The brother and the sister would sit at a table with a pen and a sheet of paper.
So, how do you want your funeral.
I want to get dressed in white. I want a red tie. I only want one flower. I want one day to be viewed. I want a hundred balloons, white and red. At the funeral, as everybody leaves, I want them to take a balloon with them, and they release it, as a sign that I am let free. I want Nancy to sing. I want Ruby to read. I don’t want to be resuscitated, just let me go.
And Evelyn Milan could mourn her brother while he was still alive.
Ramon Milan, adored brother who ruined his little sister’s life, but gave it a purpose. Ramon Milan, whose twelve years of solitude ended a few days ago when his sister lay down next to him on a tiny patch of freshly mowed grass. A few days ago, there were no more excuses, no reasons not to go to the cemetery.
So she went.
On the road to the cemetery she would remember the shooting galleries. The first on 3rd Street. Enter 10-year-old Evelyn Milan and her sister Doris, 18. There are people in the apartment on 3rd Street. The horrible light. Doris is a little bit nervous. And Evelyn sits in a corner. Doris says, not in front of her. And the guy goes, Let me ask you something: Do you know what’s happening here, do you know what’s gonna happen.
Yes. She’s gonna shoot up, says 10-year-old Evelyn, in her first shooting gallery.
Then years later, another on 8th Street. An abandoned building. 5th floor. The absence of light. Ramon in the bathroom. High. Using water from a toilet. By the candle flame.
On the road to the cemetery she would remember a jar on the table in the shooting gallery. It was a clear jar. There was a bunch of syringes in it and the water was already red from the blood. People would come and pay a dollar to rent a syringe. A dollar. And that’s how they used the syringes. And that’s how the brother got infected.
The brother was frail, always had been. A month in the army ends after deafness is discovered in his left ear. There were a lot of things he couldn’t do and Evelyn used to stay behind with him because he was so smart. And he would read to her and they were just so close. He used to wear her clothes, her jeans and her shirts when he was going out. They had all these good times and then there were times when he would stay in her house and he was using. He goes to take a bath. The water running and the water running and she knocks on the door.
Knocks on the door, pops the door open. The brother naked on the toilet, so high, so far away. At the very end. The sister picks up the brother, puts something on him, gets him out of it. And he comes back. Oh Lord, is my brother better off dead than alive, she asks. She feels bad for thinking that. Thirty years ago. Is he better off dead than alive.
Now he’s alive, an 11-year-old Ramon. With asthma and sick most of the time and raped by someone the parents knew, a friend of the family, the sister says. Ramon would cry and cry. And 6-year-old Evelyn lay down with him in the bed. She knew.
On the road to the cemetery Evelyn Milan would remember how five years later Ramon introduces her to cocaine. He took care of me in so many ways, she says. The brother had left the house. He didn’t leave, she says, my father threw him out. The father was on a ship and when he was back things were crazy. Ramon was too weak to carry the father’s name, to carry the father’s pride. So then to 5th Street and 3rd Avenue, where the brother has an apartment. Such a long walk. He was doing cocaine and she was doing cocaine. But she didn’t inject.
On the road she would remember how she would use cocaine to get high, heroin or valium to bring herself down. She had a hole in her heart by now. Ramon asked her to be there for him when he was dying. She promised. She had to stop using. And she did, on Memorial Day Weekend 1996 so she would be there to take care of him. She would be there to bury him. She would be there to fulfill the promise.
She remembered 1997, a year before he died, Ramon says Let’s go for a walk, and they go for a walk and as they’re walking he’s taking her to the Village. They’re walking a lot and he says Yes I just want to walk. 5th Street and 3rd Avenue. Do you remember this building, he asks. Of course she remembers. He tells her I’m so sorry for what I did to you. How he introduced her to cocaine. But she learned so much from him, she forgives, she made poor choices, she says. He remembered.
Ramon knew. There’s gonna be a time when I’m not gonna be able to walk. What are we gonna do. There’s gonna be a time when I can’t take a bath. What are we gonna do. I can’t feed myself. What are we gonna do.
Ramon and Evelyn would talk about these things and they would cry over these things. They would cry and they would hug and they would look at each other and hug each other and then they would laugh. And the sister would tell the brother I’m gonna miss you so much.
I’m gonna miss you too. I’m scared of going alone, he would say.
She would start crying: I wish I could go with you.
No, I don’t want you to go with me. I just need you to know that I’m scared.
They had a pact. He knew he was dying. She promised he would die in her arms. She had taken care of him for two years. He had been like her father. Then he had been like her son. She used to bathe him. She used to change his diaper. She used to feed him through the tube in his stomach.
She would mourn him everyday for two years. She would get up in the morning when he would call her at 4. Go to his house. And mourn. She would feed him. Comes back home at 7. Gets her three sons ready to school. And mourn. After she’d send her kids to school, she’d go back to her brother’s house around 8. Then she would go to work. And mourn. Checks in to work at 10 at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. Then she would go to her brother’s house to feed him lunch. She would take a cab, go to his house and bring him cigarettes. And she would mourn. Back to her job. By 3 she takes another cab, goes to feed her brother again. Goes back to work, goes back home to cook to her family. And mourn. Then back to her brother to feed him again. Goes home to put her kids to bed. Goes back to her brother’s house to check up on him. Then goes back home. And mourns.
But when he died on Halloween 1998 she wasn’t there. She had just gone out for a minute, for a cigarette. When she came back to the hospital room, he was gone. She shook him, Ramon, we had a deal. You were not supposed to leave like this.
She sang in the hospital room. She sang and the father asked How is it that you’re not falling apart.
People will never know how many times I did fall apart. And always Ramon had been able to put her back together.
When everybody had left the hospital room Evelyn got into the bed next to Ramon, lay next to him, held him in her arms until the doctor came to pronounce him dead.
Now she has arrived at the very end of the road to the cemetery. In the silence of a grey day: the deafening sound of insects and birds. The wet scent of freshly cut grass. The confusing half light of this Halloween morning, or maybe evening. And the flags. Big. Animated colorful ghosts among trees of blood red leaves. In the sky migrating geese far away going far away from where the dead lay under plates, under stones.
Site 2240. Section 24. Calverton National Cemetery. At the very end of the Long Island Expressway, at the very end of long Long Island. At the very end. Here is Ramon Milan. Private Ramon Milan. Beloved husband. Father and son. Victorious Overcomer hidden under the grass. Brother, mourned alive.
On her knees is his sister, Evelyn Milan. On her knees, then laying, just laying next to him in his earthly bed, exactly as she lay fifteen years ago.