I was saddened to hear about the death of Robin Williams this past month at the young age of 63. Of course we never met and I knew absolutely nothing about his personal life or struggles but his performances made his public feel as though we knew him. My daughter and I re-watched Dead Poets Society thinking it would be an homage to the deceased actor but the story is so utterly depressing that it had a negative effect on us and we stumbled around the house a bit down for the next few days.
Then less than two weeks later my older brother Chris passed away also age 63 after a losing battle with a brain tumor. I briefly thought of Robin Williams again and how parts of my brother’s life were as distant and far away as a celebrity I had never met.
I was ten years old and going into the fifth grade when my brother left for college. Mrs. Hudson was my fifth grade teacher. She looked at me and said, “Another Gilman. Are you as smart as your brother?” She didn’t wait for an answer and was fairly disappointed to learn otherwise but she was still nice to me.
Ten years later my brother and I were both briefly home together and my mother arranged for me to travel with him from Illinois to New Hampshire to attend my cousin’s wedding. Chris was living in the Charlestown section of Boston and we were going to stop off at his house along the way. We had never been anywhere alone together and I remember being almost giddy with excitement but I was trying to act very cool and intelligent. On the plane trip to Boston we mildly struggled to find common interests to discuss before Chris asked me if I had ever seen the show Mork and Mindy. Living in a dorm with no television I hadn’t yet and Chris went on about how impressed he was with the comedian named Robin Williams who starred in the show. He was discussing the comic’s improvisational techniques and how he appeared to spontaneously combust with thought. The first thing I thought was, I like the name Robin for a boy, you don’t hear that very often. Growing up in the Midwest you never heard it except in Winnie the Pooh. I kept this to myself.
When we landed in Logan Airport I tried to maintain my cool, adult act as Chris shepherded me down to baggage claim and then out to the taxi stand. I sat back in the deep cushioning of the yellow cab seat feeling briefly cared for and watched the city wiz past us as Chris kept redirecting the driver to a better route. Chris had been working as a Boston taxi driver and he knew every turn and shortcut.
When we arrived at his apartment I was a little disappointed. I’m not sure what I had imagined. The neighborhood was very run down and almost grey in appearance. Clusters of white teenagers lingered on the stoops looking like thugs.
“There’s Bunker Hill,” he said pointing to the obelisk. “I live right in the heart of Bunker Hill.”
“Cool,” I said or something like it.
Chris lived in a three-story building that slanted quite a bit to one side. As we ascended the steps we had to lean to right ourselves and walk straight. We passed an open door on the first floor where an old woman called out. “Chris, have you seen my cat?”
“No. I’ve been away.”
“Oh,” she said as if she didn’t quite believe him.
We climbed another flight of rickety steps and arrived at his dwelling. I had never known anyone who lived in a slum before and that is the only word I could think of to describe it-slum. A man in a clean white shirt and corduroys stepped out from a back room and I was introduced to his roommate, Jared.
“This is my sister,” Chris said, tilting his head in my direction. “My sister Phoebe.”
“Like Catcher in the Rye?” Jared asked.
“A little,” Chris laughed.
“You’re a little old for the part but it fits,” Jared said lightly.
Jared stared at me and said, “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
Speechless I stared back at Jared and then at Chris and waited.
Chris laughed nervously and said, “Three. I have three.”
Jared suggested we go eat at Durgin Park so I could experience some local fare.
We stood in a long line outside and waited for a table. Chris knew very little about my current life except I was an art major in college and he looked up into the summer twighlight and asked, “What color would you call that sky?”
Sensing I was supposed to impress him I gave it my all. “Periwinkle.”
Chris seemed satisfied. “Ha, ha, that’s great. Periwinkle it is.”
Inside we sat family style at a long table with other parties and I ordered cherrystone clams thinking they were steamers. Raw clams in shells arrived sitting on ice and I couldn’t control my disappointment. The cool act went away.
“Of course, you wanted steamers,” Chris said understanding my mistake. “But these are great.”
I stared at the uncooked mollusks and grimaced while Jared happily ate his Shepherd’s pie.
“I’ll take them,” Chris offered as he slid a raw clam down his throat followed by a swig of draught beer. Then he hailed down an impatient waitress and ordered steamers for me and another round of beer.
“Not to worry,” he said smiling. Fixing orders was something he could do for me.
When we arrived back at his apartment after dinner Chris disappeared into his room. I went into the living room unsure of my next move. The apartment was lined in books on shelves and haphazard stacks of more books rested on most of the free floor space. Their library was filled with books on philosophy, religion, classic literature and massive collections of poetry. Jared sat down across from me. He spoke in soft even tones and asked me questions about my childhood. I gave slow careful answers and tried to be myself which was never easy.
“You’re going to a wedding?”
“My cousin’s, tomorrow. In New Hampshire.”
I went to look for Chris and found him fast asleep fully dressed on a bare mattress. I went back to the living room.
Jared asked if I would like to hear some poetry. He read something he was working on and I strained to find at least one thing I could comment on that sounded intelligent.
“I guess Chris isn’t getting up.” I said.
“I guess not,” he said. “You can sleep here on the couch. “
I looked at the depressed sofa and nodded.
“You’re in college?”
“Yes, in Minnesota,” I said.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“Read mostly,” he said. “Have you read any Bly or Wright?” he asked picking up a book.
You couldn’t go to college in Minnesota in the 1970’s and not know about Robert Bly. “Yes I’ve read some Bly,” I tried to say casually.
“This is Wright’s newest collection,” he said, opening what looked like a new book. He read the title, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright.”
Then he read the poem about a man who idles the day away watching both time and nature pass him by and then feels regret. I thought of my brother in bed with his clothes on, eight years older than me and still not done with college. A man searching for something. A man who had fallen asleep and forgotten about me.
In the morning Chris took me out for pancakes and then we drove north to our ancestral home. Relatives we had always known were waiting for us. No one was thinking it was unusual that it was just the two of us and I pretended that being paired together was an everyday event. The ceremony was alongside a pond on a chicken farm and they had a wedding cake with green frosting. That trip would be the last time either of us saw our grandfather alive and we would both remember that. After the wedding Chris and I said good-bye and I went to Maine to stay with my aunt, before returning to college. Chris went back to Bunker Hill and returned to a life I didn’t want to think about.
Since that time Christopher’s life moved in a trajectory I would not have imagined on that summer day in 1978. He picked himself up and finished college then graduate school. He married and raised two daughters. He traveled the world and mastered three more languages including Japanese. He worked for Fulbright in Japan and ended up as the International and English Language Programs Senior Director at the University of Washington. He divorced. He remarried eight years ago to Sonia. And in a time when I feel like my own family is shrinking his was expanding in leaps and bounds into step-children, in-laws and grandchildren who were always around him and supportive. Sonia and Chris traveled the world together and bought a beautiful house overlooking the Sound. Whether they were traveling or in their home he was content and made the last eight years the happiest of his life. A month before his death he excitedly told me his idea to import Bolivian wine to the United States. He told me he was buying a Lexus and he and Sonia were leaving for Hawaii— a trip they took. He died knowing he had at last found himself. The fact that we are eight years apart has not gone unnoticed by me. I am reminded of the advice of Robin William’s character John Keating: “Seize the day.”
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
BY JAMES WRIGHT
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.