Frankie’s death, in 1999, was the last occasion for my family to gather. I’ll never forget standing in the living room at Ethel’s (and Frankie’s) house after the memorial. I looked at the seven of us and thought, “Frankie was the first of us to die. I wonder who’ll be last.”
I just learned that Frankie and Woodcock were close for a few years before Frankie killed himself. Isn’t is odd that the son who was closest to his parents is the one that killed himself? Maybe not. Maybe that was the point? We can never know.
It was after his memorial service that I realized Frankie had, like Ethel, been living with OCD. I felt compelled to visit the scene of the crime so I stepped into his bedroom. Two walls were completely lined with bookshelves. On one of them was a complete set of every National Geographic Magazine published up to then. The other was filled with small glass jars containing mostly spiders, along with a few other kinds of insects. Also a shoe box containing every ticket stub from every movie he had ever seen.
Maybe that’s not full-blown OCD. Ethel’s symptoms at that time were also questionable. Maybe I was reading too much into the refrigerator full of cartons of soy milk, dozens of them, and little else. Maybe her constant repetition of stories and jokes was simply forgetfulness. Maybe both of their seeming inabilities to embrace any kind of change was just Yankee stubbornness.
Nah. In her declining years, I had her evaluated and the diagnosis was confirmed. Curiously, the condition enabled her to live on her own much longer than she might have otherwise. Her routines were so rigidly embedded that she was able to function despite losing her mind to dementia. When she finally moved into a nursing home, I cleared out her apartment.
She spent most of her waking hours in a single chair in her living room. In front of the chair was a coffee table. Across the room was a small TV on a stand. There was one floor lamp to the left of her chair. Several plastic boxes in a corner that were filled with every piece of mail she had received in the last several years.
On the coffee table were a pen and some stacks of Post-it note paper. The rest of the table was covered in handwritten notes. Things she wanted to remember. Things she wanted to ask about.
When we were still talking by phone, which wasn’t often, she would always repeat the same jokes and ask the same questions. I humored her for a while because, you know, dementia. But, as I eventually figured out, that wasn’t it. Yes, she had dementia and it was getting worse. But more than that, she had a ritualistic need to say these things. Over and over. Repeatedly. Non-stop. Again and again. She had a ritualistic need to repeat these things. Over and over. Redundantly. Non-stop. Again and again.
Back to her apartment. There were hundreds of notes. So many that they were dozens of notes deep. The TV was also covered with notes, not the screen but the rest of it. There were notes on the plastic boxes. Notes in the kitchen. On the refrigerator. Covering the countertops. All doors. In the bathroom, on the medicine cabinet. There were notes on the walls. We aren’t even at weird yet.
Weird was that the notes were illegible scribbles. I couldn’t read any of them. I doubt she could either. She once told me that she had to give up reading because it was making her eyes go bad and she didn’t want to have to wear glasses.
I never visited her in the nursing home but I was the primary contact for them so I got sporadic updates on her life. She liked being there and was well liked by her fellow inmates and the guards.
Woodock died within a few weeks of moving into such a place. His lawyer told us that was common. I expected that for Ethel but she lasted years.
I was the primary contact and I would get occasional phone updates. They always began like this,
“Hello, Eric? This is Nancy from The Home…”
Could this be it? The call I’ve been waiting for?
Your mother is fine. We just wanted to let you know that blah blah blah.”
Is it horrible that I wanted her to die? It is not. What I haven’t told you is that she got cancer of the face then had surgery for it that left her disfigured and in pain. After a second tumor appeared on the other half of her face, I decided not to subject her to another surgery and she eventually died.
I didn’t cry when the call finally came, nor when I threw her ashes into the ocean. I didn’t cry when my father died. Before any that I didn’t cry when Frankie died. Not initially.
I hadn’t known that Frankie had taken up pottery. In their cellar was another set of Frankie’s shelving, this time filled with hundreds of little ceramic pots. They weren’t identical but they were all a similar shape and size. They weren’t especially well crafted. They were just pots. I took one.
I wrapped it thoroughly with padding and carefully placed it in my carry-on bag, near the top, so that it wouldn’t break on the flight home. Then I forgot about it. You know what happened next.
It’d been more than a week since he died and I hadn’t shed a tear. But when I opened my backpack and discovered the little pot had shattered into dust, I just started bawling. I was overcome with grief. It didn’t make sense. I hadn’t felt sad at the memorial nor at his house afterwards. I wasn’t numb. I barely knew him anymore. We hadn’t spoken in a few years. We had almost no contact except for that letter he wrote. That stupid fucking letter…
That stupid fucking letter that read like an apology, almost like a confession. What the fuck was that about anyway?
And now we’re back at the beginning. The beginning of this story. The beginning of my recovery. His suicide was the first clue. His letter was the second, even though it came a few years earlier.
I cried so hard and so long that I crawled into bed exhausted. I was spent. I was also confused. Memories flooded back into my consciousness.: abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jack-knife; black; Frankie’s letter. This was the moment that all those disparate memories came together for the first time.
Something bad happened in that chicken coop. Something bad happened to me. Something I had been hiding. Something I had been hiding from. I was trapped. I was attacked. I was… sexually violated. And he was there.
Frankie was there. When it happened. When that happened. To me. His little brother. My big brother was there. My big brother brought me there. To that place. To that time.
No, he did not do it. I mean, yes, he brought me there but no, he did not attack me. He wasn’t part of it. It was the Williams brothers who did it. It was Carl who put the knife to my throat.
After the broken pot triggered this new memory, they still stopped there. At the knife. I didn’t recall what happened next for a few more years. But this time I remembered that Frankie was there. He probably didn’t know what was going to happen. But they were his friends and he introduced me to them. He brought me to ‘hang out’ with them that day.
I don’t remember where he was or what he was doing during the attack on me. I don’t know if he was or wasn’t also trapped. Attacked. But he was there. My big brother brought me to that dark place. My big brother, knowingly or not, delivered me to an act that would forever change me. That would change both of us. That would reverberate for decades and result in a life of pain for both and end in tragedy for one.
Today, I know that it wasn’t his fault. I know he wouldn’t have been capable of hurting me in that way. I know he must have been tricked, overpowered. Today, I know these things. Today I wonder if he, too, was sexually victimized. But back then, all I knew was that he was my big brother and he didn’t protect me.
I can’t know why Frankie killed himself. I can’t say it had anything to do with me, with what happened to me, with what may have happened to him, or anything else. He took those answers with him. What I do know, is that his suicide was the catalyst that allowed me to remember. Whatever his intention, whatever pain he may have caused others to go through, his death is what put me on the path to healing and liberation.
My tears and grief on that day were for me. For little Eric. My tears now, as I write this, are for Frankie. We will never know his pain.
I’m not done with this story. There is more. I did finally remember what happened after the knife. I will tell you about that. Not because you necessarily want to know. Not because I need you to know. I’m going to tell you because my story cannot be complete until I do. I’m going to tell you because the story of that time has been burning inside me since it happened. I’m going to tell you now because little Eric wasn’t able to tell anyone then. I’m doing this for him.