By Ermias GH.
"On Saying Goodbye "
My new assistant was in my office, and as we were making small talk about our families, she absent-mindedly picked up the framed picture on my crezenda of my brother taken at a hiking trip about two years ago.
"Who's that?" she said asked, pointing to Beniyam.
"That's my brother," I answered matter-of-factly. "He died a year and a half ago." It shocked her to hear it, but it shocked me even more that I was able to say it without my stomach turning into knots.
"That's my brother. He died a year and a half ago," I repeated to myself, as if it was the first time I had heard it. I had always avoided saying those exact words, preferring instead self-eluding metaphors such as "passed on" or "arefe". It was the first time in a year and a half that I actually uttered the word, "That's my brother. He died a year and a half ago."
For a moment I felt awash in guilt, as if I had just defiled his memory.
Ben was three years younger than I, the youngest of three children, and by all accounts, spoiled rotten. There were times when I was convinced he was a genius. There other times when I thought he was the devil incarnate. The truth might have laid somewhere in the middle. My older sister and I would complain bitterly that our parents exercised the kind of latitude with him that was unprecedented during our time.
Growing up, I dutifully played my role as the man of the house when our father traveled. I was made for that role: and I relished being the protective older brother and I played it well. Most times with nobility, but sometimes with so much self-righteousness that it bordered on overbearing.
Ben, on the other hand, was the free spirit in the family. When we left Addis to live in France while our father was on assignment, he got into so much trouble with the school principal, that it was suggested his problems might be more, er, mental than anything else. When we came to the States, my parents thought that perhaps if they sent him to private school, he would be protected from the "elements". (They didn't count on him being "the elements".) He knew parts of New York City I couldn't find on a map, and he would always get away with all the mischief he got himself in by using his sheer wit and good looks.
On the night of his high school graduation celebration dinner, when he calmly announced that he was deferring college to "go sailing", my sister and I were salivating at the tongue-lashing we were sure he was about to get from our stickler father. "And about damn time!"
We're not sure how, but by the time dinner was over, Ben had managed to convince our sensible parents that turninghis back on Cornell and generally "heading out sea" was a perfectly splendid idea. My sister and I gave up.
For all the contempt I made myself feel about Ben's lifestyle, the truth is that I lived vicariously through him. While I was grunting through under-grad and grad schools, he was crewing on board prestigious sailing races such as Fastnet and the America's Cup. I would get postcards from him from Newport to New Zealand, singing hosannas of the sea and of mother nature. He would tell me about his sea conquests; and about the latest woman who 'lebaygn yeza alekem yalechiu.' "I'm gonna marry this one, bro," he'd say to me. "Ben, you said that about the last four women who 'lebehen yatefoot'," I would calmly remind him. A few months later, we would be having the same conversation.
He could be whitewater rafting in Tanzania, skiing in Colorado or rock diving in Hawaii but he would always find a way to call me regularly. "Ante adhari," he would start off all his calls. "Ante duriye," I would greet him back, and like a child being read a new bedtime story, I'd hang on to his every word.
When he finally decided to go back to school, he finished in seven semesters with a 3.7 GPA. (He missed graduation exercises to go sailing.) At our sister's wedding, (where he took aside our brother-in-law and implicitly threatened to kill him if she were ever unhappy, "But, welcome to the family, bro"), I asked him what his plans were. "Mom wants a lawyer in the family," he stated casually. "I think I should be a lawyer." I knew better than to bring forth any rational discussion that would have started with "But what would you like to do?" or "Uh, Ben, you hate lawyers."
That was the last time I saw my brother. In the end, what killed him was not the high sea he loved so much, but a Mack trailer whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. Ben was just about to turn 30.
I was abroad on business when I heard about the accident, and that period is still hazy in my memory. I somewhat made it back to California, where my parents lived at that time. I remember Ethiopian "leksos" from back home. The whole "deret memtat" and "alkash malkes", and all of a sudden it all seemed abhorrent to me. I wanted to be with my family, alone, and remember my brother without the frilly 'ba'Hel' we Ethiopians sometimes attach to stuff.
To the annoyance of a lot of our extended family and drive-by "lekso derashoch", we mourned in private for my brother. (Is this the first stage of complete 'ferengie-ization'?)
A lot changed when I lost Ben. But I also made some discoveries I cherish. I first learnt just how strong Ethiopian women are. We all thought my mother would most certainly fall apart. But it was she who kept the family together, biting her lips and crying in private as she continued with dignity to take care of the details of Ben's burial. My girlfriend at the time would stay up with me all night as I paced through the house half-unconscious and half-awake either way, always in pain. She knew when words soothed me, and when they grated on me.
But most importantly, I walked myself through the God-awful pain of never having said, "I love you" to my brother. It's ironic that the one person who I could tell anything to, was the one person I couldn't say those words to. We literally could talk about everything with such abandon, but, I failed to say those words to him. And I can't figure out why.
Is it that we Ethiopian men are conditioned to maintain that stiff upper lip even as we live so far away from home? Is it that we see these things as "Min yasfelegal? Fikir be sera new." I know my brother knew that I loved him more than life itself. But I keep wondering if I failed in my brotherly duties by keeping the status quo. It would not have saved his life when that truck slammed onto him it would not have eased his pain, but I wish I had told my brother that I loved him. I wish that instead of ending our phone calls with "Bel esti", I had said, "Love you, man". I pride myself as being a rational person, and maybe I am outing myself as a total "ferenje wannabe", but I struggled with this more than I can comprehend.
As I looked at that picture my assistant had carefully put back, I realized just how much I missed my brother. How the pain might not be so wrenching all the time but how it could easily come flooding back.
A year and a half after my brother died, I told him what I most desperately wanted to tell him. I hope wherever he is, that he heard me.