“Familial Bodies,” on a brother’s suicide and a father’s scorn. Memoir by A. W. Barnes.

A father’s harsh words about a gay son’s suicide echo down the decades. A Broad Street online exclusive.

“Anyone who lives this way deserves to die this way,” he said, looking directly at me.

Their grief pushed and pulled between them like a lunar tide.

I was resentful that my parents were with me. I wanted to believe that Mike belonged only to me: two gay brothers comforting each other from having grown up in a conservative religious family. I wanted his death to belong to me, also.

Image by the Guardian.

I’ve often wondered if he remembered the words he spoke in the morgue, or if his memory failed along with his body.

Over the years, my brothers and sister have argued with me that my father was too consumed with grief to know what he was saying at the morgue. They question whether he said it at all. They think I have an active imagination that exaggerates the truth. Besides, they assure me, my father loves me as if these secondhand declarations of love are enough to erase memory.

Anatomy of a bruise, by Webmd.com.

I wanted to see his body, touch it, maybe. I thought it might make what felt unreal more believable.

“Aren’t we going to see his body?” I asked the medical examiner.

Image by pexels.com

I expected gruesome details about the way he died, the poison eating away at the lining of his stomach and burning holes in his esophagus.

During the few weeks I had to wait, I imagined what the report would contain. I thought that maybe there’d be a copy of the Polaroid used to identify him. I wondered if there’d be photos of the autopsy itself: Mike’s sternum cracked open and his ribcage pulled apart and his body splayed as if it were part of an anatomy class. I expected gruesome details about the way he died, the poison eating away at the lining of his stomach and burning holes in his esophagus.

I imagined my brother’s body turning to stone, as if he’d seen Medusa — as if he dared to look into the forbidden, dared to live the kind of life we were taught was anathema to all that was good and right and worthy.

Dr. Flomenbaum noted that rigor mortis was mild in Mike’s body but that “fixed livor was present” at the back, upper arms, face, and neck. It was this lividity that had swollen the face we saw in the Polaroid. The autopsy also noted that “early marbling of the skin is on the shoulders and upper extremities.”

I’ve found the idea that Mike had to suffer in order to die gives me some perverse pleasure. I want suicide to be painful.

The rest of my family takes comfort in the idea that, while Mike’s suicide was disturbing, he at least died quickly. My mother believes that Mike died from a blow to the head that killed him instantly, as if Mike were the victim of a violent crime. I don’t know where she got this idea, perhaps from someone who was trying to bring her comfort. But I think Mike died violently. I think that after he swallowed the pentobarbital and fell to the floor, landing on his back, he drowned in his own vomit, that alliterative “frothy fluid” that Dr. Flomenbaum described.

Image by PhotoCase.

My body has transformed into that of my father.

Lately, however, I’ve been going home again, not because I hope to find comfort there — on the contrary, returning to Indianapolis always produces angst — but rather because my father is dying. He has emphysema, and I feel an obligation to see him before he dies. As with standing over Mike’s grave, however, seeing my father’s failing body doesn’t evoke the sympathy I imagine it should. Instead, I feel detached as if, on that day in the mortuary, some vital connection between father and son had been severed and could never be reattached. And I remember —

Coming home is sign of failure that necessitates a feast.

I arrived in Indianapolis for that farewell visit in early June. As I always did when returning home, I planned to stay for two nights before heading back to New York. By then, my father had survived the winter and was doing much better. When she picked me up at the airport, my mother said that he’d found a physical therapist who was teaching my father how to increase his lung capacity through a series of breathing exercises.

We’d represent the different stages of the same man aging over time.

In addition to inheriting my father’s body, I’ve developed an anxiety disorder that, looking back, resembles the nervous pacing my father displayed at the morgue in Manhattan. During times of stress, my hands shake and my heart races and the muscles in my leg twitch as if they can’t bear the idea of sitting still.

A place-setting placemat on Amazon.com.

I wanted to believe that my father held no animus toward me, and perhaps he didn’t…. Perhaps, I told myself, it was time to forgive him.

In front of him a ledger book lay open. To the right were a calculator and a blue mechanical pencil; he liked that kind because the lead had a sharp edge and produced the kind of crisp numbers he liked. There were other ledger books stacked on the credenza next to his computer.

I felt cruel; I thought maybe my presence was torture to him, and at that moment I didn’t mind torturing him.

At one point in his chatter, my father paused. He’d run out of breath and needed to do one of the exercises his physical therapist had taught him. He closed his eyes and took in a steady breath, held it for a moment, and then let it out.

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