Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gary's Ghost

For  Gary, who gave "Sketch People" its name -- and for the photographer he might've become --

Mostly, I remember the boxes.  They kept coming for days – weeks, it seemed to me then – after my brother died.  All of them had “Airman Gary Scott Banks” scrawled on their sides in black misshapen letters.  Inside were Gary’s neatly mounted black-&-white photos, negatives, and camera equipment.  Photography magazines.  Clothes.  Nineteen years of life crammed into a bunch of boxes…I couldn’t get over it, any more than I could understand how they’d been able to fit my brother, skinny as he was, into that narrow flag-shrouded coffin.

I was almost 15 when Gary was killed in a car accident out in Idaho.  A few days later, I was back in school, writing poetry and  drawing pictures during geometry.  I took long walks in the field behind my parents’ house.  I read and played with my beloved three-legged Siamese, Christy.  And all the while, I felt cut off from the world around me.  I was grieving, and I didn’t want to be.  So I buried that grief even deeper than they had buried my brother.  Like Christy, who had learned to get about gracefully on three legs after having been hit by a car, I learned to move about as though I was still whole.

I wasn’t, of course.  And because, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, I would not stop for grief, grief stopped for me.  Frequently.  Politely, like a well-mannered guest waiting for me to finish what I was doing so that it could say what needed to be said.  It showed up in all sorts of ways.  In driver’s ed. a year later, I’d freeze behind the wheel; and all the instructor’s advice and all my father’s kind, patient after-school instruction could not banish the tall, skinny curly-haired ghost who sat beside me in the car.  Then came the day that all the driver’s ed. students were supposed to watch footage of a fatal traffic accident.  There would be a short film about driving safety first, the instructors informed us, followed by the main feature, “Mechanized Death”: we were to watch at least 10 minutes of it before making the decision to walk.

I spent the last few minutes of the first flick staring at my feet. The micro-second the lights went down a second time, my sneakers hit the floor.  It helped that several of my friends decided to join me in flight:  there were too many of us for the instructor to catch us all at once, and all of us except one made it successfully to another floor.

When I went off to college, Gary went with me in a different way.  I brought his camera with me.  He had been a photographer; I would, I told myself, be a photojournalist.  I never did become a great photographer, but I felt a little closer to him when I was outside trying to capture images with his camera.

Over time, his presence faded.  I overcame my fear enough to get my license.  But there were moments when I looked into a mirror or at a snapshot of myself and saw his face staring back at me.  People who had known him back in school would meet me and say, “You look like him…”

But I still found it hard to talk about the boy whose face I shared.  “I lost my brother,” Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn writes in her book The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age, “and because of my family’s inability to find a way to cope and to attempt to heal, I lost the grief.  I stuffed it into that back closet…And because of that I lost my brother even in the way I might have kept him.”

Then one night, when I was out with Tim, the man I would later marry, someone asked me how many brothers I had.

“Two,” I replied.

“You have three brothers,” Tim corrected me quietly.  He knew Gary’s story. 

He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to let that ghost out of the closet I had so carefully blockaded.  And not just the ghost but all of the baggage that came with it, including the additional strain on my father’s heart that had eventually killed him.  The way that Gary’s death had broken apart the charmed circle of our childhood.

It has taken me a long time to find my brother again.  I came across an old photo of Gary not long ago.  In it, he is sitting atop a fallen tree trunk on a mountain, staring off to the side.  He is wearing his characteristic scowl, slightly toned down.  He looks fit, thoughtful, and at peace among the rocks and trees he loved photographing.  In it, I see someone who shared my love of nature.  Whom I might have even been able to work with some day, my words and his pictures coming together to tell a story.

It’s just a pipedream, of course.  I don’t know the person my brother would’ve become, and I will always regret the not knowing.  But I’ve learned to let grief in – to honor the loss.  A photo Gary took of my cat Alexander snoozing by a toy airplane…looking as though he’d just thwacked it down with a paw a la King Kong…now hangs in my living room.  The onyx horse-head bookends he gave me before he left home hold up some treasured books on the shelves of the secretary where I write.  And some days, I take my camera out into the yard and photograph the trees or the way the sunlight spills through their branches.

The break in the circle is healed, and so am I.  By befriending Gary’s ghost, I have my third brother back again.


ANO07 said...

Powerful writing, Tammy! Whatever more I say next can't really transcribe, reflect or utter in any way what I felt reading about your brother. "Gary's Ghost." By the way, the title fits perfectly.

As I'm into ghosts, angels and the like... while reading your post I actually had the feeling that I... 'felt' the presence of Gary's ghost.

Again, this is yet another example of your powerful writing this time transcending realms, connecting the reader not only with the soul inside but with those outside, and, through it all, offering hope.

T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Alex. I wasn't sure about including this particular story in "Sketch People" at first. Then I thought about how I got the name of the blog from that off-handed comment he made so many years ago. How he might've become the photographer he dreamed of being had he just had more time. (My parents actually set up photography scholarship at the local high school in his memory that's still being given out.) In short, he might've been a Sketch Person, too.
I don't doubt you felt Gary's presence, Alex -- after all, he loved photography more than anything. That would've been the link between the two of you.

William Power said...

What a great read. Thanks for sharing such an obviously intimate story of your personal struggle with grief. I could relate so well as I lost my 17 year old niece in the same way in 2004. I like to refer to these kinds of stories as "the language of the heart"--a language that speaks to the human soul. WP

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, William. They are indeed the language of the heart, as you say....I've often thought that the Victorians were better at dealing with death and grieving than we are: they had very prescribed rituals for dealing with it, and those rituals gave a place for the grief to go.

Laura Hart said...

Brought a tear to my eye; so similar to my own story. It took over twenty years before I finally put pen to paper and unlocked the iron-clad door concealing my grief.
Just goes to prove people are the same the world over and the pain of loss knows no mercy . . .

T. J. Banks said...

I know what you mean, Laura. You're right about that "iron-clad door." Some stories are too hard to let out at once, even though we need to do that and get the infection out.