For most of my life my birth name was someone else’s coat–too tight around the middle and long in the sleeves. First name sat itchy around my neck. Fancy dinner clothes of little use to me. But its scent has the tinge of the familiar that licks at my skin. First name almost didn’t belong to me. But Little Grandma intercedes. Argued for a name more substantial than five letters. A name to wear out in public, perhaps in an office or school. A name that can forget the hot steam of fields and factories.
Mother tells me when she goes to school she gets to pick her own English name. She picks one easy to spell. One with tall letters. No one at home calls her by her paper name anyway. At home she is baby, a sweet darling named in Spanish even though she once pushed her younger brother into a ditch. He lay there, bleeding, knocked unconscious. She left him there, sure he was dead but more afraid of her father. She is deadly, but still, she keeps her little name.
Brother is of a common name. Another baby boy with the same name is born on the same night and at the same hospital with almost the exact same parent names. Social security number is off by one number. Their records will often be confused at the hospital and DMV. Later when Mother is recovering from Brother’s she asks the nurse, “Are you sure this is my son?” He is not what she had been expecting. After Brother dies she is left with a different unexpectedness–life without her youngest child. She must learn what it means to mother a dead son. She must learn the rhythm of grief. This is love’s twin.
This essay wasn’t going to be about Brother, but here he is, making an entrance.
In my family we have lots of names. I learn that to be loved is to be named and renamed. We juggle a dance of vowels on the tongue. Sometimes names fall like staircases and other times they jigsaw across the family tree. I want to catch them all in my mouth. Make myself good and full of their voices.
While I am being questioned at the police station after Brother is shot the detective brings me a police record of another man with Brother’s name and asks me, “Is this your brother?” I catch a glimpse of a man who is not Brother. I regret saying, “no” so quickly because I want to examine the paper more closely. I want to study his face, study a name that is Brother’s but belongs to a man that is not Brother. Is this the same man Brother was always being confused with? I want all this to be a mistake.
My last name comes from Father. Yes, Indians have Spanish names. Some say this assimilation is God’s mercy. This is another way not to say colonization. A way to hush out the word genocide. I can’t even begin comprehend what was taken, what was renamed. At Indian school Grandmother is taught to churn butter she is never allowed to taste. She learns to write her name in beautiful cursive. There is not much left of that school except the remnants of a cemetery.
We used to be believers. Then Brother is killed and we try to learn to live another way. We try to learn how to cleanse Brother’s body, to repair the damage in all of us. At first all of this feels unpracticed. It is work to try to understand the wholeness of our loss.
After Brother is shot multiple times and taken to the hospital he is renamed John Doe. This is temporary protection from other potential bullets, from the unknown. But this name will not protect us from what damage has already been done by Bullet. We say goodbye to Brother at the hospital. John Doe can stay at the hospital but I will take Brother’s name with me.
Bullet renames me something that howls, something that is split of lip and bruised knuckle.
Brother’s name seems more like a song now more than ever. Someone fills out the paperwork with Brother’s name. Death certificate. Obituary. Autopsy. Police reports. Memorial service. Someone must pay. I sometimes wonder if Brother is paying for a sin we may never know. In the end it is us, the left behind, who keep Brother’s name alive who pay.
I like it best when Spanish speakers say my name. The “ahhs” of my name lift up higher to the roof of the mouth and the tongue flattens there, tongue behind teeth that stamp the next letters out more elegantly than when my name is said in English. Hearing my name in Spanish makes feel taller and reminds me of the way Grandmother says my name.
Sometimes Grandmother’s sister doesn’t remember her married name. Some names do not come easily anymore. They are just out of touch of her lips. I wonder where those names went. I wonder about all of the lost names.
On Father’s side of the family there is an abundance of twins. This is good fortune. We say their names quick together. Link one to the other. Brother and I were not twins but I feel halved without him. What name can I give to my phantom twin except Brother?
Years before Brother’s death he owned a tow company. It was a small family business he named after himself. Our whole family takes a dislike to a larger tow company after they give him problems. We create a family game that involves pretending to spit when we come across a tow truck with their name.
There are some names I will not even spit on. I want them to have none of me. Not my name, not my forgiveness. Because even when you don’t the pull the trigger, Bullet still knows your name.
To request Brother’s police report I need the name of the detective assigned his case. I remember only the grey suit. The brown of his eyes. I search the internet for clues and find the newspaper reports. They are a few lines each.
On that night, Brother’s body struggled with breath. A cop slapped his face and asked. “Who did this to you?” Brother could not give them a name. His lips shivered but even if he’d known the names his brain would not let him answer. The police move on but we are left to live with this question. it has become an always question with its twin question of “why?”
I have accepted that that the police report will not have the name(s) I seek.
In my city Brother is the 37th homicide of 2010. There is a homicide and autopsy report number attached to his name. There is a death certificate printed with his name. I have begun to seek these documents, wanting them to tell me something more about Brother. What I really want is for there to be fewer numbers assigned to Brother and more stories. I want to hear him say my name again, for him to call me Sister again.
I am learning how inhabit my name. It is no longer such a strange land. I learn my own
name just as I learn how to be Sister without Brother, but not Brotherless.