The sunset was obscured by the crowd of palm trees as I walked back from Santa Barbara Coffee Roasting where I spent three hours staring at a wall, comatose from endless sand and sun. There has to be a way that all of these people confuse relaxation with depression, a fine line I was playing with myself on my “spring break” from work. Before walking into the Spanish-style plaza to do some journaling as the daylight dwindles, I get a call from my aunt Laura.
She told me that my uncle Roger had stage four lung cancer. Terminal. I started walking on auto pilot, and landed on a street with a real estate office and condominiums, completely alone. The real estate agent with blatantly photoshopped pure white teeth smiles at me from his swinging sign, the palm trees and villas forming a cult around him. I knew Roger smoked a lot and had cancer a couple years back but he was also stealthy, bright, and full of strength. I tried to feel something in reaction to the news, say something in the void to make something happen, but I was speaking to a dial tone. Relaxation or depression. I guess I had a clearer picture of which one it was.
I was and am still new to death. When I’m supposed to feel something, I don’t. When I’m not supposed to, I do. Even having experienced two close deaths, it has remained distant enough to be nothing more than a theoretical notion, a specimen in my laboratory, an aesthetic symbol that looks great in blacks and grays works fabulously in an Evanescence song. But when I put my phone on my pocket and wandered off to the bus station to return to my Airbnb, it seemed my once secure lab rat had broken loose and was charging ahead at me on the barely lit road.
I scoffed. Death. Yeah, right, you elusive phantom! Sit, stay, roll over, you! Just keep being that character in A Christmas Carol and stop butting in on my life, can’t you see I’m in my 20s and don’t want to take anything seriously at the moment? Come visit Roger in Aidin, a town close to the Oregon border, a twenty-hour drive, Laura? I’m sorry, Laura. I’m sorry, Roger. I’m sorry, Death. The world keeps spinning like a carpet being pulled beneath me and each day is a game of catch-up in my generation’s race to the bottom in our “techtopia”, the modern world officially as inspiring to me as styrofoam or L.A. traffic.
At the time of hearing the news, I was employed by a company that specialized in helping children with special needs in their homes and at schools. When I first got the job, I was genuinely enthralled. There I was, living with my boyfriend in a 7′ by 7′ square “bachelor” apartment with no kitchen working at a godless restaurant, Akasha, owned by the former personal chef of Michael Jackson, and I found a decent-paying job working with kids. This was my chance to cultivate my garden of personal meaning, full of bounty and helping children in need. It certainly went that way for a while. But working there for almost two years and discovering the political negotiations involved in keeping my boss, the parents, teachers, and children happy yielded a growing pit of resentment and bitterness. Even worse, I stopped caring about the girl I was helping, who had severe tantrums and focus issues, who was very smart but equally manipulative. The “Melanie’s Personal Meaning” garden and its fauna saw much less sunshine. I quit not long after I heard Roger was dying.
During my frantic work search, I started to wake up to Death. He had taken up a corner of my room like a sad, miserable dog who is always there but you never get used to. I wanted desperately to ignore him, using my unemployment as an excuse. Sorry, too busy and broke to play! The more I did, the more he grew until six months passed since I heard the news. Outside of my window, the leaves fall off the trees, crispy. Beige. It’s already autumn and I haven’t seen Roger.
Alright Death, you got me. It’s time to take you out for a walk.
As I booked my flight from Los Angeles to Alameda where I’d hitch a ride with my uncle Mark, I thought of the most recent time I’ve seen him, almost three years ago now.
He was visiting in Alameda, the town we both grew up in. Just stopping by he said. No holiday, no Christmas party, no huge family gather. Just me, aunt Kathryn, uncle Mark and Roger driving around town to get lunch. He was wearing his workman’s jacket, nice brown leather, kind of We pass by a morgue that’s been standing for decades, and while one uncle comments that it could’ve been around for a century, Roger grunts happily: “Steady business.” The visit turns into a nice ride around town, where I learned about the various mischief the brothers got up to that must have slowly eaten away at their loving Irish Catholic mother until the day she died. Roger points out their old childhood house, remarking on the new salmon-colored curtains, the unbecoming replacement of the ones he set on fire at age eight. I nod in approval, wishing that I had the bravery to be an arsonist at such a promising age.
He shows me some pictures of his bird paintings and figurines, products of his razor sharp eye and years in carpentry. We hug and he tells me how proud he is of me. Keep studying. Keep using your brain. Don’t doubt yourself. And, most of all: Don’t. Get. Pregnant.
It was time for me to go and visit Roger, now. After a flight from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, I went on a long quiet drive with my uncle Mark up to Modoc County. He reminded me to be prepared. I didn’t have the mental facility, the experience to form a projected image of Roger as I found him, thin, tired, and sunken in his bed in the middle of the living room.
There’s a picture of him standing next to his siblings while some joke or speech was being made at grandpa’s 90th birthday party. Out of them all, his is the only smile that lifts all of his features. His eyes lack the traditional round edges custom of our family. They’re alive and coyote like, wild and intelligent.
One Christmas, he even came down to Berkeley from Modoc, 14 hours away. We were all seated at John’s house. John’s kids are notoriously eccentric, but the one who rubbed Roger’s prickly edges was Damien. Being rather innocent and tiny at the time, Damien was very kind to me, telling me I’d grow up to be Winona Ryder and playing hide and seek with me while all the adults bantered. But among the elder siblings, he was known to instigate, such as when we were on our way to his brother’s college graduation and he jumped out of the moving car to get a pizza. But Roger didn’t lean on excuses for recklessness. Being one way was a choice, and there were always other paths worth fighting for, just as he fought to become sober.
Of course, most of us sniffed out a mental illness. But Roger thought it was about choices. I see this, of course, and I saw the choices Damien made that either alleviated or aggravated his condition. I respected Roger’s perspective, his advocacy for justice and ultimate personal responsibility. But if the universe rewarded people who took personal responsibility, I’m not sure everything would be as it was.
So at that Christmas party in Berkeley, when Damien slammed the refrigerator door on Roger’s arm, that was that. Some explosion happened and I probably didn’t see him again for a couple of years, but not before he gives me a hug and, at the glorious age of seven, warns me “not to get pregnant.” I relied on stories of quirky wedding tales or old Hopping brother memoirs until I’d see him again.
When I get to the house, I latch onto his paintings, thinking to myself and how our traditional family visits have gone. I realized that at our family gatherings, we sometimes become bobbly heads playing bumper cars, different wills and objectives clashing, idea transmission paramount to social interactions that slowly diffuse until we say goodbye. See you later. See you at the next Christmas party that I may or may not go to.
Visiting with Roger now felt less like bouncing signals and more like I was sitting by a pond with the sun setting behind it. The reflected light became softer with each passing hour. Roger was resting now, just able to move and give me a hug and a kiss. When we had our time alone, we talked about everything we could, everything that was important. I was happy to say good-bye to the world and its imperfections and learn about Roger, witness his joy and his remorse. Appreciate his unique intelligence and his “fuck thises and thats.” His armor was by his side, and I saw a sweetness and sensitivity that was more powerful than any words he had for me.
He won an award for stopping coyote trophy hunting contests in Modoc County. Every year, hunters would basically having dick-comparing contests and try to hunt the biggest coyote. What their ignorance didn’t tell them was that coyotes are actually really good for the environment, a fact that Roger wouldn’t relent on. So he took his camera out to document the horrors of these contests and took photos to post on the internet. A man in town, one of the participants, recognized him. They fought, and he pushed Roger onto his back, injuring his lower spine.
But his efforts were recognized and eventually the contests were ended. The trophy was a pointed diamond shape, beautifully carved of glass. He held it as he watched the leader of Project Coyote read a speech to him over Skype. His loving and supporting family beamed with pride, taking pictures and giving Roger pats on the shoulder. Upon the end, he howled like a true prairie wolf.
As I watched Roger’s signature slanted smile light up his face, time was reduced to a petty fact, both of essence and completely dismal and insignificant. Drama, the pushes and pulls of my work, demands, and relationships sat there with it. Everything in my mind became quiet, and my heart began to crack open, knowing now that we go through life thinking we want everything for ourselves. As the family sat with Roger for hours, a man looking out at the portrait of his entire life, I saw someone in awe of what he wanted and accomplished for the world.
We spent some more time alone. He saw a potential in me that I always regarded as a conspiracy working against me. He told me he thought my dad could have chosen a different path, to “brush his fucking teeth and ditch his street friends.” His own children made some unfortunate choices themselves, not unlike my dad’s. I cowered in fear, knowing this future of drug abuse and addiction was a slippery slope, always an inch away. Imagining the kind of heights he wanted me to climb to was even more daunting than walking flat on the path or falling down.
But still, he said he was excited to see what I was going to do, be it “an executive at a firm or a pole dancer”, as long as I showed up with a smile, and to never give up on myself. To never let anyone put their hands on me. He holds on tight to my arm now, his silvery eyes lighting up, his arched brows conveying a familiar conviction, but struggling with breath to form the three golden words:
“Don’t get pregnant.” With the amendum: “Men want one thing. To get laid.”
I was back in the Bay Area visiting friends and family. One of which was my half-brother, both of us born from Walter, Roger’s eccentric little brother. We had just spent an afternoon in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and I was now at the bus terminal. My dad could have been a block or two away. The Embarcadero was always one of his favorite spots. Imagining this always gave me a deep feeling of loneliness, knowing that even if I could find him myself, that he’d still be far away, suffering from this or that mental charade.
I thought of Roger, knowing that this day for me is one of his last, spent in Modoc country with our relatives. The full moon was right up there, hanging on its thread, nice and bright. Just at the right moment, it’s always there to save me from my firey headcage, locked on too tight sometimes, but still a better feeling than the Kool-Aid I was drinking during spring break in Santa Barbara.
Coyotes were once thought to be our first shepherds into the real world, symbols of youth, mischief, life, and death. But no matter where they tread on the planet, the moonlight is their home and sanctuary. This is where they howl, their call to the pack. Under my breath, I let out a howl in the pool of moonshine before boarding the bus back home.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.