Back in 1960, my brother David was about nine-years-old when he left the Marbro Theatre near Madison Street and Pulaski Road in the middle of whatever movie we were watching and walked home.
He didn’t tell the group of us siblings he was leaving. He just went out the door and walked the two miles west to our home on Leamington.
A couple years later, he was goofing around downtown with his friends, and they ditched him, as boys will do.
He wasn’t worried and got on an el to return to the West Side. But he soon realized he was on the wrong train, so he got off and, having no more money, walked back downtown, and then headed west on Lake Street.
It was a walk of at least seven miles.
Two years ago, on November 21, 2015, a few days before Thanksgiving, David took a last journey on his own.
He walked out the back door of his Oak Lawn home at 3 a.m. into a frigid snow-rain and took his life.
My own journey
David was born in 1951, fourteen months after me. Following him were twelve other children, two boys and ten girls. As adults, the fourteen of us were close, all living in and around Chicago and gathering at regular intervals throughout the year for family parties.
David’s suicide was a profound shock to those he left behind — and it wasn’t.
Throughout his sixty-four years, he’d often been troubled, easily angered and uncomfortable in his skin. He’d threatened suicide twenty-five years earlier. In his final ten days, the medicine that had helped keep great arthritis pain at bay suddenly stopped working. His days and nights were filled with agony.
David’s final walk led me on my own journey to understand my brother and me and our relationship and our common history and our disparate life trajectories. It’s an on-going exploration that has involved psychotherapy and a lot of writing.
“The heart’s howl”
One result has been a book of poetry Requiem for David, published earlier this year by Silver Birth Press.
Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street, calls Requiem for David “the heart’s howl, a passage through mourning, a lesson ultimately in learning how to walk alongside pain with grace.”
Haki Madhubuti, one of the preeminent African-American poets of today, compares the collection and its wrestling with the meaning of religious faith to the work of poet-priest Daniel Berrigan. And Stuart Dybek writes:
“Detail by razor-sharp detail, perception by vivid perception, recollection by haunting recollection, Patrick T. Reardon’s Requiem for David gathers into the force of a cri de coeur.”
“You rose, a Macy’s float”
Earlier this month, I did a reading from Requiem for David at the Rogers Park branch of the Chicago Public Library at 6907 N. Clark St. During the presentation, I talked about the book with my friend Linda Bubon, the co-founder of the esteemed Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville.
One of the poems I read was this one,
I don’t want to think of you
at 18 months, chewing on
the metal end of a garden
hose with a look of close concentration
while I stand behind you
in a galvanized iron tub,
our swimming pool. You teased
at the puzzles of life and were
teased. You picked at the scab of
pain, ripping it off again and again to
get somewhere you didn’t know and
never reached. It was the way you knew to stay
alive until the raw suffering filled you like
helium and you rose, a Macy’s float, to hang
over your life until you cut the cord
“Reach up and out”
During our conversation about my relationship with David, his troubled life, our difficult infancies with parents who weren’t warm and affectionate, Linda read this poem:
In the sacred church space,
during a Mass in Ordinary Time,
I am visited by a vision, and each
of the stained glass windows
tells the story of my life,
and in each one is a
crucifixion and a
flower pushing up
through soil and up
and out and up to
reach up and out and
open to the battering
wind and the bee and
the blessing of sun
and, then, the
I like “Ordinary Time” a lot because, for me, it seemed to contain the beauty and bleakness of life and, I think, a lot of hope.
“My spirit within me”
Near the end of the presentation, in between handling questions and comments from the audience, Linda asked me to read this poem:
Weep, Virgin Mother. Weep, you
other Marys. Weep, John at the
cross foot where the blood and
sweat dripped, where the
muscles of the Man ached,
cramped, tore and, eventually,
sagged the ghost away, the
soul off to open the gates of some
wayside hell between here and the
empty white. The terra cotta
scene by one of the Della Robbias
on the dark wall of the Gardner Museum
shines in the gloom, a “Lamentation.” In His
dying, we are born. We are
seeds, blooming in the
hurricane, and withering
away to soil. My soil magnifies
the Lord, and my spirit within
me shouts against the vast empty
white, like Job, and then I am left,
like Job, in the silence to
Amid the anguish
My book is filled with raw pain, anger and sorrow, and, for me, it is hard work to confront these jagged feelings.
But I continue to do so in my search to better understand myself and my brother, and to honor David.
Because, amid all the anguish, Requiem for David is also a book filled with love.
Patrick T. Reardon
A somewhat different version of this essay appeared in Streetwise on 11.6.17.