Skip to main content

Brother Death, Sister Life

ISSUE:  Winter 2003

Laudato si’, mi Signore, per sora nostra Morte corporale
    da la quale nullo omo vivente po’ scampare

St. Francis

       Death is my idiot
brother, who comes babbling something I don’t yet
       understand and throws

his arms around me and kisses me full
       on the mouth.
I hug him back. St. Francis got it all

       wrong. Death
isn’t our sister, Laudato si’, mi Signore.
       Tom Andrews

knew it too. Death was always his brother,
       John, who kept
beckoning him from the beyond. “The dead drag

       a grappling hook
for the living. The hook is enormous,” Tom said
       in his shortest

poem. Tom was the hooked rainbow trout fighting
       hard, prismatic
flash of silver muscle breaking the surface, taking the line out

       from the screeching
reel with the drag on, and finally hauled thrashing into the air, gasping
       for water.

Death was his true element. He swam well. Life caught him,
       then threw
him back. Laudato si’, mi Signore. He almost jumped

       from a seven-story
parking garage, while his poetry students waited for him
       to come

to the last class of the year. The tulips bloomed late,
       as always
in Indiana, recalcitrant miserly spring that spent

       only a handful
of red petals, when it should have been prodigal
       April. Tom walked

back down. Laudato si’, mi Signore. Did he teach
       that last class?
I never learned. A year later he visited us in Georgia and told us how

       one week earlier
he had piped his exhaust into the cab of the blue truck with a rubber hose
       but stopped

when his kittens Geoffrey and Emma crawled
       onto the windshield
and tried to climb in with him, mewing for milk, scrambling up the glass

       and sliding
back down. When he finally went to bed, Dana and I worried
       he would kill

himself overnight. But then, at the same moment, we burst
       out laughing—
Tom was too “polite” to commit suicide

       at his friends’ house.
Laudato si’, mi Signore. The forsythia flamed
       like a guardian

angel with a drawn sword outside his window
       while he slept
sound. Chronic depression couldn’t kill him. His hemophilia

       didn’t stop
him riding motorcycles down the long flat roads of Indiana
       through cornfields

that stretched dark green to the horizon, so much sky,
       a few golden tassels
of cirrus clouds, the sun setting within reach

       on one side,
the full moon rising on the other, those two shining brass
       pans of the invisible

balance that seesaws and weighs out our nights and days. Into the humid dusk
       Tom cruised
at seventy miles per hour. His girlfriends held on tight. Laudato si’,

       mi Signore.
They were all at his funeral, four ex-girl friends, two ex-fiancées,
       and Carrie

his ex-wife. They sobbed and embraced each other in chorus.
       His old teacher and I
read five of his poems aloud and then shut the words

       back in their books.
The pianist played Satie’s Gymnopédie while sirens

past the church. Tom, you would have loved the clanging fire engine
       that interrupted
the program so that the pianist had to stop

       and wait
for all that commotion to pass. We sang “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” It took
       a long name, thrombotic

thrombocytopenic purpura—freak virus, “a rare, but sometimes deadly, blood disorder”—
       to kill you,
and five weeks in a coma while Alice your mother and Alice your fiancée tried

       to keep you
alive. Your brother, who died from renal failure twenty-one years
       ago, kept whispering

through your respirator’s deep kiss, telling you not
       to be afraid—
“It must be a country without pain. It must be a quiet

       place where the stillness
under your wrist is entered like a field of thyme
       and peppergrass. . . .”

Laudato si’, mi Signore. Today, at my parents’ summer cottage,
       my own brother yanks
me by the hand and points to the forty-foot silver birches

and blown down by an August storm’s micro-bursts. “Where baz, baz?” he lisps.
       ”Buds?” I ask.

He jerks his head from side to side. I try again.
He smiles and nods. He means the crows, whose black song wakes

       him every morning,
have had to leave the birches and have flown to roost in the jack pines. Awe, awe, they cry.
       Grief is the only

note they know. Laudato si’, mi Signore. How I’ll remember
       Tom Andrews always
is in my friend’s story at the bar after the funeral—

       him flying down
the hill past her house, doing a handstand on her son Will’s
       skateboard, while

she stood petrified on her front porch with beautiful Carrie, who shouted
       out only,
“Hey you, crazed bleeder jock on that skateboard,

       wanna get married?”
In the bar, eleven years later, Carrie blushed. It was her, Sister Life,
       Tom courted

upside down, feet pointing to the sky, his body a swaying
point, the skateboard beneath him rumbling hallelujah

       over the pitted
asphalt, while Carrie clapped, whistled, and called after him, “Come back,
       you dummkopf. Come back!”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading