A Memoir of Loss and Survival
Format: Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7679-2901-1 (0-7679-2901-2)
Pub Date: October 6, 2009
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SOME PEOPLE ARE DISTURBED MOST by events that are unexpected.
For me, it has always been the half-awaited ones that carry the blow: the semiconscious fears that lurk behind closed eyes, the half-dropped pair of shoes, the what-ifs.
JUNE 5, 1997, 11:00 P.M.
Susan and I return home from a party. In an unusual show of activity, our answering machine has had eleven hang-ups and one message--from Linda, my sister-in-law.
"Christopher," she says, "can you call me, please."
Usually, no one calls me Christopher except strangers, but maybe Linda is echoing my brother, who sometimes calls me by my full name as a joke.
I make a mental note to call her tomorrow; it's too late tonight. I figure that she's probably planning a publication party for Tony, who has just finished his latest book, nine years in the writing.
The book before this one--Common Ground--resulted in his second Pulitzer Prize and dozens of other awards. One reporter called my brother "the best journalist of our generation." Another said he was "the patron saint of contemporary reporters." He has won numerous accolades for his reporting for the New York Times, has received honorary degrees for his deep analysis of crucial episodes in recent American history, and has been wined and dined by literati and academics alike. He is, in short, one of those remarkable men whose work received enormous respect and attention.
But Tony is not sure that the new book, a huge volume called Big Trouble, is up to his previous works. It's due out in a month or so, and we'll all have to wait.
While I'm at the closet, taking off my shoes, the phone rings again. Susan is near and she answers.
"Hello." A pause. "How?" Her voice is electric, alarmed. I recognize a disaster in the making.
I come around the corner of the closet, a shoe in one hand, the other still on my foot.
She looks at me, the phone to her ear, shaking her head, a look of terror on her face.
"What is it?" I ask, already feeling the pain begin.
"Tony killed himself," she says.
I scream and throw the undropped shoe at the far wall.
MOST BROTHERS HAVE SIBLING-RIVALRY PROBLEMS, interrupted by close bonding, but Tony and I always seemed to have great difficulty in finding common ground. The history of our family is partly responsible, a history full of self-destructive events.
In the wake of a family suicide, there is sorrow, guilt, despair--and anger. My reaction to my brother's death was no different; in fact, because of the difficult relationship we had had, it may have been worse.
During the first months after Tony's death, I viewed my life with him through the prism of anger. Why did he do this to me and to his family? If there had been good times in our years together, I didn't allow myself to remember them.
But gradually the truth seeped in: there was a whole store of other memories that I was hiding. I needed to make an effort to dredge up those experiences--the ones that had provided pleasure and comfort. To put a picture of our relationship in some kind of balance, if I could.
So, what would happen if I stopped thinking about all the rage I had for the way Tony had died and for the slights I had felt? What might occur if I recalled how much we had shared, what burdens we had lifted together, how we had supported each other? What then? I began writing about my family two weeks after my brother's death. At first, I could put down only a few thoughts about him, mostly about my anger and sorrow, but as the weeks and months went by, memories came--long-ago events that had been forgotten. Time passed; I would come back to the computer, put down new recollections. About us. About our relationship. I found memories of other family members, of the distant past, of things I thought had been obliterated forever. The mind is tricky: it brings back even the most distant feelings and events just when you think they have left you alone, left you in peace.
Today, more than a decade after Tony's death, I am still writing. But my idea of who my family and my brother were has changed over these years. The perception of who I was--and who I am--has also changed. So I keep writing. Trying to get it right.
A week after the suicide, when Susan, our daughters, Megan and Gabriela, and I attended a memorial gathering, Linda gave me a copy of Big Trouble, fresh off the presses. I turned the first few pages. In the dedication Tony had written, "To Christopher William Lukas. My brother, my friend."
That was an extraordinarily moving moment. I turned from the group around me and shielded my eyes, in tears. I had not had the slightest inkling Tony was dedicating the book to me. Nor could I have guessed that he would add "friend" to such a line. We were brothers--no doubt. But when all was said and done, were we really friends?
I decided I would start from there, from that emotional moment when it occurred to me that he really did care about me, that all the battles and absences and slights did not, in the end, seem to be as important as the fact that we were brothers--and friends. He had thought about me when he wrote that dedication. And perhaps he had thought about me even as he ended his own life.
CONFLATING THE PRESENT with the past is an old theme of philosophers. The idea of all chairs, said the philosopher William James, is present in the image of any particular chair. So any particular friend's essence is distilled by all the friends one has had.
And so it is with brothers. They are never what they appear to be to others, or even to oneself. Tony is a combination of past and present, of what he was and how I see him today.
But that is true of me as well. I am not merely the bald head in the mirror, the tired knees, and the naps in the afternoon. I am the sixteen-year-old with an enormous appetite, the twenty-two-year-old having his first real love affair, the thirty-three-year-old looking down at his first child.
Sister to sister, brother to brother, siblings can never be 100 percent fair about love and parental sharing and other sharp facets of the bright and painful lives they have together--even when much of that time is spent apart, even when they can communicate well and take the burdens of their relationship with good grace. I could not pretend that my brother and I were pals. Friends, perhaps, but not buddies.
Tony and I are brothers across the stroboscopic echoes of the past: dissolving across black interludes into the next image, and the next, and the next, until all vestige of pure vision is destroyed. All that is left is memory, and we know how faulty that can be. Who Tony was is forever blurred by who I was and how I remember who I thought Tony was. Yes, we are brothers in fact, in memory, and in wish, but he is dead, and I am alive--left to dwell on the questions, and to seek the answers.
There were questions of great importance to me: Would I, too, end up killing myself? Was the legacy of self-destruction I would discover in my family too great for me to survive? If so, when would the pendulum swing? And if it never did, why not? How could I--almost alone among my family--escape?
To answer these questions, I needed to go back and delve more deeply into my family and explore my relationship with Tony.
This is a story of two brothers in a particular family at a particular time in the history of that family. If the tale often appears to be as much about my parents and grandparents--and my emotions, my life, and my memories--as it is about my brother, it is because it is very much a story about relationships. The relationship my father had with my mother, the relationship of my mother to her parents. Mine with Tony, Tony's with those other people.
Beyond that, it is also a book about coming to terms with the suicide of a brother--an event I had written about previously when it happened to other people, but never before experienced for myself.
THE LETTERS, autobiographies, and other written notes have lain for decades in cubbyholes in an old rolltop desk that Susan and I bought on a trip to my uncle Ira's house near Philadelphia. The desk cost $40. At the time, I thought it was too much money to pay for an "old piece of furniture," but as usual Susan was right: you can always use a schoolmaster's rolltop.
Today, I love that desk. This is where the detritus of our lives lies. With nineteenth-century wisdom, its makers built it with myriad slots in which to stow important pieces of their complex lives. Into those compartments I have put the passports used for various family trips--their photographs attesting to the passage of time, change of hairstyles, even emotional states. I see Susan in early years, with downcast aspect, her hair tightly wrapped around her slender head, a strained smile on her face. I see her later, lovely brown tresses surrounding a confident, smiling countenance. And later still, the strands and flecks of gray shining in the sunlight of a photo I took myself. My own visages: young and shaven, a boy on the go; leather shirt from the 1960s; sideburns in the 1970s; finally, balding pate--"aging criminal on the go," the family said, jokingly.
Here in this desk went the birth certificates of our daughters, Megan and Gabriela, audiotapes of graduations and memorial services. Old keys. Legal documents. Currency from trips abroad. Broken pens. Broken promises.
It is through that desk, and from long-hidden events, that my memory is awakened. I take comfort that I can substantiate there the fact that Tony was not just a brother worth thinking about and arguing over on a personal basis but a complex, world-class character whose contributions to journalism and to his friends were valuable and whose death by his own hand is made all the more heartbreaking because it was not preordained.
Or was it?
What do I really know about the past? What do any of us know? Who were these characters? What led up to the deaths in my family? In truth, I was woefully ignorant--and, to be honest, fearful of finding out.
MY PATERNAL GRANDFATHER, Samuel William Lukacs (or Lukacs Samu, as the Hungarians say), was a character to be reckoned with. He died crossing the Bowery in New York in 1927, well before I was born. I discovered this fact early one afternoon when Susan and I took Dad to the Nam Wah tea parlor in Chinatown. Nam Wah is the oldest dim sum restaurant in New York.
Leaving the tea parlor, where Dad had gagged on the food ("Don't they have orange juice and eggs, for Christ's sake?"), we started to cross the Bowery, that broad avenue that used to be known for its bums and drunkards. Suddenly Dad stopped in the middle and looked up and down the street. It was hot, he had eaten little, had had too much to drink the night before, and was in a foul mood, hungover. But at that moment, a strange, reflective, almost nostalgic look came over him.
"I think it was about here," he said.
"The bus hit my father."
I had never heard about this accident. In fact, my father had never talked about his father, and while I found this strange--even baffling--having no guidelines about such matters, I never questioned him about his family past. Now Dad looked around, checked landmarks, nodded his head. We went on to catch a taxi so he could get uptown and have a "real breakfast."
Dad's younger sister, Aunt Judy (Julia), surprised Tony and me when we were in our forties by relating how she had spent time at a Hearst paper in New York, writing advice to the lovelorn, when she was only nineteen. She had signed on to the paper in 1925 to do typing, but the woman who wrote the advice column was a friend of Mrs. Hearst's, and the two decided to take a world cruise. The editor told my aunt to write the column. Forget the fact that Judy was a naive young woman with no experience in the world of love or the lovelorn. Perhaps it explains her behavior in later life (she knew Tolstoy and Melville, but nothing about sex and love affairs). She agreed to take on the assignment.
Jump forward fifty years. Aunt Judy, horrified to hear how little I knew about my roots, takes to the typewriter again and writes me a long letter about the Lukas clan. Past--and present. It is very evocative.
Here is some of what I learned from her about the foreigners called Lukacs (the c was dropped when they emigrated to the United States).
Before World War I, Nagyvarad was the biggest city in eastern Hungary. That's where Samuel was born in 1865. Nagyvarad is in Transylvania--Dracula country--and was tossed back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Romania for decades, depending on who won which war.
Like most Hungarian Jews, Samuel's family were Reform Jews, which meant occasional attendance at synagogue. At the turn of the century, Hungary had a fast-growing economy, and Jews were to be found in every aspect of business and commerce. In Budapest, every fourth person was a Jew.
Hungarian Jews were preeminent in math and fencing, but in Nagyvarad they were famous in other arenas as well. They taught, they discussed politics, they thought about the big picture. Samuel's family owned a cafeŽ, so it was natural that he, even at a young age, joined his elders and sat in cafes, talking big talk. Aunt Judy said, "Father belonged in a cafeŽ. He had all the qualities to make him popular there: he drank, he smoked, he laughed, he sang, he told endless stories with dramatic flair, he played cards; he teased the girls--young and old--and the girls, young and old, liked to flirt with him."
One of Samuel Lukacs's nephews was Paul Lukas, who became a famous actor, playing Shakespeare in Budapest when he was in his early twenties and later migrating to the United States. He, too, was popular with women, and in the 1920s barnstormed in small planes across the United States as he took work in both Hollywood and New York. Cousin Paul won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an anti-Nazi hero in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine and was on Broadway in numerous plays, including Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman. Tony and I used to go see him and have dinner afterward. There was some dissent about him in the family, since he had converted to Catholicism back in Hungary, but he was too talented to ignore. Besides, it was thrilling to have a famous person in our family.
From the Hardcover edition.
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