Some people are disturbed most by events that are unexpected.
For me, it has always been the half-awaited ones that carry the blow: the semi-conscious fears that lurk behind closed eyes, the halfdropped pair of shoes, the "what ifs..."
June 5, 1997, 11 p.m.
Susan and I return home from a party. In an unusual show of activity, our answering machine has had eleven hang-ups and one message -- from Linda, my sister-in-law.
"Christopher," she says, "Can you call me, please."
Usually, no one except strangers call me "Christopher," but maybe Linda is echoing my brother, who sometimes calls me by my full name as a joke.
I make a mental note to call her tomorrow; it's too late tonight. I figure that she's probably planning a publication party for Tony, who has just finished his latest book, nine years in the writing.
The book before this one—Common Ground—resulted in his second Pulitzer Prize, and dozens of other awards. One reporter called my brother, "the best journalist of our generation." Another, "The patron saint of contemporary reporters." He has won numerous accolades for his reporting for the New York Times; has received honorary degrees for his deep analysis of crucial episodes in recent American history; been wined and dined by literati and academics alike. He is, in short, one of those remarkable men whose work received enormous respect and attention.
But Tony is not sure that the new book, a huge volume called, Big Trouble, is up to previous works. It's due out in a month or so, and we'll all have to wait.
While I'm at the closet, taking off my shoes, the phone rings again. Susan is near and she answers.
In the wake of a family suicide, there is sorrow, guilt, despair—and anger. My reaction to my brother's death was no different; in fact, because of the difficult relationship we had had, it may have been worse."
"Hello." A pause. "How?" Her voice is electric, alarmed. I recognize a disaster in the making.
I come around the corner of the closet, a shoe in one hand, the other still on my foot.
She looks at me, the phone up to her ear, shaking her head, a look of terror on her face."What is it?" I ask, already feeling the pain begin. "Tony killed himself," she says. I scream and throw the undropped shoe at the far wall.
Most brothers have sibling rivalry problems, interrupted by close bonding, but Tony and I always seemed to have great difficulty in finding common ground. The history of our family is partly responsible, a history full of selfdestructive events.
In the wake of a family suicide, there is sorrow, guilt, despair—and anger. My reaction to my brother's death was no different; in fact, because of the difficult relationship we had had, it may have been worse. During the first months after Tony's death, I viewed my life with him through the prism of anger. Why did he do this to me and to his family? If there had been good times in our years together, I didn't allow myself to remember them. But, gradually, the truth seeped in: there was a whole store of other memories which I was hiding. I needed to make an effort to dredge up those experiences -- the ones which had provided pleasure and comfort. To put a picture of our relationship in some kind of balance, if I could.
So, what would happen if I stopped thinking about all the rage I felt for the way Tony had died and for the slights I had felt? What might occur if I recalled how much we had shared, what burdens we had lifted together, how we had supported each other. What then? I began writing about my family two weeks after my brother's death. At first, I could put down only a few thoughts about him, mostly about my anger and sorrow, but as the weeks and months went by, memories came—long ago events that had been forgotten. Time passed; I would come back to the computer, put down new recollections. About us. About our relationship. I found memories of other family members, of the distant past, of things I thought had been obliterated forever. The mind is tricky: it brings back even the most distant feelings and events just when you think they have left you alone, left you in peace.
Today, more than a decade after Tony's death, I am still writing. But, my idea of who my family and my brother were has changed over these years. The perception of who I was—and who I am—has also changed. So I keep writing. Trying to get it right.
Conflating the present with the past is an old theme of philosophers. The idea of all chairs, said the philosopher William James, is present in the image of any particular chair. So, any particular friend's essence is distilled by all the friends one has had.
And so it is with brothers. They are never what they appear to be to others, or even to oneself. Tony is a combination of past and present; of what he was and how I see him today.
But that is true of me as well. I am not merely the bald head in the mirror, the tired knees and the naps in the afternoon. I am the 16 year old with an enormous appetite; the 22 year old having his first real love affair; the 33 year old looking down at his first child.
Tony and I are brothers across the stroboscopic echoes of the past dissolving across black interludes into the next image, and the next, and the next, until all vestige of pure vision is destroyed. All that is left is memory, and we know how faulty that can be. Who Tony was is forever blurred by who I was and how I remember who I thought Tony was. Yes, we are brothers in fact, in memory, and in wish, but he is dead, and I am alive—left to dwell on the questions, and to seek the answers.
There were questions of great importance to me: Would I, too, end up killing myself? Was the legacy of self-destruction I would discover in my family too great for me to survive? If so, when would the pendulum swing? And, if it never did, why not? How could I—almost alone among my family—escape?
To answer these questions, I needed to go back and delve more deeply into my family and explore my relationship with Tony. This is a story of two brothers in a particular family at a particular time in the history of that family. If, often, the tale appears to be as much about my parents and grandparents—my emotions, my life, and my memories—as it is about my brother, it is because it is very much a story about relationships. The relationship my father had to my mother; the relationship of my mother to her parents. Mine with Tony, Tony's with those other people.
Beyond that, it is also a book about coming to terms with the suicide of a brother—an event I had written about previously when it happened to other people, but never before experienced for myself.
What do I really know about the past? What do any of us know? Who were these characters; what led up to the deaths in my family. In truth, I was woefully ignorant—and, to be honest, fearful of finding out.
The article is an abridged version of chapter one of BLUE GENES: A Memoir of Loss & Survival by Christopher Lukas, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. Reprinted with permission.