We’re approaching the twentieth anniversary of the death of my younger brother Leslie, the result of brain injuries sustained from falling off a roof and landing on concrete. In contemplating his life and death, my mind always wonders what has happened to the people into whom his skin, bones, and kidneys were transplanted. That always leads me to remember that humans are 98% water. When we die, that water returns to the great water cycle that serves as one of Earth’s prime motors: Rain onto land and into oceans, rivers, ponds, and lakes to evaporation from these bodies of water, the ground, and all living creatures to rain again. Along the way, the water of living things gets a mix of water from every other source. In a real sense, the Earth has transplanted water of all past living things into all of us, and our water (and other chemicals) will someday be part of other living things.
And yet, the water and other substances that constitute our physical beings are not us. Each of us is defined more by our consciousness than our physical make-up. From one point of view, we are little more than past and future rain, yet we are so much more than that. It is interesting to speculate, though, whether any of us contains water that once was Shakespeare, Dante or Shin Na’in. When thinking of Leslie in this context, Pascal always comes to mind—perhaps because both were so intellectually gifted in so many different fields, talents that did not help either in facing his internal demons.
Leslie’s death was sudden, but so is all death. One minute someone is alive, the next minute, they’re gone. The transition from life to death always surprises, even when it is expected. The high mortality rate of Covid-19, especially in the early months, is one more reminder that death can come from out of the blue at any minute.
Some years back, all these ideas about the cycle of life and death coalesced into a poem, “My Brother Still Runs Like Rain,” which Ellipsis published.
MY BROTHER STILL RUNS LIKE RAIN
My brother’s bones and kidneys must be walking
somewhere now, transplanted into other men,
perhaps in steady rain the hour before the sunrise.
Each raindrop holds the water molecules
of former living things, now decomposed,
transformed to ice and steam, then cloud.
Soon former raindrops walk the city streets,
soon future raindrops step between
the fallen branches, over muddy cracks.
Raindrops somewhere in the world
once formed my brother’s water base,
and Pascal’s, too, centuries past.
And yet this rain is not the same as them,
insensate liquid fall, just bounce and pool,
cover, spread, run in rivers at the curb
like my brother used to run at dawn,
bare-chested, under buds of water
clinging to the limbs of leafless trees,
through umber streets, counting footsteps,
leaping over puddles, chased by clouds
that promised downpour any minute now.
Originally published in Ellipsis #46 (2010)