Feb. 23, 1997
Saturday, August 12, 1995, 4:00 PM.
My dad emerged from the staircase into our dim upstairs hallway and took a few steps towards me across the plush turquoise carpet. I knew instantly from the strained look in his hazel-green eyes that what I had dreaded all week had finally happened:
"Just got email from James. He says Jonathan . . . died at about two-o'clock this afternoon."
The word 'died' entered my ears like a cold lead snake—it slithered around my neck, squeezing it as I grunted a reply to my father and lumbered down the turquoise carpeted stairs. As I passed the dark orange bricks of the downstairs fireplace, walked down the white-walled, turquoise carpeted hallway to my brother Robin's old room, and sank into the cracked black leather swivel chair, the snake released its squeeze on my neck, melted into icy black molasses, and oozed down through my backbone to my numb toes. Black knots in the cherry wall panels stared back at me.
My cousin Jonathan's death didn't come as a surprise. On Wednesday my twelve-year-old brother Ian told me for the third time that week, turning his face away as he spoke, "Warren called again . . . Jonathan's . . . not doing so well."
As an infant, Jonathan had open-heart surgery to close a hole in the muscle dividing the two ventricles of his heart; as a seventeen-year-old, six-foot-tall young man, his heart had outgrown the patch that repaired it in infancy and he needed surgery again. During the summer of 1995, I thought little of his upcoming surgery; I did not visit my cousins Jonathan and Daniel in Minneapolis, but spent most of the summer living in San José, Costa Rica as an exchange student. On July 20 he sent me a postcard: "Mischa— Which San José do you like better? It's probably hard to compare. I'm working at the St. Anthony Main Movie Theater, just in case no one told you. Summer's going fast, + my surgery is coming up-- Outta Room, Jonathan." Sixteen days after sending me the postcard, his heart refused to beat after surgery, the doctors hooked him up to a heart-lung machine, and, as usually happens with heart-lung machines, his kidneys began to fail. A week later he died.
The postcard reminded me of our train ride on the Amtrak "Empire Builder" line from Minneapolis to San José, California, in July of 1991. My dad and my uncle James drove through the Rockies in the rickety 1978 Ford van with my eight-year-old brother Ian, allowing my brother Robin (fifteen), my cousins Jonathan (thirteen) and Daniel (eleven), and me (twelve) to enjoy the three-day train ride without having to avoid my little brother. My stepmother Barbara and my cousins' parents Warren and Patty gave the four of us complete freedom to explore and romp through the cars. Dashing up the spiral staircases between decks, giggling at the strange passengers we ran into, and playing Spit and Egyptian Rat Screw with Amtrak playing cards until two in the morning, Robin, Jonathan, Daniel, and I formed a tightly-bonded foursome that we thought would last forever. I still remember the sixty-year-old man who scrambled past me up the spiral staircase and yelled, "Ha! Beat ya!" from the top, and the curly lipped man with the red-plaid golf cap and the Irish accent, and the drunk man from Portland, Oregon who joined our card game one night in the lounge and exploded with laughter at every one of our stupid jokes.
Three days after Jonathan died, Dad, Barbara, Robin, Ian, and I drove to Minneapolis to help Daniel, his sister Catherine, Warren, Patty, Uncle James, and Patty's parents plan the memorial service. My dad let me drive the 1985 Nissan Stanza with Robin while Dad, Barbara, and Ian took the 1993 Geo Metro. Instead of watching over me and making sure I could handle the long drive, as Dad had instructed, Robin mischievously wiggled the steering wheel at random intervals and ended up breaking off the rear view mirror by a wild flail of his hand.
At Warren and Patty's house, we gathered around the ten-foot long dining room table next to the ancient Steinway grand piano. I had sat at least twenty times at that table with my cousins, siblings, parents, aunts, and uncles and eaten Chuck-wagon Beans, Farmhouse Porkchops, and "Tator-tot Junk" casserole; now, everything seemed the same except for the absence of food, the absence of Jonathan, and the absence of smiling faces. Desperate to bring laughter into the room, we began to tell the minister from the First Unitarian Universalist Church our happy memories of Jonathan.
At our house in Madison during a thundering, flashing, torrential downpour in July 1993, I heard Jonathan yell, "Whoa! What the hell!?" from downstairs right after a flash of lightning. Insane laughter billowed up the stairs, and I dashed down to see what he could have found so funny while sitting alone on the couch during a thunderstorm. He pointed at the VCR, his finger shaking from his uncontrolled giggles, and said, "The lightning made the tape eject!" A few years earlier, at his house in Minneapolis, Jonathan's brother Daniel pounded on the bathroom door for the fifth time in ten minutes, yelling, "What the hell's taking so long?" After another five minutes, Jonathan emerged, explaining, "Man did I have to take a dump! I mean I've never taken such a huge dump in my life! I had to stop and flush the toilet half-way through! I should get an award or something. . . ." Jonathan always stunned us with his theatrical creativity: at the age of nine he and Robin created classic radio plays on Robin's tape recorder featuring the adventures of Dr. Who and his electronic dog K-9, and "Beavers in Space," a drama of time traveling beavers and their mission to thwart the evil flying Pegacow. A few years later my brother Robin received the Fisher Price PXL-2000 camcorder as a Christmas gift, and we, always directed by Robin and Jonathan, created full motion pictures using high-bias audio tapes. After the success of our two-minute segments of "Lassie the Wonder Dog" starring Corky, our stubby legged collie-Welsh corgy mutt, we advanced to full twenty-minute films such as "Indiana Jones" and "The Badminton Murders." Jonathan always helped direct and shoot our films, while I played stupid characters like "the Evil Empress" in "Indiana Jones" and the rich cat-owner who gets killed by Daniel's power slam in "The Badminton Murders."
We have not made a decent film since "The Revenge of Jesus," a VHS movie starring my brother Robin and me, and directed by Jonathan. Every room of Warren and Patty's house in Minneapolis holds memories of Jonathan—memories like ghosts that only appear in certain rooms of a house. The couch in the foyer where we opened Christmas presents. The carpet of the living room where plastic Lego men explored jungles and where cousins pretending to be kittens crawled. The dining room table where we played late-night games of Pictionary. The old multi-section couch in the den, where we slept, jumped and bounced, and where we sat and stared at the TV as the Weather Channel's clock ticked from 11:59:59 PM December 31 to 12:00:00 AM January 1. All these places feel incomplete without Jonathan, even when they are filled with every other relative in the family.
Jonathan's room still has his posters of the Minneapolis skyline, his CD player, and his marble statuettes of an egg and a sphere. Now a guest room, its bright white walls and turquoise carpet give it a cheerful atmosphere. When I enter it I remember long nights of speculating on the distance of stars and galaxies, of wondering at the meaning of the white fuzzy specks of light we see when we stare into the dark, of telling jokes we heard at school and sending giggles through the walls.
On the back of the program for his memorial service we printed a poem entitled "Whole" that Jonathan wrote in May of the year he died:
As we drove back to Madison, I realized that the only physical remnants of Jonathan I had consisted of a postcard, a poem, a few letters, a few films, and a few photos. But the everlasting essence of his connection to me and my family will remain in my memories and in the memories of all who sit together at the ten-foot-long, hardwood table in the dining room of Warren and Patty's house.