The White Rabbit: on losing a brother

We all do it eventually. Die, that is. Although we have a built in denier, thank goodness, otherwise it would get in the way of partying or sex or just enjoying ourselves. Who wants to be constantly aware that the Queen of Hearts is somewhere out there constantly yelling, “Off with their heads”?

We haven’t got time for death, of course. All about us, constantly reminded by the White Rabbit, friends, family, colleagues, race frantically about, from meeting to meeting, from appointment to appointment, from job to job, saying all the while, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.”

It’s not just Alice who lives a crazy life.

The craziness stops briefly with the death of someone close, a mother, father, friend, relative, partner, child. Time pauses.  The world goes on without us for a day or two or a week but there is little time for grief. Life demands to be lived. The cell phone rings, the IPad fills up with messages, the laptop’s email box begins to fill up.  The Queen of Hearts is still shouting “Off with his head.” And the White Rabbit is still racing about declaring he is late. Even at the funeral service, some people are checking their Blackberries, afraid that some critical memo will not be seen in time. That the instant of opportunity will pass, that a client, boss, lover, ignored for the hour it takes to say goodbye to the dead will delete them from their address book.

Life demands to be lived. It has always been this way even before the incessant need to instantly communicate. Life in pioneer times required cows be milked even if tears fell into the milking pail, crops be planted or harvested, water hauled, wood cut, food cooked and eaten. Neighbours, recognizing the paralysis created by death brought casseroles, often helped with farm chores for a week or so. But then they had to return to their own families, their own tasks.

The hardest deaths are those for which we are unprepared, deaths that take place outside their natural time, when the Queen of Hearts’ cry for another head is answered. When my brother was killed in an accident at work when he was thirty, the RCMP came and told his wife, his wife told my mother, my mother phoned me, surprising me at the typewriter working on a short story in the heat of a Missouri afternoon.

“Dale’s dead,” she said. “Dale’s dead.”, then hung up. Dale’s dead, off with his head. The Queen’s shout, the White Rabbit stopped. I sat frozen at my typewriter. Then, slowly, I began to type, believing if I just kept typing, the phone call would have been a momentary fantasy, the figment of my imagination. Except the phone rang again and my mother said this time, “Dale was killed at work. He was crushed between two barges. They can’t find his body in the river.”

The White Rabbit dropped his watch. “We’ll come as soon as we can,” I said. I went into the bathroom and threw up. The short story, the typewriter, the need to publish, the desire for a raise, a promotion, an advance in my career, forgotten. I called the college, explained that I would have to leave for a time, then took a sleeping pill. While I slept, my wife packed the car, got our son and daughter ready for the trip ahead.

Twelve hundred miles, twelve hundred miles, around Kansas City, past Iowa City, stopping in a motel somewhere on the edge of Minnesota. The fields starting to turn yellow and brown with fall. Crossing the border in a daze, circling Winnipeg to highway 8, entering the long dark tunnel toward my home town of Gimli, not wanting to arrive, wanting the trip to go on forever, to pass by Gimli, to keep on to Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, a ship to Europe, travelling, travelling, on a journey without end, but the turn north onto Hwy 8, into the dark tunnel between the trees and fields was automatic, done without thinking from long practice, from years of turning here for summer holidays, for Christmas gatherings, for birthday parties and then, after drifting through the darkness, the sign proclaiming familiar streets, childhood houses, I slowed, not wanting to arrive. At midnight I pulled up to my parent’s house.

I always thought of death as full of darkness, of houses filled with tragedy submerged in darkness but my parent’s  house blazed with light. Every light in the house was on. Light poured from windows into the yard. And, instead of sleep or stupor, my mother, my father, my grandmother, appeared on the front porch, as if energized by death.

Grief centres in the eyes. It fills them up not with tears but emptiness as if behind them there were great distances. We held each other tight and tightness led to tears from eyes one would have thought were emptied out, parched dry like prairie soil in drought. On the buffet lay a telegram announcing the circumstance of death but answering none of the mysteries of how it could have happened.

The next day I steeled myself and walked two blocks to my brother’s house to see his widow. Twenty-six, with two children, a grade ten education (she’d been my student some years before), she’d not slept all night and would not sleep in their bed but on the living room couch for months to come. There was crying then, as seeing each other’s face, released our tears. We stood, embraced until the crying stopped.

The White Rabbit sat at our feet, his watch forgotten, his eyes confused. They could not find my brother’s body for a day or two. Lost in a dark river, then found and flown to Edmonton, then Winnipeg, then Selkirk, Manitoba. My parents went to see his body just to be sure that what was happening was real. I needed no such assurance and spent my time digging potatoes in my sister-in-law’s garden.

“They’ll wait,” someone said, not understanding my need to dig, to keep busy, working so as not to collapse upon the bed or floor.

The church was crowded. Commercial fishermen from town went early to their nets so they could come. At the graveyard, my father could not stand and had to be held up by his brothers and, for a time, he could not speak.

This house, this house my mother’s parents bought to give to my mother and father when I was one, in which I ate and slept and played and laughed and cried and fought, where lived I, with my brother, was filled too much with memories. Small as it was, it was big enough to hold the years of our lives. My mother cried at small items found in drawers. They built another place and moved.

But, the funeral held, the White Rabbit stirred, his fur wet with tears, but took from his pocket, his watch and checked the face. And sitting there, he thought, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, and so I said to everyone, I must return, there are classes going untaught, classes that will have to be made up, tests that  have to be given, committee work that needs be done, obligations to be met, the children need to go back to school.

Twelve hundred miles, twelve hundred miles, leaving behind the fresh grave, the family and friends, the mixed poplar forests, the fields of Manitoba, through the plains of Minnesota, the hills of Iowa, curving around Kansas City to the sweltering fall heat of southern Missouri. The cicadas hummed like hydro wires in a winter storm. Our neighbours brought apple pie and sympathy. The half-finished story still sat in the typewriter.

Somewhere over there the Queen of Hearts cried, “Off with their heads.” And someone else began a long journey home. The White Rabbit showed me his watch. “Yes, yes, I know,” I said, “in a little while. I’ll begin to run faster in a little while.”