Deb Rogers

I Collected Four Pall Bearers Along the Way

1: The Notifying Officer

Estranged is an elegant word for a particular brutality. My family is sick with it. My brother died within the immurement of many estrangements: from me, from our bad father, from our mother, from (presumably) friends and old lovers. Meaning, he died alone. “Unattended” is the word the very gentle sheriff used when he broke the news to me a full country away from that brother, away from his body that was now in need of a next of kin. We don’t discuss how or why my brother was not in possession of a next of kin during the last moments of his life nor in the many days he waited after death for neighbors to summon a clean-up crew.

The notifying officer asked if the death was expected. I described generational depression. It is always expected. Everything is always expected.

The notifying officer was a Florida sheriff who had been asked to complete this task by a California police officer. There’s a network for such needs. He held a wide, sturdy stance and said just enough. He did not ask any further questions but they swarmed between us like flies. His green polyester shirt offered me a hug, but when that broke me, I kept it to myself. It has never worked out to cry in front of a man in power, not for me, not once.

2: The Seatmate

The lady next to me on one of the airplanes did ask a lot of questions. In her defense, I could not stop crying. In her defense, I’m sure she had better things to do. (She had a laptop. She carried an enviable briefcase.) She said why do you think he never answered your calls and emails if you had once been so close? Do you think you’ll find out he had something to hide? I told her it’s that I reminded him too much of the old days. That he needed to gut the place before he could repaint. Demolition requires bravery. Hmm, she said. Maybe let’s get some of those tiny bottles of wine.

3: The Hotel Clerk

Damn, who wants to walk around like a piñata? Not me, but I finally understand what ghosts are. They are tears taking flight, lachrymose kites, ready to thunder and rain at the prick of a pin. I could not find my wallet. The clerk said it’s okay, take your time. And then it appeared, the size of a small bird, red as ever.

4: The Medical Examiner

The Medical Examiner’s office was behind the courthouse. I was alone and I don’t remember everything. Cold, windy and grimy, but then it always is in San Francisco. I was to receive the three things that escorted my brother’s body to the morgue: his keys, his phone, his wallet. The secrets of his universe. They used these artifacts in their investigation, and I would use them in mine. I would be able to access his apartment, mail, email and bank accounts, information about who he had become and why he died alone, far from me, without me.

The three items were sealed in a box held by a soft-spoken person who explained everything thoroughly. She slowly gloved her hands and then carefully, deliberately placed the items between us one-by-one, lined up like art or a bomb. Together, we looked at them and did not speak. His keys, his phone, his wallet. She slowly collected them like tarot cards, tucked them into a large envelope, and presented my brother’s precious possessions to me like a newborn baby swaddled for his mother, as though once again a whole, long life was possible.

For many years I struggled with cause and effect when it came to understanding my family’s dysfunctionality and individual struggles because I thought that was the only path forward to establishing mental health. Were we isolated and estranged because depression and other mental illnesses can make people push away each other? Or were we depressed because PTSD or personality disorders or interpersonal drama led us toward isolation over intimacy and connection? Maybe a spiral of all of the above? It was a grace when at some point a therapist helped me see that untangling the causality knot might not be the best approach in my particular situation. It was a very freeing idea. Instead of seeing myself as a detective, I began to think of myself as a surgeon who doesn’t have to figure out where the bullet came from but instead needs to treat the wound. I began to focus on healing.

I’m sad that I wasn’t about to reconnect with my brother before his death. I believe that a renewed relationship with him would have been healthy for me, but I have no way of knowing whether it would have ever been so for him. Again, all I can do with the facts of this painful loss is to try to heal so that I can honor the person he was, so that I can strike some sense of equilibrium with my own lifelong depression, and so that I can remain open for healthy connection in the future.

It’s been hard. It helps knowing many of us struggle similarly. If you have been affected by a family estrangement that is healthy for you or that is damaging to you—or maybe a little bit of both—know that you are not the only one. 

Deb Rogers is an American writer who lives in St. Augustine, Florida. Previously she worked throughout the state on technical assistance and training projects on behalf of victims’ rights and children’s policy issues; now she is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. Her debut novel FLORIDA WOMAN was published by Hanover Square Press in July 2022.

Photo Credit: Monarch Studios, St. Augustine Florida

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