The sweet breeze caresses my bare legs. On the parkway, a squirrel skims across the vincas and shimmies the height of a maple, clenching something round and scarlet in his mouth. The crickets still cry out to one another, or maybe that call comes from something more prehistoric -- this year's lusty crop of locusts, or perhaps the earth itself. The dark green expanse of lawn still lies in shadow, as the sun struggles to crest the steep pitch of the rooftops.
I hear the distant drone of traffic, somewhere to the east, where the sun has already risen and people have already swilled their fill of morning coffee and adjudged themselves capable of operating a motor vehicle. I would not inflict my driving on the world this early; I can barely walk; I did not even carry the laptop to the porch by myself. Though I am clearly a morning person, my neurons are not, and they grumble, looking for a chance to retaliate.
A cloud of sentimentality swirled around me all week. Last Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of my mother's death; my sister, traveling companions and I toasted her with raised cups of water and coffee at the St.Louis Bread Company. A few days later, a friend shared news of a Walk to Washington intended to raise awareness of depression, which triggered an afternoon of reverie about my little brother, whose suicide in 1997 abruptly introduced me to despair's keen power.
My brother's story is not my story; I have no license to even attempt to explain his decision, or to name the demons that drove him. I own my memories of him; a few precious photographs; and a couple of prints from the Lafayette Square home tours which once adorned the walls of his apartment.
Steve wears the same smile in each picture that I have of him. I see the fragility now, but I missed it in the years before his death. I notice now the distant pitch of his gaze, though in life, I would not have said he looked anywhere but squarely at those around him.
Steve radiated energy. He never just walked into a room: He entered snapping, dancing, eyes darting, calling your name, reeling you into his circle. He would tuck me under one arm and take a long draw on a Marlboro as he pulled us both towards the bar and flashed a radiant smile at the waitress. Two Stingers, babe, one for me and one for the shrimp here, he would say. You met my sister? This is my sister. . .He drank, and at times had worked, at O'Connell's Pub on Kingshighway in south St.Louis. There we consumed Stingers in memory of my mother after her funeral; there, he seemed to have many friends, and seemed to feel at home.
My son remembers my brother as a big man in a black shirt. Steve wore that shirt on his last Christmas, when he gave Patrick an alien catcher and a collection of creepy aliens rendered in hard, dark plastic. But I see the two of them in other scenes, earlier in the reel, long before Steve's tragic ending. I replay them repeatedly, clicking my mental remote control, searching for my favorites. Do you remember when your uncle Steve played with you and your cousin Whitney in Joyce's family room, I ask my son. He shakes his head and the small gesture momentarily startles me. Does he look like Steve? Does he wear that tender smile? Does he carry that sorrowful stamp?
Patrick and I flew to St.Louis for my father's funeral in a twenty-seater out of Springfield, Missouri, the closest fully functional airport to Fayetteville where I lived at the time. Patrick was two months old; I canceled his baptism because of my father's death, as a consequence of which, he celebrated his solitary Catholic sacrament in the Abbey at the Priory in West St.Louis County. After the baptism, after the celebratory breakfast, after the week-long cathartic cleaning of my parents' home, my son and I returned on the same small plane to our southern life.
Stephen took us to the airport. As usual, we tarried over coffee and cut our arrival time close. He dropped me at the door, saying he would park the car and bring my belongings -- including my son, still seat-belted, soundly sleeping. I glanced in the back, and Steve dismissed my fear. I'll bring him, don't worry; how could I forget your baby? This was in the days before orange and red alerts; he told me he would meet me at the gate, with my carry-on bag and my child.
I got our boarding passes, and made the long walk to the gate, where I waited. I fidgeted, first on one foot, then the other; up, down; hallway, chair; but he did not come. The gatekeeper had him paged; he did not come. The pilot exited the plane to inquire as to the reason for the delay in departure; and still, my brother did not come. The small group of passengers were apprised of the situation and polled, and agreed that they could wait a few more minutes; and still, he did not come.
The airline personnel finally signaled that they had to release the plane. I put one hand on the blue-clad arm of the attendant, and begged her for just another minute. I could see the stress of her life in the lines around her eyes; I knew she wanted to help. I reminded her that if I did not board that plane, I would not get home for another twenty-four hours, since they had only one scheduled flight per day. I played the orphan card; I told her, in wheedling tones, about my father's funeral, about the difficult week. As she hesitated, I tightened my grip on her arm, and turned us both toward the concourse, at the end of which I could see the river of shuffling travelers begin to inexplicably part.
Some hundred yards away, still a faint blur, came my brother. He left laughter in his wake as he always did, though on that day the smiles arose not because of the strong draw of his masculinity or the irresistible pull of his perpetual trawl. As he neared the gate, my hand on the arm of the attendant eased; I knew she could not see what I saw and fail to wait.
They came toward us, my brother Steve and my son Patrick, and every person whom they passed must still remember. Stephen had strapped my son, car seat and all, onto a luggage cart, and had taken off at a dead run: my infant son beaming, his little ears pressed flat against his head, my brother's tall frame and long legs catapulting them both the entire length of the Lambert-St. Louis airport.
If I close my eyes, here, with the kiss of the morning sun on my face and the chill of the morning air on my silk-clad shoulders, I can still see them -- my son squealing in delight, his adoring gaze on the grinning countenance of my little brother. I can see the victorious flash of my brother's pale blue eyes, as he released the strap and swung the car seat over to the waiting arms of the airline attendant. I told you I would bring him, Mar Bear, he admonished me. Have I ever let you down?
In 1997, after my brother's penultimate suicide attempt, I stood with him at yet another bar, drinking yet another Stinger, in yet another south St. Louis evening crowd. I chided him about his unsuccessful overdose, from which he had awakened in renal failure, causing him to summon paramedics with a punch of 911. I don't get it, Steve -- you take an overdose, then call 911 to save your sorry butt, I said, laughing into eyes that held grief to which I must have been blind. Before answering, he took another drink, and lit another cigarette. It's simple, Mar Bear, he finally said, in a voice that I did not understand, not then, not now. I wanted to die, not suffer.
A handful of months later, he got his wish.
The sun has cleared the rooftops, and the neighbors have begun to load a great pile of boxes onto a flatbed truck. The dog-walkers have all come and gone; and the crickets have sung themselves to sleep. There is laundry to be done, and dishes to put away, and after a while, the black cat will rise from the cold concrete on which he now sleeps, and insist on being fed.
To anyone who has known depression, or known someone who suffered depression -- and for anyone who has been spared its grip -- please, I ask you:
sign the petition to increase awareness of this terrible disease: