My brother Bret had started the next life at forty, when he departed from this world by suicide. And I believe his death began the next life for me, in this world. I live now in a realm where everything has changed, and the old ways of hiding begin to fall away. He was the lone survivor of the Yahi people, and he was following the Feather River south to find that place in the Yahi creation story where people who have died go through a tunnel into the next world. This story itself was a kind of creation myth for my own childhood, and I spent many days imagining that I, too, was the last of my kind.
In the summer of , the anthropologists took Ishi back to his native ground, on Deer Creek, in northern California. Ishi was very uneasy about the journey. He recognized the local guide, a man named Apperson, as someone who had harried his people toward the end. As the party went deeper into the canyon, Ishi became more wary. Finally, one night he left the camp in the dark. Again, he was alone in the place of ghosts, as he had been in the years after the last of his people were gone. When he returned to camp in the morning, he told the young boy in the party, Saxton Pope, Jr.
They had made it to the next world, he said, and all was well. I think the comfort in that return to camp for Ishi combined a sense that his people were well, and also that the next world, when his own time came, would be ready to welcome him. Will you let him know? I am doing what I need to do, and I am well. Where is he, then? When he went through that primordial tunnel at death, where did he come forth? I believe this life had become a tunnel of suffering for my brother, with deep depression, and the only way he could come forth was through death. When Bret wrote his senior thesis in anthropology at the University of Oregon, in , his scholarship became a parable for his life of struggle.
When I read his words now, his voice sounds distanced from the spirit of those times, the s, that famous era of free love:. All men, upon birth, enter a world which is not of their own making. It is a world which existed before man and which constantly eludes his efforts to comprehend and control it.
But men seem to need order, to need a system of some kind, that they may feel secure. They cannot live with disorder. Thus, they build a system; they impose order upon the world. The source of the system of order they adopt is their culture. But the world is not completely amenable to the system of order men have imposed upon it.
Plus, it is full of dangers. And it is here that taboo comes in. It has taken me over twenty years to realize my brother came to a point where he could not live. He loved his family, and his life had many blessings. But he had to stop his pain, and did not have the skills to come to safety in some other way.
I could run from my life—by divorce, by wandering, by writing a fierce new self-definition. My brother did not have these devious means. Once, when weeping took me down, I could hardly breathe, thinking of him. But as I gasped, the mountain words were jolted to a new configuration in my mind, and I could breathe again: You-Have-Gone. The question that had choked me became a fact.
My brother has gone. Recently I found a long letter he wrote from Iowa—not to the family, as was his custom, but to me. It was November of , and winter was closing down over the Grinnell campus. He had just been telling me about his efforts to be a good person, not selfish, or jealous.
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I try to get away from this. Way back in August, as the jet took off, I craned over probably irritating the fellow next to me to take a look at the Cascade range. Boy did it look good! I could see the mountains way up in Washington, and clear down, I think, to the Diamond Peak area. But the best part was looking down on Jefferson Park.
Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Memoir by Kim Stafford
I could see the ridge and the hidden, far-away valley. I wished I had a parachute. My divorce had been finalized in June, I was living in a house on Custer Street in Portland, Oregon, where Bret had last visited me, and I was bouncing along from one short teaching stint to the next. That did not make sense. Instead, I was reaching for the deepest stories people had to offer. I felt like the dancer with the red shoes, unable to stop public performance of pain. In this class, one student in particular seemed alive to the darkness I was swimming through. She asked about my brother after class one day, and seemed ready to listen to anything I had to say.
On Friday afternoon, the last day, everyone shared something they had written, we savored what we had managed to bring to light, and then the writers got up to leave. But this one lingered. Earlier that summer, I had gone to buy myself a new sleeping bag at REI. The clerk was an old friend, Gil, a crag rat from way back. The following Friday, I packed the two sleeping bags, my tent and stove, gathered food, took a map of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness, locked my house, and went to get her.
100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do
She came skipping out of her apartment downtown with her backpack over her shoulder and climbed into the car, and we were off. By the way, my boyfriend is really pissed about this. At that moment, as we were climbing the grade out of town on I-5 South, I noticed a silver band on her ring finger.
We drove in silence for a time. I tried to make all this fit together—an adventure. He was a big soul. Too big.
He has interviews in Hood River and Redmond and mumbles through them. His brother-in-law drops him at his sister's house in Central Oregon. Her boyfriend Dan is home and they talk a little, Bret not saying much until Dan mentions he has a pistol. Dan goes to work and Bret searches the house until he finds the gun and uses it on himself.
He's 63, ruddy and healthy, wide open to the world. On the table in front of him is a copy of his new book. A dozen others have come before it, collections of poems and essays, reflections on writing, a bravely honest biography of his father. This one is different. It's called.
The title comes from a book of the same name Bret ordered from the back of a comic book when he was The most difficult trick was pulling a tablecloth away and leaving a wineglass standing. He tried it and the glass broke. Kim tells his son Guthrie about the book and his Uncle Bret, and when Guthrie is 10 he pretends to do the trick. Kim says he could write a book about Bret and use that same title.
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He walks back and forth at the rear of the chapel, consumed by grief. This is volcanic stuff. This is flight or fight stuff. I'm sorry he couldn't sit with us, but I don't blame him. I don't have my father to guide me in this moment. I felt bereft. In a way it was the moment I grew up.
So I guess that's a very fatherly thing to do, ultimately. He couldn't talk about Bret's death and would change the subject when it came up. He could write about it, though, and Kim took a line from his father's poem as the epigraph for his book:. Kim "would talk about him very early in a conversation with anyone I met," he writes. One poor woman wept. Our coffee grew cold, and the date was at an end. It was as if I could not proceed on any basis except full disclosure, as I saw it, feeling a clumsy loyalty to my brother's sorrow beyond care for the person across the table from me.
She said, 'You know, Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but maybe the overexamined life is not worth living, either. She said, 'I'm glad Bill and I could give you a brother, at least for a while.