Riding along tight-curved roads in a forest green 1998 Pontiac Grand Am. Billows of cool, late-summer air rolling through the half-open windows. That unmistakable musk of river clay.
The path we followed was old and familiar, engrained into the very fibers of our bodies. Climbing the bluffs was like flipping through an old, ear-marked book. The road was jagged and chaotic, following the twisted path of the river below, but we knew ever bend, every grade of the road with a bone-deep certainty. On the straight runs, we’d build up speed, feeling the drop down in the hollow pits of our stomachs when we crested a hill. The familiarity made us brave, taking the turns just a bit too fast, spraying clouds of gravel dust as the mostly bald tires failed to find grip in the chunks of clay that had loosened from the sides of the bluffs. The vehicle always threatening to spin out, but somehow holding on.
We had no way of knowing then, but these were the last good days.
More than anything, those days were filled with sound. Loud, rhythmic music played at ear-splitting volumes. This was long before digital downloads and mp3’s, the days where you had to spend hard-earned dollars on albums that you cherished—first cassette tapes and then CDs.
The collection we had cobbled together was vast and eclectic, from Bob Dylan’s protest songs to Soundgarden’s angry grunge, and beyond. Our tastes were eclectic and strange, including random bursts of pop divas and gangsta rappers, but we somehow always seemed to find common ground. It was part of our connection, maybe the biggest part. The bind that made us more than just brothers.
Tommy was less than two years younger than me, and we had always been close. Some of my friends had younger brothers that were obnoxious and annoying, but we had never felt that way about Tommy. From the beginning, he had been part of the group, and nobody treated him like my little brother. Some days, my friends would even let him ride shotgun as we sampled our latest choice in disc.
Though a handful of faces rotated amongst the seats in the car, Mark and David rounded out the group more often than not. Sometimes, though, it was just Tommy and I, enjoying our latest bootleg or studio release.
That was usually when we found them.
Certain songs that matched up perfectly with a moment in time. Certain albums that gave voice to a specific span of our lives.
Rumors by Fleetwood Mac? Fall, sophomore year.
The Beatles “In My Life”? Granddad’s funeral.
Nevermind by Nirvana? Mid-summer, junior year.
Led Zeplin’s “Kashmir”? Tommy’s break up with Rachel.
Dylan’s Blond on Blond? One month before the diagnosis.
Anthems. That’s what Tommy would call them. The perfect marriage between form and function. The soundtrack to our daily little lives. Looking back, the divisions seem very clear, as if we had chosen the anthems right there, in the moment, but I don’t think it really works like that. It’s tempting now to see the time as fractured and compartmentalized, but that’s not really true. It’s just another symptom of the diagnosis.
Cancer has a way of compartmentalizing everything, forcing a brutal order upon the impossibly random. Doctors call it the process—the process of treatment…the process of grief…the process of the disease.
For all of the doctor’s grand talk, they aren’t very good with the truth. In one breath, they use words like ‘rare’ and ‘aggressive’ to describe the rogue cells that are invading your little brother’s body, and in the next breath they tell you the importance of maintaining hope. You must keep fighting, they’ll say. It’s all about attitude.
If that were true, then they will all be out of a job pretty quickly. It’s their job to lie, of course. To conceal the truth under their pearly white lab-coats. They were never going to tell us that the cancer would suck Tommy’s life away over a matter of six months. They were never going to describe what he was going to look like in the end, lying in a bed and sinking deeper and deeper into himself each day. All those IV bags, dripping solutions and medications into his bloodstream. All those clear liquids, soaking into his body…drip by drip.
It seemed more like the opposite. Every drop sucking another breath out of his body.
I got to where I couldn’t stand the smell of ammonia. The whole place reeked of antiseptic purity. The white-bright hallways and intense fluorescent glow. It was all just a mask— the glistening surface that covered up the truth behind the swinging set of steel double-doors. Somewhere behind those doors there were rooms filled with blood, and tissue, and all manner of filth.
And the brilliant, clean lie made the blood that much more obscene.
Of course, we ignore the truth because we go to the hospital to get better, to be fixed. It’s a remarkable ability that we share, as a species. The ability to deny reality, even while it stares us in the face.
When I was thirteen, my grandfather fell down the stairs at his home. He fractured his skull on the cement basement floor. It happened on a Saturday, a few weeks after Tommy and I had discovered my Dad’s old collection of vinyl records—one of the few worthwhile things he had ever left to us. Mom came in just before we finished Rubber Soul…the very end of “In My Life.”
“Granddad fell down the stairs. They are airlifting him to the hospital.”
At the time, it seemed abrupt and frightening, but the possibility that he could die didn’t even really occur to me. He was banged up, but he’d be ok. Even at ten, I should have known the truth. They don’t air-lift a seventy-two year-old man if they can fix him. It’s usually just an elaborate ruse. A grand finale for the benefit of the family in the waiting room.
We convince ourselves that the hospital is going to perform a miracle, but we ignore the alternative. Because there’s always a flip-side, the losing half of the coin-toss. After all, it wouldn’t be a miracle if they all survived. The miraculous only becomes remarkable by comparison to the ordinary. Miracles are born on the backs of the unfortunate masses.
For every St. Jude miracle child, there are a thousand Tommys, resigned to a disease that is too strong, and too fierce, for the miracles of modern medicine. A thousand children who might as well be pronounced dead in the same breath as the diagnosis.
On some level, we all knew that from the beginning, but we went through the motions of the play anyway. My mother called it faith. My father called it duty. I didn’t know what to call it.
All I could do was turn to the one thing that had always carried us through before. I sat by his bedside for months on end, playing music and dissecting each note and lyric. Searching desperately for one last anthem to share.
It passed the time, and it distracted us from all the truths that nobody talked about.
In the final days, he tried to convince me that Rush wasn’t a terrible band. I told him that the chemo was rotting his brain, and he needed to give Neil Young a second chance, but neither of us would budge. More often than not, we agreed, but when we didn’t we held onto our proclivities with fierce determination.
It was that way up until the very end.
After he died, I kept thinking about the idea of truth. I stood in line at his funeral as a parade of hundreds, maybe a thousand shuffled past his casket. Each of them hugging me awkwardly and passing on some aphorism or bit of hallmark wisdom. They would use words like tragic and heartbreaking, and they would talk about the importance of carrying on. For Tommy, they would all say.
I tried to smile and play my role, but a white-hot anger simmered in the pit of my stomach the whole time.
How could anything be for Tommy? He was dead. There was nothing left for him.
Logically, I knew they were sincere, but I couldn’t help doubting each one. I felt like we had been the unlucky winners of the world’s shittiest lottery, and they had to know that too. We’d all heard the statistics. One in five will die of this, one of four will be affected by that.
Somewhere, deep down in places they didn’t want to acknowledge, when they looked at Tommy and hugged my broken family, they felt something much more visceral than sympathy…they felt relief.
Better him than me. Better them than us.
I assumed that my memories of him would fade as the years passed, but I was wrong. Every time I hear a song that touches me, I think of him. Sometimes, I find myself standing at the back of a party, right in sweet spot between the awkward beginning and the sloppy end. I’ll hear a song that is perfect for that place, that exact moment in time. It wells up inside of me and fills up my chest because for that one moment, the music in the air meshes perfectly with faces in the room.
One of Tommy’s anthems.
I always feel Tommy’s presence in those moments. The same way I feel his presence when Radiohead’s “Creep” comes on the radio. Instantly, we’re back on top of Baird’s Bluff, him sitting in the grass with Lacey Collins, while I lie on the hood next to Carrie Paulson.
Or I hear Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” and we’re halfway through a case of Natural Light, sitting next to the river on the fourth of July—Mark and Tommy swimming in the cold water while David and I lie on the gravel bank.
In my darkest times, I think about where I’ve been and what I’ve done, and I wonder if he’d be disappointed, like everyone else. I wonder if he would have judged me, the way I usually judge myself.
Most of the time, though, I try not to think about that. I try to just listen to the lyrics, and remember the time that came before. I try to listen for the anthems, and I imagine that he is still listening with me.