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 having to do with cars or booze or drugs, coming-of-age “crimes”: The sort of encounters where, in the suburban white America where I live, you get a stern look and a wrist slap, or maybe a written warning. 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’d maybe 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 resourceful dad produced in the hopes of protecting his wild son from himself, of containing him in a more compliant, predictable life than the boy was ever going to tolerate.
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, where 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,” brushing the easy rhythms of “Blue Sky” and “Jessica” on his drum kit for hours. I remember when I first encountered T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” in high school English class my senior year: Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me. 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—the expected gendered response for a girl, but also a survival move on my part. 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 deep mistrust of authority was both innate to his temperament and earned by dint of that time. To him, police were unimaginative bullies legitimized only by badges, 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 and their respective spouses/fiancé(e)s, his wife and her younger brother, our brother Welles and his wife Liz, 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 still in shock that after suffering for over two years, trying desperately to stay with us, to keep living for his kids, who he loved more than breathing, and his wife, who although they became estranged during his illness, he never stopped feeling was the love of his life, Randy decided one late afternoon (Friday the 13th it happens) that he just couldn’t do it anymore. He felt too broken for repair; the promise of relief for his autoimmune condition too slim; his path forward too shambling, frantic and, he felt, burdensome to his family. As we shivered and looked out at the tranquil, wintery ocean that he’d loved so profoundly, a beach ranger drove up and parked fifty yards away. He climbed out of his SUV and headed towards us purposefully. Welles started laughing, shaking his head incredulously; Randy’s older son Tristan joined in. We were all thinking the same thing: Of course, the “pigs” would show up to investigate this perfectly innocent gathering. If we couldn’t actually hear Randy’s signature cackling laugh, we could well imagine it. 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 brilliant, empathetic chap who’d come to support his sister through the surreal awkwardness of this death of the husband who she no longer wanted to live with, but nonetheless had loved passionately for decades, and certainly never wished dead—jogged off for a few words with the trooper. He’s a Brit (the brother-in-law, not the ranger), a tenured professor at UC Berkeley, so after only a few seconds of no doubt impeccably gracious persuasion, 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 killed himself years ago, so he knew something of the particular grief that families face when you’ve lost your loved one to suicide; the guilt you needn’t feel, but inevitably do; 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; the anger; the love struck down midsentence; the heart-cracking empathy at suffering; the ambivalent surge of relief that it’s over. 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. Afterwards, 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 whom got into a fight and locked on hard. Blood spilled. The fiancé(e)s, both nurses, triaged. John and I left to drive the injured dog, along with his owners, my panicked niece and her soothing husband, to the local 24-hour veterinary hospital. It was chaos, the kind that often followed in Randy’s wake. He appreciated the creative power of chaos, there was life in it and possibility, and 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 that he was with us that evening.
And I have felt my connection to him 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. 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. I’d feel naïve and conventional countering with The Economist. His distrust of established authority and his disdain for the cynicism of the powerful never left him. He wasn’t particularly “woke” in the sense of having lived extensively in relationship with people of color (not that I am); his life played out in whiter spaces. Yet he was deeply empathetic, with radar keenly attuned to oppression and injustice. I can hear his voice in my mind almost as if he is sitting in the easy chair near my desk off the kitchen as I write, the one he liked best while he was living with us last fall, his computer 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,” I imagine 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’d be wildly inappropriate and funny, brilliantly perceptive and painfully true. He was a gifted mimic and his Minnesota accent would be spot-on; he went to hockey camp in Bemidji as a teen and was an avid NHL fan his whole life long. But underneath the humor would be real sadness at the world’s cruelty, a wounded-ness that was the insistent background music in an otherwise pretty joyful adulthood.
One more memory of Randy and the Law is this: I had a graduate fellowship in Ireland after graduating from Princeton, and I left my beloved Honda Civic in our mom’s garage on Long Island. Randy was newly wed and living in Washington D.C. at the time, working at a job he detested writing marketing copy for the RNC, if you can believe that. I guess I must have said he could take my car to D.C. since I wasn’t using it. Looking back, I can’t fathom what I was thinking, given his known history of moving violations, collisions, and generally treating cars like rolling garbage bins. The summer I returned, I got a job in Washington, where my college boyfriend was a summer associate at a law firm. Randy and his new wife Binni were there, too, so it was a win-win to go down there. I stopped by their apartment in Glover Park to pick up my car, but he told me it was parked down the hill in Georgetown, on a little side street off Wisconsin Avenue, about a 15-minute walk away. I arrived to find the Civic booted, the windshield papered over in parking tickets. When I’d paid off the tickets and asked Randy to reimburse me, he was flabbergasted: “You shouldn’t pay them! It’s bullshit. Parking regulations are just a made-up revenue stream for the city. You shouldn’t condone that.” He was perpetually broke but also profoundly non-materialistic. 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.
I am not suggesting here that parking scofflaws are analogous to protesters resisting police brutality of African-American citizens. 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, who didn’t understand how broken our justice system has become. 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, that 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 as 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.