It was a bad dream. Bad. It woke me up like a lightning bolt at four in the morning, mercifully short but searing in its intensity.
My brother had written me a postcard. His handwriting: crabbed, but with an artistic flair. He wrote:
"Please get me out of here. It's scary, and I want to go home."
My younger brother died fourteen years ago, on a blue sky day in San Francisco, California, March 23, 1990. The manner of his death and my involvement with it have had lasting repercussions. It was the memories of the syringes littered about his gaunt body. It was sleeping next to him after he'd died, crying. It was the hand on his ribcage, feeling his body cooling. It was seeing him placed in a body bag, the attendants in their white latex gloves zipping up the bag, a part of my brain wondering if he wasn't still alive. The nightmares about his death began going away about ten years ago. I think of him at least once a week still, but not with the same vividness as a decade ago.
Until last night. That dream roused me out of a deep sleep, made me sit up suddenly and say, "No!", heart racing, muscles hard, a sudden call to action. He needed help right now. That's what older brothers do; it was a pattern in our lives. He'd get himself into bad situations, and I'd help extract him from whatever troubles he had.
He was a very capable guy. He normally didn't need help, but the few times he did, I was his weapon of last resort. The last time I helped him, I helped him by letting him kill himself.
He was most afraid of captivity - of a loss of freedom. As a young child of five, he was quarantined because our family doctor feared he had infectious meningitis. He was in an isolation ward, the nurses touching him with rubber gloves only, and then only to give shots and draw blood. Our mother and father talked to him from behind a glass wall. He cried, begging to come home, begging to be released. Ever since that time, he hated isolation and limits. The postcard reminded me of this: the worst thing you could do to my brother was lock him in a room or a cell and leave him there. He was terrified of being constrained.
This call from beyond the grave shook me, if only because once again it brought to mind his most vivid fears. He felt, in my dream, constrained by the nebulous prison he was in, the boundaryless gray mist, that sense of moving shapes, of beings ethereal and incorporate. He wanted release from his bad dream. He wanted his freedom back.
It was just a dream. But it made me realize that I'm still bound to him by powerful memories too painful for words. I can never forget him. Now his fears have become mine.