In the days right after Mark died, I came across something he wrote when he was in second grade. They were studying tenses and Mark had filled in the blanks.
I could picture him smirking as he wrote — hunched, freckled, and sure he’d make his classmates laugh. One August afternoon, when it had been nearly 18 months without him, I took the first “my sister” written in his hand and had it tattooed on my forearm, just below the elbow. It hurt and then it was done. The tattoo artist taped black plastic over my arm.
Maybe I drove him nuts the week before this school assignment; maybe he thought it would drive me nuts to see his answers on the bulletin board in our kitchen. Mostly there was love between us. Mark’s struggle with depression began in middle school. Some things helped; others didn’t. Depression returned again and again.
As his siblings, we shifted and rotated roles. One worried, another cautiously optimistic, the third uncertain. And then we’d trade without ever discussing it. As things got worse, we read signs and swapped theories. Sometimes we all agreed and it was Mark who didn’t. Mark who refused to go to the hospital, Mark who would not meet the latest doctor. He was the baby of our family, but he would no longer be bossed around. He’d done so many things, he’d tried so hard, and he didn’t feel that anything gave him lasting relief. When he died, at 21, it was suicide.
I loved the short afternoon I spent walking through Brooklyn and riding the train with that black plastic applied by the tattoo artist. It looked like a traditional mourning armband. I was, I am. I wanted a tattoo for Mark that would make him laugh.
I didn’t know the tattoo would scab and peel, but it left little flecks on my arm, the sheets, and once, my boyfriend’s forehead. “Hold on,” I said, reaching for it. “I think my tattoo is coming off on you.” It was grim but satisfying, the way it fell away to reveal a more permanent version of itself.
Tenses no longer feel right for my family. Sometimes it hits like a sucker punch when people ask “How are your brothers?” and I know they mean two, not three. But every so often, I snatch the opportunity when I see it, when someone doesn’t know. I love my dentist, but I lied to him when he asked. Good, good, they’re all pretty good. I plotted them on the map: Andrew in Harlem, Robert in Queens, and Mark I put in Brooklyn, next to me, where he lived the last summer of his life. “Given how long it’s been, I hope they’re seeing someone else,” the dentist said and we shared a laugh.
Six years on, it’s still a shock that Mark isn’t here or there, asking if I want to go for a swim, texting something that made him laugh. I have three brothers, but I don’t always know how to speak to Mark’s goneness at the same time I trace Robert and Andrew’s presence. I want to keep them in the same sentence, the same tense, no two-thirds good and one-third dead, no sitting up in the dental chair to spit and say we lost Mark.
It’s hard to stop counting how long it has been since the dead were living, but there’s little satisfaction to it. In “To _____________”, the poet W.S. Merwin likens it to carefully letting out a kite without a string. I can’t pull Mark back to me, no matter how clearly I define his distance.
Merwin died at 91. He’d spent his final decades “painstaking[ly] restor[ing] depleted flora, including hundreds of species of palm, on the remote former pineapple plantation in Hawaii where he made his home,” according to the New York Times obituary written by Margalit Fox. There are so many ways to live in this world and I wish Mark had found one that worked for him. If Mark was still here, I’d send him that sentence and the following one: “He had lived there, in blissful near-solitude, since the 1970s, refusing to answer the telephone.”
There were times in the early days after Mark’s death when I could pretend he wasn’t dead, just elsewhere. There were days I woke up and didn’t remember and then the knowledge came to me as cruel as ever. I’d like to think Mark is happily tending palm trees while a phone rings in the distance, but that doesn’t take me very far. For today, all there is is the certainty that those lines about Merwin would make him smile. I can picture a trace of delight spreading across his face, almost as if he were here.
A few weeks after I got my tattoo, I could close my eyes and run my hand over it and not feel the letters anymore, which meant they’d last forever. My sister. No tenses.
Alex Ronan is a writer and investigative reporter from New York. Her work has been published by Elle, New York Magazine, Vogue, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn and is on Instagram (too much) and Twitter (sometimes).
(Photo by Nina Zivkovic/Stocksy.)