22 December 2013

Your grief ain't like mine

my grandma, brother bobo, and moma

I received the call from my brother, Kevin on Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 10:04 am PST..."Bobo died this morning," he said.  I couldn't really detect grief in his voice, but perhaps there was a sorrow that could only be his and no one else's. Certainly not mine.  I was to come to that later, but not in the way that may be expected by most.

We continued to talk briefly about the scant details of our brother's death.  Bobo--our nickname for Ozell, although I couldn't tell you why he came to be called this--made his transition from this life into the next (I strongly believe that our bodies perish, but our spirits linger, sometimes searching and finding another host, but can also remain in limbo when they've left this life unresolved) inside the cold and sterile walls of a prison hospital in Joliet, Illinois.  There was the question of whether or not his body would be released to our mother since he was considered a ward of the state.  You see, Bobo was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  He was never to see the light of day, but I pray that he saw a light of release and relief when he took his last breath.  He had suffered a long time from kidney disease.

However, there wasn't the usual fondness one has of memories about a loved one that we speak of when they have deceased. Things that made you laugh or moments when that person made you feel truly happy or occasions where someone's life left an indelible mark on your own without guilt or shame or anger or unpleasantness. Instead, my brother and I communicated in a kind of somberness expected but without the sadness that I would expect to have at the news of one of my sibling's passing.  Kevin and I  ended our conversation instead with a promise that he would call me soon with more details.

I had been awake only minutes before his call.  I lingered in bed for more than a half hour, trying to collect my thoughts, wondering who to call, and found myself writing a post on my Facebook wall that only casually approached the subject of my loss.  I wondered if my grief would come in the form of tears, and it did, but not as I suspected.  It was as brief as the conversation I'd just had with Kevin. Yet there was a heaviness that followed.  A kind of numbness and disconnectedness that I just couldn't negotiate or understand.  As I stumbled through my feelings, I came upon memories of my departed brother that I knew I had to resolve.  I grabbed my journal and began to write about the scattered pieces of a life I had shared with a brother I hardly knew.

We were only five years apart.  That's not a big gap, but it was big enough to separate us physically and emotionally from one another.  Our growing up only made us grow apart.  By the time he was a teenager, Bobo had already been inducted into the judicial system, first through juvenile detention and later graduating into a much harsher term within the adult prison industrial complex.  He spent a lot of time away from us. We celebrated birthdays and holidays in his absence.  When he was home, he continued to distance himself by spending long periods of time in the street where he fell into the grips of addiction.

Bobo (l), Kevin (r) and me on Christmas, circa 1960

There was this one time he came home for dinner and brought a friend.  It was truly one of those guess who’s coming to dinner moments.  His friend’s name was Janice.  I ascertained from the get go that Janice was not a young woman who just happened to look hard--she had a bit of a stubble on her chin, large hands with painted nails, wore red lipstick and had an even larger adam’s apple--but was a man wearing a dress, high heels and a wig.  Yet I had to be sure.  At age thirteen, I was far from developing a political and social consciousness around sexuality.  I was fascinated by this odd human sitting at our dining room table eating Moma’s spaghetti.  My curiosity got the better of me and I had to satisfy it before I could satisfy my appetite.

I had to be clever about gathering my evidence, so I  “accidentally” dropped my fork on the floor and moved stealthily under the table to retrieve it.  I was a teenage sleuth trying to solve a mystery.  My investigation was made easy since Janice was wearing a dress and hadn’t quite mastered “lady-like” manners (like keeping your “curtain” closed).  Janice’s legs were open wide, and for me, it was an open and shut case.  I’d confirmed my suspicions when I’d spotted the bulge revealed between her legs.  Janice had unwittingly confessed. 

I know that I’d been under that table long enough to be missed, but Janice was a show stopper, a jaw dropper, in that incredulous kind of way; I recalled there being an element of shock and awe experienced by family who struggled to keep the dinner conversation going so as not to reveal their horror (I know my family, they were indeed horrified that my brother had brought someone like Janice home to disgrace us at the dinner table, with our Christian values and all).

That was light fare and maybe one of the more lighter memories I carry of my dearly departed brother.

In one drug induced state, Bobo hung me by my ankles from a third story window and threatened to drop me after I had refused to iron his pants.  I'd told him that Moma said I didn't have to, but he was not to be denied.  I screamed for dear life.  I was terrified he'd drop me, that my head would hit the concrete below, that I'd die at the hands of my big brother who only cared about those rust colored polyester pants that gave an awful stench when the heat from the iron would meet the unwashed fabric.  I promised I would do as he wished and he pulled me up and brought me back inside the porch.  

Everything in between is a blur.  Bobo was frequently in and out of our house and the system.  I didn't get to know him or his story.  Don't know what made him happy or sad.  Couldn't tell you who his favorite recording artist was, whether or not he was a great dancer. Whether or not he had a best friend or a partner he loved deeply and unconditionally. Janice was the only person he ever brought home for dinner, and who later  sliced his back with a straight razor.   

I supposed he liked westerns since the picture above shows him wearing a holster and toy pistol. But in those days that's what all boys got for Christmas. I got dolls and an Easy Bake Oven.  I was Suzy Homemaker, Bobo was John Wayne or Lee Van Cleef.  He seemed happy there in that photo. Something changed, though.  Somewhere along the life he lived he made a detour and decided another fate.  I will never know because these memories are a part of my story. My story about my life with him in it as I remember it.  He had a different narrative.  It's likely that there are different memories held by my remaining siblings.  We all have our memories, our stories. But Bobo's stories about how he lived and why passed away with him on December 1, 2013. 

Everything else is just speculation.  I write this to assuage my pain at his loss. I needed to put to rest that part of my past that called for release, an ending. Now I can let go.  Now I can say goodbye.

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