Saturday, I buried my brother in a segregated cemetery. (More on that later.)
He was my oldest brother, Frederick Edward Blow, just 58, and he had battled the autoimmune disease sarcoidosis for nearly two decades. Most people never knew just how ill he was. He hid it well behind a larger-than-life personality. But, in the end, his body was too weakened and too damaged to fight off the final wave of infections.
I got a panicked voicemail from my mother the Friday before he died. “Charles. It’s critical, it’s critical. Call me back,” her trembling voice mustered through audible sobs. When I called back, she said that she was in the hospital with my brother and that “we already lost him once.” “What?!,” I asked. “He died, but they shocked him back to life,” she said.
He was now breathing on a ventilator. I asked my mother for the prognosis. She said that she didn’t ask many questions because she didn’t want to know the answers. I was shocked. I had texted my brother a few weeks earlier about his recent round of illness, “How are you doing big bro?” He replied simply, “Better, thanks.”
I thought he was on the mend. In fact, he was spiraling toward his expiration.
I booked a flight immediately for the next day, early in the morning. The doctors said he wouldn’t make it through the night. He did, but only because of the ventilator. I hoped to get there before he died. I failed. They took him off the ventilator 15 minutes before I arrived at the hospital.
My family mournfully stalked around the hospital parking lot. Because of COVID-19 rules, only two people could be in the hospital with him at a time. Those spots were filled by two of his sons. But even they left when they took him off the ventilator. They couldn’t bear to see him die.
My eyes zeroed in on my mother, sitting alone on a stone bench in front of the hospital door, shoulders slumped. I went to her and gave her a muscular hug, tight enough to convey my grief, and her body loosened and released and she sobbed in my arms.
A week later, I sat with family at a graveside, in that segregated cemetery, waiting for my brother’s coffin to be sealed in his crypt. If you ask locals, it is not a segregated cemetery but two separate cemeteries — one white, one Black — that just happen to be separated by a chain-link fence. But, of course, the two cemetery associations could easily remove the fence and commit to joint maintenance of both, which basically amounts to cutting the grass and collecting fees.
But that has never happened. The fence remains so that, as I have written before, “no one, living or dead, should forget the rules.”
My brother’s burial begins the fourth generation of our family in that cemetery, and now I know where my grave is supposed to be. I now have to decide whether I will allow myself to be buried in a segregated cemetery to be close to my family or if I will be buried somewhere else on principle.
That the issue of race stalks us to the grave is but one of the life lessons my brother’s death brought to the fore. Here are some others.
The importance of family and community.
All my life, when someone died in our community, my mother would make the pilgrimage to the family home, bearing some small token of condolence and comfort: a pie or cake, some sodas, a small amount of money.
I had no idea what it was like to be on the receiving side of that until my brother died.
The community will not allow you to grieve in solitude. They are there, encircling you, holding you, lifting you. Everyone brings something. Many sit and talk for a bit, some sharing a laugh, some shedding a tear. Your sorrow is shared sorrow; the weight on your shoulders is shared by many.
My mother didn’t have to cook or clean for a week. There were hands everywhere doing everything that needed to be done.
The importance of end-of-life planning.
My brother had neither an end-of-life plan nor a will. I am embarrassed to say that neither do I. But that will be remedied immediately.
An end-of-life plan is important because your relatives need to know what your wishes are in case, as was my brother’s case, you are being kept alive artificially. What do you want to happen? Also, what are your wishes when it comes to a funeral, memorial service and burial?
The number of decisions that have to be made while trying to intuit what the deceased would have wanted is overwhelming. Make it easy for your loved ones: tell them.
Also, no matter how much or how little you have, a will is imperative. In addition to things that have monetary value, there are things that have sentimental value. Lay out how those things are to be distributed after your death.
All of this will ease confusion and defuse conflict among those left behind.
How COVID has changed our rituals.
In addition to there being a severe restriction on the people who could be in the hospital when my brother died, the pandemic changed every part of our grieving.
Everyone who entered the house wore a mask, obviously, but most people were not allowed in the house. They stopped and talked in the carport, an open-air space.
The funeral could not be held indoors. We had a graveside service, again because it was outdoors. There were socially distanced seats for the family, but all others stood in small family clusters under graveyard shade trees sprinkled around the grounds, distanced from each other.
I will admit that I broke the rules and moved my chair over next to my mother when her first tears fell and she lifted her glasses to wipe them.
Living life fully and without regrets.
As I often say: Stop living this life like it’s a dress rehearsal. This is the show! There is only one performance. You don’t have time for fear and hesitation. Pursue your dreams. Be yourself. Love who you love, openly. Be free.
Also, stop procrastinating. Stop thinking that there is time later to do the thing you want to do. My brother was 58, only eight years older than me. He had talked about moving back to Louisiana but didn’t want to dip into his retirement early and incur the penalty. He was going to do it next year. Well, next year never came. He never got to enjoy the money he had saved and buy the house he wanted.
He died renting a small apartment in Texas.
Prudence is honorable, and ensuring that there are things to pass on to the next generation is necessary, but also live your life well right now. Tomorrow is not promised.
Lastly, how the South has shaped me as a writer.
This may be an odd lesson to come out of my brother’s death, but it was most definitely underscored.
I listened a lot this weekend and was reminded of how charmed I am by the beautiful, poetic way that Southerners, particularly Black people in the South, use language. For them, it is elastic and alive, and you don’t so much say words as sing them.
It was the way one relative came to drop off food but didn’t want to stay long and crowd the immediate family. As she put it, “We’ll be here when the stillness comes.” Exquisite phrasing, packed full of meaning.
And it was the way the minister giving the eulogy said that he had stopped telling God thank you for waking him up every morning and started telling him thank you for waking him up 30 years ago “when I was living as raggedy as a 10-cent mop.” No one on this planet can beat a Southerner in constructing a simile.
That is why I like to think of myself as a Southern writer: because this is the way that I sound naturally. I had to learn to embrace that and not be embarrassed by it.
As the great Ernest Gaines, also from Louisiana, once said: “In the beginning, I tried to be a more cosmopolitan writer, but I realized that I was a country boy, and I had to deal with things I knew about and where I came from.”
I too am a country boy. My brother, rest his soul, was a country boy.
I will keep him with me for the rest of my life, ringing in my ear, reminding me of what we sound like and where we came from.
Charles Blow writes a column for the New York Times.
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