A few days after Mark’s death, I came across his writings in the second grade. He was studying tennis and Mark had written them.
I saw him smile as he wrote – punk, shiny, and I sure made his classmates laugh. One August afternoon, after about 18 months without her, I took the word “sister” in her hand and scratched her forehead, under her elbow. It hurt and it worked. The tattoo artist drew black plastic on my arm.
Maybe I did well for him a week before the school term; perhaps he thought it would scare me to see his answers on the kitchen board. There was often love between us. Coping with Mark’s depression began in elementary school. Some things helped; some did not. Depression recurred.
As his brothers, we adjusted our activities. One was anxious, one was hopeful, the third was uncertain. Then we did business without negotiation. As things got worse, we read signs and exchanged ideas. Sometimes we both agreed and it was Mark who didn’t. Mark who refused to go to the hospital, Mark who would not meet the new doctor. He was a child of our family, but he could no longer be controlled. He had done all he could, he had worked hard, and he did not feel that anything was wrong with him. When he died, at the age of 21, he was suicidal.
I loved the short days I spent passing through Brooklyn and boarding the train with that black plastic coated with a photographer. It looked like a traditional funeral bead. I am, I am. I wanted Mark’s tattoo that would make him laugh.
Little did I know that the brand could beat and peel, but it left small lines on my hands, papers, and once, on my boyfriend’s forehead. “Wait,” I said, reaching for it. “I think my tattoo is coming at you.” It was tragic but satisfying, as it failed to reveal its stable nature.
Problems are not good for my family. Sometimes it is like a punch when people ask “How are your relatives?” and I know he means two, not three. But often, I miss the opportunity when I see it, when no one really knows. I love my dentist, but I lied to him when he asked me. Well, well, they’re all very good. I mapped them: Andrew in Harlem, Robert in Queens, and Mark in Brooklyn, near me, where he spent the last summer of his life. “In the long run, I hope he sees someone else,” the dentist said and we laughed.
For 6 years, I still clung to the fact that my uncle Mark was still alive, asking me to go to the spring, texting something that made him laugh. I have three brothers, but I do not always know how to communicate with Mark immediately after I check on Robert and Andrew. I want to keep them in the same sentence, at the same time, no two-thirds good and one-third dead, not under a dent chair to spit and say we lost Mark.
It is difficult to stop counting the length of a lifetime, but there is little satisfaction in that. In “In _____________”, the poet WS Merwin compares the careful release of a kite without a cord. I can’t pull Mark to me, even if I clearly state his distance.
Merwin died at the age of 91. He lived in the last decades “extremely painful[ly] restore[ing] extinct plants, including many species of date palms, in the remotest parts of the former Hawaiian pineapple plantations, ”according to Margalit Fox in The New York Times. There are so many ways to live in this country and I would love for Mark to find one that helps him. If Mark were still here, I would send him the following sentence: “He lived there, very happy alone, since the 1970’s, refusing to answer the phone.”
There were times in the early days after Mark’s death when I could pretend he was not dead, anywhere. There were days when I woke up not remembering and then knowledge came to me as cruelly as ever. I would like to imagine that Mark happily cares for palm trees when the phone rings in the distance, but that doesn’t take me too far. Nowadays, all that exists is to make sure that Merwin’s lines can make him smile. I could see the joy spreading on his face, as if he were here.
Within a few weeks of getting my tattoo done, I would close my eyes and move my hand over it without hearing the letters, which means it would be permanent. My sister. No time.
Alex Ronan is a writer and research journalist from New York. Her work was published by Elle, New York Magazine, Vogue, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn and is on Instagram (mostly) as well Twitter (sometimes).
PS Why suicide is not selfish, and how to write an apology.
(Photo by Nina Zivkovic / Stocksy.)