Saturday, March 14, 2009

Elegy for a Courageous Anarchist Bird-watching Sister

You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone.

It’s probably the simplest, most straightforward maxim regarding the mourning of what’s been lost to us. No matter how large this pearly wisdom shines when you’ve held it in your clammy hands, it seems to belong in someone else’s net. For tragedy is unimaginable. You’ve spent your whole life recognizing patterns and the square pegs fitting into square holes. Nothing out of place, as everything arrives with a nearly fatalistic clockwork: a meaningful narrative, riddled with setbacks but leading towards some grand purpose revealed at the end of our lives, as it had to be, as we always thought it would.

I write this listening to Paul Simon’s “Concert in the Park, August 15, 1991.” It used to belong to my sister. The listening is a seed to various trees of thought: she was thirteen years old when Simon sang this in Central Park; she was supposed to go to NYC for the first time in March to attend an anthropological conference; she and I listened to the album, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” a lot when I was staying with her in a village in France over two weeks in the autumn of 2005. I hear Simon sing about the “Sounds of Silence,” and the lyrics have a novel context for me, one that cannot be easily dismissed. They convey not silence but emptiness and the foreverness of that.

Context: for me it is shapeshifting my view of the world, molding new emotional responses to an old set of words that have taken on a tragic resonance: simple, everyday words like “sister,” “sibling,” “death,” “she died,” “pneumonia,” “ashes,” “Upstate New York,” “Jennifer.”

The fifth of May. In Mexico, it’s called Cinco de Mayo and in Japan it’s Children’s Day. It’s supposed to be a special, happy day. It’s supposed to be celebrated. My parents were married on May 5th, 1972. And my sister, Jennifer Lee Lotman was born on May 5th, 1978. My parents are no longer married. And my sister is no longer alive.

My sister, who handled her words with the delicacy of a collector arranging flowers in a Ming vase, would probably have minded my saying that she was the best sister a person could ever have. As a student of anthropology, she would criticize me for my subjectivity and as someone sensitive to nuance, she would likely be critical of such absolutism. But I cannot help myself. I have always been a sentimentalist and have therefore been very busy with memory over the past month.

We played as children, though we were indoor kids, rather than outdoor ones. Toys, computer games, board games. Role playing. Comic books: she introduced me to the X-Men when I was hero-worshipping Batman, Spiderman, and the Incredible Hulk.  We spent many afternoons drawing together and putting dialogue into the avatars' mouths. 
As teenagers we drifted apart.  I decided on a conventional path: sports and girls. Drinking buddies. She got into Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Morrissey. She published poetry, read French literature.  She went to art school at Oberlin and wound up in Santa Cruz. Eventually she moved to France and moved around there for six years. There anarchy became not an idea but a way of life. A practiced philosophy. She never backed down on a protest. With her thumb pointed out, she traveled freely throughout the continent, doing her masters there on hitchhiking. In French. An oral presentation.

By the summer of 2001, whatever adolescent hang-ups we might have had with one another was behind us. I was visiting her in Paris. I remember in particular a lovely afternoon with her in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. We had gone for a long walk alone, after a meal at a Moroccan restaurant and wound up near the stone for Oscar Wilde. We spoke of each other's dreams, of our loves, and our secrets.  Childhood and the future. After so many years managing on our own, we had become friends, finally, and we would never have another fight again.

Simon says:
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you're blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow

In Binghamton I took the Paul Simon CD home with me after driving with my mother for the last time to Binghamton, New York to pick up my sister's things. It had been a melancholy drive, pouring rain, sleet; knowledge that she would not be by the kitchen window when we pulled into her parking spot, heating some soup she discovered in one of the various cookbooks my mother had sent her. 

The apartment, nearly always dark because of the inadequate natural light and already inclement New York winter weather, had a foreboding quality when we entered. Toys were scattered through the den and bedrooms higgledy-piggedly, signaling the abruptness that had interrupted our days. Like gravediggers, we were hunting for souvenirs of what my sister had left behind, something to help the living. In her office, we excavated some of her papers—I was crazy to find anything she might have written, particularly in her characteristic cursive. My mother looked in vain for Jennifer’s wedding dress as well as her eyeglasses.

I took with me her binoculars, which she must have used to watch for birds. Or riot police. Or the margins. The small stuff.

I filled the car with books from her doctorate studies, but that very well could have been there for her personal pleasure: Chomsky’s “What Uncle Sam Really Wants,” Levi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques,” “Sex in Development: Science, Sexuality, and Morality in Global Perspective,” “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America,” “Scenes From the Bathhouse and other Stories of Communist Russia,” “Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace,” among many, many others. You can get a good idea of who a person is when you peruse their library shelves. I cleared the bookcase, filling the back of the car with stacks of books, planning to read them, all of them, no matter how many years it would take me— hoping that once I’ve absorbed their ideas, in some way I will be able to carry on my sister’s spirit as she might have intended.

One book that particularly stands out is “We Are Everywhere: the Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism.” Inside the book on page 286 is a woman dressed up like a magic peacock fairy being chased by about ten policemen in black riot gear. “Balls to the IMF” it says in the caption. It’s from a protest in Prague, the Czech Republic. The picture is dated September 26th, 2000. This was the day and place when and where my sister met her husband, Benoit Vincents.

Simon says: Let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together.

Benoit is a third-generation communist from a family of Parisian architects. He is tall, blonde, lanky. When they met my sister could barely speak French. Within a year she was fluent. She and Benoit spent the next six years hitchhiking throughout Europe. They opened squats in Marseilles and Paris and ran a library for immigrants and activists.

In the novel that I wrote about my family, I turned Benoit into Khalil, a French born Arab. I did it for dramatic purposes as well as to politicize the novel.

Their lives were pivotal enough without my distortions.

In addition to Paul Simon, I took with me U2’s “Joshua Tree,” The Cure’s “Staring at the Sea: The Singles,” a compilation called “Surf Beat Behind the Iron Curtain,” Dead Can Dance’s “Toward the Within,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly,” Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet,” and an Italian punk group called CCCP Fedelialla Linea.

You can also tell a lot about a person’s interests by their musical tastes.

Something Benoit told my family when she was sick in the hospital: that my sister loved the CD compilations I used to send her. That when school and bureaucracy became too much for her to handle, she would shut the door and turn on one of my mixed CDs very loud. Privately, she would dance to the music for about thirty minutes or until she had exorcised whatever troubled her. Now knowing this only after her passing, I see it as a communion we had, though I had not known its intimacy.

Benoit played these compilations when my sister was in a coma, dying. Her hands and feet had turned purple from the lack of circulation. By this time, her pneumonia had become septic shock in which all her blood was working just keeping her vitals going. But her organs were already failing at that point and the doctors were not sure how much oxygen her brain had been deprived of. They had given her a 20% chance to survive. Benoit played the music, the music I had in mind that would organize her rhythm into dance steps, but now intended to diffuse through dimensions into some kind of consciousness not yet lost to us.

Like me trying to carry her on by reading her books, a husband hoping the splendidness of music could be absorbed by his wife, fast asleep and falling deeper into the place where no whispers are heard, where no laughter forms.

Another thing about music: at the memorial service in Binghamton, New York, Benoit stood before the audience and spoke of how when nihilism got the best of him and gloom and doom became his voice, my sister would put on the folk song, “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail.” He spoke how she would sing the lyrics and dance around him until he managed to turn a smile.

Hope: that was the feeling she promised, even when it seemed there was none.

At the funeral, Benoit played the song as their three-year-old son Miles Raphael ran up and down the room, laughing—no idea what had become of his mother. Me, like nearly everyone else in the room, shuddered with our tears.

It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

Jennifer intended to complete her doctorate in France. She was supposed to do this in Vannes, a lovely coastal town in Brittany. There she planned to work with recovering heroin addicts on alternative treatment programs. She wanted to understand the nature of addiction and treatment within a certain political economy, how “micro-level and macro-level structural contexts lend themselves to an equivocation between the objectives of therapy and social control.” To quote further from her application to a foundation for scholastic funding, Jennifer wrote, “The applicant’s aspiration is that the confrontation and alliance of different theoretical perspectives will forcefully contribute something new to anthropology.”

“How did you learn how to write like this?” I wrote to her, completely bamboozled by the language of academia. She responded that you “learn how to write like an academic or you get the boot.”

Because of my extensive traveling, my mother likes to tell people that I am at home anywhere, with kings and paupers. But it’s my sister who learned the languages to survive. Who could speak French with an Algerian refugee and then teach him his civil liberties… who having hitched a ride on some woebegone country road could keep the long-distance driver awake deep into the night with her storytelling… who was bound to learn the language of addicts and what there was to help them in their recovery.

Me, I come and go, there and back again. Like a ghost.

She was supposed to finish the year in France.

She was supposed to visit me in Japan this year.

I have been living or traveling from Tokyo for the past six years. Because Jenni lived in France for much of the decade we only saw ourselves intermittently. I always expected that there would be time enough for travel together, that our future had at least another fifty years and that another fifty years was a very long time indeed. Meanwhile, she finally had some money saved and was intending to spend a week in Tokyo.

When she was put in a coma and things went from a 50/50 chance of survival to possible organ failure, my imagined experience of us skipping through streets together was how I meditated upon her recovery. I thought if I could just concentrate hard enough on simple pleasures—sipping coffee on my balcony in the mornings, karaoke in the afternoons, dancing at nights, the food, temples and parks, Jenni discussing topics with Ariko’s mother in French, long, long walks together where we talk and talk: I so very much wanted to see Japan through her eyes, to hear from her what I might have missed while taking things for granted—if I focused on these inspirations I could somehow bring her back. These visions were how I self-medicated during her illness, these unanswered prayers.

For I never ever thought she was supposed to die.

When the doctors had become infectious with their pessimism, my father had to sneak a mobile phone into my sister’s room. It was against hospital regulations but my father wanted me to have the chance to say goodbye. I had had the idea that he do this as well before he had offered. But I had no intention of saying goodbye.

Because she was not supposed to die.

Although she had been in a medicated coma for five days already, he cupped the phone to her ear. I said many times, many, many times, “Come back to us, Jenni. I love you.” And I told her of all the fun we would have in Japan and that if she wanted, I would fund us to go to Thailand or India and we would go hiking in the Himalayas or swim in the Andaman Sea and that within a year she would get better but in the meantime I would take care of her. I told her how we would never-ever take time for granted again.

Simon says: Who am I to blow against the wind?

I had been in America with her the day she caught the ill breeze that had infected her. By the time my mother contacted me in Japan a few days after my return, she was at the hospital in an induced sleep. With dire prospects.

The reason I had been in America was because of my grandfather’s funeral. After a long bout with cancer, he was going to be buried in Arlington Cemetery with a 21-gun salute, a hero’s sendoff.

It was unseasonably warm for February. And the sky a rich blue fancied by poets. My sister looked beautiful in a black dress and silver fringed shawl. In contact lenses and tights, her hair shoulder length and brushed back she did not look like an academic so much as a folk singer. For all the sadness a funeral deserved it had been a happy day for us and my mother and sister lingered as long as they could in the Washington area before the long drive home to central Virginia. Because we were saying goodbye and we didn’t know when the three of us would manage to be together again. My mother said that after we fare-thee-welled, my sister talked about how much she wanted to turn the car around and spend just a little bit more time with me.

On the way home, Jenni insisted on stopping by the market for flowers. It was the twelfth of February and she wanted to Valentine my mother with some carnations.

When she was at the hospital with a temperature of 104 and was coughing blood she insisted that my mother leave her side to go to the market and buy her husband cigarettes. He was at home watching their young son and she knew that he needed his comforts too.

Nothing better reveals my sister’s character: to be on her deathbed, considering her husband’s tobacco fix. It’s always the small things that say so much.

Six days later she was dead.

6:30pm. Saturday the 21st of February. A Sunday morning in Japan.

I flew out the next afternoon for an evening service.

Everyone tells me that I was lucky not to be there. That after the bacteria and antibiotics had worked their way through her system she was not Jennifer anymore, as she had been physically disfigured by her illness. My father’s girlfriend told me that her death had to have been painless, that according to cancer patients who had survived such comas a person feels like he or she is “floating in a warm blue ocean.”

At the service in Fredericksburg, Virginia, two days following her death, my father said to me, “I really need to get back to Los Angeles, but I can’t seem to get motivated to do so because I keep thinking that if I stay here, she will come back but if I leave she will be gone.” And his voice broke halfway through this observation.

I knew what he meant.

When would death become real? When I read through the death certificate? When I open the box to sift through her ashes (she had been cremated with her high school journals—secrets taken to her grave)? Does it have to be real? Is it unhealthy for me to imagine what would have come if she had managed to visit me in Tokyo this year?

The essayist Joan Didion wrote a memoir about the year she lost her husband of 39 years, John Gregory Dunne, in which she described this exact fallacy of thought. She called the book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Contexts: I’d read it a year ago and moved on easily enough to another book.

This second time around, I got it.

When I discuss my sister’s life with friends and family, they tell me how lucky she was to live life on her terms, that she had been extraordinary and lived as a burning candle, burning so bright before being extinguished, exhausted by her exertions.

Death, the realists point out, is inevitable and that it is best to get on with our lives. They speak of a course of action, like “acceptance,” and “moving on” but I have had to experience her death every night in dreams since this tragedy erupted nearly a month before. What does “moving on” entail? Sweet dreams? A good night’s sleep? An end to the hypothetical “What if…?” questions. A day in which I do not think about Jennifer and feel a profound sense of loss?

For as a writer I had lost my best editor. For as a brother, I had lost my greatest link to childhood. But do not feel sorry for me. I had thirty years to witness my sister in her many incarnations, to observe her maturation and appreciate her inspirations. Feel bad for her three-year old son. Feel bad for the education he has irretrievably lost.

I should consider myself lucky. We had as fond a relationship as a brother and sister could. There is really nothing to regret about the past. But it is not what’s unsaid, but what’s undone. Fifty years of living shared. Kids and grandkids and books written and cultures observed and so much laughter between the two of us.

Last night I dreamed she had survived her sickness. In this alternate reality that only dreams can compose I had a letter from her in my hands (written in her lovely cursive) in which she described the longest dream she had ever had and what it had been like to wake up from her coma and how thankful she was to be alive.

Long before, when my life had been normal and cast full speed ahead, the night before she checked into the hospital: I received a phone call about ten a.m. Japan time. Too hungover to answer when I awoke and seeing that I had been rung by my mother's house, I had not bothered to return the call, busy as I had been with a day of work.

Later after the dust had settled I had asked my mother if she had called me that night. She had not. It had been Jennifer, with a little less than twenty-four hours of consciousness left in her life, seeking me out. She had not left a message. I can only imagine what she had wanted to say. I can only do my best not to let the regret burn too badly.

At the wake in Binghamton, New York, Jennifer had a remarkable turnout of professors, colleagues, students. The head of the department came over to me and in expressing his condolences told me that Jennifer had been one of the best thinkers the university had ever had and she had been bound to make an impact, whether it had been in the field or as a pedagogue. A woman crossed to the microphone. Hesitant to speak at first, she revealed that she had a serious problem and when she looked for support no other teacher was willing to help her until the end of the semester. Only Jennifer responded to her inquiry for help, "Just tell me when you need me and I'll be there."

A friend of hers told me that in a bar the month before her illness her friends were being hassled by a large, drunken, bellicose Iraq vet and it was only Jennifer who had the chutzpah to confront him directly, defending their honor and pacifying the situation.

I say: In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by her trade.

At the wake one of her friends, clearly impressed, commented to me that the first three rows were taken up by her undergraduates. Two of these students approached the microphone to say their piece. They were 18 years old, freshmen, at the point in their lives when anything can happen, when you are making philosophical declarations that will guidepost you for whatever was to come. They spoke of inspiration, how my sister had shown them that there are many ways of seeing and to never take any one truth to be self-evident. That this receptiveness—open eyes, open mind, open heart, would reveal things of this world to them not yet discovered. And it was Jennifer that showed them how it could be done.

My sister: a giver of contexts, a sharer of secrets.

Knowing Jennifer she probably would have found my sentimentality amusing and that she might resent me for trying to find some lesson in her life, for as she wrote in one of her short stories, "Anarchists don't trust any moral to any story anyways."

Nevertheless, as I struggled with grief over a loss that could never be quite filled, I told the standing-room-only audience that there was but one direction from which we should move in honor of my sister’s memory and that she would not be happy if we were to be remiss:

Live brave.

Live true.

Live free.

And live with love.

1 comment:

  1. I have tears in my eyes, and im only writing this to let you know I read it.
    I want to talk to you when I can reach out and hug you, not like this.