Thursday, January 22, 2015

Letter Never Sent

   The last thing my brother wrote was a letter to my first girlfriend.
   He didn't finish it.
   Three pages from a note pad. Smallish. Green ruled lines on yellow paper. The kind engineers might use for the grocery list. 
    Phil wasn't an engineer but he had lovely handwriting. Legible, lithesome even, untortured like that of the rest of the men in the family - but he did leave some letters undone, some words half drawn. 
  Like a boxer who couldn't finish a punch. Or a swimmer exhausted who can't get those fingers to the wall. Ballet like. 
   His writing had an unfinished grace.
   He'd sketch most of a word. You could fill in the rest.
   You didn't have to wade into the bracken of a script like mine and bend it back into the language it once was, piece it together like a plane gone down in the Everglades blown into cursive mud and strings of steel.
  Allison wrote Phil to tell him he'd been a fine swim coach, a role model, and a friend to a teenage girl with mad smarts, mad talent, and more than a little madness that could have taken her either way - to the psyche ward or to Yale, which is where she went.
  (Not that going to Yale has anything to do with being sane or being a decent fact, quite the contrary ....but I'll leave that to another day....)
  Phil had been dead a few days when I found the letters, his response and then hers. It was such an odd sensation: hearing a woman I hadn't seen in 30 years but whose voice still lived in my head. And hearing my brother, clear as day, who I'd never hear again.
   The two of them talking back and forth, the soft baritone he used when he felt safe with someone and her nasal coo - Alison always sounding like she was about to give you the punch line- but with Phil she leveled it, and leaning up against the side of the pool with her swimmer's shoulders on the concrete, Phil golden brown and blonde in his guard chair, the two of them would trade stories for hours.
  We dated, but I imagine she probably loved Phil.
  And he was a good brother.
  He was worth loving. Or as a director once said about me to an amorous leading lady "He's great, seriously, a great guy...long as you don't date him."
  Oh well. It's a fault.
  But I know a worser one.
  I wrote Allison and thanked her for writing to my brother. She'd actually sent him a letter. In an envelope. She'd spelled out at some length his contribution to her life. Simple, yet generous. A professional woman with kids, she'd made the time.
  Lots of folks posted stuff to Phil. They got on social media and "shared" their condolences to a man not yet dead or they engaged in the power of positive thinking in public, but very few people put themselves down on paper to someone they had once loved. Very few took the time, alone, to compose their thoughts, to fold the sheet, find the stamp, wait for the response. One woman actually called me and said she was nervous. How would Phil respond if she wrote, what should she do? I almost laughed.
   Allison wrote me back and in short order told me about her career, her kids, and her husband. She repeated that Phil was unique and that now she valued more those days spent by a pool in a dying steel town that we were all desperate to get out of.
  I was almost pleased to sense, feel, intuit no nostalgia on her part for me. No references to two awkward kids trying to kiss, trying to meet, trying however briefly - and what was it, a month, a summer?-  to figure out some way to be "two" together, when all we'd ever been was us. Kids.
  Not even a ripple really of being someone's first love.
  And it's still there....the memory, how can it not be, of realizing, "Jesus Christ this is what it is to miss someone." To yearn for them. To ache.
  Maple avenue runs East/North East through Edgewood, the smallest borough in Pittsburgh, and 150 yards up on the left as you ascend from Swissvale avenue, is the local school.
  Allison's parents were dropping me off in front of the old building, a dramatic arched entrance that even then was glassed in, and as I waved she tilted her head back by the window and laughed. I think we were 13, 12? She was a year younger. We'd been at a swim meet or maybe I'd gone to one of her Pitt practices and been totally outclassed, I don't remember, but I do remember when they drove away a buddy of mine walked up and said "That's Allison Kean right?" And the simple sound of her name bent my heart around my throat and I thought, " I love Allison Kean."
  Right there, on the sidewalk, 13 stupid years old, how could it be? I thought it then and I think it now - how could I feel this at such an age? I didn't say a romantic word to her for another 2 years, didn't kiss her for three, and then we fucked it all up over nothing for over a decade- twenty somethings still avoiding each other at reunions- but I knew it then.
  My nephew is 13 now, and if he told me he was in love with some girl I'd chalk it up there with his love for Star Wars figurines and Percy Jackson books. I'd think, "Shallow boy."
  And I'd be right.
  And oh, how I would be wrong.
  And there's a longer story to be told, or that could be told and shouldn't ever, about first loves and starkest memories and the deepest engraved images burned on all of our brains and how they echo, when it comes to them, those first kids we adored, without reason. Without compare, because there was no one to compare them to. The particular blue grey of Allison's house that to this day makes me love winter skies and pewter and Jasper Johns paintings and the letters Van Gogh sent to his brother saying, "If you cannot learn grey, learn it every day in all its different shades, you can never paint." What chlorine and soda ash do to a young girl's golden hair and how the plaited sheen of it plastered toward a shoulder gives me pause. The shape of her nose, too long, too big, planted in my face when we kissed, but which makes me speak up when a pack of guys start talking about perfection and beauty and how one ever needed the other.
  But that's not what I'm thinking here, or trying to say....I was pleased that Allison, greying, grown up, childborne Allison, didn't stoke any nostalgia because it made me realize what I should have admitted eventually even as a teenager, and that was she didn't have any.
  People cry at Romeo and Juliet not because they both die, not because they both love each other- and they do- people cry because they know this love cannot be. It ONLY exists on a stage or in our minds but both are so powerful, so insanely powerful, they make us believe it can happen again and again. And because it has to end.
  It's strange but it helps to realize you were not the first true love of your first true love. The same thing didn't happen as she drove away in her parent's car, "I love David Conrad." And it didn't happen no matter how many times that kid tried to convince her it should.
  But we believe our own heart, even when its not quite moored to another's.
  That might be the worser fault.



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  4. I removed my comment from 01/23/2015 because I got into to much of my own life... I was very moved while reading this article, both because of Phil, and the connection between your first love, Allison; and finally the letters she wrote to Phil. Beautiful. More peaceful that the prior blog about the Orc!

  5. Such a moving tribute to your brother Phil.
    There are those of us in this world who when we look back at our first loves now we know it was never meant to be. But there are those whose first loves are still the one and only and they were lucky enough to realize what they had together and have lasted the test of time.
    Thank you for your eloquent words

  6. Hey David--sending you an email to you gmail account that you might enjoy re: this. hope you are well

  7. Hi David, I've read all your post at least once. I guess you can call me a big fan, yes even when you Phil will always have a special place in your heart and it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to see that you wrote about him. As I recently told my sons friend who lost his brother, it's good to talk, it keeps those moments you treasure alive. I have a request sort-of, could you tell me how your play went at Kiski? If its something you'd prefer not to post feel free to email me at PS my favorite Phil story is when you two went golfing, you have me laughing & then of course crying. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hello David,
    Hope that you are fine.
    Beautiful words, expressing your true and heart fully feelings, concerning two very important people in your life, that you shared, written on a very special day.
    These are some beautiful words too, which mean deeply to me and could be applied, to several kind of love, as yours, and that I am sharing:
    1 Corinthians
    4 “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
    8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
    13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
    Take care,

  9. Hey old friend...I love your writing. Keep telling your story...

    Get in touch, Sally knows how to reach me.

    When I read this post immediately a poem by William Stafford started churning in my head...for you:

    Ask Me

    Some time when the river is ice ask me
    mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
    what I have done is my life. Others
    have come in their slow way into
    my thought, and some have tried to help
    or to hurt: ask me what difference
    their strongest love or hate has made.

    I will listen to what you say.
    You and I can turn and look
    at the silent river and wait. We know
    the current is there, hidden; and there
    are comings and goings from miles away
    that hold the stillness exactly before us.
    What the river says, that is what I say.

    Cyndi aka Fish
    You can find me telling my story here:

  10. Dear David, please write a book and keep giving us the pleasure and joy of reading you. From the Scottish Borders with admiration and respect. Isabella

  11. Heartachingly beautiful. And on a side note (not that it matters) I like your writing style. It's like painting with words, weaving in and out to create a tapestry of paragraphs. Please keep story telling, and sharing moments of memory, thought, opinion, and experiance. Take care.

  12. I wish it hadn't erased what I wrote when it went to preview because writing is very hard for me except when it's from the heart. And because I have no piece of paper to type to all out again I just wanted you to know sometimes I feel the same way about love but more importantly I am so sorry for the loss of your brother. Mine is 55 and there is 18,13 and 12 years between my siblings but he is the only one I am like. It would be deviating to lose him he is the only one that shows blind love and concern for me even when I was on my own in a store and he new my job didn't pay much but I was also helping out with our Grandmother since our Grandfather had just passed so I moved in with her. He would run in to me and give me any bill in his wallet once it was a $100 and he told me to go spend it on things I needed. I will be very lost without him. Hope you have people around you to help you heal and I am very sorry for your loss. Your writing is wonderful hope to continue reading your thoughts.

  13. I love reading what you write. Thank you for sharing.

  14. for some reason, your musings on love made me think 'it's like an echo of an echo of an echo' and then i thought 'what the hell does that mean...' so i looked up the definition of 'echo' because we all know and use it but it's difficult to define (and i hope this is a trivia category one day "Words You Know But Can't Explain", 30 points). 1. (sound) [feeling] repeating or reverberating after the original has stopped.
    Phil, the original, has stopped. Phil. Phil.