Grieving Michael

Sometime in the morning on July 15th, my older brother Michael died in his sleep. It managed to be both completely unexpected and all too expected. For those who didn’t know Michael, he had Down syndrome and lived at home with my parents. In recent years he had been having more and more health problems, although I don’t think anyone anticipated that his death would be so sudden and so unanticipated. In the past few days, all of his friends, as well as mine, my sister’s, and my parents’, have been sharing their thoughts about Michael. To know him was to be his friend, and for him to have your phone number was to be guaranteed that there would always be a voicemail waiting for you on your phone. Always.

I wanted to share some of my favorite memories of Michael, but they’re all a mess. I have no organizational scheme beyond fondness.

Some of my earliest memories of Michael aren’t even properly my own memories. They’re the stories that my parents have told so many times that they have become mine. Michael and I shared a room until I reached 5th grade. I had the top bunk and he had the bottom, an arrangement that suited me just fine, because it meant that the giant fox that lived under the bed would eat him first. One night, after I had fallen asleep (this must have been before I learned to read), Michael got out of bed and pulled open our tub of Legos and began playing with them. When my mom opened the door and saw him in the middle of Legos strewn all over the floor, she asked him in mock concern, “Michael! Who made this mess?” Without missing a beat, Michael pointed to me asleep in the top bunk and said, “Peter!”

While I was still in elementary school, I became very concerned about where I would go to college. I was abetted in this concern by my dad, who had me do research on all the schools I was interested in. I remember that I decided I wanted to attend either Northern Arizona or Ohio State, and I even wrote letters of interest to them. I can’t imagine what those admissions officers made of a letter from a ten year old. What I don’t remember, but my dad does, is that I became very concerned about where Michael would go, and ended up deciding that he would go and live with me in college. Though Michael didn’t go to Kansas or Toronto with me, he always wanted shirts and hats from my schools, and whenever I came home to visit he made sure that he was decked out in the appropriate clothing.

We were often together growing up. He was my audience when I practiced the cello, and I frequently ended up as his interpreter, whether for people who weren’t used to parsing his speech or sometimes my parents when they couldn’t understand him, although I also sometimes pretended I didn’t know what he was saying if it was something that was going to get me into trouble. We were neither of us perfect angels, though we both liked to pretend that we were.

My last year of high school, I got really into the Gilmore Girls, and I made a point of watching it regularly. When I went away for college the next year, Michael continued watching it, because it was Peter’s show.

A few years ago, Michael and I engaged in a war of passive aggression. I broke my ankle while visiting home in Fargo, and ended up being confined to the lower level of my parents house for a month, where my only options were to lie in bed or lie in a recliner in the downstairs TV room. This, unfortunately for both of us, was Michael’s TV room (not to be confused with the TV in his bedroom, the TV in the kitchen, or the TV in the upstairs TV room). This was the TV where he watched his favorite 90s shows on DVD (Full House and Diagnosis Murder) as well as his after dinner movie. Full House was the worst. He watched it with the volume way up, and over the years he had memorized all the dialog, which he would shout along with Uncle Jesse. I would regularly awaken from my painkiller-imposed drowsiness to him yelling joyously at the TV, and if I asked him to turn it down, more often than not he would turn the volume up. If I was watching TV, he would take the remotes and move them across the room. I responded to these opening gambits by figuring out what his schedule for watching TV was and putting movies on ten minutes before he came down. Brothers always love each other, but they don’t always like each other, and we spent that month figuring out how far we were willing to push each other. When telling me to go back to Toronto didn’t succeed, he moved on to trying to play for sympathy. When my parents were with us, he took to collapsing at the bottom of the steps, grabbing his ankle, and moaning loudly, “My leg, my leg!” But when I could finally leave the house on my own, one of my first trips was to take him to see the last Harry Potter movie. We didn’t always get along, but it was always temporary.

Probably the greatest thing I ever did, in Michael’s eyes, was marry Renee. He was enamored of her from the start, especially because she gave him her phone number the first time I brought her home for Christmas after four months of dating. Amy and I liked to joke that Renee was the sibling Michael loved best, because of the three of us she was the most likely to pick up her phone. I learned in grad school that I had to leave my phone on silent all the time. The moment I forgot and left it off silent was the moment that Michael called me in the middle of Latin class. I warned her that first time I brought her home that at some point, Michael would tell her (and me) to go back home, which he always did whenever our presence interfered with his schedule in some way. But such admonitions were short-lived, and he was always happier to have us there than to see us going. He was so excited for our wedding, especially to walk up the aisle as a groomsman with Renee’s sister.

He was a big fan of Renee’s family, and was a critical factor in how much our mothers talked to each other on the phone, through a maneuver well known to most of his phone correspondents, the Michael phone pass, in which he called you, and then proceeded to hand the phone over to every other person in the room with him to say hello. It wasn’t enough for Michael to talk to you. He had to make sure you had a chance to talk to everyone he was with too, which is how I’ve ended up awkwardly saying hello to many of his friends over the years.

When I visited Fargo, we had a couple of time honored traditions. First, we always had to go for ice cream together at least once. Second, we would go out to eat together at Olive Garden and then go see a movie. He usually picked the movie out months in advance, by careful consultation of movie release dates, which he had an encyclopedic knowledge of, and our phone calls would usually feature some planning about what movie we were going to. No parents were allowed on these trips, although Amy and Renee were invited if they were in town.

I also occasionally taught Michael how to use the internet, accidentally at first, but then on purpose. When I was in college, I read the NYTimes fairly regularly, and when I was home I set up a bookmark in our browser. It stayed there when I went back to college, but Michael found it and realized that he could get entertainment news about movie stars, which he became remarkably good at discovering. But the most exasperating thing, from my parents’ perspective, that I introduced Michael to was a website for watching current movie trailers. He was thrilled, my mother was not, as she quickly found herself hauled to the computer room on a regular basis to watch whatever trailer had captured his fancy.

Michael was a great prankster. There’s a part of me that still thinks this is all just an elaborate prank he’s pulling on us, and he’s going to open his eyes one day and say, “Gotcha mom!” Perhaps it’s a measure of both how innocent and inadvertently dark Michael could be that such a prank could have seemed possible for at least a few moments.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anne Carson’s Nox, the scrapbook meditation on translation and poetry on the occasion of her own brother’s death. It’s currently in my office, and I haven’t been there since I heard the news. Even if I had it, I don’t think I could get very far right now. I haven’t been able to read more than a few pages of anything, and Nox is more than I can handle right now. The structure of Nox is oriented around the process of translating Catullus 101 as a means of remembering her brother. Catullus 101 is itself a poem about the loss of a brother. Her translation reads:

Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed —
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this — what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials —
accept! Soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.

I hadn’t remembered until I was googling for her translation that her own brother was named Michael.

In remembering Michael, I think about all the great things we shared, and the things he won’t be here to share in the future. His time with us was too short, but wonderful for all that. I miss him so much, and it’s an absence I know I’ll feel every day for the rest of my life.


1 Comment

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One response to “Grieving Michael

  1. Anonymous

    This was a really beautiful post. It sounds like Michael was blessed with a wonderful brother. I’m sorry for your loss.

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