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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

It'll be ten years before I say my brother's name.

I reach to the shelf over my brother’s bed. It’s 1 AM the day after Thanksgiving. Pittsburgh. I don’t know Pittsburgh. I don’t want to know Pittsburgh. But I’m here.

Life can be pain. Life can be suffering. And life can move to an end place, a deep, resonant end place. You never forget those moments.

A small radio sits on the shelf of my brother’s hospital room. I dial through until I find a classical radio station. My brother loves classical music. A piano fills the room. Chopin. It’s like a soft wash across the hospital green walls. I watch my brother sleep. I hide from a million details of these nights, but I remember the music. Chopin’s Nocturnes. The music you keep low. It adds breath to the room. It makes this moment bearable.

Pittsburgh is a city caught between rivers. My life is like that as well. Different things converge, surround me, pull me along the current. It’s useless to resist. I’m on driftwood in the middle of a stream I never wanted to enter.

In Pittsburgh, my brother waits for a liver transplant. My soul mate, my friend. In Boston we’re building an opera. Turandot. A beautiful sprawling production. There’s a third river. A baby. My girlfriend’s pregnant. We decide to get married. We decide to start a family.

Three rivers.

There’s a natural convergence at play. A fate. Destiny. A rip tide powered by an angry moon. I don’t know how to explain it, or even if I want to, but here I am. And I cannot think of anything else to do but swim.

My brother’s my birthday twin. We’re born on the same day, seven years apart. As a young kid I thought he was my actual twin, and I always thought of him that way. Seven years is a lot of years when you’re a kid. He’s out there leading a big life, and I’m home hearing of the adventures.

My brother knew how to spin a tale. We lived in London for several years, so these adventures include weekends in Paris with girls, skating on the frozen canals in Amsterdam, skiing the Alps. His life was large and vibrant.

We shared a bedroom. At night he told me stories. I wanted to believe them. I knew my brother had a way of taking the truth and stretching it into the best narrative shape to create the best story possible. I wanted the best story possible.

I loved the images that danced in my head as he spun his tales. He always ended them up with a moral. The morals became gospel for me. Don’t settle in your life. Don’t let anyone control you. Don’t become a drone. I didn’t know what a drone was, but I determined never to become one.

We are spirit twins. Adventure becomes my creed. I’m after experience. Every day is an opportunity to find a new place, a new thing, a new perspective. My brother takes life in big chunks and I do the same thing.

He’s always there for me, appearing at odd moments. Once, when I’m studying music in Boston, my phone rings.

“Look out the window.”

There’s my brother down on the street waving up at me.

He loves gadgets. I run downstairs and stand on Newberry Street as he proudly shows me a small telescope the size of a pen, and a listening device.

“I point it at a window and I can hear conversations. I heard you practicing guitar.”

I didn’t believe a word he ever said, and I believed everything he said. His contradictions don’t mean a thing to me. I love him for them. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. My brother had a great heart. Every day he’s given, he chases after it and makes it his own. He teaches me to live my life that way.

It’s the same wild stories, the drama, women and adventure. He knows he’s sick, but we don’t talk about that. He wants to hear about my band and my gig at the opera. He wants to go down to the Opera House, so that’s what we do.

I work as an electrician at the Opera Company of Boston. The Opera Company is led by a formidable presence. A woman. Sarah Caldwell.

Sarah pulls operas out of the air. It’s like a magic trick. One minute there’s an empty stage in an old vaudeville theater in downtown Boston, the next minute there are sets being built, lights being hung, props and costumes flying in from Beijing, a massive effort transforming the space.

We’re creating Turandot. Puccini. The story of a Chinese princess, so Sarah reaches out to The Central Opera Theater of Beijing to help. The stage designer Ming Cho Lee designs a stunning set in New York. The soprano Éva Marton flies in for her American debut.

That’s Sarah at work. She creates a great gravity that sucks in a massive outpouring of creativity and focuses it all on the stage. The dust rains down from the ancient plaster ceiling.

My brother looks up at the ceiling. He sees it right away. “This is like the Paris Opera.”

A voice comes from behind us. “That’s correct, honey.”

We turn. Sarah stands there. Just the three of us in this space. I’ve no idea my brother knows anything about opera, but he has a way of jumping into the middle of things and owning them.

They trade stories, the opera artistic director and my brother. She’s talking about operas she plans to present, he’s talking about some diva he dated from the Royal Opera House in London. Opera is big, drama, sex, lies, murder, betrayal. Nothing small happens in Opera. And these two people both live their lives fully charged. For a moment, I’m in one river and it feels good.

We’re heading downstream to an industrial mountain city where neither of us wants to go. He’s slipping from me. I see it. I don’t see it. You turn from things in life. You grab the moment in front of you. You hold the moment as long as you can.

I met my wife backstage at the opera. In the middle of a growing storm. Wagner in the wings. Great crashing chords. Opera is the ultimate production. Everything is pushed. Big orchestra, huge chorus, massive sets. We’re caught in the buzz of the opera. It’s like a drug. It’s putting together a giant puzzle. None of the pieces fit until it does, or it doesn’t. When the curtain goes up you sing.

The drama of the opera becomes the drama of working on the opera. One thing the same as the other, spinning around a plot of intrigued, inflamed passion, obsession. When we’re working on a production, we live in the Opera House, sleeping on coils of hemp, eating in a grand foyer out front, pushing ourselves.

Some of us die making these operas. It’s as intense as that. But we keep at it. Hauling and painting and rehearsing, perfecting. Sarah’s a taskmaster. She’s a pain in the ass. She’s larger than life. But she’s exactly how she has to be to get the opera done.

The world closes in. There’s no life outside the opera. Except there is. We’re deep in our work. Summer is ending. Turandot is scheduled to open in November. I receive a phone call from my brother. He wants to meet me at a family house in the Berkshires.

What is this moment? Hard baked into my heart. To stand there watching my brother hold a gun in his hand and the brutal implication in the blue-steel.

We walk through the woods just talking like we always did. He always wants to hear about my life, but I keep things to myself. I know he’s sick. There’s a stone wall back in the woods. Who built it? A stone puzzle built by hands long gone. We sit.

He tells me the doctors say his only chance is a liver transplant. And he says that’s not much chance at all. The ferns are thick this time of year. Cinnamon ferns to my waist, but there’s no hiding from things sometimes. No turning away. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gun.

What is this moment? Hard baked into my heart. To stand there watching my brother hold a gun in his hand and the brutal implication in the blue-steel. What am I supposed to do?

I reach across and slowly push the gun down. There’s no way I will let him shoot himself. I’m not sure he even wants to, but we sit on a wall in the woods and talk for hours. He has a daughter living in England. He does the operation for her. That’s how he gets it straight in his mind.

He asks me for a promise — if it’s hopeless, pull the plug. Let him go. No matter what anybody says. People ask you to do things sometimes and you agree. You don’t think about it. My goal that afternoon is to get him out of the woods and the gun out of his hands. But I don’t forget the promise.

When I return to Boston, my girlfriend tells me she’s pregnant. We’ve been dating two years. She works at the Opera House, so she knows the life. We make the only choice. We’ll get married. I’m not sure I’m thinking straight. I’m rattled to the core. But I know what I want. I jump in the third river.

My family plans to get my brother to Pittsburgh and figure out the road ahead, but this is America. Medicine comes with a heavy price tag. Liver transplants aren’t covered on any health plan.

As a family, we raise money. My sister gets an appointment with the governor of Maryland, the state where my bother lives. She says we need to go early, so we drive to Baltimore and sit in the waiting room of his office. He arrives at 7:30 AM, surprised to see us there, a brother and sister begging the state for cash. The governor promises to help. My parents empty their savings. My brother prepares to travel.

My family takes jets. We started when I was young, flying back and forth across the Atlantic. I think as a family we’ve logged millions of miles above the clouds. We’re flyers.

I fly down to Pittsburgh with my brother. It’s our first time there. He doesn’t say much. When we descend to touchdown, he grips the seat rest. I’m surprised to see it. Is he nervous? Is he afraid of a jolt when our wheels hit the tarmac? I’m not sure. He never talks about pain. He never shows me any of that. Looking back on it, there must have been pain. And there must have been fear. He never talks about that either.

Pittsburgh is steel mills, a workingman’s town. It’s beer and football. Grey skies and steep hills. After my brother checks in to the hospital, I wander around. I stand on a point of land where the three rivers converge. I watch a trolley move up and down a steep hill. I remember grey rain. That’s Pittsburgh in my memory.

In the hospital they’re inventing miracles. Liver transplants. It’s a new frontier. They’re still finding the way. The leader of a team is a man named Thomas Starzl. He’s a surgeon superstar. A medical visionary. The path is bloody and frustrating. They win eventually. Transplants become a successful procedure. But this is early days. My brother’s a pioneer. He’s a sacrifice to technique and perfection. Someone has to blaze a trail. They should build a statue to those early patients. Many sacrificed their lives so the doctors could find the way.

The days become weeks; the weeks become months. What is he waiting for? Someone to die. The right person to die. There has to be a match. It’s a long list. He waits. As a family, we organize shifts. An apartment is rented, and we fly in and out. I fly back to Boston.

My girlfriend goes to New York and gets the set model from Ming Cho Lee. She says his studio is filled with drawings and plans, sketches, scale models. The first act of the opera is a great wall. It’s forty feet high. He explains the princess will enter up there. The stage at the Opera House is wide, but not deep. He’s turned it into a massive, mysterious place. It’s a magic trick. I’m entranced. We both are.

We’re both working and planning a wedding. Add in my brother’s condition and it’s too much to do. We do our best. The waters turn white, the current moves swifter. It’s a matter of survival. The rivers merge. The waters rise.

I buy a vinyl box set of the opera and begin to learn the music. I don’t have to do that. I’m rigging lights. I’m cutting colored gel and climbing ladders and hauling cable. But I want to know the music. I want to live inside it. And more than anything, I want to understand Sarah. She’s a mystery to me. How does she think? How is she shaping the piece?

The music becomes a way to breathe. The currents of the river are strong. I have days when I get sucked under. I spin. I don’t know the way to the surface. The music guides me back again.

The Opera House fills with singing voices. The orchestra rehearses. I record Turandot on my Walkman, put on headphones and climb ladders. Fifty feet above the stage is a place to hide. The dark grid above me, Puccini’s melodies in my ears.

Gratitude becomes a healing balm. It gives my brother peace. But the peace is fleeting.

I fly back to Pittsburgh again. How long has my brother been waiting? It’s months. He’s impatient. Every day he grows sicker. I’ve no idea of the process. I know someone has to die. Every transplant begins the same way. You can’t root for death. In salvation, there’s sorrow.

There’s no way to understand. I focus on gratitude. I talk it over with my brother. Someone’s giving us a gift. He says we need to find that person; we need to thank their family. Gratitude becomes a healing balm. It gives my brother peace. But the peace is fleeting. There’s a great pressure building in his body. He’s growing weaker.

He wants out of Pittsburgh. He wants to come to our wedding. There’s a future there waiting. My brother is always restless in the present. He shapes the past with his stories and the future with his dreams. The present is the dullest place. It’s tubes and charts and serious doctors. The hospital in Pittsburgh is forging new science, but my brother is just a piece in the puzzle. He’s another stone in the wall the doctors are building in the urban woodland.

He’s been sick for years. The doctors never settle on what’s wrong with him. But now he’s standing at the gates of redemption. That’s what a successful transplant is. It’s a cure. It’s a miracle. It’s a future where no future existed. When I see the surgeons, I see saints. I pray for my brother’s turn to be blessed.

I need to return to Boston. I don’t want to go. I make a promise to my brother to return after our marriage. But our marriage is 14 days before opening night of the Opera. We plan a one night honeymoon in a Boston hotel and then it’s back to work. I’m making a promise I can’t keep. The rivers are one now. A raging current carrying all of us. There’s no sense to any of it.

From where I am today, it’s clear. I’m drowning. I’m trying to find the shore, or a rock, or any place to crawl out of the horror show of watching my brother die. It breaks me.

I take breaths and hold the tears. We sit in his hospital room. We put on the music. He talks about the opera. He asks about Sarah. He says he’s always loved Puccini. He asks me to describe the sets, the costumes. He talks about Éva Marton. It’s her American debut. A new voice arriving from Europe. I tell him how the princess will first appear on the great wall.

It’s last time we ever speak.

The waters rush. We’re in a chute of boulders and broken trees, riding white waves. Tumbling, gasping for air.

There are pieces missing in my story. Things unsaid. Things left out. It’s confusion. It’s circumstance. We’re all tossed in churning waters. The shadows are deep. We’re building houses on river sand. I can only stand here today and pick moments.

Because of what’s happening in Pittsburgh I take no running cues in the opera. I’ve done hundreds of shows, but I’ve never done a performance where I wasn’t running cues. On opening night, I go to the back of the stalls and watch. It’s strange to be back there with nothing to do, but it’s also an opportunity to see our magic unfold.

The opera is breath-taking. The costumes from the Central Opera in Beijing are beautiful. The dancers perform martial arts. Èva Marton takes the stage with a strong, commanding voice. And the music.

Tears stream down my face. I come undone. All of it comes loose. I can’t move. I’m rooted. I can’t make a noise. There are thousands of people in front of me. I stand in the dark, a weeping stone. I can’t move. I can’t stop.

Later that night, I get a call from my family in Pittsburgh. The hospital located a liver.

The waters rush. We’re in a chute of boulders and broken trees, riding white waves. Tumbling, gasping for air.

I have no sense of the timeline. I have moments. A dark night in Pennsylvania on the highway. A state trooper pulls me over. He tells me he clocked me at 127 mph. I tell him I’m rushing to Pittsburgh. My brother is having a major operation. I need to get there. He tells me not to get there in a body bag.

I don’t know why I’m on that highway. I don’t know why I’m driving from Boston to Pittsburgh. Thanksgiving is closing in. Maybe I couldn’t get a plane ticket. I don’t know why I’m alone. I’d just gotten married. All I remember is the state trooper. I remember his face. I remember a dark, empty highway. You rise into the mountains on that road. There are no towns, just big curves into the sky.

It’s takes blood to perform these miracles. I’m not sure how long my brother lies on the operating table, but he receives transfusions of blood. And somewhere in those red streams a virus lurks.

The moments pile in. Snap shots of shock.

I walk into my brother’s hospital room. The operation is over. My family is fragile. It’s been a long haul of worry for them.

My brother lies on the bed. He’s crucified. That’s a brutal way to see it, but even after all these years, that’s the image burned into a charred piece of my brain. There are no stitches across his body. There’s fencing wire. I’ve never been so close to major surgery before. I force myself to take it in.

He’s not doing well. His body is rejecting the liver. It doesn’t look good, so the surgeons make a brave, desperate decision. They try again. There’s another liver. Dr. Starzl explains it’s not a perfect fit, but it’s a last hope. They take him from us again.

Two liver transplants back to back. How much can a body take?

It turns out there are dark pools in the river. Monsters lurk in those waters. I know them. I’ve been working in theater. I’ve lost friends. We don’t know what’s happening. It’s early days. But I’ve heard stories and seen people die. There’s a wave of death rushing over us. By the time it’s done, I’ll lose so many. Maybe forty people. And my brother, too.

It’s takes blood to perform these miracles. I’m not sure how long my brother lies on the operating table, but he receives transfusions of blood. And somewhere in those red streams a virus lurks. In the years that follow, we learn the blood pool’s infected.

Addicts trading blood for cash. HIV, Hep C. The AIDS crisis changed the world. My brother never stood a chance. The infected blood carries him away from us. We’re left stranded on the shore. Broken.

Ironically, Dr. Starzl tells us my brother’s liver works perfectly when he dies.

My brother’s name is Edward Jude McHale. We call him Ned.

Years later, I travel to Ireland with my family. The West Coast of Ireland is my rooted earth. When I’m there, I feel home. Generations of my family burned the peat in the villages of Listowel, Tarbert, Dingle. I’d been reading about Skellig Michael, a rock in the Atlantic off the coast of Kerry. It’s a scared place of wind and sea, a place of the soul. The ancient rock calls me in.

We travel to Dingle Bay and hire a boat to take us out. My son’s too young for the trip, so my daughter and I board for the voyage across. The ocean’s wild. The waves tower over us and crash down. I’m terrified. I keep to the rear of the boat and wonder what I was thinking bringing my daughter to such a place. But she stands at the front of the boat with a big small on her face. She loves the waves, and wind, and cold Atlantic spray.

Skellig Michael is opposite. We land and the wind disappears. The rocks are quiet, steep stairs up the cliff and at the top rows of stone bee-hive huts, built 800 years ago by monks. I watch my daughter climb and I say, “What do you think of her, Ned?”

My brother’s name is Edward Jude McHale. We call him Ned. I stand on the rock in the Atlantic. It’s been over ten years since he passed, but I’ve turned away again and again from those days. I tried. I started stories; I wrote poems; I wrote songs, but I completed none of them. The pain of memory wrapped around my bones like barbed wire.

He left behind his own daughter. His mischief lives in her eyes. His quick wit. They both lead with their heart.

My daughter’s born four months after his death. She becomes the light forward for me. She never met Ned, but I see some of his spirit in her. Her love of adventure. Her embrace of the day. The two are connected in my mind. A death and a birth. So the river flows.



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