When I was in the second grade, I ran away from home. I told one or two of my classmates at school of my intention, and at the end of the day, when the school bus from P.S. 18 dropped us off about a mile further west along Hillside Avenue, in Queens Village, in front of the Bell Park Manor Terrace Garden Apartments, I avoided the large center court of apartments where I lived with my parents and my sister and brother, and I followed an alternative, wending route through other courts, making my way up the gently inclining hill in the winter snow. When I reached Manor Road, which cut the Manor apartments in half in a brief arc between 229th Street and Hillside Avenue again, I was still in familiar if not everyday territory. There were still more, familiar looking garden apartments and courts to traverse before reaching the next landmark of Stronghurst Avenue.
When I arrived at Stronghurst Avenue, the outer perimeter of the Manor, I stopped. What faced me now were “the woods.” “The woods” – as they were to the child I was, a city boy in the midst of an outer borough of New York City – were actually a long corridor of trees, through which one could not see, that bounded what I did not know was on the other side of them – the Grand Central Parkway of New York. The Grand Central, which as a young man I would later travel so often, wended its own way through the city, to the Triborough Bridge, connecting before that to the Van Wyck Expressway for a more direct route to the center of Manhattan. I suppose what I imagined beyond the woods, at only seven years old, was the frightening and forbidding forest of fairy tale. What lay truly beyond them was just as great a world of metropolitan wonder and fear. In either case, I was at my limit. I hadn’t the knowledge or wits or courage to go any farther. I had not gone very far at all. Even more sad and dejected than when I set out, I plopped myself down on my lunch box to sit.
I had run away because I was the youngest child of a boisterous and emotionally tumultuous family within which the painfully shy and dreamy child I was, however pampered and loved, felt disregarded, not as a subject of care, but as a person. I was lost in my imagination, unheeded, and I was no one.
My older brother, Jeff, was not no one. Jeff, unwound coil of anxious energy that he was, was known, for his innocent mischief throughout the neighborhood, as “the little redheaded bastard,” and Jeff was someone. As different as we were – and as is, I suppose, every proper relation of older and younger brother – ours was a brotherhood of love and hate and adoration.
With the light still in the sky, but the day waning, I spied from my seat on the sidewalk, looking back down the hill though the courts, Jeff slowly making his way in my direction. One of my friends had told of my plans – I must have imparted my intended direction – and our parents had sent my brother out to find me. I recall that as he advanced up the hill with all the begrudging annoyance of a twelve year old boy who had had his afternoon of delicious adventure spoiled by his pest of a baby brother, Jeff called out to me the warning that I’d better not run. I feel certain that amid the warning, or certainly to end it, had come the emphatic, “you pecker.”
Jeff took me home.
When we were home, our older sister, Sharyn, fulfilled her role, as only she sat alone with me in the room Jeff and I shared and listened and consoled me as I cried of my pain. But the role of my brother, if it had not been before, was that day set. Whenever I was in trouble or need, for the rest of his life, my brother came for me, rescued me, or took or led me home.
When I was fourteen, and an older boy, amid some football fun, slugged me in the face, it was Jeff, already by then slighter and shorter than I, who flew at him, took him to the ground, and pummeled him into regret.
If I was lost, Jeff would tell me how to find my way. If my first car broke down, old and past repair on a Manhattan street, it was Jeff who came to help me junk it.
When I was seventeen, and the Sixties caught up with me at a huge house party that ended in a mass arrest, and for me, a final acid trip that went horribly wrong – my screaming in terror and nightmare and needing to be restrained, returning to reality at last on an emergency room stretcher soaked in urine and sweat – it was Jeff, emissary again from our parents to a world too alien for them even to imagine, who was the first real thing I saw, standing painfully beside me as I confessed to him in horror and grief, “I blew it.” Jeff, only twenty-two himself, caressed my head and told me I would be okay now.
Six years later, running from a broken love affair, I followed Jeff, for the first time, to Los Angeles. He and his wife, Anne, took me into their Malibu apartment, and I went to work in the antiques business Jeff and some New York friends had opened.
Through all of this time, as I tore against the gripping intensity of my own interiority, Jeff was my model of what it was to be free of it. If I wanted to be more confident and gregarious, more adept at encountering the world with ease and success, the master of a moment and not a brooder on it, I had Jeff before me to demonstrate how it was done. I was not Jeff, could not be Jeff, but in all the ways I was unhappy with myself, I wanted to be Jeff.
Six years later again, the world turned around, I was a successful young executive faced with a life-determining decision. Offered a momentous promotion that would mean almost certain wealth, but the loss for good, I was sure, of the person I really was and the life I was meant to lead, I withdrew to my Manhattan apartment for a long weekend of thought. There should have been nothing to consider. But a brief few years in business had saved me from myself, had brought me to myself, or part of myself. I had encountered the word with success, in every way one could mean the word, and I felt liberated. During that weekend, I spoke to only one person – Jeff, by phone, in Los Angeles. He helped me to make the decision, the opposite of what he would have chosen for himself, but which he understood was what I really wanted. He helped me to feel right about the choice that everyone else would question.
If our lives were rewards for daring choices, in true commitment, the shape of a pleasing story, a decade later mine would not have reached its bottom. But it had. I moved to Los Angeles again, where Jeff – and Sharyn – took me in, gave me a place to live while I found work and saved money. Jeff helped me find a car. He helped me find my apartment. Just a few years earlier, when Sharyn hit her own hard times, she also had moved to Los Angeles, and Jeff had taken her in, too, with her daughter, Jennifer. After, he helped them find a place to live, where the schools were good for Jenny. At a later time, when Sharyn needed a job, Jeff gave her one.
When a car accident left bones fractured and broken, it was Jeff who retrieved me from the emergency room, took me home with him and cared for me, with Anne, until I could move on my own.
When I called him to get me from another hospital, checking myself out after surgery, against doctor’s orders, because “I need to get this fucking thing out of me,” it was Jeff, with our father, who came quickly with a car to take me home.
It would continue all of Jeff’s life.
During our mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s, it was Jeff’s extra burden to be the only voice that could calm her, tamp down the demon of her anxiety. Even before, but more yet after she died, Jeff became our father’s best friend. He loved and so admired the small, uneducated immigrant who had shown us such devotion and who faced his great old age and end with fearless calm and stoicism.
So it was that, all that behind us, sometime around Passover last year, Jeff and I met for a dinner at Nate ‘n Al’s Deli in Beverly Hills. We tried to feel our mother’s love in the stuffed cabbage, recall our father’s joy in a pastrami sandwich. We talked about our lives
We talked for some time about the difficulty I had been having for nearly a year in selling the motor home – a thirty-seven foot Tiffin Allegro Bay – Julia’s and my travels in which were the genesis of this blog. With skills I had partly learned from Jeff, I had negotiated hard for the coach in the lead up to the fall ’08 economic meltdown, when the RV business was already hurting, and gotten a price that had the dealer still moaning even as we signed the papers. Now, the RV business even worse, especially for a private seller needing the cash, the only genuinely interested party for my sale was the same dealer we had purchased from. They were getting their own back and offering two thirds what I knew the motor home would be worth in a good economy. After thirty years of selling real estate, Jeff was now dealing with this for a living, trying to persuade unhappy sellers that the only thing worse than selling their homes for prices they didn’t like was selling them six months later for prices they would like even less. You need the money, he said. When you have the cash in hand and you’re relieving all those financial pressures, you’ll be feeling good about that and focusing less on the price you sold for.
I listened. We finished dinner, took a stroll, and stopped in at the bar of the Mirage Hotel. We sat in a couple of club chairs and enjoyed our Scotches. Now Jeff talked. While I had been having my great adventure on the road for a year, during the economic crisis his financial life had fallen apart. This I knew already. For two years he could barely sleep at night. Everywhere he tried to make some light, it got only darker. He was afraid he would lose everything. Now, he was cutting back on his health insurance coverage. Anne had chronic ailments, so he was maintaining the coverage on her, but he was saving a few thousand dollars by reducing his coverage to, practically, a catastrophic only plan. We considered the risks.
“The bottom line,” he said to me, “is you never know what’s going on inside your body.”
Finally, we walked to the same underground parking lot we had both, coincidentally parked in. We descended the elevator, first to the second level for him, then on to the third for me. When the door opened, we hugged and kissed on the check as we always did, and he walked out into the garage toward his car. I followed him with my eyes, I see him still, as the door closed like a shot in a film and he was gone.
About three weeks later, he called on a Sunday morning while I was still in bed watching the weekly news programs. For the first time, since we saw each other, things were looking up. He had closed a lot of deals – he had been working so hard, never giving up, driving himself – and money was coming in. In July, Sharyn, now living in Cleveland near Jennifer, would be celebrating her 70th birthday. Her son, Rob, cousins, and I were flying out for it, but Jeff had long said he couldn’t afford it and couldn’t afford to get away. Now he said he could. He had looked in to booking a flight, might fly with me. He also wanted to go on to New York with me afterwards, where I had planned a long visit. He would stay with me for a week or so.
We were so excited. We hadn’t been in New York together in over a decade. Now we would walk the streets again that ran in us like rivers. We would breathe it in, remember our youths and our family in it.
Then I told Jeff that since our evening out, I had sold the motor home. I had basically accepted the dealer’s price, squeezing another thousand out of them. Jeff was very happy to hear it, even happier when something I said just before we hung up made clear that it was out talk over dinner that persuaded me to let go and make the deal. And he had been right. Cash in hand already, problems getting solved, I was feeling okay about it.
“Really?” Jeff said.
“I’m really glad you told me that.”
Then we hung up, planning to speak in days about our flights to Cleveland and New York.
When he left the phone, Jeff told Anne what I had said about his role in my selling the motor home, and how good it made him feel to know it.
The next evening, on the tennis court with his friends, Jeff began to feel funny. A minute or two later, having retreated to the bench beside the court, where his pals hovered around him, his head jerked back from the rupture in his chest, and he fell to the floor. His friends then tried to do with all that was in them what I have wished every day for exactly six weeks short of a year I could do – rescue him.
In the near year since that night, I have thought every day about who my brother was to me, what he was in my life, and how to live my life without him. I had imagined, in the hope we all blindly live in, that we would become old men together. I had thought that as time took so much of its payment for long life, if one is lucky enough to have the barter, the same reflective shadow that had hovered over me since my earliest memories, in that childhood bedroom, would still be with me to remind me, against all the growing sense of the illusory passage that advancing age brings to life, that it had all been real and just as I remember, because he had lived it too. That I would be the same for him. I have no memory of life before that bedroom, no recollection of experience before experience with Jeff.
I have thought about who we were as personalities, as people with qualities and attributes, skills and talents. It began to seem true to me that for all the stark differences visible in childhood, and that had diminished with age, that we had been variations on a theme. I began to think of us, in an odd conceit, in terms of a graphic equalizer for audio. Each graphic band for a frequency might represent sociability or introspection, athleticism or intellectual inclination, shrewdness or nurturing tendencies, sense of humor or world view. All of the same frequency channels were present in both of us. Adjust this one higher, this one lower, these two now up over here, down just a little bit there, all of these, so many, the same, and in one case you got Jeff, the other me.
It isn’t as if we were identical twins. We lived different lives, for several periods in different cities and states. Our brotherly relationship was not without blemish. I know there were times I disappointed him, even hurt him, even deeply. And with death, regret is a rock you push up a hill for the rest of your life.
But if everyone of us is a world, with webs of association and memory and sensory connection and personal relation, with apprehensions of human history and of the universe, and emblazoned on the film of our minds the vision of a certain quality of light on the streets of New York in 1957, and with all of it an intuition of the worlds that lived in some other people at different times and places, then there was no world closer to mine than Jeff’s. Unbeknownst to me to start, increasingly by the end, he was my secret sharer of experience, by which a self is reflected to itself in another’s experience. In the first weeks and months, there were conversations that began in me to an internalized, anticipated Jeff that were then cut short in surprise – conversation for which there is no substitute for Jeff. Parts of me are now dormant, never to be awakened again. The loss of a person you love is the loss, too, of a part of yourself.
A few days after Jeff died, I gave a eulogy at his memorial service. I tried amid all my grief to capture the very great fun of Jeff, and there was much laughter. The rest of the family spoke, and we invited friends and coworkers to share their memories and feelings too. It was a minor revelation to meet so many people his family did not know who appreciated him so much and for the same qualities. No one failed to speak of Jeff’s bonhomie and his often outrageous sense of humor, including the loud, cackling laugh that could dominate a room.
Among the last to speak were Jeff’s tennis buddies, the men who had been with him at the end. They shared some of what had happened, though in less detail than they gave me privately. To a man, they spoke not only of Jeff’s quality as a player, in a game he took up only in his mid-fifties, but of what a great teammate he was, always encouraging his fellows, even on his own off days. When the last of them spoke, the reminiscence took a surprising turn. This friend reiterated how fine a teammate Jeff was. Then he said something else. The friend is black, and when he said it, he spoke the word “wasn’t” with a black vernacular pronunciation, in which the “s” nearly disappears, that aided the delivery. And his timing, with the briefest delay, was perfect.
Sure, Jeff was a great teammate, he said. But as for his play –
“He wuhdn’t that good.”
You could sense – I thought I did, anyway – a hiccup in the room, as some felt momentarily, perhaps, that something inappropriate had been said. But those of us who knew Jeff best did not hesitate at all. We roared with sudden laughter. His friend well timed a repetition of the line, and we all roared again. Nobody loved more than Jeff, after his father, to puncture pomposity or a too solemn moment. Just a few weeks ago, our nephew Robert and I were speaking on the phone, recalling the moment and the joke, and reached at the same instant for the very same phrase in affirmation, that Jeff himself, “would have been on the floor” at the joke. The memory of it is part of the memory of him now and of his end, and that is just as he would have it.
Except that he was that good. He was.