My brother lay on a wooden table, covered in a brocade bedspread. His expression serene, more colour in his face than expected, with a slight smirk. Candles flickered on either side of the white room. There were no flowers. He radiated like some kind of god. I took it to mean he was elated by what greeted him on the other side.
Our mother asked me to touch his hands. She was unfit to travel, couldn’t face her lifeless son. Such beautiful long hands, she said. My niece lifted the cloth. Beneath it the effects of the disease, an emaciated body, ribs jutting like a desiccated cow. Trust him to put on a good face, to go out smiling and hide the ruins of what killed him under an ornate guise.
He was clad in a stained blue T-shirt. His girlfriend said, “It’s what he died in.”
“You didn’t want to change him.”
“He didn’t want to be changed.”
She held his chin when she said it’s one of the many things she loved about him. I couldn’t tell if the underlying message was left for me.
When I reached for his hands his grown daughter already held them. Her eyes squeezed shut, trembling. There was nothing I could say to free her from what we faced. Time doesn’t heal this and the missing won’t get easier beyond the first year. This was the initial crack in the shell we’d all become.
She didn’t see what I didn’t foresee, a pink tag around his wrist with his name printed in black ink. If there was also a number, I can’t recall. When I shook him slightly, he didn’t wake up. When his girlfriend and daughter folded into each other’s arms, I shook him again. Wake up. Wake the fuck up. His mouth retained the slight smirk. He was free.
For our mother, I gripped his elegant hands. Unlike his face, they were lifeless. They were cold. He’s next into the fire, we were told. He’ll be warm there. At least there he’ll be warm.