POETRY by ROBIN CHAPMAN
PHOTOS by URSKA CHARNEY
WHAT IS NATURAL IN PHTOGRAPHY
A Farewell in Abeyance
by: Ed Gutierrez
Twenty years ago, while still a junior in college, I was on New Year’s holidays at my grandparent’s house in Monterrey, Mexico, a trip our family often made at the end of every year. But that year was to be different. My older brother was working on the 53rd floor of the Chrysler building and couldn’t make it. Then my mother suddenly decided to leave before the New Year’s celebrations and take my younger brother along with her back to our home in East Texas, despite all of our protests. “Too much stress here,” she announced to all the gathered Mexican relatives, too surprised to know how to react. They were in awe of my mother. “We’re going home,” my mother said. “He needs quiet, rest. We’re going.” My younger brother was a year younger than me, dropped-out of Stanford going on a year and very depressed. Whether they stayed or left, he kept rubbing his forehead and had no opinion on the matter either way.
The call came two days later in the late morning, out of the blue as only such calls can come, despite the warnings, on a date that I now consider like Dec. 7th or Sept. 11th, only that this date was entirely personal. The round clean date-New Year’s Day, 1990- made the time elapsed from that phone call so easy to calculate in the future, a simple subtraction to determine the exact age of the tragedy and its aftermath. The call was this: my mother and younger brother were found dead in our home in East Texas. The police suspected murder-suicide. My mother—the culprit.
After my father finally managed to tell me what happened while choking on his own saliva, I remember everything rushing into horrid little time capsules. I remember sitting in my grandparent’s living room looking at gold threads popping out of my sleeve, thinking the whole sweater was in the process of unraveling. My grandmother started to wail even before she knew what happened. My grandfather had come in from the car port, still holding the dirty rag he used every morning to wipe off the city grime from his Chrysler. The cuckoo came out of its clock at that very moment to announce the insanity of the world. There’s nothing like tragedy to indelibly imprint the moment and turn us all into geniuses with photographic memories.
I remember how my life, which had been linear and rising for twenty years up to that point, a bit like the surging Japanese economy in the decades after WWII, suddenly burst like that self-same bubble economy, dog-legged into another darker dimension where time and joy and hope did not exist, where nightmares and reality merged so seamlessly it was hard to tell if I was awake or asleep, neither to be looked forward to.
From Houston I remember the long drive with my father back to our house in deep East Texas, the highway cutting straight through the swath of pine trees and shopping centers on either side of the road for as far as the eye could see, like a slow silent trudge to the center of doomsday. “So this is what Conrad meant, the heart of darkness, ”I thought, thinking of a recent lit class in college. My thinking became revisionist and schizophrenic, my memory shortened to the last few days, weeks and months, a tape I’d play over and over analyzing every gesture and conversation I’d had with my mother, presenting all the facts like a defense lawyer then arguing the opposite side as the prosecution in a colder, clearer light. She had hated guns all her life, knew nothing about guns, had hated violence of any kind (except for rubbing chile on our lips when we as children lied). She didn’t know the difference between, say, a .22 and Colt 45. I remember thinking, despite all the evidence, that a terrible mistake had been made. The police had to be wrong. A robber must have entered the house and killed them. Based on my entire upbringing, it was easier to believe a random double murder than what had actually occurred, as if assigning their deaths to a malignant outside force would somehow assuage their passing.
“Just let him be,” I’d told her right when I got off the airplane at the beginning of Christmas break. “He’s in a sophomore slump. It happens. That’s why they have a word for it. I was kind of in one too, I just never told you,” I said. I remember how at the terminal she looked at me without smiling, without greeting, even though we hadn’t seen each other for months (I’d decided not to go home for Thanksgiving holiday, too busy with studies and friends). From the get-go she was angry with me for being so complacent, for not understanding the seriousness of “the situation,” angry with all of us, and I remember how, as I tried to laugh off her worries in the airport, she pinched me by the luggage claim to make me understand, and I looked into her green eyes I’d never seen so intent and unblinking as her fingernails dug into my forearm, so sharp that I thought she’d draw blood. It was at that moment I realized the family reports about my young brother’s worsening condition that had been filtering through to me over the past few months had not been exaggerated. But I, like everyone else, became focused on my younger brother, not my mother.
And now my brother had become a different person. He’d experienced a late growth spurt as a freshman and had inched past me, taller. He’d always been quiet and observant but never depressed, listless, like a hermit deep in his own thoughts, mumbling and rubbing his forehead over and over as if he were rubbing at those late-breaking pimples or eternally administering a self-induced massage, mumbling about the same thing: about Stanford and its students, about how he didn’t understand them, his failures. My mother was convinced he shouldn’t go back. “One year there did this to him,” she said, pointing at him slumped on our sofa, and my brother was rubbing his forehead again. “I should have never let him go there. He shouldn’t go back. It’s not the right place for him.”
During that Christmas break, my mother was hoping I could get through to him; we’d been close growing up. But I couldn’t get through to him either, despite a walk in the woods behind our house where we used to explore frozen creeks, shoot off model rockets into a nearby field, and build forts. I’d been hoping the cold and crunching leaves and long ago hide-out privacy would shock him into waking up, the familiar paths we’d once pioneered stirring better memories, connecting him to the earth, to something solid and strong, but it was as if he didn’t hear or could hear only his own thoughts spiraling around the problematic memory of his time at Stanford. “Hey, let’s climb,” I said, pointing at the slats of wood we’d nailed into a tree to serve as a ladder. My younger brother just stood there below me on the forest floor. In the summer this place was hidden by blooming bushes and flowering trees but now the house with its brick walls and tiled roofs and sharp angles loomed in the distance through a scraggly, wintry forest. “I don’t know,” my brother said, just standing there, his bare hands not in his gloves or pockets, despite the cold. “They are saying things that don’t make sense, I don’t know, one says this, I tried to tell them…”
I remember how my mother took me and him for a drive (my father was at work, at hospital). She drove us through the hilly backwoods of East Texas. When we crested one hill, my younger brother commented on a thin plume of black smoke rising in the distance above the endless dark tree-line. “What’s that?” he asked. She followed it, like an assistant scout, eager to please, glad that he seemed excited about something. She drove to find the smoke’s source, driving along a country road for miles, us finally ending up at a pond, a bonfire of garbage burning itself out. “Why don’t we search for arrowheads?” my mother suggested. “Like we used to do,” I added. We found nothing, just stagnant water and mud and burnt plastic and charred, smoking sticks of wood where the fire had been. On the drive back, I remember my mother taking us to get an ice cream, my brother ordering pink bubblegum, because that had been his favorite flavor as a child. There we were, he a dropped-out, depressed sophomore and me a junior who had plenty of problems of his own silently licking ice cream cones in a Baskin Robbins we used to visit as children with their mother who, I would later find out, had a hysterectomy while I was at university. Perhaps the hormonal changes, as well as a restructuring of her relationship with my father, as well as the fact that the littlest one had flown the coop too, could partly explain what she eventually did.
I remember how, just a week before the phone call, while we were still in the house in East Texas, in a rare quiet moment late at night, when everybody else was asleep, my mother came to me in the den where I was studying, in the den where we used to be tutored by private teachers after school, teachers she hired, to get us up to the level of education she was used to from “the Catholic schools back East.” There in the den that night my mother seemed perfectly normal, her mind temporarily off my younger brother fast asleep in another room.
And just two days before the phone call, when we were in Mexico, her green eyes sparkled again, like flames in green Coke bottles. We always drank more Coke there. This time she sat across from me in my grandparent’s kitchen table, the safest, warmest place I knew, a kitchen that hadn’t changed since as far back as I could remember, a gas burning stove and oven that you could see in Normal Rockwell paintings, a kitchen my mother herself had spent a year in learning Spanish and how to cook Mexican food while pregnant with my older brother waiting for my dad to return from Vietnam where he was serving as a medical doctor. In that kitchen it was just us two alone for a change, and she was focused on me again, excited and she spoke with me as a friend for the first time in my life, not as my mother, asking me how my studies were going, my life. She had never looked so beautiful or seemed so understanding as at that moment, not like my mom at all, not giving any advice, a beautiful stage in our relationship beginning.
By the time we got home the house looked the same as ever, spic and span, my parent’s bedroom had been cleaned up, the bed made, the smooth cream-colored tiles under the doorway separating their bedroom from the study mopped and cleaned, the liquor bottles the maid had found in the kitchen dispensed of (my mother drank cocktails on occasion, perhaps a strawberry daiquiri or gin and tonic, but never hard alcohol, much less straight from the bottle). The cleaning lady told us she found them New Year’s morning. From the utility room, straight through the den, she’d spotted them at the threshold of my parent’s bedroom, their crumpled bodies blocking the doorway. The cleaning lady, a friend of the family for years, actually went about cleaning, thinking they were doing some new form of yoga or stretching, as my mother sometimes did with us excited about her latest health-and-fitness theory.
My older brother and father wanted to read the final police and coroner’s reports. I didn’t need to, didn’t want to. They were gone. Why be morbid to the point of knowing the bullet gauges in millimeters and where the entry and exit wounds were? Why be scientific and logical about an event that was essentially unexplainable? Why did I need to know the type of hand gun she had secretly purchased and hidden in her closet weeks before I’d arrived home for Christmas break so that my nightmares could take new twists and turns and I could then start imagining that she had been planning to take me out me too? Or all of us? An article about the incident appeared on the front page of the town newspaper and the article was so lopsided, so brief and clinical, so without any relevant background information, I felt immediate outrage at their printing it without our permission and I understood immediately how a celebrity must feel when reading about himself in the tabloids, his insides exposed to the public, stretched and twisted for general amusement.
As the guests started arriving, as well as the Mexican relatives we’d just left behind, I couldn’t get back to the reality I’d always known. I suddenly understood that Frida Kahlo self-portrait we had hanging around the house, things spewing from her chest and forehead to blacken the whole world. I suddenly understood Alice in Wonderland, having fallen through that hole into a disorienting reality but where I landed was no Wonderland, only the lack of absolutes, the irrationality, the mad hatters, the uncatchable white rabbits-only those were the same. Years later in London, in a drug-induced trip from which I was finding it hard to return, I had the same sensation of being in an alternate reality, darkness everywhere, time moving so slowly, the rest of humanity in the light just above a dark surface I desperately needed to pop through.
Everybody-friends, relatives, neighbors, the whole town, it seemed- was remembering how they used to be and that collective public remembering only made me angrier or more silent or more depressed or more helpless or more ashamed to look at myself in the mirror. For why should I live when they had died and in the worst way? During those first few weeks, I didn’t need to do any remembering whatsoever because everyone was doing it for me. Memory of one terrible event, and everything that could possibly be imagined about it, became my sole reality.
I remember laughing at home when a Mexican relative whose CB nickname was the “Bald Eagle” told a story that seemed like a joke about speeding across the Texas/Mexico border on his way to our house. I couldn’t stop laughing, still not sure whether he was telling a joke or if there were any punch line. I felt like a madman, laughing to tears, crumpled on the stairs, crumpled as my younger brother must have crumpled after the first shot. As the Bald Eagle kept swooping in, I remember all my organs bunched into one tight wad in my stomach, tears and laughter falling in equal measure, as if stomach and tear ducts were interchangeable parts of the body.
Memories, which I had once considered safe and tucked-away, could morph in the most cruel and absurd ways. The funeral parlor, which I must have passed 10,000 times while growing up and which had always reminded me of a country club lacking facilities, became a plague center now. Everyone and everything looked sick and diseased in the rooms, the sickly yellow light spreading to infect the fake flowers, marble, walnut paneling turning them all artificial, no more absolutes left. I remember the bone smooth twin caskets, their terrible smooth black elegance like the grim reaper’s personal sports car, a double engine, and I closed my eyes and didn’t look, wanting to remember them how they’d been before, not wanting to see the scratches or marks the reports said they inflicted on each other during that final struggle. I remember the impossibility of ever remembering anything good about my mother-the perpetrator- ever again, like trying to spy a crack of light in a black hole.
A former little league baseball coach from the time when I was eleven years old showed up at our front door as the hearse driver. He was no longer wearing a yellow baseball cap with maroon letters and congratulating me on my curveball. He was now wearing big black boots, black clothes, and driving a long black car, shuffling at our front door like Frankenstein, saying not “Good curveball, son” but “I’m sorry.”
My Mexican grandmother who had always made such great Mexican food and gave such great foot massages could suddenly only make bland food fit for the garbage, her hands cold and rough like a stone mason’s, her reassurances lacking all wisdom. And even the most early innocent memories, such as of my mother and I making chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen together, or my younger brother hard at work in his room with glue and balsa wood building a model rocket, suddenly even these memories had to be dredged up, reinterpreted, reanalyzed for early clues, early warning signs of the coming madness, the coming depression, each memory a simple reminder that from early on we were already starting to be smothered in love, and by the time my younger brother was in high school winning all those academic awards she should have left him alone to go out more, to rebel, to date, to toughen him up and make him less dependent on her.
Shades of blackness are the predominant color in these memories. Whether it actually rained every day or not during these times, it perpetually rains in my mind, as if I were controlling the weather, a rain falling from a black sky to a coal ground to form black paint that smeared everyone’s clothes and expressions, including the twin caskets that began to disappear beneath cruelly manicured lawns. Until that final lowering everything had been happening in slow motion but as the caskets went out of sight, time suddenly sped up with lightning speed, fast forwarded in a blink, thunder crashed down as the caskets struck bottom. BOOM! They were gone forever; they were really dead. Reality had never played such cruel, irrevocable tricks before. Until that moment I still thought they’d spring out of their coffins, announcing the hoax was over, the sleeping potion worn off, my brother’s prized cricket box I’d slipped under his silken pillow saving the day. If only I’d said my farewells properly, if only I’d put that farewell letter under her pillow, if only I’d actually managed to find a live cricket, if only I’d insisted and slapped my mother and told her to go to Hell and rebelled, if only, if only.
All my memories of college are distorted even though “IT” happened more than halfway through my four-year term. I dropped out of crew, not seeing the point anymore of pulling sticks so early in the morning to propel myself backwards. I wanted to drop out of the un-housed fraternity I’d joined too but their insistence to help, their reminders of the pledges I’d taken, only made me feel more embarrassed and trapped, more eager to hide. If I had been quiet as a sophomore during seminar discussions, acutely aware of my small town roots and accent, then I went mute at a time when I was supposed to be maturing. Philosophy classes in which the professor questioned whether meaning existed and whether killing and torturing were really immoral acts suddenly seemed appealing.
I remember being in my college dorm room, supposedly the best time of one’s life, not wanting to come out, thinking I was crazy too. After all, my future was written in my genetic code, and I’d been closer to them growing up than to my father and older brother. And why not be crazy to understand better my mother in the end? And why not be depressed since I could finally understand my brother better and unite with his spirit, and therefore her spirit? And what was so bad, really, about my loss? Get over it, I’d say, stop being so selfish and self-absorbed. There are worse, much worse, tragedies. What about how the Russians suffered during WWII or how whole families got caught on the wrong side of a dictatorship or what happened to the Tutsis in Rwanda? Those were real tragedies.
I didn’t need to go to anymore counselors or psychiatrists or group therapy sessions (the one I did go to in the back of the church was composed of members who had lost only one family member and due to a “natural” cause: cancer, fire, car accident, murder by stranger, so when it came my turn to talk I exercised my right to remain silent), or bother my friends anymore with the same stories, as if I were in constant need of sympathy, cups of tea and pats on the shoulder. I knew what had happened, and why. The fact was that my younger brother had been a very sensitive, sheltered boy, a bit like me, a virgin, growing up in a small town with a strict mother and he had entered a high-powered, top-notch school full of geniuses and better prepared students and he had just needed to be left alone to grow up in his own way but he hadn’t been strong enough to say NO when my mother suggested he drop out, my mother with her hysterectomy and all her children gone, not to mention her problematic relationship with her own parents as well as the strains of a twenty year old relationship with my father, couldn’t let the last one go.
Back at the end of high school in the late 1980’s, I remember my mother became interested in securing our future. She’d gotten interested in the stock market, setting up mutual funds and reading books like Megatrends, all the relevant passages highlighted. She paid for both me and my younger brother to study Japanese at an intensive summer course. She was convinced that in the near future everyone would have to know much more about Japanese culture and language as Japan had become an economic powerhouse, like China and India are becoming now. So, after barely graduating from university, with no idea what I wanted to do, only sure that I didn’t want to go back home to that house or state or that whole half of the country, I decided to go abroad.
Japan was a good choice, I remember thinking, not because I was necessarily following her last business ideas, but because Asia would be so different, a place where empty scrolls are filled with meaning, where silences and stoicism are golden, gaman it was called, a perfect place to lose myself in and reinvent from the toes up. I was initially happy to bury myself beneath all those new alphabets and strokes to be memorized, to build up a new verbal foundation, to be surrounded by junior high school students learning English in their black stiff Prussian uniforms dotted with rows of shiny brass buttons, to sing until the late hours in dark, claustrophobic booths with my fellow teachers, all of us drunk.
I was sure as time went on I was forgetting, overcoming. My memory felt longer, like that crater was filling in, flattening out, becoming a mere speed bump, and I was remembering a few more good things before Jan. 1, 1990. But the nightmares were still recurring, an endless variety of plots but always with the same central characters, usually my younger brother and I co-starring, me trying to save him but impotent, unable to help in the end, he slipping away, fading, while my mother made brief spoiling cameos.
How my father survived alone in that house, sleeping in that same room night after night, I could not imagine. I figured his survival skills could only be attributed to his many friends in the town, the toughening up experience he’d gained in his early medical career when he’d regularly done autopsies, and his Vietnam experience must have helped too. I was glad my older brother was calling him every night, telling him optimistic stories, because my father seemed buried alive. On my tatami my mood was always falsely up whenever my father called, his feeble, barely audible voice drowned by mine, falsely up for fear he’d lose all hope and suck me down too, my father living vicariously through his two remaining sons, I’d think, a hollow shell going through the motions, to and from work.
Even in Japan I was acting just as I’d acted in college, constantly making excuses to slip away or not show up, to be alone; I could now blame failure to communicate on the difficulty of the language and cultural differences. Leaving parties without saying goodbye to anyone was a specialty of mine; breaking promises and acting irresponsible with strings of girls, another specialty. My older brother, who never left the U.S., kept advising me to return “home.” “Where’s that?” I would say. Easy for him, I’d think, because he lived in NYC, all his East Coast school friends nearby.
I however had to stay overseas and experiment, do everything my mother had prohibited me from doing, everything I’d missed out on in college, so that I, or my future wife, or my future son, didn’t end up like her or my brother. But the experiments produced poor, if not catastrophic results. Late at night in Kyoto, almost a decade after that phone call, I remember panic attacks so fierce I thought I was running a marathon in my futon, my heart beating so violently I could see it pulsing against the upper fabric of my t-shirt and I would have to get up at four a.m. and start pacing by the Kamogawa river just beyond my doorstep, trying to figure out what was causing the errant heart beats and breathing. I’d chosen to live near the river because its modest wildlife and green banks always reminded me of home.
Even from Prague, where I live now, I can’t remember if I actually remember them, or simply the good things I have repeated about them over the years. For example, I remember my brother enjoyed many hobbies such as astronomy, model rocket building, kite flying, breaking locks and codes, collecting phonebooks. He was a natural with his hands, a lefty, extremely patient, gentle with elderly and bullies alike. He fixed our ice maker because he didn’t want the service man to charge $100 just for the trip out to our house. His last airplane took all of senior year to build, was gas powered, the propeller was made of steel and could cut off fingers, and it flew perfectly on its maiden voyage. But I have repeated these statements so many times over the years to grief counselors, psychiatrists, and people that I have wanted to get closer to that my memories about him have become limited, it seems, to these repeated idealized statements.
When my father remarried a feisty Spanish woman, I suddenly started remembering aspects of my mother I thought I’d forgotten. I remembered my mother was very pretty, her pale Irish skin prone to forming moles that could darken if she worked in the garden too much without sun protection. My mother wore modest turquoise and jade jewelry, not oversized bronze and gold discs and heavy chains that gleamed on my stepmother’s bared leathery chest, and my mother never wore all red. My mother liked slow sensuous songs and cozy family dinners, not the controlled frenzy of flamenco and banquets fit for a king, and my mother cultivated a rapport with locals like the cleaning lady and the old yard man who had never gone farther East than the state of Louisiana, whereas my stepmother likes to associate with European aristocrats and millionaires.
The same remembering-by-comparison phenomena happened when my older brother married. My brother, much to my surprise, chose a woman who was remarkably like my mother. My sister-in-law is also from the New York area, has lots of self-spun theories, and her accent and some of the regional words she uses are similar to my mother’s lingo. My brother and his wife have two sons and want a third like we used to be three brothers, and they hang the same Christmas stockings my mother darned and designed for us with sequins and bells. My sister-in-law even uses the same cookbook my mother used with my mother’s big loopy handwriting in the margins and on the note cards which are still inserted with her “recipe variations.” Eating my mother’s homemade turkey stuffing or chocolate cake whenever I go visit them takes me further back in time well past Jan. 1, 1990 to the good times.
The problem is, ask any war vet, the smells, tastes, sounds, and physical reminders can trigger memories from any direction no matter how much time passed. I still dreaded going back to that house in East Texas to visit my father and his wife. Starting from Houston, just looking at the long highway cutting straight through the swath of dark green, I’d start to get fidgety again, the tunneling, funneling effect starting. I went home only a few times over the years and I never wanted to be left alone. Even if they were there, I’d start to see the spot under the doorway separating the den from the master bedroom again. I would become drawn to that area, at the same time try to ignore it inevitably, I would hear my mother calling out to my younger brother to come from the den where he had been reading (according to the police report a light had been left on, a book open), again I would see her aiming the gun at him at point-blank range near the doorway, shaking, my brother eventually realizing what was happening because there had been a struggle, scratches, again I’d hear the first shot rattling the floor-to-ceiling windows, the hibernating winter trees outside the blackened windows indifferent witnesses, I would see him crumpling backwards after the first shot, his glasses falling off as he reflexively raised his arm to his face, both of them crying out as he was still alive, the shot well beyond the heart, even though my mother was a registered nurse and knew exactly where the heart was, I would hear the second shot making him go still and then her moving towards him, then the third shot into her mouth, the blood and gore and madness flowing afresh, the hole opening up again inside me, my confidence, my future plans, my whole being suddenly slipping yet again into a hole that could never be erased. I was very glad when they put the house up for sale.
My older brother remembers entirely different things than me. My father puts us both to shame, remembering the tiniest details stretching all the way back to our earliest childhoods, every anniversary, the most obscure details about what we ate or did just on any old Sunday afternoon. My father’s memory, as it relates to our family, has an astounding clarity that I can muster only for the events surrounding Jan. 1, 1990. So good memory must also relate to love, coming to terms with one’s past, an ability to value moments for their significance, for their mere tender fleetingness too. My father remembers so much before Jan. 1, 1990, that I sometimes feel not to have been present for half of my entire life.
I still live overseas. But now, two decades later, I feel sure the memories clustered around that fateful date are finally under control, properly confessed and dealt with. The nightmares have stopped, as have the visits to psychiatrists (both stopped sometime halfway through my stay in Spain). One day I promise myself I will finally pay a visit for the first time to the modest pair of tombstones that stand side by side on the outskirts of Lufkin, Texas, in that cemetery by the highway, the tombstones alike, the etched last names and death dates the same too. It is a final trip I must make in order to open myself up those last few degrees in search of those long-buried good memories.