Every October, the light changes, the sun hanging lower in the sky. Every October, the leaves flash to orange, yellow and red, and drift lazily downward. The air smells crisp, tinged with mold and decay. October creeps up on me like a wild cat, beautiful but dangerous to me.
I spent last weekend with my dear friends, Susan, Joe, and his partner Larry. Sue, Joe, and I attended high school together, and they are my closest friends from that time. Nothing makes me happier than being with them. And yet, there I was on Sunday morning, suddenly weeping into my bowl of granola and fruit.
We had been talking about siblings. I meant to say, “Marc was such a great brother to me, I really miss him.” Instead, my words came out choked with tears. I didn’t intend to cry, and didn’t think I would.
Joe, Larry, and Susan were of course entirely warm and loving, but I was puzzled. Why did I start suddenly crying? I was having a terrific weekend.
“Oh, it’s October.” And Susan and Joe nodded, having witnessed my anniversary reactions for the past… few decades.
My life is good and I am well. But the light, the colors, and the smells carry me instantly back to October 16, 1977, the day when my beloved brother Marc-Emile took his life. For 45 years now, I have had this “anniversary reaction.” It visits every year.
Many people experience anniversary reactions. The body senses the time by the earth’s clues, the changes in the seasons, the slant of the sun. Even when we are not conscious of the anniversary of our loss, our body knows. These reactions confuse people when they don’t understand what is happening. Many times, though, the clue to the sudden melancholy lies in their history, the date their mother died, the date they became paraplegic, the anniversary of their assault.
In my experience, anniversary reactions are best handled with a combination of anticipation and support. I often help clients plan for these days, and the weeks that proceed them. With the awareness that the day might be challenging, people can visit loved ones, or take the day off, or plan a hike… whatever brings comfort.
The good news about anniversary reactions is that they often seem to be worse in the anticipation of the day. The day itself might be equally painful, but often isn’t. And once the day passes, people usually feel better quickly.
I know you are thinking that this piece is about anniversary reactions, which it is, kind of. But here, the story takes a most surprising turn.
After breakfast, Joe, Sue, and I went to a back room to practice our songs. We have sung together for decades, starting with “Senior Night” festivals at our high school. Susan sings perfectly, soaring easily from alto to soprano. Joe sings in a lovely high tenor. I fit between them, holding down the crucial middle tones with my low alto voice. Our blend is delicious. (click here for a brief sample of our singing). We sing in close harmony, with two guitars. My job is to sing between them, ever-alert to musical issues, keeping time pleasantly on my knees. This weekend, we decided to work on “This Boy” by The Beatles.
For those who don’t know “This Boy,” it is a song about love and loss. “That boy took my love away… but this boy wants you back again… this boy would be happy just to love you, but oh my…” The harmonies are tight, with one impassioned solo in the middle, originally sung by my brother’s favorite Beatle, John Lennon, now by the stunning Susan. The three of us sat close together, brows knitted, learning the chords and the harmonies.
Suddenly, the lights in the next room flashed on. Then, the lights flashed off, then on, then off again. At the same time, the light above us flashed off, then on.
“What was that?” asked Joe. He designed and built this house. He’s an architect, and knows every inch of his own home.
“That was Marc,” I blurted out. “He loves The Beatles. I guess he’s here.”
We looked at each other, eyebrows raised and took a moment. Then we got back to work. Maybe it was Marc?
Maybe it was just me, wanting it to be Marc, right?
Later that night, Joe and Larry called me. For background, Joe and Larry have built many houses together. They know much more about how houses and electricity work than I. Larry said, “Lise, I was downstairs in my office. I heard this ‘pop!” sound and thought, what was that? Did we blow a fuse? But when I went checked the fuse box, everything was normal.”
Joe chimed in, “You need to understand. Lights don’t just come on. They might go off by themselves, with a power failure, but they don’t turn themselves on. That light turned itself on, twice. There is no logical explanation for what happened.”
“Right,” I said.
And then I gasped.
My brother played the drums. He was good, he was passionate, and he was… loud. My parents, consummate musicians with tender ears, supported Marc’s gift and wanted him to advance as a percussionist. However, the drumming was SO LOUD. There had to be a way for Marc to practice, and for the rest of us to play piano, read, and converse.
Our Glen Ridge house had a cavernous basement with concrete floors and cinder-block walls. Descending the wooden steps, you could smell the damp. On the far end, Marc set up his drum set, blue and silver, cymbals shining under a dim light bulb. He placed his drums as far away from the family living space as possible.
From his room on the third floor, Marc played his records on his stereo (The Who, King Crimson, The Beatles.) He plugged an incredibly long cord into the stereo, which draped down the elegant staircase, three stories down, all the way to the basement. From there, he plugged in his headphones. (However primitive this arrangement sounds in this era of iPhones, it seemed cutting edge at the time.)
Headphones on, drumming in the basement, Marc mitigated the noise as best he could. It was a good solution, and my parents were pleased. But there was one problem. It was impossible to get Marc’s attention when he was playing. He couldn’t see or hear us. The only way to get him to come up for dinner, or to join a conversation, was to climb down the basement stairs, and stand in front of him, waving.
But we had a solution. Anytime we wanted him, I (it was usually me) would open the door to the basement. The basement light had a switch there. I would flip the basement light off and on, off and on, off and on. Alerted by the blinking light, Marc’s drumming would stop. A minute later, he would appear in the kitchen. The way to get Marc, the way to get his attention was to flip the lights, off and on, off and on.
Exactly like the lights magically flipped on Sunday afternoon.
It is still October. The light is still low in the sky, the leaves are still changing colors, and their scent drifts upwards. I can still feel the loss of my brother, the aching sadness of his departure. But I don’t feel as bad as I did. I feel like he came to me, blinking those lights on and off, responding to me just the way I used to summon him.
Lights blinking… “Come upstairs, Marc, I need you.”
Lights blinking… “I’m here. I’m here, Lise. I’m right here.”
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.