For My Brother John

John Mark Toscano
John Mark Toscano, April 06, 1953 - April 22, 2010

The one of us who for a short while clenched
imperial power inside his elegant hands,
his birthday comes in April. Yesterday. Today
he likely sits inside God’s coastline mansion,

a shadow smiling through a picture window,
a soul not lost, but here inside me as I weep,
a man remembering the wife who loves him. Until
I read my mind this morning, I’d forgotten

the two of us together, we sound like stereo
signals spitting static through the wire. We sing
rich harmonies without benefit of practice. Both of us
worship Sinatra the Sicilian, chew loud on hard salami,

breathe in deep the aroma of books that make a man
think. We both claim to be right about everything
and wrong about everything else. Too similar, two men,
we search each other for the I each one of us sees

inside the you. Stubborn minds, dying hearts, and yet
we taught ourselves that blood can foster the unfair
expectation that brothers should do more than
love each other today, again perhaps tomorrow.

Anthony V. Toscano
April 2010

Frank Shaver’s In A Cell Somewhere

I suppose you might say that I’m back and I’m shaken. My brother John’s funeral service in a lush city by the sea proved itself a cauldron of turmoil. I suffered sleepless nights as I sat in a motel room’s excuse for an easy chair, and tried to read, to think, to remember, to hold back tears that needed to be shed.

A suit and tie, jacket pressed and double-breasted, still fit me snug, Italian, my body old inside of it, and older yet for the sadness that dwelt deeper still. For a few minutes I stood behind the lectern, knees shivering behind the wooden shield, elbows propped so as to fool the congregation into believing that I felt brave enough not to cry. They were not fooled; of that I’m certain. Nor was I.

The program featured a photograph of a John who roamed the planet twenty years ago, still young enough to smile, still free enough from pain to see a hopeful future. I held this booklet and stared into his eyes, knowing that never again would he watch me try to understand him.

I folded hands with my sister-in-law, because I thought I should. We of  this digital world hold images of what’s expected, reflected from television screens, computer monitors and the mirrors we’ve implanted in our minds. Reality? Who knows her anymore?

The after-service meal. This strange custom I’ve always considered bizarre. Not the gathering and conversation as such, but the idea of poking food into our mouths just to remind ourselves that we are not so dead as the person to whom we recently whispered prayers and forever farewells.

Family and friends attended, some from three thousand miles away. Red eyes shot through with fever caught inside an airplane. Good, well-meaning folks. People filled with love for John and a deep desire to let him know what he can no longer comprehend.

Privately I wished for some religion to inhabit my soul, for the ultimate suspension of disbelief. None came to visit me. Instead, my cold heart waged its never-ending battle with my silent weeping.

After the funeral and the feast we were invited back to John’s house, but I could take no more. My head ached. My legs swelled and my joints creaked. Sweat threatened to suffocate me. So I offered my polite goodbyes and headed back toward the cheap motel.

Inside the nondescript room I shed the necktie and the Italian jacket, pulled on whatever came to hand from my suitcase and left again to walk a mile or so to a dirty convenience store. There I bought a few packets of junky food that I swallowed and failed to taste. Then I walked the unfamiliar streets in circles, cussing and cursing and mumbling foolish rage as a weak form of defense against the rapid beat of my tired heart.

Next morning came the most difficult part of the journey: saying so long to John’s wife, knowing all too well the wrenching grief that would shake her to the bone once all of us had gone.

Back here at home I wait until I am alone, and then I sing the songs that John and I sang together throughout the years. I recall the twists and turns, the useless and yet unavoidable complications that haunt two brothers who were (are?) so much alike.

I sometimes feel as if I am about to lose my sense of balance as I attempt to understand the insistent urge that tells me to move forward, that reminds me that I am yet alive. Am I selfish? I suppose so. Life will have me no other way.

I read in stuttered pattern, with the frequent and unwanted intrusions of memories. Christopher Buckley’s book about losing his mother and father inside the space of a year. Scott Turow’s breakthrough courtroom novel (this one I read for the third time; did I read it again yesterday simply because John was a lawyer?). Evelyn Waugh’s short stories in order to make contact with the mental side of myself.

And I consider writing. Always I consider writing. Where John left melodies and arguments, I will leave stories.

Frank Shaver sits inside a prison cell, muttering about a murder he claims he did not commit. His shrink, Dr. Charles Gettick, prepares to leave his center-city Philadelphia office building and travel by polished, dark sedan to visit Frank and further analyze him. Is Shaver losing sense of black and white, or is kuhler invading his once comprehensible world?

And here, tonight, I care not a whit whether or not what I write owns grace and glory. Rather, I care only that I return to write.

John, You’re . . . Right Here

Dear John,

Yesterday, your wife Melinda told me that we lost you. Those were her own words: “We lost John at 3:20 pm,” she said.

Inwardly, I fumbled as I searched for some sense of equilibrium, for some sense of any kind, however mysterious, mystical, religious or just plain reasonable.

But of course, such deep loss owns no sense of reason, no purpose recognizable to those of us who are yet to be lost.

Relief was apparent in your wife’s voice as she spoke. As I squinted my eyes against no one in the room with me, although perhaps against the urge to cry out loud, I let her think that I was listening to her. I am a good, careful listener to those friends who know me, in spite of my habitual verbosity; but my silence on the line had nothing to do with listening, and everything to do with survival and with tenderness.

Yes, I heard her communion with relief, and for her release from all the pain that you and she shared over the course of many years I felt glad. Glad that finally we lost you.

I understood long ago, however, that even should I try to lose you, brother John, I could never succeed in so shielding myself from the heartbreaking pain. You are not lost, John. I cannot believe in religion — and never in the wistful myth of an afterlife beyond oblivion — but so too can I never escape contact with my soul. You are here today, touching me where it hurts the most.

Last night I spoke with brother Chris. In many ways he is the most vulnerable of the three of us who remain still attached to this planet. He, as always, is the first and the last to weep to those heavens that he imagines exist. Chris wanted to ask me questions, questions he’d never before put to me about my reflections and weak conclusions regarding our childhood familiarity with ugliness and with the hand-holding bond that such ugliness creates without intention. We talked into the deepest part of night, and I believe I helped him for at least one bitter slice of time.

After our telephone conversation, I braced myself with the knowledge that where brother Christopher is warm, I am a cold-hearted man. So it is, and there remains no use in denying the obvious.

A few hours before speaking with Chris, our brother Wayne had called me. “I called to ask if you’re all right,” he said.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I lied.

“Just want you to know that if you need to talk, I’m here,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said; and then I changed the subject fast.

This morning I awoke inside what is to an old man an unfamiliar frame of mind. Much like the young man who awakens to realize and remember that yes, he actually did it. He made love with a woman and survived.

I tried out all the war-torn, tired phrases. John is lost. John passed away. John passed on. John left us. John is in a better . . . no, that one will not work for me.

John is dead.

John, you’re dead.

John, I knew you were about to die. I thought I felt ready for the final news broadcast, but why then do I want to cry? Where is my cold heart when I need her most?

John, dear brother, where have you gone? You were younger than I. Not fair, my friend. Life isn’t meant to be fair, isn’t meant to be anything at all; I understand all of this, but please, I need some sense of fairness now, some sense of right and wrong.

In order to calm myself down, I moved toward memories, and not just the good ones. I know, I’m supposed this moment to remember only the sweetest times; but down the road toward sweetness lies more tears.

So I tried my best to recount the unjust sins each of us committed against the other, the resentments, the envy, the competition between two superior intellects who by nature of their superiority understood too well their flaws.

Yet, behind this narrative of betrayals, attacks and raging vanity, plays an insistent melody made of harmonies that only you and I could have composed.

My denials, coupled with a search for my cold heart, are of no use this morning.

John, my gentle brother, you are dead; and yes, cliche owns its proper place, because a part of me died with you, friend.

You are gone, you passed on, you left us, you left me, you son-of-a-mother-I-never-managed-to-love.

But, John you are not lost. John, you are right here inside of me.

I love you, John.

These photographs remind me of our childhood years; Wayne was yet to be born:

John, Chris, Anthony
John, Chris, Anthony
Anthony, John, Mother, Chris
Chris, Anthony, John
Anthony, Chris, John

Waiting For My Brother’s Death

What’s left of John’s body is with the Hospice organization now. What remains of his life lives inside our memories.

He lies inside a hospital bed, beside his wife, wide-eyed and brain dead, gone from us several weeks ago. Medical care is cruel, even as the doctors try to do no harm.

John’s wife’s telephone lies on a table where she can reach for it whenever she cares to call and ask me to make the journey to be with her when and if she wants it so. The last few times I spoke with her she said she felt unsure. “I still might go away for a few months immediately afterward,” she told me. “Somewhere that John and I never went and never spoke of going. I’ll let you know.”

I feel confounded, confused and numb. John has been dying for several years; the details just this moment seem unimportant to mention. I’ve told myself over and over again that I own a stoic personality (many would likely tell you that I am a cold-hearted man), and that I’ve had so much time to adjust and accept.

I don’t believe in God or in Heaven and Hell. Push aside any bitterness I felt toward the Church when I was young; I felt intense anger that dissipates as age comes on a man. Today my lack of belief has nothing to do with resentment, nor with logical argument. I just do not.

Still, neither am I so stoic as not to shed tears in private; nor can I sleep with any sense of peace except for the warm, snug feel of blankets pulled close as I go down.

I am, however, aware of my selfishness. Is each one of us human beings so self-centered, so closed inside our flesh and bone, that we must talk to ourselves of how another person’s death affects us, and not of how that death affects the dying one? Is John, without sign of any brainwave pattern, eyes wide open and staring without blinking, voice never to be heard again, somehow thinking of himself right this minute?

I just don’t know. And maybe that’s the only honest lesson that death can teach a man: You know nothing. Forget your books and stories and speeches. Forget your tender moments and your rage. Forget everything you’ve ever mentioned to a friend. Forget what passes for your mind and heart. You know nothing.

Memories remain; we all know this to be so. Chubby John, the boy whose tummy I smooched when he was a baby. Intellectual John who read each of the twenty-five volumes of Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia and then discussed with me the articles that struck his fancy most (we sat inside a darkened corner bedroom of a cramped house, my hysterical mother always screaming threats to cut and kill us; our discussions saved us for a while).

John the university man who could not tear himself away from his mother, visiting her each and every weekend, in spite of the fact that I tried to convince him to explore the streets of Philadelphia with me.

John the graduate who rejected my company for more than a dozen years because I thought I left my past behind when I moved far away from dear South Philly and so much closer to my own death than I could have realized back then.

John the stately Philadelphia lawyer, tall and proud inside his flannel overcoat, always keeping company with the law books he carried inside his leather bag. We had reconciled and understood that love had never for a moment disappeared.

John the singer, fan of Frank Sinatra. John’s voice mellifluous, as was mine back then. We sang in harmony as we drove across the Walt Whitman Bridge.

John the hospital patient. In and out and back again, one crisis following the one before. I was there beside him much of the time, and for that time I feel grateful, and yet I want to cry again as I write of this particular memory.

John the dead man I will never see again. Please pardon me my momentary self-indulgence. Please forgive me, John, for whatever hurt I may have caused you.

And so here and now I wait for a telephone call, a call that will eventually tug me down in spirit and bring me to my sister-in-law’s side.

I love you, brother John. I will be there.

Whenever and wherever she may need me, I will be there.