Marty, I hardly knew you

To a brother who died of AIDS

4 minute read
Matrty's patch from the AIDS Quilt: He'd never been tested.
Matrty's patch from the AIDS Quilt: He'd never been tested.
My brother Marty's been gone two decades now. He was gay, but not happy. As time passes, I miss him more and more, especially during holidays, when I experience a tremendous emptiness that no amount of festivities can allay. I yearn just to hear his voice.

Marty was a gentle, kindly man who liked cooking, music, science fiction and travel. He was two years younger than I. As small children we took baths together, under my mother's watchful eye. Yet as adults we weren't especially close, even though for a time lived on the same Philadelphia street.

Only after he died in 1992 did I discover some "separated at birth" kinds of coincidences, like a shared fascination with The Wizard of Oz that extended into adulthood. In Marty's effects, I found an Oz "Emerald City" lamp. I still have an Oz "Emerald City" doll house. And we both also had the same exact Pentax macro-lens-equipped camera.

Toward the end, Marty became an AIDS counselor, doing community volunteer work in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., with prisoners and migrant workers, educating them on safer sex. Being useful like that, he said, made him happier than at any other time in his life.

Coming out

Though he had a series of male "roommates," Marty was never "out." He hadn't actually ever told me he was gay. But one day, a few months after our mom died from a peculiar home accident, he stopped by my apartment and mentioned that he was "sick"— a suspicious blotch had appeared on his butt.

That was how he— and I— found out he had AIDS. He was in such denial that he had never even been tested. The "blotch" was Kaposi's sarcoma, of course.

Marty and his friends got their kicks from dinner parties, opera, canasta and Jesus Christ, Superstar. I know he liked computer fantasy games. I know he had a software program called Sound Blaster.

I know when he was younger he tried to write science fiction. I know whenever he left a message for me on the telephone, he never said his name— just "Call your bother." And now I can't.


My little brother's brain rests in a transparent box near my desk— mute, bloodless, contained— all I have left of him. No, I don't mean his crenellated lobes lie marinating in formaldehyde. I'm talking about a half-dozen of his computer discs— password missing, access denied— that contain his last meanderings of consciousness: the Lost Boy's array of games, tunes, sound effects, random notions, furtive jottings, a secret language entirely his own, with no Rosetta Stone in sight.

He died alone, at 3 a.m., in a strange hospital in a small city, in a locked ward, away from the other patients. Even wearing two pairs of gloves, none of the doctors and nurses wanted to touch him. Too late, I arrived— the day after my ego sought to delay his death for my convenience. I reunited with his corpse in the morgue.

He's cold, pale marble with a beard. I barely recognize him, kiss his clammy forehead. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," warns the funeral director, whisking Marty away on a gurney.

Ultimate adventure?

Two days later, my brother reappears as ashes in a cardboard box. Diminished in size yet homeopathically potent, he rides in the car's seat next to me all the way from Poughkeepsie to Philly, where he spends the next two weeks in some badly-needed posthumous R & R on my rose-tiled English dining-room sideboard, as he and I engage in silent but spirited debate on the nature and/or duration of the afterlife.

I remind him that our own father described death as The Ultimate Adventure. Marty, the fast-food manager with two master's degrees, must think of Heaven as Hamburger Heaven— a gargantuan pair of Golden Arches with a rapidly aggregating sign: "Three septillion souls," and counting.♦

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