I remember the first time I wrote my brother’s name. I was four and a half, standing on our driveway next to where the gutter spilled rainwater off our garage. In chalk, I wrote his whole name, TIMOTHY.
I wrote all of their names, my new siblings, CHRISTOPHER, TIMOTHY, ELIZABETH, triplets, etched in birth order. I was eager to show off, my whole fist around the chalk, scraping my knuckles when I thickened each letter. When I was done with their names, I held a chalk pebble, a handful of red dust. I needed a new piece to finish my message.
WELCOME HOME MOMMY.
They were coming home for the first time, my new siblings, our family now doubled in size. I waited, perched on our suburban driveway in Orange, Connecticut, until I spotted my father’s Oldsmobile. He stopped in front of my mural, a bassinette fastened next to him on the passenger side. Through the windshield, I saw my mother, still in her blue-and-white nightgown, between two bassinettes braced in the back seat.
I remember the nested bassinettes, my bundled siblings in their hospital caps, caps too big for their infant faces, covering their ears, grazing their eyelids. I remember how they each blinked, in the sun for the first time.
I don’t remember running down the driveway, sticking my head into my father’s open window, declaring, This is the best day of my life.
I know I must have said it. My parents always included that part of the story, used my words like a punch line, the cornerstone to our foundation myth.
I believe that I said it. I was happy, happy enough to mash my chalk into the driveway, happy for siblings after more than four years of pushing Tonka trucks alone on the family room floor.
Tim’s bassinette was the one in the front seat. I’ve seen him there in our pictures. In those pictures, Tim’s black hair sticks out beneath his blue cap, his skin more olive than that of his siblings. In one of those pictures, our mother holds him, standing next to me on the driveway. Tim is a bundle the length of her forearm.
I was twenty-seven when Tim killed our mother. He attacked her while she was sifting through used-jewelry listings on eBay. Tim’s demons, electric in his ill mind, convinced him that the woman who had made him peanut butter sandwiches when he was a grass-stained child was the source of his constant pain. These delusions, schizophrenia’s unchecked crescendo, raged in his head, a rising tide flooding him in madness. After he killed her, he dialed 911, sitting on our front steps, clutching a white Bible.
I was a thousand miles away. I sat, knees wedged under a classroom table, across from a girl named Yamilet. We were reading a Spanish translation of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! I helped her blend syllables into words—por-que, ver-dad, os-cur-as—while she marveled at Dr. Seuss’s neon world. She wore a bracelet around one of her slender wrists, LIBERTAD sewn into the black strands, the name of her Dominican village, a collection of stucco houses pressed up against Autopista Duarte, sixty miles from the Haitian border.
My mother was dead for two hours before I knew. She was dead while I labored in Spanish, tried to answer Yamilet’s questions—¿Que significa “inexplorado”? While we read, Yamilet and I drank water from little sealed bags—fundas—to combat the heat. To open the fundas, we used our teeth, gnawing at the corners of the plastic.
My phone was off. It had been off for most of the past three weeks. Jon, my childhood friend who ran this summer program, approached our table as Yamilet and I finished the story.
“It’s your dad,” he said.
“Momentito,” I said to Yamilet. She was still looking at the book, running her hands over its last illustration, a child moving a Technicolor mountain.
Jon handed me his phone, but when I brought it to my ear I couldn’t hear my father over the children sounding out words in the classroom.
“Dad?” I reached the sliding door. “Dad?”
Outside, sun-seared, I walked toward a shaded alley. Some of the younger children clustered near the classroom, kicking up dust while they chased each other. They called out, “Bince, Bince,” the B sound easier for the kids to pronounce. When I ducked into the alley, I heard my father’s voice.
My back felt slick against the metal wall outside the classroom.
In the alley, I asked him, raising my voice, “Are you okay?”
He only needed four syllables.
“No. Tim killed Mom.”
The neighboring house dissolved. My father’s voice disappeared. Our connection evaporated between the mountains bounding the Cibao Valley. I still listened, my lips rounding in an O, but the no no no stayed in my throat, a strangled airless silence. I fell. The gravel in the alley stuck to the backs of my legs.
Juancito found me, the phone still at my ear. He was in his teens and helped us organize games with the kids. That morning he had helped gather spoons for egg-and-spoon relays.
I formed a sentence. With Spanish, I needed a moment to hear the words in my head. Before it was ever a fully formed English thought, my mother’s death was a Spanish phrase, assembled one word at a time. Mother, madre, died, murió.
“Mi madre murió.”
I knew how much murió didn’t say.
On the ground, my body caught up, responded, first just shivering, chin against my drenched collar. Then in waves, wet skin vibrating—cold somehow—then a bigger shaking, a throbbing—now hot, too hot—then retching, platanos and beans a brown paste on my leg.
Jon found me. He and Juancito each grabbed one of my arms, pulled me toward the classroom. Juancito ordered the kids outside. They bobbed past me, filed out into the sun.
Juancito handed me a funda. I bit and tore and forgot to breathe. I tried to squeeze water onto my sticky leg. I held the empty funda, a plastic carcass dripping in my hand, while Juancito opened another, squirted at the dirt and vomit caked to my shin.
Jon’s phone rang, my father calling back with Chris and Lizzie. We said mostly I love you, speaking in a high wheeze.
After ninety minutes on dry, cracked roads, I reached the Santiago airport. In the bathroom with an internet signal, standing over a urinal, I opened Facebook. I saw it without scrolling—Suggested Video, Timothy Granata Killed Mother Claudia Granata in Orange. One of my cousins was arguing with online commenters beneath the article. Someone had posted, Ban white boys with guns and mommy issues. My cousin responded with a paragraph. I stopped reading at the word knives.
This was my first detail.
The plane took off an hour late, flew through a storm. The in-flight entertainment stalled, gray lines freezing in jagged tears across my screen. I watched the lightning instead, the flashes only seconds apart.
My father, Chris, and Lizzie were standing outside of the hotel when I arrived. It would take two days for us to be able to reenter our house, a crime scene. I cried when I saw my sister. She stood between Chris and our father, her head resting on Chris’s shoulder, hands gripping his left arm.
The next afternoon, after the police finished their work at our house, five men arrived in two Ford Sprinter vans. AFTERMATH, their company’s name, was emblazoned on the van’s sliding doors. In hazmat suits, they worked for twelve hours, cleaning through the night, sanitizing wood panels on our family room floor, bleaching the walls next to where we used to stack our photo albums.
In the morning, after they finished, we drove to our house from the hotel. We stopped before the driveway, the gentle slope where I had written my brother’s name twenty-three years before. A strand of police tape blocked our path. The yellow tape, strung between our mailbox and a telephone pole, grazed the pavement, sagging like a long finish line.
I started writing about my brother, about my mother, about my family, because I was exhausted from trying to hide. I had been terrified of my pain, a pain I hid in a silo, a secret I feared might detonate.
When I started writing—in fragments, in halting sentences—I began to recognize a piece of what had terrified me. All of my memories felt tainted. My mother’s death shrouded the past, even the most innocent moments—Tim, a blanketed infant on our mother’s lap, reaching for her glasses, each lens the size of one of his hands. Even that memory, a single image, would catalyze a reactive chain, lead me to their final moments together, to our mother’s body on the family room floor.
Now, when I think about the months, the year, after Tim killed our mother, I recognize how I tried to hide, how I avoided my memories so that I could drive to work, cook dinner, mimic smiles with friends. I didn’t try to write about the illness that roiled in my brother’s head. I didn’t try to write about why all my mother’s attempts to save him had failed. I stopped myself from looking at my family’s story.
But avoidance fractured me further, stripped me away from myself, from all of my memories, until it felt like there was little left of me. Eventually, I had no choice but to look at loss and pain, at all the pieces of my family’s story that I didn’t think I could ever understand.
It was this process, recognizing the pieces, struggling to put them in order, that almost destroyed me.
It’s also what allowed me to live again.