From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

We of One Blood

I savor the memory of that last good day. Can still hear the slapping sounds of red-back Tally Ho’s as they slid across the Formica tabletop in a blizzard of colorful quadrilaterals. Can feel the energy radiating from his eyes as he studied his hand with analytical intensity. And then I saw it. The telltale tucking of his bottom lip, snagged between his teeth in anticipation. Man. He had our butts. It was all over but the shouting.

“Seven,” he said. “No trump.”

He was a Whistologist, of that there was no doubt, but today he was going for broke, playing with a particular fury, risking all wrath and coming this close to going out the dreaded back door. Bidding high and taking his partner out, letting skill and genius rule. He would lead with the big joker today. Today, he would play to win. Play like it was the last game of his life.

He was feeling much better, he said on that last good day. After spending torturous days glued to the bed, soaking his pajamas, soiling his sheets, and retching up his future, he felt like being in the kitchen where all the action was. He wanted to play cards. After all, The Bid was in our blood. Spades was for scrubs, and he was a big dog who never even looked at the porch.

As his eyes scanned the cards, greedily counting books, wagering set-cards, calculating which suits to keep and which to toss back into the kitty, I examined his faded youth. Deep lines creased his brows where mischievous vigor had once dwelled. His flesh hung limply about his cheeks, listless and sagging, its plumpness now all gone. Never one who would pass a paper bag test, his caramel skin had darkened to mocha. And his hair. What could I say? In the beginning, before we’d known, we’d marveled that our kinky-haired brother had suddenly sprouted the baby-fine tresses gently framing his deepening cowlicks. Junior! Boy, how’d your hair get so good? And then we rationalized. Good hair runs on our grandmother’s side, doesn’t it?

What disturbed me most on that last good day, though, were his eyes. Luminous beacons in the sunken recesses of his skull, they had never been more lively, more determined. More accepting, more at peace. More beautiful.

Roaming the surface of the cards, they’d shone with something that had been sorely missing in our lives during the past year. Something the monster that was AIDS had stolen from us. Something the ever-haunting specter of death had kept us from sharing as we counted down the days and kept a watchful vigil over our cherished, only boy-child. And as he raised his eyes in triumph, filled with confidence that the power he held in his hand would shut my partner and me out and take him and his straight to Boston, the thing I saw shining in my big brother’s eyes, reaching out to touch me and bring comfort to my heart, was given a name.

And its name was hope.

We were both due to leave Brooklyn in two days’ time. Me back to Virginia to deploy further south with my military unit, him back to the city and his rented room on Riverside Drive.

“There’s something I think you should know,” he’d told me a few days earlier, his voice quiet and devoid of its usual humor. This cat never tiptoed anywhere. After all, he was who he was: simple, sweet, unassuming, honest, black and gay. He plunged straight to the bottom line with a single sentence. “There was this guy.”

Whoaa! Not gonna get deep on me, are you?

“I think he might have been married,” he continued, the words falling from his lips straight, no chaser. “He always denied it, so when I found out I was positive I told him to get tested, but he wouldn’t.” He sighed, and for the first time I saw sorrow and remorse creep into his eyes and nearly defeat him. “I don’t know what happened to him. He disappeared. I did everything I knew to contact him. . . . I just thought I should tell somebody about this.”

I know we’re tight and all, but like, isn’t this just waaay too much information?

He repeated. “I just thought somebody should know.”

And it was clear that that somebody was me. He knew my love was strong enough to bear the weight of his guilt. Knew I’d love him regardless. Knew I’d respect him. Regardless.

“I understand,” I answered, and swallowed my share of his pain. Why should he carry that burden by his lonesome? Why should he drag it with him to his grave? I was his sister, and we were bonded. We were of one blood, and nothing he shared with me could have ever changed that. Besides, he was an innocent victim too, refusing to blame or even name his executioner.

But he told everybody about his condition. Embarrassed me to no end at times, but there was absolutely no shame in his game. It was shame, he said, that kept black folks from getting education and treatment. From learning how to protect themselves. Kept them in a state of blissful ignorance, which further perpetuated the problem and gave the disease the upper hand. No, he wanted folks to know what it was that had landed him in that wheelchair. To know exactly what it was that had thinned his hair and loosened his teeth. To know what had stripped the flesh from his bones and produced that sickening stench of decay that seemed to slough off with his dying skin. He wanted the world to know the proper name of the beast that had left him wearing diapers at the age of thirty-four, and would, in three weeks time, send him to a lonely, early grave.

“I’ve got AIDS, you know,” he’d tell family and friends alike, spreading his arms to allow them a good look at the once-muscular, athletic body that was now nothing but bone and large puddles of skin beneath his clothing. Then he’d wait a moment or two for his declaration to sink in, calmly accepting first the blank stare, then the silent judgment and the subtle shifting of the feet into backward gear, as though his very words were contagious. He’d call out loudly, often at retreating backs, “If you’re not careful, you can get it too! Protect yourself, you hear? We know how this thing is spread now. No reason for you to end up the same way as me.”

I was called home again in early May.

“He’s asking for you,” my sister Michelle said, surprising me with a telephone call to North Carolina where my military unit had deployed to an Army airfield. “He opened his eyes and said, ‘Get Tracy.’”

I was off that base on the first thing smoking.

At his bedside, I smiled. Yes, he was emaciated and struggling for his life, but he was my brother and I was happy to be in his presence. Even if he didn’t know I was there. My parents looked lost, helpless. After a lifetime of looking to them as my source of stability and solidity, it was frightening to see them so withered by pain. So beat down by this haunting thing called death.

In the bed, Bland struggled. I approached him and kissed his forehead. He opened his eyes and wiggled his eyebrows, our special signal that he was aware of my presence. We stood around his bed and formed a barrier with our love, touching his arms, rubbing his legs and feet, and hoping the power of our family bond was strong enough to keep death at bay, somehow make it all better. You see, he was the only one we had. Our only boy. And that he chose an alternative lifestyle was unimportant to us. We wanted to keep him. We’d deal with our biases and prejudices later. Right now, we wanted our boy-child. Our brother. Our son.

I wanted to stay with him. To be with him throughout the night just in case he met up with something he couldn’t handle alone. To let him know I had his back.

They took me home.

The call came in the predawn hours. He’d slipped away in much the same way he’d come into this world, gently and during the night. I cried mightily for him. For what AIDS had stolen from us, from him. I cried for all he would never be, all he would never do, and I cried some selfish tears as well. Tears for my children and my nieces and nephews who would grow up without knowing the love, the humor and the beauty of their uncle. “Don’t let them forget me,” he’d begged. I cried so that I would remember.

It hit me at the funeral home in Brooklyn. His name was spelled out in neat, white block letters on a large black felt board, BLAND JENTRY CARR, JR, so it must be true. I stared down into the casket and tried my best to understand. What did this shell lying before me have to do with my beautiful, vibrant brother?

But I still felt a link. A bond that death had not been able to sever. Did death know my brother played a mean game of Bid Whist? That he had been a champion chess player? That he’d played and won tournaments all over New York City? Did death care that my brother had been blessed with the gift of prose? A prolific poet who kept journals filled to the brim, and who wrote because it was as natural to him as breathing. You see, it was difficult for me to concede victory to death, because I still felt so bonded.

Hah! I laughed right in death’s face. You didn’t get all of him! We cheated you after all. You’ve done nothing by taking his body. The part of him that really matters lives right here in my heart.

We’d removed Bland’s personal belongings from his rented room several days earlier. There wasn’t much in the way of material things to leave his mark on the world, to say he’d even come this way. A few items of clothing, countless books and leather-bound journals, two marble chess sets, boxes of letters I’d sent from far corners of the world.

Walking past his coffin, I pulled a folded square of paper from my pocket and faced a room filled with kinfolks and friends and read from a page in my brother’s journal:

Close to me as my own
We wordlessly say
I know your feelings
You know mine
Of one mind, We
Of one blood, Us
I love you

And as I stood in that crowded room with wails flying from my mouth, gazing into the finality of my brother’s face and feeling his blood running through my veins, I had but one thought.

Brother, did you get enough love?

Tracy Price-Thompson

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