Before distribution by mail of this newspaper, the sixth anniversary of my brother’s death will have passed, and what would have been Grant’s 47th birthday on April 10 will be yet to come. I am not certain it seems more impossible he has been gone that long, or that he would have been that old.
In the snowy winter of 2008 in Des Moines, Grant spent over a month in the old ward at Methodist Hospital. Snow rose on the roofs of nearby buildings, as factory exhausts smoked in the distance. Doctors had just discovered a thymic carcinoma. Grant’s coworkers at Wells-Fargo brought him baked goods and get-well-soon cards. The oncologists believed at first it was a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We had no idea how large the mass actually was. By the end of the year, my brother was in a doctor-induced coma in the ICU after thoracic surgery to remove an eight-pound tumor. That summer, owls took residence in his oak trees.
For all of my life, funerals in Corydon have been performed in the house at the end of the only brick street in town. Now that place of loss, grief, and reconciliation will become a home again. Though sadness and mourning stretched their backs against the lamplight, leaving an impression in shadow, the mansion on Greeley has also been site of family reunions, where the death of a loved one brought friends and relatives back together.
Now the former Hy-Vee store, which fed more than one generation of children from Wayne County, and served sometimes as an overflow parking lot for the bank, will accept the passing of many. One of the questions I asked the new assistant director for Thomas Funeral Home, Libby Christensen, was whether they were going to keep the automatic entry and exit, which opened when our souls crept too close to the glass—from outside, a mirror during the day, and a window at night. From inside, the opposite. Christensen took a moment to laugh at that idea, before saying no, they will install a nice new set of double doors.
Recently, my poem about the loss of my brother from cancer appeared in print, in the literary magazine ‘Ruminate,’ a publication with a spiritual bent. On the cover is a man with an organic, green, plant-like mass growing from, around and into his body, entangled in vines with nothing to prevent it from expanding to another man, woman or child. Closer to his chest, the tumor glows like a second sun. The journal is based in Fort Collins near Greeley, Colo., cities I visited with my brother during our journeys west, near the foothills with a dry, otherworldly smell, within range of Thompson Canyon and Long’s Peak. Grant’s poem, “June Bug Penumbra,” appears on page 44. That was his basketball number when he played small forward for the Wayne Falcons.
Poetry editor Kristin George Bagdanov wrote a brief note to the readers: “Both Jason W. Selby and Benjamin Hertwig contend with familial histories of war and disease, the inability to close oneself off from harm. 'Now there’s no screen to keep / pests on one side or the other' writes Selby; nor is there a screen to prevent a tumor from spreading through one’s body.”
When my grandfather mowed the field south of his house, through which the original Mormon Trail passed, leaving 150-year-old ruts on the hill to the west, the shorn hay exposed nests of mice. His white German shepherds followed the tractor all day, devouring these rodents as quickly as the baler sucked in clover and yellow foil.
I recall sitting in the bed of my father’s brown-and-white pickup a few nights later, in the truck Grant once accidently shot with a rifle. The bullet did not puncture the hood, but blew away the paint and left a large dent. My grandfather and brother worked late, as my father baled as far into the evening as the dew allowed. At that moment, I reflected on memories that stood out from each day, the humid desert of Iowa summers and the light refracted from the pond’s surface as winter paralyzed fields with frost and ice.
The significant recollections were not what I expected. There was sitting in the coatroom at Wayne Elementary School one day, alone, answering questions for sociology class while reading my textbook. No reason for my mind to highlight this one afternoon of homework while it rained in Corydon. Opening the gift on Christmas Day I had desired for months did not make the cut. Instead, it was the Christmas Tree lit in the darkness of our farmhouse. It was my brother sharing his memory after a spring rain of believing pools and ditches were oceans and rivers.
“This is what I used to imagine,” he told me.
He was old enough to know better, nearly in high school, but he took that day to allow his little brother to get lost with him, the barn staring down at us with empty windows and boards blackened by the storm, swallows weaving a pattern from socket to socket.
The moon was nearly full. Though most see a face, I knew of the Native American myth of meteor craters forming a frog. Near the south edge of this Mormon Trail field, vines creep up, gnarled around an elm tree. They hang in parasitic effigy; they are so cunning the naked eye cannot see them move. In the moonlight, its looming figure stood out against the timber leading to Missouri. The moon cast the tree and its parasite’s shadow upon the fencerow. My grandfather drank iced tea from a thermos, the slush of its liquid and the air whistling after he swallowed and breathed, stepping back up into the orange Allis-Chalmers.
I willed that night to become memory, for the amphibian in the moon to allow my brother to return.