Today would have been my brother Randy’s 62nd birthday. He’s come into my mind a lot over the last few weeks, but particularly these last few days. It truly sucks that he’s gone. The manner of his death (suicide, after a two-year battle with a degenerative auto-immune disorder causing incessant pain and loss of function, and a whomping case of anxiety and depression) continues to be a heavy truth to carry. There are days when I call out to the whispering trees “goddamn you, Randy” and others when I feel the absence of his humor and shaman-like flashes of insight like a deep, internal bruise. He would have suffered unspeakably in this time. The pandemic would have scared the crap out of him. Even if he didn’t get infected, he probably would either have a.) been convinced he was or b.) lived in terror of it or c.) wanted to.
But the insanity of these last few weeks of stupefying police brutality would have cut him to the core. Randy hated the Man. He’d had a few runs-ins with cops in his day, nice, white-kid dust-ups, the kinds my son had, issues with cars or booze or drugs, coming-of-age “crimes”: The sorts of encounters where, in the suburban white America where I live, you get a stern look and a wrist slap. Elsewhere, Black young men are killed for less. At worst, in my world, your affluent parents hire a fancy lawyer to make whatever you did—sold a few joints or passed out drunk on someone’s private property—go away. In an extreme case, you might get handcuffed to a Kansas state trooper’s kitchen stove for “a night on the county’s hospitality,” as Randy did in his late teens when clocking 100 mph on I-70 returning from a summer job as a roustabout in Oklahoma, one of many gigs our dad produced in the hopes of protecting his wild son from himself.
Devoted to 60’s and 70’s rock music, Randy was ten years too young for Woodstock, but at 14, he defied our parents and hitchhiked upstate to its successor, the Summer Jam of ‘73 at Wadkins Glen. The Allman Brothers, The Band, and The Grateful Dead headlined the bill. These bands obsessed Randy. A drummer himself, he studied Butch Trucks like a treasure map, listening over and over to “Eat a Peach,” matching the beats on his drum kit. I first encountered T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” in high school English class my senior year: Do I dare to eat a peach? Dang. Duane Allman, citing T.S. Eliot. Randy was at BU at that time, shoplifting steaks under his parka from the Star Market in Kenmore Square with his roommate. Those words, “Eat a Peach” wafted into my gothic prep-school classroom like bong smoke from his bedroom at the far side of our rambling childhood home. We were different: I was compliant where Randy rebelled—being “the good girl” was a survival strategy in our chaotic family. Yet I loved him without reserve, if with a little fear (well, a lot of fear, sometimes). Although he missed the hippie generation by a few years, Randy was an iconoclast, an idealist, a truth-teller of sorts, and the shadows of Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate were formative for him. His distrust of authority was complete: innate to his temperament and reinforced by the era. To him, police were institutional bullies, entrusted with enforcing a system that was, in a word, stupid.
We had a beachside memorial for Randy the week after he died, on December 21, the winter solstice. His five kids, their spouses and fiancés, his estranged wife and her younger brother, my younger brother Welles and his wife, John and I, huddled together in a tight circle on Crane’s Beach, just a mile from the rambling hilltop house that had been his home until a year before. We were all in shock. He had tried desperately to stay with us, to keep living for his kids, who he loved more than breathing, and his wife. Although the weight of his illnesses appeared to have broken his marriage, he never stopped feeling his wife was the love of his life. After suffering for over two years, Randy decided on a dark, dreary Boston evening he just couldn’t do it anyone. He felt too broken for repair; the promise of relief from his autoimmune condition too slim; his path forward too shambling, frantic and, he felt, burdensome to his family. He’d racked up too many losses: his marriage, his home, his work, pond hockey and ocean swims.
As we shivered and looked out at the tranquil, wintery ocean that Randy loved so deeply, a beach ranger drove up and parked fifty yards away. He climbed out of his SUV, heading towards us purposefully. Welles started laughing, shaking his head; Randy’s older son joined in. We were all thinking the same thing: Of course, the “pigs” would show up to investigate this innocent gathering. We could almost hear Randy’s signature cackling laugh. He would have spun an effortless comic riff on the absurdity of the moment, his eagle-talons for irony pouncing on the idiocy of a beach cop striding with Rambo-like swagger to break up our sweet, sad memorial service. Randy’s brother-in-law—a lovely chap who’d flown in from California to support his sister through the surreal awkwardness of this death of the husband who she no longer could live with, but had loved passionately for decades—jogged off for a few words with the trooper. Officer Krupke threw us an apologetic wave and headed back to his SUV, curling a donut in the sand and leaving us again to the late afternoon quiet. The minister spoke a few words. His brother, it turns out, had died by suicide years ago, so he knew something of the particular griefs that families face when you’ve lost your loved one this way: the what-ifs that serve no one and could never have changed this outcome no matter how hard anyone had tried, yet still they wake you at night and you can’t help but wonder: what if I had remembered to return his call that Friday? There’s anger; love struck down midsentence; heart-cracking empathy at suffering; the ambivalent surge of relief that it’s over. I still feel exhausted by the unconscious effort to not-imagine his final moment, alone in his car, scrawled note on the seat. We went around the circle, sharing memories. My brother and Randy’s two sons stripped to their boxers and ran into the sea with handfuls of ashes, whooping in the cold, hugging, crying. Aftererwards, we went up the hill to the house for Randy’s favorite: a seafood dinner cooked by the guys, too much wine, an after-dinner dance party. Everyone had brought their dogs, two of them got into a fight and locked on hard. Blood spilled. The fiancé(e)s, both nurses, triaged. John and I drove my panicked niece and her injured dog to the 24-hour veterinary hospital. It was chaos, the kind that often followed in Randy’s wake; he appreciated its creative power, there was life in it and possibility. This was another reason why he distrusted police, any attempt at suppression was anathema to him. He thrived on the unconventional disruptions that make people like me feel queasy.
No question: he was with us that evening.
I have felt him hovering, these last few days, as more and more instances of police brutality come to light in the US, and protests bloom like algae in August. In his adult life, Randy was a voracious student of world politics, reading into esoteric, left-leaning corners of the internet that I neither understood nor trusted. Before he got sick, we’d meet for lunch at the Wagamama in Lynnfield, halfway between us on Route 128. Over steaming bowls of gluten free ramen, he’d describe articles he was reading about CIA plots in places I’d never heard of. His distrust of established authority and his disdain for the cynicism of the powerful never left him.
I imagine Randy today, as if he’s still sitting in the easy chair near my kitchen desk as I work, the one he liked best while he was living with us last fall. His computer is on his lap, suddenly-ubiquitous walking cane fallen to the floor and a cup of tea at his elbow, holding court with an audience of three (me and the dogs) while I try to ignore him so I can work. “Fuckin’ cops,” he’d say. Then he’d launch into a free-wheeling impersonation of a power-crazy Minneapolis beat cop losing his shit over a Black kid jay-walking, or taking the wrong Starbucks cup by accident. It would be inappropriate and funny, brilliantly perceptive and painfully true. He was a gifted mimic and his Minnesota accent would be spot-on. Underneath the humor would be real sadness at the world’s cruelty, a woundedness that was the insistent background music in an otherwise pretty joyful adulthood.
Another memory of Randy and the Law is this: After college, I had a graduate fellowship in Ireland, and I left my beloved Honda Civic behind. Randy was newly wed and living in Washington D.C. at the time, working at a job he detested writing political ads. I must have said he could take my car to D.C. since I wasn’t using it. What was I thinking, given his history of moving violations, collisions, and generally treating cars like rolling trash bins? The summer I returned, I got a job in Washington, where my college boyfriend was a summer associate at a law firm. I stopped by Randy’s apartment in Glover Park to pick up the Honda. It was parked down the hill in Georgetown, on a little side street off Wisconsin Avenue, about a 15-minute walk away. “You can’t miss it,” Randy said. I arrived to find the Civic booted, windshield papered over in parking tickets. When I’d paid off the tickets and asked Randy to reimburse me, he scoffed: “You shouldn’t pay them! It’s bullshit.Parking regulations are just a made-up revenue stream for the city.” Somehow he could get away with infuriating shit like that and still manage to be incredibly lovable, I think because his spirit was so kind.
Randy and I would agree the current protests are a primal yell that surely now may make the centuries of oppression experienced by Black people visible to those of us who were looking away. My brother, if he were alive today to celebrate his birthday, would have understood the crescendo that arises from a deceptively soft brush on the cymbals, the natural temptation police would feel to abuse their power, how quickly a situation gets out of hand when the system is stacked so heavily towards institutional authority. Randy sometimes struggled with impulse control himself (obviously), and he’d have known what a razor’s edge that can be for a person in a stressful situation. He would have easily found the words to express these bizarre times, the tragic unfairness of disease and rising unemployment hitting disenfranchised people with the blunt force of a one-two punch to the face. And much though he hated the Man, he’d also probably have been quicker than many to acknowledge the individual humanity of a cop trying to do the right thing in a system that allows corruption and brutality to fester. All this, he would have conveyed with such quirky humor and heart that I’d laugh until I cried.