There Was No Map

He was my brother, and the country of childhood was a tangled one, fraught with discord and shadowed by mystery. Dangers loomed, whether real or imagined, and tranquil moments could not entirely be trusted, for they were as delicate as glass and might easily shatter. But he knew how to make me laugh, and he taught me many things: the refuge of crayon and pencil retreats, the magic of pretending to be someone else, and how marks on a page can transform into words and everything suddenly shines. There was no map for that country, but we walked it together.

He knew the names of all the dinosaurs, and he took arty pictures with his little Brownie camera, and he salvaged a red bicycle that someone had thrown away and showed me the momentum and mobility in that humble machine. He told me once that we should never let anyone see us cry. I had discovered somewhere along the way that my tears could garner sympathy and attention, so I indulged in them with vigor when I felt like, but my brother endured all with stoic dignity. His suffering was real, and life was brutally unfair, but I never saw him cry, and I never saw him mean.

In time he went elsewhere, living among strangers or in lonely rooms, trying hard to attain outcomes that for so many others had simply been written into the script. He completed a degree in economics and even started law school far away. He was brilliant and creative, but he was born with a terrible kidney disease and it finally took its toll…life on dialysis, poverty, confusion. He wandered, he was hospitalized more than once, he called me from bus stations in implausible places, and went back at the end to our family home. It wasn’t much of a home by then, and there wasn’t much of a welcome, but where was he to go?

He was my protector, and over time I had grown taller and stronger than him, and I should have become his protector, but of course I failed to do so. His letters kept coming, to me and to my daughter, who was only a baby, but he hoped someday she would read them and know her Uncle Eddie. He never felt well, not ever, but he sent her paper fans and plastic figurines, children’s books and collectible coins, boxes of cookies and his own ink drawings. My brother had so little, but his heart was so generous.

And it was his heart that finally failed him, a secondary development in kidney disease. Corrective surgery was attempted, in a New York City hospital, and he never recovered. I have a letter he wrote me a day or two before the surgery, looking out the window at the city lights, still filled, despite everything, with hopes and promises, or maybe he was just trying to be brave. I will never know. He was forty-five when he died.

Today is his birthday. He would have been seventy years old. I have never learned what to do with my sadness. There is no map for this country.

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6 Responses to There Was No Map

  1. Ida Flanagan Cabral says:

    Beautiful tribute to your brother. I wish I had the ability to write like you, Cyn. Your words describe so much of how I feel about my “big brother”, Bobby. He passed away at the age of 51 from complications due to diabetes. Like you, I have not learned what to do with my sadness.

    • cynthia says:

      Thank you, Ida. I remember Bobby from those 1960s Central Islip days, so innocent and long ago. It saddens me to know that his life turned out to be so hard and so short, and I truly empathize with that ongoing sense of loss and sorrow. I guess we never get over it.

      • Ida Flanagan Cabral says:

        Thank you, Cyn. I have read a lot of your writing and I know you have had much sorrow in your life, but you have also had much happiness. Thanks for sharing your joys & sorrows. You give all who read your writings hope.

        • cynthia says:

          What a lovely thing to say, Ida. This means a great deal to me, more than you can imagine. I would like to think that someone finds hope in all these words, even the sad ones. And you’re right: I’ve had a lot of sorrow, but I’ve also been blessed with the capacity for joy and wonder. Thanks so much for this.

  2. Pierr says:

    Cynthia, this is such a beautiful tribute and there is such a wonderful sense of all that he was and went through. And to see his picture here added much. My warmest thoughts on this day of special, yet sad, remembrance.

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