Finding My Dead Brother

Creative Nonfiction by Eli Jacobs

Finding My Dead Brother

My family secret goes back to 1994. My brother Danny was dying of AIDS in a lower Manhattan hospital. I was thirty-one and I’d been living in Israel since I’d moved there from New York in 1986. I hardly ever went back home. I didn’t go to New York to visit Danny in the hospital. I sent a few letters.

Our fourth child was due within weeks, and Passover was days away; each of these, reason enough for my parents to make the trip from Staten Island to the Middle East. I picked them up at Ben Gurion airport and drove them to our home in a small West Bank town. While my mother eagerly instructed my father which suitcase to open and which gifts to give to each of my children, my wife prepared lasagna, salad and instant coffee. About an hour later, I heard the sound of my mother’s metal crutches approaching my bedroom.

“Eli, I want to tell you something. I went to see Danny in the hospital. I didn't know what to do about this trip. I said to him, ‘Bubele, how can I go to Israel and leave you here?’ He took my hand and he said, ‘Go, Ma.’”

I nodded. My mother continued. “We wanted to be here for the bris. We thought it was more important than—. You know. Choose life.”

I said, “I agree. That’s right. Choose life.”

“Daddy can’t take it. He wishes Danny would die already.”

“I know,” I said. “I feel that way too.”

We’d been through it before. Six years earlier, Moshe, my other brother, died of cancer. The waiting and the false alarms were draining.

On the second night of Passover, I spoke to Danny on the phone. It was the last time. I flew to New York, and my parents stayed in Israel. Danny died while I was in the air. My sister, Geula, and I took care of the funeral. Shiva would not begin until after the holiday week. After Passover, Geula sat shiva in her house in Passaic, New Jersey, and my parents and I sat shiva together in my home, in Israel.

***

Nine years later, in 2003, following my mother’s death, I received a condolence card from Gary Adler, Danny's romantic partner for the last four years of his life. “I’ll be in Israel on a synagogue tour. Would love to see you.”

Sitting in a Jerusalem coffee shop, Gary told me about CBST, the gay synagogue that held services in the basement of a church in Chelsea. “Every year, the rabbi talks about Danny in her Kol Nidre drasha.”

I asked Gary to explain.

“You know. About your parents leaving your brother on his deathbed to go visit their Orthodox son in Israel. Didn’t even come to his funeral. The plight of a Jewish gay man from an Orthodox home.”

“But he agreed,” I said. “My mother asked him what to do and he said she should come to Israel.”

Gary leaned across the table, took hold of my wrist, and squeezed.

“That’s true. Your mother did go see Danny when he was in Sloane Kettering. And she did ask him what to do about her trip to Israel. But he didn’t say, ‘Go, Ma.’ Oh no! He did not say that.” Shaking his head, “No, no, no. Danny told your mother, ‘Don’t go, Ma.’ Danny begged your mother not to leave him when he was dying.”

When I heard from Gary that there were two versions of my mother’s last visit to Danny on his deathbed—Go, Ma versus Don't go, Ma—I saw it as a mystery never to be resolved. Both Danny and my mother were dead.

***

Gary was a difficult person—the indignation of his gay activist persona underscored almost every sentence he spoke—but I was drawn to him. He connected me to Danny. So, whenever I came to the States, in addition to visiting my father and sister, I tried to see Gary. Our relationship became important. I referred to him as my brother-in-law. He, jokingly, referred to me as his brother-outlaw. By spending time with Gary, I declared identity with the underdog, I defied my parents, I protested Orthodoxy’s condemnation of homosexuality and I offered reparation to my brother. Perhaps I was seeking in Gary a new home, as well.

Sometimes I texted Gary, “Meet at shul on Friday night?” The first time, I thought that going to the Church of the Holy Apostles, whose basement was converted for the evening to gay synagogue, would feel strange. In fact, it reminded me of the American shuls of my youth. The dusty smell when you open the door, the overcoats in the entry hall, the announcements board behind glass with service times and other notices on yellowed paper, some hanging askew where a corner had torn away from a thumbtack.

After prayers and a little singing and dancing, while everyone else made their way to the kiddush in the front right corner, we went to the front left corner of the room, sights set on a cardboard poster perched on a wooden easel. We ran our fingertips across white letters on a black background, one name of more than a hundred—Daniel Victor Jacobs.

After shul, we went to dinner at Angela’s Kitchen and then back to Gary’s house in Staten Island where we drank red wine and smoked pot. I asked Gary about my brother.

Each time, Gary answered my questions in detail and with great drama. And each time, what he said sounded new, as if I had never heard it before. The details about my brother’s life did not stick in my memory.

Over the next fifteen years, I was unsettled more often than not. On too many nights, I woke after a few hours of troubled sleep, desperate to escape a nightmare: it is my last day at the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Baltimore where I was a student for four years. I can’t find my car—now packed with suitcases and boxes of holy books—anywhere. The campus has become an oxygen-less moonscape. Or, in another version of the dream, I can’t find the key to the closet that holds all my possessions. I am trapped forever in yeshiva. The terror was so great that I forced myself to wake; I ran out of the bedroom and stayed in the living room until morning.

Other times I woke to a pillow wet with tears and a faint recollection of crying in my sleep. TV and movie dramas (whether sad—death, cancer, AIDS, funerals, family strife; or happy—births, weddings, brotherly camaraderie, reconciliation) made me sob. I avoided goodbyes.

At those times of terror and free-floating sorrow, holding onto dualities—my mother told the truth but Gary also told the truth—was like trying to hold onto a pair of fighting cats.

I moved away from religion, no longer believing in God, the divine nature of the Torah, the afterlife, or the Messiah. I divorced, married again, had a sixth child, divorced again. I moved from city to city. I spent hundreds of hours in therapy and attended New Age workshops and writing retreats.

Again and again, I found my way back to the facts that felt solid, true. My brothers, Moshe and Danny, were both alienated from my family and then both became ill and died. They each died two deaths, one from rejection, one from illness. This thought fueled me into action. I was inspired to write.

September 2017 - Stockbridge, Pennsylvania

A year into my writing, I make a trip to New York to interview relatives and family friends. I am seeking more details about my parents and their relationships with my brothers. I want to prove that my mother lied to me, that she pretended to care about Danny, but in fact had disowned him. It would be a clean narrative with villains, my parents; victims, my brothers; and a naive observer, myself.

So far, it's been frustrating. When asking my mother’s contemporaries what she really said about my brothers, over and over I hear, “She didn’t talk about it.”

So, on this stifling hot September day, I am on my way to see Gary and this time I will record our talk. He now lives in the woods, in a small town in the Poconos.

We sit in the basement study, Gary across from me in a large swivel chair with his back to a desk and a walker at his side. Now seventy-two, and recovering from hip surgery, he is wearing a plaid bathrobe. Gary points to a large cardboard box and tells me to bring it over. Three of its corners are split, bundles of papers and photos are leaking out. The carton is too heavy to lift, so I grab the top and drag it across the room.

I slide my iPhone onto the coffee table and press Record. Gary tells me, again, how he and my brother met—at an exhibit of gay art where they went into a side room with posters and lithographs and made out. He boasts that it was he who noticed the first sign of AIDS— lesions on the bottom of Danny's left foot.

Gary tells me about the doctors and the intos and out-ofs the hospital, the plans for the death; the doctor accurately predicted the date. And the marriage ceremony and exchange of wedding bands the night before the death; Gary now wears both rings on one finger. He gives me an hour-by-hour account of Danny’s low oxygen level during the last days. The moment of death, the funeral, the shiva. All of it.

Outside, the temperature is in the eighties and in here the air conditioning is blasting. I ask Gary for something warm. He says that he'll look through Danny's things but I tell him that Danny’s clothing would be too small, so Gary brings me one of his own sweatshirts and I put it on.

Gary says that he is going to the bathroom and I ask about the box. “It's for you. Take whatever you want.”

Eagerly, I begin to remove the papers and other things one at a time, inspect and sort them into two piles. One to leave here at Gary's house and the other to pack into my suitcase. I leaf through Danny's journals, drawings, postcards, photos, letters, scripts of musicals he'd auditioned for. I study flyers for self-funded cabaret shows he appeared in, bank statements, letters to insurance companies appealing to them to cover experimental treatments. I set aside everyday items that must have sat on Danny's dresser: a pair of eyeglasses and a pair of sunglasses both with the same preppy, tortoise-shell frame, a crocheted blue and white yarmulke, colored pencils, bank cards, pins with political slogans about AIDS, an AA chip.

I keep reading and thinking and sorting. As I lift each item, I imagine Danny holding it in his hands. A faded page appears to be a form from a wellness workshop. In one of four rectangles Danny wrote:

Sept 4, 1984 - I stopped drinking and drugging and joined AA

Nov 1987 - I tested positive for HIV

Winter of 1990 - tested positive lesion on foot

I pull the page close and read it a few times. I rub my thumb over “Nov 1987 – tested positive for HIV,” and repeat the words in my head. This is important but I don’t know why.

Jet lag and the two-hour drive from Staten Island are taking their toll. The smell of the box’s twenty-year-old dust is lulling me to sleep. Over and over, I think, November ‘87, tested positive for HIV. I struggle to understand the significance. I fall asleep.

After dozing for I don’t know how long, my eyes open. I am alone in the room; in a twilight state. I look down at a bank card from Chase in my palm. It looks like one in my own wallet. I check the date to see if it is expired and wonder if Danny will have to get it renewed when he returns. But of course, it expired, in 1995. And of course, Danny will not return, he died in 1994.

I reach for a photocopy of a hand-written letter on the take-to-Israel pile. The handwriting, slanted and conscientiously spaced on lined paper, could have been my own. In the letter, my brother thanked our aunt and uncle for the invitation to our cousin’s wedding. He wrote that he was in a loving relationship with his gay partner, Gary, and that they would never be able to have that kind of wedding. He appealed to Uncle Julie and Aunt Daniele to invite Gary to the wedding. Later, Gary would tell me that they agreed but my parents protested and the invitation was rescinded.

The bank card could have been mine, Danny's handwriting could have been mine.

The letter to our Aunt and Uncle—if I'd been in his situation, my words would have come out like his: passionate, respectful, articulate. We were so similar, we were brothers. I never realized it.

The page from the wellness workshop has fallen to the floor. I lift it and look again at the words that called out to me earlier—Nov 1987 – tested positive for HIV.

Now, I understand.

March 1988 New York City

Our brother Moshe died at his apartment on Amsterdam Avenue and 69th Street on a Tuesday evening. Then his body was taken to the Riverside Funeral Chapel on Amsterdam and 76th. When Danny and I arrived, we were told that they weren’t able to reach any of the regulars who normally sat with bodies until the arrival of the ritual burial team. Back in Israel, I was studying for the rabbinate, preparing for a test on the halachot of mourning. I knew that the tradition of not leaving a corpse unattended, based on the pragmatic need to ward off rodents, was not obligatory in modern times. But Danny was insistent that we step up and take on this duty. So, he and I spent that night at the chapel.

After some waiting, we were shown into a formal sitting room that looked as if it had been lifted from a nineteenth-century mansion. A temporary coffin was aligned against the far wall. The long box was made of dull tin and mounted on wheels like a gurney. Moshe’s body was inside.

The timing of the death was convenient for me, an opportunity to practice the laws I was studying in preparation for rabbinic ordination. My motivation to become a rabbi, was, in part, a reaction to Moshe and Danny. They rejected the lifestyle and left religion. We never talked about it, but we didn't have to. My parents’ tight, hushed whispers when they spoke to each other about my brothers, taught me that Moshe and Danny’s rejection of Orthodoxy was a colossal tragedy.

I sympathized with my brothers' pain but deep down, I believed that they were responsible for their own fates. They were wandering souls who had lost their way and refused the invitation to come back home.

I came to Riverside equipped with a spare kipa for Danny and a sense that my faith enabled me to face death with equanimity. Danny cried on and off, but I didn’t cry at all.

We sat cross-legged on the rug facing each other. One of my hands rested on my thigh and in the other I held a small, gray book of Psalms. Some of the time I recited prayers. Danny closed his eyes and listened.

I paused and after a silence, Danny spoke. He told me about days he’d spent with Moshe, taking him to treatments and doctor's appointments. One morning, Moshe was moving slowly. Danny had to help him dress. They missed a cross-town bus and were late for a chemo treatment. The nurse was nice but had to turn them away. They made their way back across Manhattan for a doctor’s appointment. They were late and had to wait for a break in the schedule. After four hours, the doctor called only Danny into his office and showed him a scan from earlier that week. The cancer had spread. There were now multiple tumors in Moshe’s brain.

They rode the subway back uptown without talking. When they exited the station at 72nd Street, Moshe took Danny’s hand. They walked a few blocks, hand in hand. Then Moshe turned to Danny. “It was a long, hard day, but we got a lot done.” Danny smiled as he told me this sweet, sad story about our big brother. He looked at me. We both smiled.

A few minutes later, a creaking noise came from the coffin. It stopped but then came again. I sat still. Danny wrapped his arms around his chest and shook. He moaned. I got up and approached the box. It had a plastic window in the top of its lid. I could see the shape of Moshe's head and chest, wrapped in a white sheet and covered with hundreds of ice cubes.

“The sound is from the ice. It’s melting and shifting.” This simple explanation should have calmed Danny. But it didn't. Every time we heard the sound of the ice cubes creaking, Danny shook and moaned.

September 2017 - Stockbridge, Pennsylvania

Gary's air conditioner makes a shifting noise as the thermostat adjusts the speed of the fan. I shiver and hug myself. I look again at the paper in my hand. It is the answer I've been searching for, but it answers a question I haven't thought to ask.

Danny was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, a year before Moshe died. When we spent that night with Moshe's dead body, Danny already knew that he was carrying a fatal virus inside of him.

This meant that I had been wrong. Danny's reaction that night was not because he was weak or unsustained by religious faith. He already knew that he was HIV positive and he knew that HIV was followed by AIDS and AIDS by death. I wonder if, rather than shaking out of fear, Danny was actually feeling his own body lying in that box smothered under ice. I wonder if Danny shook because he was shivering from cold.

I grip the page in my hand. An image of Danny, as if he were still alive today, takes shape, life-size, hologram-like, and standing next to my chair. He would be sixty-two to my fifty-four. He’d be rounder in the middle than he was in one of the last pre-AIDS photos I found in the box, wearing a flannel LL Bean shirt tucked into jeans and brown laced shoes. We would talk about Mom and Dad, and life in the Jacobs family. His voice would sound like it had always been with me. Inside me. Had never left me. We would catch up on the lost years: music, books, movies, my children. We'd be serious and pensive, but we’d also laugh.

This Danny (not the one who died in 1994 at age thirty-nine, whose bearded face I didn't recognize when the undertaker cut open the thick plastic bag covered with yellow hazard signs and red-lettered warnings) looks directly at me. His eyes are soft. He smiles and at first it is the same sad, ironic smile I saw when he told me about Moshe saying, “It was a long hard day, but we got a lot done.” But then Danny’s smile deepened and became a knowing smile, a forgiving smile. A brother’s smile.

With my eyes shut, I take deep breaths, bringing Danny inside me and spreading him around so he can’t get away. But soon his presence grows thin, his voice faint. A different voice assaults me from within, saying, “Your narrative—villain-victim-observer—is shattered. It’s not about your parents. It’s about you. You were no naive observer. You thought Danny was defective and weak. You were an unctuous, sanctimonious prick.”

Twilight gives way to halogen light, I see the room’s contours clearly and Danny— with his forgiving, knowing brother smile—is gone. I never mourned for Danny, because I never missed him. And now, twenty-three years after his death, I feel myself wanting to talk to Danny, and wanting it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.

Less than a year later, Gary, who survived four years of intimacy with Danny and his HIV and AIDS, would die of a massive stroke at the age of seventy-two. I will always remember that, for a few minutes, in the over-air-conditioned basement of Gary’s house in the woods in the Poconos, while rummaging through a dusty box of old papers, my brother smiled at me and I found my home.

About the Author

Eli Jacobs

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Eli Jacobs grew up in New York in an Orthodox Jewish family. The youngest of four, Eli saw his two older brothers rebel against their rabbi father. Sensing that he must make things right for the family, Eli spent years in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, married and moved to Israel. When one brother died of cancer, and a few years later, the other of AIDS, life seemed to go on. Decades later, Jacobs found his life upended. He had divorced, moved out of the West Bank settlement that had been home for 17 years and left religion. Sensing that there was more to learn about his brothers, Jacobs began to research and write about his family and himself. He writes about his struggle to reconnect to his brothers, years after their deaths. Themes he explores include: marginalization of family members on the basis of religious or sexual identity, as well as mourning and loss. His hybrid, mini-memoir, “Curator’s Notes”, will be published in the Spring issue of Palalever Journal. The working title for his memoir (a work in progress) is “Unhiding”. Jacobs holds an MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Bar Ilan University and an MS in Education from Johns Hopkins University.