Blog Post

‘My mysterious brother’

The red ribbon is a familiar symbol of HIV/AIDS.

By Maralyn Lois Polak

My brother Marty has been gone three decades now. As time passes, I miss him more and more, especially during holidays, when I experience a tremendous emptiness that no number of festivities can allay. I yearn just to hear his voice.  Marty was a gentle, kind man who liked cooking, music, science fiction and travel. He was two years younger than me. Yet as adults, we weren’t especially close, even though, for a time, we lived on the same Philadelphia street.

Coming out

Marty was gay. However, though he had a series of male “roommates,” he was never “out.” He hadn’t actually ever told me about his sexuality. But one day, a few months after our mom died from a peculiar home accident, he stopped by my apartment and mentioned that he was “sick” – a suspicious blotch had appeared on his butt. That was how he – and I – found out he had AIDS. He was in such denial that he had never even been tested. The “blotch” was Kaposi’s sarcoma, of course.

Toward the end of his life, Marty became an AIDS counselor, doing community volunteer work in Poughkeepsie, New York, with prisoners and migrant workers, educating them on safer sex. Being useful like that, he said, made him happier than at any other time in his life.

Marty and his friends got their kicks from dinner parties, opera, canasta and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I know he liked computer fantasy games. I know when he was younger, he tried to write science fiction. I know whenever he left a message for me on the telephone, he never said his name – just “Call your brother.” And now I can’t.

Resting near my desk now are about a half-dozen of his computer discs – password missing, access denied – that contain his last meanderings of consciousness: the Lost Boy’s array of games, tunes, sound effects, random notions, furtive jottings – a secret language entirely his own, with no Rosetta Stone in sight.

He died alone, at 3 a.m., in a strange hospital in a small city, in a locked ward, away from the other patients. Even wearing two pairs of gloves, none of the doctors and nurses wanted to touch him. Too late, I arrived – the day after my ego sought to delay his death for my own convenience. 

I reunited with his corpse in the morgue. He was cold, pale marble with a beard. I barely recognized him, kissed his clammy forehead. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” warned the funeral director, whisking Marty away on a gurney.

Ultimate adventure?        

Two days later, my brother reappeared as ashes in a cardboard box. Diminished in size yet homeopathically potent, he rode in the car seat next to me all the way from Poughkeepsie to Philly, where he spent the next two weeks in some badly needed posthumous R & R on my rose-tiled English dining-room sideboard as he and I engaged in silent but spirited debate on the nature and/or duration of the afterlife.

I reminded him that our father described death as “the ultimate adventure.” Marty, the fast-food manager with two master’s degrees, must have thought of heaven as Hamburger Heaven – a gargantuan pair of golden arches with a rapidly aggregating sign: “Three septillion souls served, and counting.”