(On Memory, Story, and Art. For Brendon)
This is not a blog about my brother, who died suddenly last month at the age of fifty-one. Grief is still doing that thing it does when it moves in waves underneath language, making little sense while at the same time, crystallizing everything I know into a fine and painful point. Unformed. You can see why this can’t be about my brother.
After Brendon’s death, I went to that what-day-is-it place that seeks out the person who was lost, where I talk out loud to the air and float in questions and senses of the person, then am suddenly jolted back to the “real” world of clocks and dinner, the guess-I-still-have-to-do-stuff world I’d rather delay for a while.
In that period of in-between, my husband and I created a remembrance of photos, video clips, and stories for my brother’s service. With each photo or memory from someone who cared about Brendon, I was filled with gratitude.1
By the way did I say this was not about my brother? Because it is about my brother. But also memory, which is story, which is art, which is memory, which is my brother.
Many of the incoming stories from family and friends echoed my own memories of Brendon, who often helped me with my math homework when we were teenagers, patiently working with me until he found the explanation that would click. I had thought my big brother had only done this for me! But it turns out he was also tutoring his best friend regularly in math. He did the same thing for others in college, where some of his friends said they never would have made it through quantum physics without him, as he may have been the only one who fully understood it.
Even after my decades of work in the field of education, it had never dawned on me that my brother was a teacher. Not his field, maybe, but it was his person. His colleagues reiterated this and more, their memories suggesting it would be understatement to call him an “expert in his field” of electrical engineering. He taught the experts.
Others’ memories jogged or filled in my own. “Oh, right, I forgot about the mattress-down-the-staircase rides he used to do!” Or “Wait, he was the one who directed the Murphy grandkids to make the Super Grandma book, the one where we each designed a page to show her how great she was?”
Then there were memories that, even though I was there, came with no “ding ding” of recognition at all. The time he attached a sled to the back of his car and drove us around a parking lot in the snow? Even when I racked my brain so I could relive that happy memory with my brother, nothing came.
What else did I not remember? And how did the weight I gave my own memories affect my impressions of him? How small one person’s memory can be. And if all we have of a person once they’re gone are our collective memories of them, how much we need other people to fill in what we did not know.
Story vs. Exposition vs. Persuasion
One of my day jobs is to ghostwrite people’s life stories. It is not uncommon for someone to say after a long interview, “Wow, I’ve never told anyone that.” Or, “I think you now know me better than my family does!” It is an honor to be trusted with people’s stories in this way, for them to become vulnerable with this stranger-writer as we shape their lives into narrative form.
As I put their stories to paper, their memories seem to become part of me, almost as if they have expanded my own memory, adding to my own sense of what life is, as experienced by so many different people.
I suspect this is part of why I’ve always been drawn to fiction, memoir, and history.
Because if I can’t even remember events I was there to experience, how can I know the collective histories, the story of us, without others’ stories? And by “us” I mean all the “us-es”, the families and marriages and friendships, the nations and the bigger-than-nations.
Story. We rarely give it the credit it deserves. Subjective? Of course. Inexact, murky, incomplete, subject to humans’ impressive capacity for self delusion? Yes! But the collective arrow formed by all who work memory into something bigger such as art, is at least as valuable as that which we can quantify. That co-created arrow points to the gaps in our collective memory and illustrates how much we need each other to paint a fuller picture.
Where We Meet: Paradox
Brendon and I were always very different people, or at least I thought so. He was left-brained, I was right (whatever that means, because neither of us fit perfectly into either box, and he was one of the first people to show me how creative math could be).
I have always loved poetry and fiction, which I hear critiqued sometimes as not very “useful” pursuits. After all, fiction is made up, not even real! Frivolous diversion! Of course, it is in not being real, that it finds the clearest path to what is real about human experience, often in ways non-fiction can miss.
While I don’t knock expository and persuasive writing (they are a big part of my work), I find they are often stuck with barreling through the front door of the intellect, which locks entry to the self via belief, bias, argument, and identity/self-concept. Tight as the writing may be, time and time again, smack! Then a goose-egg as some very smart and persuasive people rub their heads wondering what went wrong, why nobody let them in.
Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, get to sneak in the side door, where imagination has a key that is often shaped like beauty.2
Unlike me, Brendon gravitated toward math and science, his first passion being quantum physics. (I dropped out of high school physics after the first week, preferring anatomy and biology, where I could more clearly see the interconnectedness in systems). If you asked me what my brother’s career path was, I could only say, “research with lasers” then “something with semi-conductors.”
But do you know what the quantum physicists say about their work? Nobel Prizewinner in Physics Neils Bohr wrote, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”
Hence our places of overlap, like grief, move in the waves underneath language, my brother and I choosing different parameters to attempt the launch beyond them, pursuing the real in the limited disciplines we have.
We did not meet in that place in life, and Brendon and I had many long, circular conversations in which language felt almost useless. For us, words, beliefs, and memories clashed until we could no longer make sense of them together. And maybe because it is tiring for two people to endlessly trek across linguistic minefields to reach each other, eventually our conversations became few and far between. Not unfriendly in his last years of life, but walking only the surface of daily experience when they occurred at all.
If I believe my beautiful brother continues, and I do, it is in that intangible place that is as real as our avoidance of it, as real as the hard world we like to measure and metricize in every which way we can. Where Brendon is now, I imagine paradox is as comfortable as my coffee in the morning and the book I pull from the shelf to read with it.
Here, in the place he has left and where I am left to wonder, there is daily life. Here, where paradox and counterintuition are not comfortable, where I sit in stories that are more real for being made-up, where the light cast on my page is simultaneously particle and wave. Here where we shared our childhood, our goofy humor, and a love for running and play. Here where the blood, veins, and muscles that propelled him forward on his last run through his neighborhood on his last day of life, still propel me forward on my own morning runs, where ZZ Top blasts through my earbuds just so I can feel closer to him. Here where we shared the blood that pulses through our unanswered questions about the brief lives we are here to live.
For Brendon, maybe the minefields have cleared. Maybe my words don’t have to make sense anymore. Maybe he knows me without them.
1. Thank you to any one of you who shares your loving memory of someone to a person who lost them. Your words are bigger than you know.
2. Beauty in story, here, which is not to say fiction is cosmetic veneer for agenda and argument. On this I think of Eudora Welty’s essay “Must the Artist Crusade?” in her book On Writing, in which she writes that “a plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which can be answered.” This is also not to say that all artists are driven by the dictum to “Reveal the TRUTH!” in everything they create.