[Recovery]

Edward Schwarzschild


Arthur’s Heart

 

In 2017, my brother thought he had indigestion—but he didn’t.  His primary coronary artery was clogged.

 

That artery is commonly referred to as the Widowmaker, but Arthur was never married.

 

On March 14th, just before midnight, he left his dog, Ginny, behind and started driving himself to the nearest hospital in Onancock, about twenty minutes north of his home in Willis Wharf, Virginia.

 

He didn’t make it.  He didn’t get close.

 

He was probably already dead when, a few miles from his house, his 94 Ford Escort—our grandparents’ old car—veered off the road and nestled into a shallow gully.

 

His iPad was on the passenger seat.  Back in his house, on his dresser, he left behind a half-empty Tums container and a stethoscope.  I understand the iPad. He assumed he’d have time to kill in the ER waiting room.  And he’d been downing Tums to fight off what he believed was a bad case of gas. 

 

But a stethoscope?  What the hell was he doing with his own stethoscope? Was there no one else in his life who could listen to his heart?

 

 

*

 

In the summer of 2018, I spent a few weeks in Germany at an Institute for Advanced Study filled with scientists.  I was researching a novel-in-progress about two brothers, one of whom is a scientist.  While I was over there, Arthur’s girlfriend sent around a note about Arthur’s dog:

    

Sad news - I spent the day with Ginny at the emergency clinic. She started vomiting early this morning and went downhill pretty quickly. X rays showed masses on her spleen and liver so I had to put her to sleep this evening.

 

After I read the note, I told myself to focus on Ginny’s death, to think about her, what a loyal, speedy pointer/whippet mix she was, how close she’d been to Arthur, how he would want me to mourn and give thanks.  Why not find solace in the hope that he and Ginny were together again, wherever they were?

 

But the anger I felt reading and re-reading the girlfriend’s clinical e-mail was at least as deep and layered as the sadness I felt about Ginny.  The brief, cold lines made me furious.  I was tempted to fire off a sarcastic reply, full of thanks for the heartfelt, grief-stricken three-sentence message.

 

Sometimes, when we talked on the phone, Arthur would stop mid-sentence to yell at Ginny.  No! he’d shout, or Come here! or Get out of there! or Stay!  In those moments, even though I was hundreds of miles away, I felt I was in trouble; I felt I’d done something wrong.  In those moments I felt it wasn’t Arthur talking any more.  In those moments the voice I heard belonged to our father.  His lightning temper crackled over the phone and I could hear my brother trying and failing to contain the frustration that always flickered just beneath our father’s skin, ready to zap whatever resisted his all too meager authority in the world.

 

The flat, emotionlessness of the girlfriend’s e-mail reminded me of our father, too. Our father had no problem sharing his anger and bitterness, but he didn’t teach us much about the broader range of human feeling.

 

Instead of replying to the girlfriend’s note, I shared it with a wise friend who couldn’t help but notice the girlfriend’s unnecessary, obvious repetition of I: I spent the day with Ginny.  I had to put her to sleep.  The note wasn’t about Ginny; it was about herself.

 

I remember how, after our mother went through her pancreatic cancer scare (thank god it was only sudden-onset celiac disease) our father told me I should write something about what had just happened.

 

Usually, he badgered me to write about his family history.  This seemed like a different request, so I asked him what kind of writing he had in mind.

 

“You should write about how I had to sit for hours in the small, cold waiting room,” he said.  “There were five doors in and out of there and I had no idea who was going to pass through which door when.”

 

*

 

I’ve heard that on the day Arthur died, he called his girlfriend over in Richmond and told her that Ginny was acting strangely.  “She keeps collapsing right at my feet,” he said.  “I’m worried about her.  I might have to take her to the vet.”

 

Arthur loved Ginny, but he didn’t listen to her closely enough. Didn’t he understand that Ginny, his companion for more than twelve years, was sending him an urgent message? Didn’t he understand that he had to worry about himself for a change?

 

 

*

 

I want to write about Arthur, not about myself.  Not about his girlfriend. Not about our father.

 

I also want to put everything in order, one piece building carefully upon another from the beginning to the end, as in the clear, elegant scientific papers Arthur used to write on seagrass ecology. But I find myself assembling fragments, moving backward and forward, my memories of my brother interweaving with the pervasive selfishness of others—including, and especially, my own.

 

Arthur was selfless.  Too selfless.  All self-abnegation and not enough self-assertion. 

 

When I would complain about our father, about his selfishness, his temper, Arthur would say, “Nobody’s perfect,” and then he’d recite his own environmental scientist mantras.  “Like water off a duck’s back,” he’d say.  Or: “I am but a leaf on the wind.”

 

Of course, the mantras didn’t work.  Arthur wasn’t a leaf on the wind, though he is now.  And none of it ran like water off his back.  Instead, it clogged his arteries.

 

*

 

The people at Arthur’s lab hosted a memorial service for him on Earth Day, 2017, five weeks after his death.  It was a packed, standing-room-only event, filled with people from the lab, Willis Wharf, and beyond.  Through that whole sad, heartwarming ceremony, it stormed—a real rager, complete with thunder, lightning, and high winds.  Again and again people said the storm showed how the earth/god/what-have-you felt about Arthur’s death.  All those who stood up to speak had to shout to be heard, even one of Arthur’s neighbors, a sweet, hunched-over, elderly woman, who said as loudly as she could that though she loved Arthur dearly, she just couldn’t eat the tomato pie he once baked for her. 

 

Arthur’s girlfriend didn’t speak, but many others did.   

 

When it was my turn, I rehearsed the old story about the crib. 

 

I told everyone that when my brother was born I wasn’t quite two years old.  I was still sleeping in a crib, but our parents moved me into a bed and gave the crib to the new baby.  I didn’t do well with that arrangement.  For a bunch of nights in a row, I fell out of the bed and in the mornings our parents found me sleeping on the floor. 

 

I told the crowd that, over the years, I’ve used this story to explain why, when we were kids, I often failed to be a good friend and a good brother to Arthur.  He’d taken my crib and I held it against him.

 

I also told them I’d been wondering lately what it might have been like if Arthur had been born first and our parents had taken away his crib and given it to me. 

 

I shared what I think would have happened: Arthur would have made sure the crib was adjusted just right for me.  He would have spent a good deal of time explaining how the crib worked.  He would have shown me how to arrange it to achieve optimal comfort.  Then he would have asked me if there was anything else of his I wanted.

 

*

 

Now, nearly two years after Arthur’s death, that sweet crib story seems deeply flawed to me.  Cribs, of course, are cages.  Nice cages.  Cages designed to keep us safe, cages sometimes stuffed with fun toys, but cages nevertheless.  At a certain point, if all goes well, they become useless because we learn how to climb out of them. 

 

Arthur died in the Escort handed down to him from our grandparents.  He also lived in a house filled with handed-down furniture.  He slept in our grandparents’ old bed; he kept his dishes in our grandparents’ old cabinets; his books and TV and stereo rested on our great aunt’s old shelving unit; he hung our father’s photographs on his walls; when he sat down for dinner, he sat on our parents’ old dining room chairs; when he stretched out at the end of a long day in his living room, it was on our parents’ old sofa.  I often joked that when our parents in their old age moved in with Arthur, they would feel right at home.

 

From now on maybe I should tell the crib story this way: When our parents brought Arthur home, they set me free and locked him in.  He couldn’t have known it, he couldn’t have consented to it, but he was doing me a favor by taking my place in the crib.  He was sacrificing himself, as he would do over and over and over again.

 

And I learned to let him.

 

*

 

Growing up, when Arthur and I were alone together, I often bullied him.  I made fun of his glasses.  I mocked him when he needed to get tiny tubes in his ears.  When the neighborhood kids teased Arthur, I didn’t stand up for him.  As I found my own friends, I refused to welcome Arthur into my new circle.  On some level, I must have known I needed to escape, but what exactly was I escaping, and why did I think I had to leave my brother behind?

 

Our father’s house had many chores, none of them particularly onerous (from filling the water pitcher to raking the leaves to waxing the cars), but the work was never done and it was also never done just right.  I found ways to dodge the chores.  Arthur tried to do the chores well.  At one point, our father had two wood stoves installed in the house and bought an orange Stihl chainsaw.  Suddenly, a lot of wood needed to be split, carried, and stacked.  There were weekend day-trips spent gathering and sawing up wood.  I rarely went on those trips (I claimed to have too much homework) and I never learned how to use the chainsaw.  Arthur almost always went, risking life and limb to earn our father’s praise, and it wasn’t long before he could use the chainsaw like a pro. 

 

Once I went away to college and beyond, it seemed as if there was more room in my life, more freedom in every day, and I managed gradually to become a better brother.  I invited Arthur to visit me wherever I wound up—Ithaca, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Okayama, Sweet Briar, Boston, San Francisco, Albany, Delmenhorst.  He made it to most of those places and I visited him during his master’s studies at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), during his first years of work at the NOAA lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, during his doctoral studies at the University of Virginia, during his research years down in the Keys, during his years in Willis Wharf.  As we grew older, we planned various trips together, meeting up in Barcelona, Montreal, Memphis, Miami, and elsewhere.  When I became a husband and a father, Uncle Arthur was a treasured guest, always eager to help out with work around the house that needed to be done, or that I’d put off doing until his arrival.

 

During our reunions I wasn’t thinking about how I could help Arthur, if I could help Arthur.  I was simply surprised and pleased to discover not only that he’d found a way to forgive me for my bullying and other bad behavior, but also that we seemed to enjoy our time together.

 

Still, I like to believe that I helped Arthur decide to apply for PhD programs.  I pushed him in that direction in part because he talked about how much he wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college, a place similar to Sweet Briar College, where I was teaching when he was in Beaufort.  Plus he was always a better teacher than I was, able to explain almost anything to almost anybody, so I felt certain he’d like the work.  I’d also heard him complain about a few professors/researchers who treated him poorly, forever expressing dissatisfaction with his work and/or compelling him to do their work for them instead of giving him space to do his own research.  At the time, I focused on the injustice of the situation and I suggested that if he had a PhD, his colleagues couldn’t push him around so easily.  In addition, with a PhD, he’d be a strong applicant for teaching jobs.

 

It didn’t occur to me then that Arthur—and I—too often sought out father figures with whom we could replay our relationships with our own father.  Arthur received a full scholarship to work on his PhD at UVA and we celebrated, but he went on to find father figures there who were forever expressing dissatisfaction with his work or compelling him to do their work for them instead of giving him space to do his own research.  And he never really did apply for the teaching jobs he claimed to want. 

 

So did I actually help him, or hurt him all over again?

 

Looking back now, it’s no wonder Arthur sought out the relatively solitary life of an environmental scientist.  He spent so much of his time out on the water, away from the people who crowded the land all around him.  He found his own way to escape. I never saw him happier than when he was piloting his skiff on the Chesapeake, his eyes gazing out toward the horizon, his hands light on the wheel.

 

*

 

My last visit with Arthur was a trip to Philadelphia.  It was mid-November 2016.  We were worried about the fate of the country and the world in general, and Arthur was particularly concerned about climate change.  We took long walks, ate too many cheesesteaks, played cribbage in the hotel room late into the night.  Not exactly a raucous weekend, but we were smiling and laughing almost the entire time.

 

On what would be our final morning together, we woke up early and went for a run by Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River.  Arthur had been running more lately, trying to shed a few pounds.  I’d never seen him so light on his feet.  Usually I had to slow my pace when I ran with him and he’d ask to stop and walk every now and then.  But on this particular morning, I could barely keep up with him. 

 

He’d recently taken a trip with his girlfriend to Turks and Caicos to visit with two of her closest friends.  Arthur was hoping to glimpse a different side of her.  He was fifty years old and he wanted to get married, but he couldn’t stop worrying about the fact that his girlfriend wasn’t affectionate with him, wasn’t, after all these years, loving enough with him.  Maybe around her closest friends she’d relax and have fun.  Maybe he’d see something that would finally lay his worries to rest.

 

We could see New Jersey on the other side of the river as we ran.  Arthur slowed down to point out Camden’s Adventure Aquarium.  I caught my breath and asked what I’d been waiting to ask: “How did the trip go?  Did it give you hope?”

 

“Her friends said they’d never seen her happier,” he said.

 

“Did she seem happier to you?”

 

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But nobody’s perfect.”

 

*

 

I should acknowledge that Arthur did find a handful of loyal, caring mentors along the way, at VIMS, at the NOAA lab, at UVA.  He spoke about those men with real love and he made a point of introducing me to them.  They were strong, steadfast supporters of Arthur’s work and they stood by him through his struggles.  They all traveled far to be present on the storm-filled day of the memorial service and each one of them rose to speak.  They talked about Arthur on the soccer field, Arthur in the kitchen, Arthur as a part of their extended families.  One of them spoke about stopping by Arthur’s house to help with a project.  Before allowing him inside, Arthur made him put on a pair of rubber gloves and safety goggles.  The guy trusted Arthur, so he did as he was told, even though he had no idea making horseradish-seasoned barbeque sauce could be so dangerous.

 

There’s comfort in knowing my brother had such people in his life. 

 

There’s comfort, too, I suppose, in knowing I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t help him.

 

*

It turned out that many of the people at the Institute hosting me in Germany were doing research related to environmental science.  Arthur would have loved being there and he would have fit in far better than I did.  I found myself talking about him often, describing as best I could the coastal research lab he ran, the work he did out in the Chesapeake Bay and down in the Florida Keys.

 

Not long after I received the girlfriend’s note about Ginny, I was talking to one of the environmental scientists at the Institute and she mentioned that after emigrating from India she’d studied at VIMS.  It struck me that Arthur might have been studying there at the same time, so I asked her about it and she remembered him.  I told her what had happened and then I did what I always do these days when I find someone new who spent time with my brother.  “Tell me what you remember about him,” I said.  She didn’t recall much as we were sitting there—they saw a movie together with a bunch of people, maybe it was Mermaids, she said--but the next day she e-mailed me:

 

It’s odd, but last night I kept on thinking about Art.  He was so kind. When I came to VIMS, just about when he was leaving, I was a teenager. It wasn’t just culture shock, it was a generation gap for me, too--the others seemed so old to me. And it felt scary, like some of the guys were sharks waiting to gobble me up--like they were all girl starved. Then again, some of the guys were kind and brotherly and I felt safe with them--and Art was one of those kind people. I remember him asking me, “What do people say in India when someone sneezes?” And I remember him picking at a sweater he was wearing--a beige knitted pullover with a brownish design around the neck--and saying if I got cold and needed sweaters he had plenty and could give me some!

 

I knew that sweater—it was one our grandmother had knitted for him. 

 

The next time I saw the VIMS woman, I couldn’t help wondering what she would have looked like standing by Arthur’s side in one of our grandmother’s sweaters.  I wondered what kind of e-mail she, or someone like her, might have written after Ginny’s death.

 

Kind, this woman wrote, three different times. 

 

Maybe she would have heard, and understood, what was in my brother’s heart.

 

 


Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel Responsible Men and the story collection The Family Diamond. His new novel, In Security, is set in the world of the TSA. He teaches at the University at Albany, SUNY, where he's also a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.