In commemoration of the 13th anniversary of my brother’s death.
I remember the day my brother came home in a box. As we had done during his previous homecomings, my mother, my brother’s wife and children, cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbours packed like sardines into a jeepney, drove to the airport and waited to welcome him home like a hero from battle. The plain, unadorned, wooden box appeared on the carousel along with other large items. This was not the regular carousel at the airport where passengers claim their luggage. After working many years in places like Riyadh and Muscat, my brother arrived home as cargo.
I remember the heavy silence as we drove to the mortuary. I rode with the friendly men from the mortuary. They sometimes chattered cheerfully to each other. Once or twice, they included me. But I was not in the mood for small talk. We crowded into a small room before the box was opened. I felt the anticipation in the room. It was almost like the anticipation of Christmas, just before you open your gifts. Yes, there was a little bit of hopefulness that it wasn’t my brother inside the box. That it was someone else’s brother. That perhaps this was really just a mistake. The claw of a hammer pried the lid of the box open. The little hope left was squashed. This was no mistake. This was not just a bad dream.
I remember the smell when the box was opened. The strong, pungent smell accosted not only my nose, but my eyes. The smell reminded me of naphthalene balls in my family’s antique wardrobe. There was a hint of camphor, not unlike the Vicks VapoRub that my mother used to slather on my chest when I was sick.
I remember the white, gauzelike fabric that loosely wrapped my brother’s naked body. I recall quickly covering his private parts after the two men transferred his body from the box to the table. I thought of my two nephews and niece, and how it didn’t seem right for them to see their father’s privates. I remember seeing the giant Y cut from his shoulders to his breastbone, to somewhere below. It was the first time I’d seen autopsy cuts in person, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I don’t remember where the Y ended. I had already covered the middle part of his body. I remember the stitches where the incision had been made. The skin sewn together reminded me of a pig before it is roasted during fiesta, the white skin slightly raised and scrunched where the thread held it together. I remember tripping over the words myocardial infarction and explaining to my mother how this meant heart attack. Though my mother knew what a heart attack was, she was still confused. How could her son, in his forties, die so suddenly? How does a mother go on with her life without her son?
I remember the coffin that my mother and sister-in-law chose. It was made of steel. The salesman said the coffin, which was gray, wouldn’t rust, and that it would last for a very long time. There was a silver-colored band decorating all sides with pictures of roses. Front and center was the Pieta. The image of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus must have appealed to my mother. Perhaps it comforted her. Perhaps the deep sadness on Mary’s face reflected my mother’s own anguish.
I remember my brother. How he would put one arm affectionately on my shoulder, his other arm akimbo. I remember feeling both the gentleness and strength of his arms. I thought about how these same arms served him well as an admired basketball player in high school and college. I remember his chipped tooth and how his eyes crinkled when he smiled. I remember how my brother was kind, hardworking, selfless, and generous of his time, talent and money. Remembering my brother, how he lived simply and was much loved by everyone, somehow eases the pain of that day.
NOTE: This piece first appeared in New Voices II: Fiction and Memoir in a Second Language. The anthology, launched in November 2013, is part of the Writer-in-Residence program, a joint project of the Richmond Public Library, Richmond Cultural Centre and Minoru Place Activity Centre. You can read the anthology here.