By Annabel Monaghan
My brother, Jonathan, died last week of complications from kidney failure and from having a really hard life. There has been so much death this past year, an unthinkable amount really, that it’s easy to overlook one more name on the list. In an effort to keep that from happening, I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.
When Jonathan was 16, he was in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for a long time, and when he woke up, he was a totally different person – confused, erratic, and with absolutely no short-term memory. This is the story we tell about Jonathan’s life, the thing that negated what came before and colored what would come next.
If my reporting of the details is vague, it’s because I was 6 years old at the time. My memories of him before the accident are sparse, so the only Jonathan I knew was the post-accident version. Occasionally, when I hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “American Pie”, I can picture him standing over a turntable, carefully handling records I wasn’t allowed to touch. The rest of my memories of a younger Jonathan are that artificial kind, ones that are created by photographs or often-told stories: he was a great student, an avid tennis player, a scholar of Japanese history. He wanted to be a doctor.
When he was in his late 20s, he married Trinka, a developmentally disabled woman with excellent life skills and the memory of an elephant. An avid reader and communicator, Jonathan filled in the gaps in her skill set, and together they managed their life independently. They had an unreasonable number of pets and a solid daily routine, and they were happy.
I think that’s the part of the story that doesn’t get told about my brother: he was happy. Maybe happier than anyone else I’ve ever known. He spoke in a sing-song voice and pronounced both of our names with musically drawn-out syllables. Every call would begin the same way, “Aaaaan-a-bel! It’s Jooon-a-than!” (He also spoke in exclamation points.) And then, “Guess! What!” I didn’t have to guess, because I knew that he’d just finished reading one of two books he had on Buddhism and that he was entirely in the spirit. Also, he was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which was invariably delicious.
We had this conversation four or five times a day, and I was often harried taking his calls. I’d pick him up during my ten minutes of down time before racing to my next thing, and I’d arrive home to a ringing phone. “Aaaan-a-bel! It’s Jooon-a-than!” I’d ask how he was, and at least once a day he’d say, “It’s a beautiful day in paradise. What else is there?” And I’d look around at my chaotic kitchen and my bulging day planner, and I’d think, “Wait. Which one of us is crazy?”
Jonathan was having a beautiful day if it was sunny or raining. If his back hurt so badly that he couldn’t walk, he’d say, “My back hurts, but what are you going to do?” And I think whole books on back pain can be boiled down to his particular philosophy. He had cancer removed from his foot and couldn’t bear weight on it but talked about how nice the doctor was. In his last days in hospice, he dismissed his pain in the way you’d dismiss something you truly weren’t interested in. Pain had no part in the story he wanted his life to tell.
I don’t know what to make of this temperament. Since my memories are few, I don’t know if this is how he always was or if it’s a result of being on multiple anti-psychotic medications for 40 years. But I do know that I never heard him complain or say an unkind word about anyone, ever. On a FaceTime call last week, I told him this, and said that when he died he was going to go to heaven so fast it was going to break all the records. He gave me a smile that I can’t quite describe, but it brought back another memory of something he used to say as a teenager: “Damn straight.”