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GROWING UP IN Arkansas, we relished our Thanksgiving turkeys. Mother roasted them until the skin was crispy brown, and even the white meat was juicy. She admonished me and my brothers, Blair and Brent, not to pick at her beautiful birds while they were still being carved. But where was the fun in that?
I know Mother wanted us to understand proper etiquette and manners. I know her desire was to civilize us in the decorum of dinners and luncheons. But in her heart she must have loved it that her birds were good enough for us to want to pick, expert pickers that we were.
Brent, in fact, could turn a giant turkey carcass into a little mound of bones. My husband, Jim, and I used to say we should leave a good turkey carcass for Brent on his grave. He would appreciate that a lot more than flowers.*
TWO YEARS AGO in this space I wrote about my brother Brent, whose death at Thanksgiving 1990 in New York has forever colored this holiday for me. And so it is again this year. It's not a happy memory, certainly--but as the years have passed it's not totally unhappy, either. After all, it's a memory of Brent. He was my soulmate, and Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday.
I had been in New York for three weeks, from mid-October to early November of that year, and Brent had become increasingly ill: cancer, a by-product of his AIDS. Steroids were puffing him up, and he was experiencing considerable pain. His beautiful dark wavy hair was gone, and when he was able to leave his loft, he walked with a cane to steady himself.
In time, I'd reluctantly gone home to Little Rock, while Brent willed himself to be well enough to fly to Tennessee and visit our cousin Joy. He'd been determined to keep living his life, to keep looking toward a happy future as much as possible.
A major part of that future was his traditional Thanksgiving soiree, an event we had discussed at great length during my visit. Despite his illness, Brent wanted that year's celebration to surpass all others. My daughters always spent Thanksgiving with their father, so Jim and I were due to fly back to New York in a few weeks to help Brent produce his grandest Thanksgiving gala ever. His guest list was a cast of New York and international elite.
Part of the triumph of the dinner would be Brent's preview of his still-evolving loft. An interior decorator, he was implementing his plan step by step, as money became available. It would be stunning, classical, and mad yet gentlemanly. The natural walls, partly peeling, had time itself etched into them; Brent liked the effect and refused to paint over these traces. Bookshelves covered most of one wall, with a magnificent gold-leaf mirror the size of some Parisian storefronts. We'd found it at Sotheby's, and he'd bought it for a song.
He admired Voltaire and had hung both a fine pencil drawing of the philosopher and a large Cubist-inspired painting of frenzied African natives that he'd found at the flea market. Various renditions of Greek-inspired male nudes appeared here and there. The column of one floor lamp was topped by a globe pierced by an arrow, and a massive gentleman's armoire had been divided into its three pieces to anchor another expanse of wall.
A bank of windows stretched across the end of the loft, and between windows Brent draped ecclesiastical hangings of rich cranberry velvet with gold appliqués; these were repeated in a superb pouf he'd designed. Two heart-backed armless chairs were smartly upholstered with checked Indian silk of sapphire and ruby, and his enormous tufted sofa echoed the sapphire in chestnut. His loft would be his masterpiece. There had already been conversations with Architectural Digest about it, and that piece would be a benchmark in both Brent's personal and professional life. It would be the calling card for his future.*
JIM AND I arrived on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. When we stepped into Brent's loft, a hospital bed had been moved into his dressing room, and his leopard bed had been shifted to the central living space. A nurse was attending him. In the weeks I'd been away, Brent had gone downhill fast.
Right away we began discussing the upcoming event. He'd done much of the preliminary organizing, coordinating with friends who were bringing their holiday specialties and filling in the gaps of what I would prepare. All the food would be home cooked. As always, Brent wanted a primarily Southern menu. The grocery list, turkey, tables, chairs, and linens had been ordered.
The next day was a bitterly cold Sunday. All afternoon we kept planning. I was slightly intimidated to be cooking for such a grand sit-down holiday dinner, but being a great party giver myself, I knew I could pull it off. I felt honored to be Brent's hostess, and I wanted him to be delighted with every single aspect of this Thanksgiving.
But that night he began having worse pain than ever before, and the nurse ordered morphine. It didn't come, and it didn't come, and all the while Brent was suffering terribly. The nurse was strong and experienced, but more play-by-the-rules than I would've been as this absurd situation continued. She remained composed while we waited and waited. I was in chaos inside my skin, but she was supposed to be the expert. So I meekly relied on her advice.
Once Brent's pain was eased, he fell in and out of sleep. When he awoke, we laughed, talked, and continued planning the party, picking up where we'd left off. As Brent instructed, I wrote list after list. It was a must for him to have certain stalwarts like Mother's Southern cornbread dressing (I'd only made dressing once and that was in a Crockpot) and her Bing Cherry and Coca-Cola Jello salad, which I'd never made.
On Monday I was exhausted. The wallpaper hanger came to install the 1950's paper Brent had chosen for the entry hall. Then his doctor, a caring man who had been kind to both Brent and me, made a house call. His report--to me--was that Brent would live for at least several more weeks. Not great news, but it could've been worse.
A new nurse came that day, one strong and professional but more of an earth mother. I liked her better. That afternoon I started making my famous pumpkin cheese cake, which Brent had requested. Jim's mother, Pat, had sent one of the mouth-watering Southern caramel cakes that was Jim's favorite. Our dinner would be both elegant and rich.
My brother Blair, who'd been calling daily, phoned from Arkansas and I gave him the doctor's report. Our sorrow and the devastating consequences of Brent's loss were tightening around us. As he had the night before, Blair asked if he should come. But from the information the doctor had given, it seemed better for Blair to arrive after Thanksgiving when Brent's magnificent dinner would be a happy memory.
The workman installing the wallpaper didn't quit until 10 P.M. He would finish up the next day. Jim and I helped Brent walk over to inspect his craftsman's work, which he heartily approved. After the man left, we carried on our conversation around Brent's bed. Everything was coming together.*
BUT AT MIDNIGHT the nurse noticed something different about Brent's breathing. She called the doctor and spoke with him, then handed the phone to me.
"Beth," he said, "Brent has 24 to 48 hours to live."
How could this be? He'd told me just hours earlier we had weeks. But Brent's condition had changed. He was dying now.
"Are you going to come?" I asked. I wanted him to be there. I didn't know how I could possibly manage my brother's death. How could I sit by and watch him die? I wanted the doctor to save him.
The doctor understood how close Brent and I were and what this news meant to me. I don't know if I actually pleaded with him, though inside I certainly did. But I followed whatever rules the professionals told me. "You don't want me to come," the doctor said. "You want to keep Brent at home. He would want to be there."
We moved Brent to his bedroom and into the hospital bed. The ground had opened beneath me, and I had to call Mother and Blair and tell them Brent was dying. They would be asleep by now, but I dialed the phone. When I reached Mother, she erupted in wails. I telephoned Blair next. He would have to take charge.
I wanted to be with Brent when he died, but I wasn't prepared for it and don't know if I ever could've been. My brother was slipping away before my eyes, and I couldn't stop it. I couldn't find comfort in spiritual rebirth or any concept of God or heaven. Where was the miracle I'd prayed for?
The first two hours, Brent remained conscious and coherent, but in the next two he wasn't rational, and he struggled and tried to get out of bed. I shook so hard I couldn't stop, and Jim held on to me as I held on to Brent and spoke lovingly to him and wept.
The nurse was compassionate and reliable. She told us we needed to engage a funeral home. The NYPD would have to be informed of Brent's death since he was dying at home. If the funeral home wasn't previously arranged, the police would take Brent's body to the morgue, where it could stay for days, maybe weeks, while his death was investigated. I wanted to vomit.
I phoned a friend, Lock, who suggested Frank E. Campbell, the society funeral home on the Upper East Side. Jim made the call.
In the final two hours of Brent's life, he was peaceful, though I wasn't. I should've told him it was okay and sent him along to his death with my love and blessings, but I couldn't. Instead, I repeated how much we all loved him and begged him not to die. I beseeched God again for a miracle. Near the end, I summoned enough wit to tell Brent that our late father would meet him and care for him, and they would shine in the stars of Heaven together. In Brent's sessions with his therapist, one of the topics of tender vulnerability was always his worry about what our father would've thought about his being gay. But through their difficult delving into our father's character--that he was such a loving man with democratic ideals, who showed respect for all people and whose children were the lights of his life--Brent had come to recognize that his sexuality could never have changed the feeling our father felt for him. No matter what, our father would've loved and accepted him.
Brent died at 7:00 A.M. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Mother and Blair's flight hadn't even left Arkansas yet, but I couldn't reach them by phone.
Jim and Lock chose Brent's burial clothes, a fine suit and tie and crisp shirt. I stayed in the room with my brother singing my love to him, smoothing his no longer weary brow and patting his chest, explaining to him I knew our father must be a welcome and blissful sight and the peace he could never find here must be exquisite. I finally dredged up the bounteous language I couldn't grasp earlier and told him I knew he'd had to go.
The phone rang and rang, and calls had to be made to cancel the party. What did I do with Brent's pumpkin cheesecake? I must have given it away. I've never made another one.
This piece, which I dedicate to my family on Thanksgiving, is adapted from Picking the Bones, a memoir in progress.