Only 27

I’m breaking my order here to post a piece not directly about writing, or teaching, or craft.  Next week, I’ll return with some of the helpful things I learned from the UC Berkeley Extension Summer Fiction Intensive, but this week, I’m taking a more personal tone.

It’s the first thing most people have said. She was so young. Amy Winehouse was so young.

I’ve had only a handful of conversations about Winehouse since her death last month– over dinner with movie group, at the hair salon – but they’ve followed a pattern. A brief bit about the cause of death – how could it not have been drug-related, even if toxicology tests showed no traces of illegal substances in her body?  Getting clean and sober isn’t without medical risk – and then onto her talent, her hair, her voice. At this, I’ve felt relief. Talk about the music and the look all you want, I think, but not the other.

So young.

Something rises in my chest at those words. Not surprise or sadness or anger but something more chaotic and layered and almost primal. Almost, because I wasn’t born with this sensation, but I’ve carried it, or some variation on it, most of my life. It existed in me long before I ever heard Amy Winehouse’s name, or her music. Yeah, I noted the coincidence in the name of Amy’s ex-husband, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On a website titled AWO, A Tribute to Amy Winehouse, I read that Amy’s favorite song was Carole King’s “So Far Away” and that her family sat shiva. I think how my brother, at age five, begged our babysitter to play King’s Tapestry album over and over. Easy to read into these coincidences. I read Mitch Winehouse’s grief-struck words, and his statement that “Amy was about one thing and that was love.”


I understand why her father would say that, and how it would be true for him. I get his need to say how Amy’s family and friends and fans “were everything” to her. But I can’t help think of a sentence I read weeks ago, in an article called “Farther Away” (The New Yorker, April 18, 2011). In it, Jonathan Franzen writes of traveling to a remote island, in a kind of Robinson Crusoe re-creation, and of the suicide of his good friend David Foster Wallace. Franzen describes Wallace’s intelligence and unhappiness and brilliance and corrosive addiction, without idealizing him. And then, at the end of one paragraph I read at least five times, he writes this: “Even after he got clean, … he felt undeserving. And this feeling was intertwined, ultimately to the point of indistinguishability, with the thought of suicide, which was the one sure way out of his imprisonment; surer than addiction, surer than fiction, and surer, finally, than love.”

Those words made me shudder – not visibly but in that same deep spot that quivers when people say “so young.” I felt a shock, yes, and then an immense clarity. Not easy words to write – or read – but honest ones. Not something we can feel in the early days of grief, perhaps, but something we come to accept over time, almost against our will.

Six weeks ago, an email landed in my In-Box from someone named Mark whose last name I didn’t recognize. The subject line was one word, Blake. I had logged on late at night, and answered several teaching-related messages. I deleted spam and other clutter, and then, with an intake of breath, I clicked on my brother’s name.

The writer got straight to the point, telling me he went to high school with my brother and was friends with him. He and Blake smoked a lot of pot together, and Blake made a huge influence, good and bad, on him. “I guess I was attracted to and impressed and influenced by his rebelliousness and generally extreme behavior,” this man wrote; “I had never experienced anything like it and found it perversely intriguing, as did others.” He wrote that he’d been haunted by Blake’s death and when he came across an article I wrote in 2008, he decided to write.

I’ve gotten several such emails over the years, from people who knew my brother and then read – or heard about – my book, my articles.  These people have all written of my brother’s charisma, intelligence, dynamism, etc. I write “etc” because hagiography wears thin. Mark’s email came closer to the truth. “Generally extreme” and “perversely intriguing” capture the shading any realistic portrait needs, the balance to what one woman, also in email, called “your brother’s total radness.”

At the time of my brother’s death, two weeks before he turned (yep) twenty-seven, I loved him more than I had ever loved anyone. In the days following, I walked the paths and fields near my apartment and thought of his gentleness and humor, our bond as children, our reconciliation during his short-lived recovery. I might have said that he was “all about love,” and in the things I would have cited as evidence, I would have been right.

I have no way of knowing in my bones and muscle tissue how it feels to battle DTs. I’ve only seen it from the outside, albeit up close. But I do know how it feels to look at the fact that, in the words a therapist once said to me, someone you love desperately and deeply loves his drug more than he loves you. Or life.

I wrote Mark back. Thank you for writing. And then, I loved my brother very much. I could feel the pull of more sentences, of addressing my brother’s pain in high school, his crying out for help, our parents’ enabling and blindness and my own distance, away at college and pretending all was OK. I could feel a thick braided rope, as strong and elemental as an umbilical cord, pulling me back to a place where my brother defined my world. Where the loss of him made me wonder how I could continue to live.

I let the rope slacken.  (I can never, of course, drop it completely.) I backspaced over a few characters. I loved my brother very much, and always will. I left it at that, adding my hope for Mark’s own recovery. I hit Send, closed the laptop, and went into the other room, to life.

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