Monday, August 30, 2010

Essence of Jeff

The phone rang a loud electronic version of the traditional phone bells of the last century. I picked up the wireless handset from the kitchen counter, read the name of the calling party, forgot for a moment that I was answering my brother’s phone as he slept in his bedroom, depleted from his infusion of cancer-fighting drugs earlier in the day. So I said “Hello” instead of “Ballon Residence.” The caller hesitated. It was Jeff’s friend Barry. He knew the sound of Jeff’s voice. He probably also knew that it has been a long time since Jeff sounded like Jeff. The fact is I sound more like Jeff than he does at this point. “You sound just like Jeff!” Barry exclaimed. “You must be brothers,” he quipped.

I had to agree. Most of the time, I am unaware of any similarities between me and Jeff. We’ve never really been around each other enough to notice. Then again, when we were living together—lo those many years ago—we didn’t notice it at all.

It’s the kind of thing, at least in recent years, that others comment on when we are together and I seem to notice mostly after we’re together. For months, between visits, I go through life pretty much feeling and sounding like me—which means I’m not really aware of feeling and sounding like anything unusual. But after spending a few days with my brother, there seems to be one of two possible phenomena—or both. Either something about him rubs off on me—his intonation, his facial expressions, the way he walks and talks and reacts and exclaims and laughs and kibitzes….or phenomenon possibility #2, we have always done these things in a similar fashion and I only recognize it in the wake of a few days of being immersed in his essence.

Regardless, I am in the midst of having one of those post-Jeff sensations—Essence of Jeff—lingering in my body, my mind, my heart.

Let’s assume, for a moment that it’s phenomenon #2. That we really are alike and I only notice it when we get together. Then being with and observing Jeff provides a real opportunity for me to see parts of me from the outside. In a macro way that’s not new news. After all, I consciously spent much of my early life intentional or unintentionally being the not-Jeff. Not taking on the areas where he excelled—such as being Super Boy Scout, lest I fall short. And trying like the Dickens not to replicate his mistakes—my proudest achievement of this was completing Freshman English at Brown University in one semester to his four. (What ensued is a matter for another essay.)

It’s sort of fun to see this in micro ways too. A turn of the head. A glance of the eyes. A certain lilt to a conversation with a stranger in line, a waitress with deep brown eyes, or the blond technician at The Cancer Center of Huntsville.

The observable ways in which Jeff and I are alike are often hidden to me. Nonetheless, strange as it seems, even though I cannot see myself looking and acting like Jeff I do feel it. From the inside, I become aware certain facial movements. Tightening the jaw. Wrinkling the brow in deep contemplation. A grimace. A smile. In that instant I sense what it must be like to be inside Jeff’s head. With all his sounds and sensations—it’s Essence of Jeff for at least a few days after we part and sometimes even while we are together.

This visit was a just because visit. In the family we used to say something was just because if, say someone gave another a present when it wasn’t their birthday. They gave it just because. In this case the just because does have different ramifications. There is the big just because—our keen awareness of Jeff’s mortality, or at the very least his diminishing capacity to communicate. Or just because we can’t wait for Jake and Alana’s wedding in October to get together because we don’t know that he will indeed make it to the wedding, nor in what shape he will be.

When Jeff first got ill, and his prognosis was for about a year of survival, I made several trips to be with him—a couple to Huntsville and later we met in New York to go to a Jewish Men’s retreat together. This brother to brother time was very important to me.

At the same time I had a nagging consciousness that our sister was not part of this. Now, two years into his illness, when I decided to go to Alabama this month, it was with the same desire for “male bonding.” I wanted to be alone with him some more. Fortunately, even as I acknowledged that desire, I was able to act in opposition to it by picking up the phone to call Muff and asking her to join me on this trip. It is a marvelous thing when an almost imperceptible voice of awareness overrides the loud clarion of wanting. I am grateful for hearing and heeding that voice. It was important for all three of us to have this time together—uncertain of how many such occasions may lie ahead. Strangely, the last time we spent any time like this was on our mother’s seventy-fifth birthday almost twenty years ago when she expressly asked us to join her for a weekend without the rest of our families. She understood then as we do now that this threesome constitutes a family unit that, despite some inattention over the years, continues to have an incalculable significance in our lives.

Jeff’s heart has grown in inverse proportion to the devastation the cancer has wrought upon him. Living with a death sentence has made clear to Jeff the importance and the power of love that, in his highly disinhibited state he freely proclaims to others. Several times this weekend Jeff looked at me or Muff, and his heart was so full of joy for our spending these days with him that his face contorted with tears as he struggled to express his gratitude.

I saw that face one more time this afternoon as I took his hand in mine, leaned over to kiss him goodbye outside the airport terminal. As much as I had previously sensed Essence of Jeff in my body and in my mind, in this moment it was all I could do to turn from him, pick up my bag, and feel the muscles around my mouth and eyes contort as his essence now filled my heart.