Two months ago my brother Jon — my senior by eight years — suffered a stroke which bled into his cerebellum. The time since has been, as his wife Tracy described it, a roller coaster: neurosurgeons reluctant to operate while Jon was on heart meds, cardiologists unwilling to take him off those meds for fear of fatal clots. Periods of delirium and intervals of clarity. Organ systems spinning the daily roulette wheel to decide whose turn it was to shut down today. Brain damage— then No, motor damage but cognitive functions probably okay. Squeezed hands and eye movements on even days; total unresponsiveness on odd ones. Two, three occasions when all was lost and plugs were pulled and the fucker just kept living. A gradual, incremental climb out of the well, enough to justify a move from ICU to a long-term rehab facility where he could learn how to do things like swallow again. Relapse. Liver and kidney failure, and recovery. The whole deal.
I couldn’t be there for any of it: thanks to a gang of ignorant fucktards with far more power than brains, I am banned from my brother’s adopted country. It never really mattered until now. In fact, it was a badge of honor. But for the past two months there’s been nothing to do but wait, and hope, and squeeze whatever data we could out of Tracy’s daily updates to see whether the line, on balance, was going up or down.
The line ended around 2:15am on Thursday May 10. I don’t know quite how to process it.
There’s a part of me that just doesn’t believe he’s dead. This was hardly the first time the reaper came calling, after all. It was thirty years ago that some pernicious bug got past Jon’s pericardium and ate away two thirds of his heart muscle; the doctors gave him two years then, three at the most. Every birthday he celebrated since 1985 was spit in their eyes.
Things — deteriorated, though. Over the decades. Bad heart function, reduced peripheral circulation: diabetes and neuropathies, a plastic umbilical leading back to a little tank of oxygen that lived in the bedroom and accompanied him on his travels. A workaholic suddenly reduced to three or four productive hours a day, although he kept pushing it. One day he passed out and collapsed onto a water heater, which burned a swath of his skin to a crisp: but the resulting adrenaline shock kick-started his heart and kept him alive long enough for the doctors to get to him.
Even then, he seemed unkillable. Like the Black Knight— no matter how many pieces he lost, he just laughed and kept fighting.
There were pacemakers then, and an armored emergency vest equipped with defib paddles, explosive bolts, and a wireless internet connection— the idea being that in the event of another heart failure, the bolts would detonate and spread conductant goop across his chest; the paddles would then shock his heart back into action while the vest called online for an ambulance. After a while he ditched those training wheels and became a bona-fide cyborg, with the implantation of a Ventricular Assist Device: the same type of battery-operated demiheart that so paradoxically humanized Dick Cheney when his shriveled old pumper gave up the ghost. Jon traded in his pulse for a second shot, for more strength and energy than he’d had in years.
That may have been the one leap forward the poor bastard got, though. Everything else was rearguard. And yet I never heard him whine or complain about his own predicament, no matter how dire. He was the Black Knight: he’d disappear into ICU and he’d come back three steps closer to death and we’d talk on the phone and he’d laugh. Pshaw. Just a flesh wound.
There’s so much to say about my brother, and the internet is only so large. The time the Feds cut off his disability benefits — Hey, who cares if what we’re doing is illegal? Without benefits, none of these people can afford to take us to court! — and he took them to court. And won (although his victory was diluted somewhat by the endless series of “random” tax audits that followed.) Or that time he ran the winning campaign for the mayor of Hamilton. (I learned about attack ads at my brother’s knee; by today’s standards, his were subtle to the point of meta. They never even explicitly named the person they were attacking.) His good-natured descent into the dark side, his repudiation of all things Canadian and whole-hearted embrace of what some would call the American Health-care System. (Let’s just say that the Watts brothers could not claim unanimity on the question of whether the quality of your medical care should scale to the size of your bank account.)
Actually, that’s a big one: his delight in argument, for the sheer joy of the exercise. I hardly ever agreed with the guy on anything. (Actually, scratch that; I think when you came right down to it we agreed on more than he’d ever admit to, but he just really liked yanking my chain on general principles.) Half the time he was full of shit, and he knew he was full of shit, and he’d throw it against the wall anyway just to see if it would stick. Once he tried to lecture me on seal-fisheries interactions off Canada’s east coast, a subject with which I had more than a passing familiarity (a script I’d done on that subject had just won the Environment Canada trophy for Best Film on the Environment). He pulled his argument out of his ass; I busted him; he laughed. He was far more interested in the fun of the joust than in anything so boring as winning (although he did that a fair bit too, to be honest).
We didn’t see each other often: he and Tracy down New York State, me up here in Toronto. I’d drop by for a day or two on my way back from Readercon, perhaps. They’d come up here a bit more frequently, although Jon’s health constrained his travel options. Caitlin and I had a chance to hang out at their place back in 2009, just a few months before the border slammed shut. We won’t forget the feral peacock that had taken up residence in their back yard, or the neighbors’ orange cat who spent far more time hanging out in Jon and Tracy’s company than he ever did at his official home across the street. We won’t forget the horde of raccoons advancing over the crest of the hill every night just after sundown, their beady little eyes glinting in the backyard light as they closed on the food that Tracy left scattered about the lawn to lure them in. The endless quantities of lobster bisque. The wine and companionship and late-night
conversations arguments. (Oh, and the scotch: when I wanted to thank my agent for sticking it out with me, it was Jon’s expertise that pointed me to just the right single-malt to express my gratitude.)
That was the one and only time that Caitlin had a chance to see Jon in his native habitat before the US and I went dead to each other. Since then it’s been Christmas, maybe once or twice in the summer, always in Canada. Mostly my contact with Jon was by phone or e-mail. We talked every month or so, exchanged dueling links on everything from Obamacare to Climate Change. He was never a frequent presence in my life but he was a vital one, always there for the high points and the low. The 47″ flatscreen in our bedroom is part of that legacy, a gift he and Tracy bought to celebrate my first Hugo nom. He was researching Michigan lawyers within hours of my arrest at Port Huron. A man with a malfunctioning heart and maybe four good hours a day in him, he was on the phone to Caitlin at 1:30am while the doctors were scraping rotten meat from the inside of my leg. (In fact I’m pretty sure he was on the phone to me, too, between operations; I seem to remember Caitlin’s cell against my ear in the ICU, and Jon’s voice mocking my position on global warming. I remember finding it vaguely unfair that he would take advantage of my drug-addled impairment. But morphine was involved, so details remain elusive).
The BUG and I kept our marriage secret but that didn’t stop Jon and Tracy from dumping a case of champagne on our doorstep the next time they were in town. And I’ll never forget the letter he wrote me — the last letter, as it turned out — following the death of Banana: short and to the point, a reminiscence of some eighties-era episode when I’d taken a cat off his hands when Jon had found himself unable to continue to provide a home for him. I’d long since forgotten. Jon never had, and had been watching from a distance ever since: “I have subsequently come to understand that this is one of his roles in life,” he wrote. “Stepping in to take responsibility for those less caring, or less able to care, for the Fur Patrol of whatever race or phylum.” Enclosed was a cheque that went a long way toward mitigating the financial cost of Banana’s ending.
Two weeks after writing that my brother was in Tuft’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. He never saw home again.
Married three times or four — depending on whether you count common-law — starting at age sixteen. (You only have to spend ten minutes with Tracy to know that he kept trying until he got it right.) World-class organist — came in third in an international competition in Bruges, before arthritis truncated that future in his mid-twenties. Top-forty tweaker for MCA. Distributor of weird-ass glassware from his basement. Dean of the Hamilton College of Music. Christ knows what else; I know next to nothing of the lost years he spent on the west coast.
The faintest echoes persist on the ‘crawl; Jon posted comments here occasionally, under the handle “Finster Mushwell” (Don’t ask). They are pallid things, though. You can read them all and come away with no sense at all of the man he was: Fighter. Stalwart. Infuriating life-saver. Pain in the ass. The Black Knight, indomitable.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to think. Except, maybe this: Any number born to the Watts name can lay claim to being part of my family.
Jon, alone among them, felt like one.