his death.
Scott’s memory pings me at random interludes. I don’t cry every day; the worst of my grief seems to have faded. I thought about Scott when I was in Albuquerque—how unfair it was that I was healthy and able to travel, while Scott had been saddled with bipolar disorder, unable to count on the stability of his own body as he moved through the world. But he did move through the world; he lived all over the place during his four-plus years as a Marine. Being a Marine was one of the proudest experiences of Scott’s life, and I’m grateful he was able to serve. It’s hard to know what military life was like for him with his bipolar disorder. Within my family, we don’t agree on how the military affected his mental health. For me, knowing it was something he wanted and was able to achieve seems like its own measure of worth.
He’s been on my mind for the past week, with his birthday and death anniversary so close on the calendar. When I think back now on Scott’s life and death, I feel grateful for my family. We are a family that nurtures individuality, and I am glad that each member of my family had their own relationship with Scott. It is through those other relationships that I came to know him better, that I was able to better understand him. I feel a lot of regret for things that went unsaid, for the apologies and forgivenesses that we never uttered aloud. More than once have I wished I could reach back in time to say and do more. Do I believe I could have saved him from suicide? No. I have to believe that he made his choice. I don’t believe suicide to be an irrational response to what must have felt like an impossible situation. I’m sad that we couldn’t save him and that there weren’t better treatment options for him. It tears me up inside that he had to live with bipolar for so long, to endure its terrible lows with little relief from the pain. I suppose the best I can say now is that he is not in pain any more. And for that, I am grateful.
Scott’s death showed me how fragile we all are. Without thinking about it, I had always assumed my family was invincible. We are a solid, sturdy bunch. But alone, each of us is fragile, capable of being broken by the chaos and cruelty of life. I think it was a struggle for Scott to stay with us as long as he did—suicide was always an option, and he resisted the temptation for many years.
When he passed away, we held two ceremonies for Scott. At our informal family ceremony, my sister-in-law’s uncle read this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver, and I thought I’d share it today. I think of it often, and it makes me cry. It really is a perfect fit for Scott.
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
I’m not inclined to believe in a life after this one. The day of Scott’s military funeral was a harsh, cold, grey autumn day. After I stepped outside of the pavillion where I placed my hands on the box that contained his remains, a flock of wild geese soared overhead, honking to announce their passage above. I like to think that they were speaking for Scott, saying good-bye and thank you.
* * *
1) The photo is an old family photo, taken before my little sister was born. Starting at the top left and going clockwise, that’s Charlie, Scott, my mother, John, and me. I’m probably about three or four years old, which means the photo was taken in 1984 or 1985. Charlie, Scott, and John are my three brothers.
2) The poem is from this site.