It Was an Ordinary Name


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Sep 13, 2023

It Was an Ordinary Name

By Souvankham Thammavongsa I was two years old when my parents brought my

By Souvankham Thammavongsa

I was two years old when my parents brought my brother home from the hospital. No one explained to me what he was there for and what he was doing living with us now. No one explained why he was wearing my clothes and why I had to share them. He had a head full of black hair, and they named him John. It was an ordinary name. It would be easier for him, my parents said, because everyone could pronounce a name like that.

I was allowed to play outside in the summers because I had him to take along with me. I was never bored because he would invent our games.

We played something he made up called Join In. It was a simple game, not difficult at all. It required no size or skill or rule. There were no sides to pick and no teams. No winner, no loser. We skipped and linked our arms and sang, "Join in, join in, join in," and the kids in the neighborhood would hear our little voices out there and do exactly that—join in.

When a grownup yelled at us, asking us where our parents were at this hour of the night and what up-to-no-good stuff we were doing, my brother would pick a few pieces of grass and throw them, along with a handful of sand and bits of rock, into a container and say, "We are going to find a cure for AIDS!" We did not really know what AIDS was, but in the news and in the movies on television we were told of it. There wasn't a cure, we were told. My brother did not know how to be hopeless.

During recess once, someone ran to tell me that my brother was in a fight. I rushed over and pulled my brother away and finished the fight for him. I fought dirty. I yanked the guy's hair and pulled out a patch. I won the fight because I didn't cry. My brother, though, was so mad at me. "You embarrassed me!" he yelled through tears.

I didn't care. I won the fight.

I didn't know where we lived, wouldn't have been able to give exact directions. I just know that there wasn't a lot of sunlight. If we looked out a window, there was snow, a car's headlights or exhaust pipe, feet, some trees. There was a street we lived on called Merryfield. Then we moved to some street that sounded like "Bath Thirst" and moved again to "Green Book"—but which turned out to be Bathurst and Greenbrook, in Toronto. There were cockroaches and mice, and my mom said not to touch them.

My parents said not to tell anyone where we lived and not to open the door if anyone knocked. We were Lao refugees. They said not to tell anyone that, either. "The only people who want to know where you’re from are the kind of people who want to send you back. They’ve got no business asking you that," my dad said. "You wanna know where I’m from? This here. This is where I’m from." He placed a middle finger where his crotch was and told us, if anyone asked, to do that.

I was scared to use the toilet at night. It was so big and loud. I was afraid that, if I flushed, the air would suck me in there. I had to take a witness. At least someone could tell my parents what had happened to me and they’d know where to start looking. I’d shake my brother and he’d wake up. I would tell him to come with me and he would, without asking why. Often, my mother would find him the next morning on the bathroom floor near the toilet. "This boy could fall asleep anywhere," she said.

It took a long time to come to this country. No one wanted us. My parents were not educated. Everyone they knew had lived in Laos, too. They were not doctors or teachers or engineers. But even their friends who once were and came before them held the same jobs my parents worked. My father worked at a nail-polish factory. My mother worked in a factory where they made gumballs. After that, they were in and out of various other jobs, before ending up out of work. Then, when I was about fifteen, they opened a sign-making shop, printing banners, T-shirts, wedding invitations, flags. They often made spelling mistakes and would have to begin orders all over again. Sometimes clients put in orders, picked up their stuff, and promised to come back to pay, only to never return or to leave behind a check that didn't clear. Still, we thought that it was the grandest thing in the world to have a job, to own a place you could go to every day—and that our parents could be there together, making their own hours. We were so proud.

As far back as I can remember, my parents worked long hours. We were the first kids to arrive in the schoolyard before the school doors opened and the last to go home. Even before that, I remember my father coming to pick us up from day care, and afterward he would push back the front passenger seat and put me there on the floor with my brother. He’d put a blanket on top of us, roll down the window just enough, and tell us that he’d come back for us. I didn't know how long that was, how long we were in the car, but it didn't matter. When he got back, my mother would be there, too. She would give us the gumballs she’d made and say, "It's like food, but you can chew it forever."

Our favorite time of year was Halloween. For the rest of the year, we would look for pennies on the sidewalk and at the bus stop on our way to school. When we collected enough, we bought a Hot Lips gummy to split between us. It took weeks, sometimes months, to collect five cents. The idea that you could get candy for free, if you just knocked on someone's door, was incredible to us.

Our father told us to walk up to a house, a big one, in a good neighborhood and, when they opened the door, to say "chick a chee!" We had no idea what the words he told us to say meant, but it must have been good because we got loads of candy. When a schoolteacher asked me whether I was trying to say "trick or treat," I glared at her like she was some dumb fool and shot back, "No. It's ‘chick a chee!’ "

I once carved an ugly pumpkin for a charity auction at school. I thought that it would be the first to go at auction. Many days later, it sat on a table in the lunchroom, wrinkled and near collapse, and my brother went to buy the sorry sight before it was thrown away. I don't know where he got the money—we didn't have an allowance—but he made sure that the thing I’d made did not rot there alone.

When I got my period, at age nine, I told my mom. She said, "Go put a pad on." I did. My mother bought the cheap, bulky kind. The glue would come undone when the pad got wet. In seventh grade, during gym class, the pad fell out of my shorts. In the middle of the floor was this pad soaked with menstrual blood. The gym teacher said that we wouldn't go home unless someone threw that thing away. She called it disgusting, but it looked beautiful to me. I wanted everyone to look at what fell out of me. "Whose is it?" she yelled, glaring and searching.

I told my brother what happened. He went to the corner store to buy me the expensive ones with wings. I don't know where he got the money. The only time we ever got money was on our birthdays. He might have used that. He told me his friends told him that their sisters used this kind. "It protects against leaks," he said.

My brother was an incredible dancer. I always loved to watch him dance. My parents slept in the living room on a foam mattress, but when we had guests they would roll it up along with their pillows and shove it into the shoe closet.

My brother and his friends danced there, on that floor, as if they were in the V.I.P. section of a dance club. And even when there was no music he knew how to dance. In a friend's quiet back yard, I watched him dance to the sound of passing traffic. His chest burst forward and folded back slowly, a leg lifted, a finger pointed.

Over the years, we didn't exchange gifts. Not for birthdays or for the holidays. I didn't need a big display of bows and ribbons or an occasion to see that my brother loved me. I never doubted it. His love was always steady and certain. Many people have this kind of love from a lot of people in their lives, but I am not one of them. It stands out to me as a thing to take note of and to notice in others.

My brother had worked long hours with my parents at their sign-making shop in high school. At first, he went to work there after school. Then he skipped classes. Eventually, he didn't go to school at all and didn't finish. He did show up for graduation photos and held a diploma that wasn't his.

I got to go to university because of him. He and my parents put me through school. Afterward, I worked in the research department of an investment-advice publisher, and then I counted cash in a room without windows, five levels below a big bank. I disappeared into my own life. And he let me. He met a girl from the Canada side of the Detroit River, in a place called Windsor, on the Internet, and they fell in love. He moved there to be with her, but there weren't a lot of jobs for someone like him.

In Windsor, my brother wanted to start his own sign-making shop, like my dad. He wanted to call it Chick-a-Dee Signs and wanted to say "cheap, cheap" to customers when they walked through the door. It was something my dad said as soon as someone came into his shop: "Cheap, cheap."

The bank wouldn't give my brother a loan. There wasn't anything like that in town, they said. Not a sure thing. Too risky. Not a good fit for us. In a town like that, you either work as a welder or at the border.

My brother gave me a lot of space and would occasionally text, "You alive," "You have enough to live," "You happy," or "Love you." It was the same kind of thing he would say to me as a kid late at night from the bunk up top, or from the front passenger seat when our parents lost their jobs and our family slept in a van underneath a street light. I was going on sixteen when that happened. It was spring and then summer suddenly.

Actually, thinking now, I do have one thing that my brother gave me, but I wouldn't call it a gift, because it was given to me on an ordinary day and for no reason at all except that it would be good for me. It is a small tin jar of White Monkey Holding Peach Balm. I had a headache, and he took the jar from his pocket and said that I should dab a little of this on the side of my head and I would feel better. The pain and its throb disappeared, just as he said it would.

My brother and I share a birthday month. We have often shared a birthday cake because two birthday cakes in one month was too expensive for our parents. In every childhood photograph of us on my birthday—because mine came first in the month—he is right there by my side, never far from me, waiting and eager to blow out the candles.

The last time I saw my brother was at such a birthday party at my father's shop, on September 3, 2022. Both our birthdays had already passed, and it had been years since we’d done anything like this, but it was something my father wanted. A few weeks before, my brother had texted, "Happy birthday," "You doing?," "Damn you old," "Ahhhaa." I texted back, "You’re next!" But what I said to him wouldn't turn out to be true. He wasn't going to get to be my age at all.

It was a strange birthday party. Most of the people there were my father's friends.

Our parents aren't together anymore, and we didn't tell our mother about this party. We imagined her feeling spurned and envious. I imagined the worst thing possible, that she’d come to the party and stab me and my brother for being there without her. I told my brother and his jaw dropped. He said that he’d had a nightmare and that's exactly what had happened in it.

One imagined and the other dreamed it.

Just then, we both saw a small blue car drive by. My brother grabbed my shoulder and said, "A drive-by, a drive-by." But it wasn't our mother's car. It was just blue. And so we laughed.

A woman at the party watched my brother for a while. She found him funny and entertaining, and took him aside and handed him a thick envelope.

My brother made a fuss for show and tried to give the envelope back to her, but she insisted. Later, we speculated about how much was in there. After she left, he opened the envelope and told me how much. A hundred dollars. And we laughed.

A cake was brought to us. It had fruit in it. Five bright-red strawberries were placed on top of an array of peaches and kiwi. There were not enough candles for both of our ages on the cake. That would have required eighty-six candles. Instead, there were twelve. We were both expected to blow them out. I made the gesture but held back my breath so that my little brother could blow out the candles all by himself. Afterward, I watched him raise both of his arms like a champion. And I cheered.

Even when you are in the same room at the same time with someone else, you can't see everything they do. There's video of him dancing, cutting up barbecued meat, hamming it up for the camera, making a spectacle. I hadn't seen him doing any of that at the time.

I was looking at a drain on the floor. It didn't have a cover. The people around it were talking and eating. There was so much noise. The drain I was looking at was where I had once taken a bath with a bucket, scooping out the water with a plastic cup, while crouching on a rubber mat. That was almost thirty years ago. Some things, even when you’ve forgotten them, come back like that, unannounced.

A few days later, my brother jumped off the Ambassador Bridge, in Windsor, killing himself. He was forty-two years old.

I received a phone call. I was told what had happened. I asked whether maybe my brother had just left his car and walked somewhere. It was explained to me that there was camera footage of him from the bridge. He jumped.

This is how we know for sure.

I thought, There's always traffic on that bridge. Did cars drive by and not notice him there? Had someone seen him climb up there, and looked away? Did someone stop their car, get out, and say to him, "Son, it doesn't have to be this way." Did someone there, that day, try? And what about this thing that is luck? Where was his?

It had been a warm and sunny September afternoon. He’d told a friend that he had been on that bridge before. He said he didn't jump then because it was cold. But on that day it was warm and sunny. A late summer afternoon. Sometimes people die and we don't know about them. He was a welder who liked cars, his obituary said.

I thought back to a picture taken of the two of us on a small rug as kids, pretending that we were flying high in the sky. We were outside. Someone's back yard. We wore paper hats and thought ourselves royalty. He crawled to the edge of the rug and I held him back. I held him tight with both my arms. I held him tight. He squiggled and squealed, and an adult voice told me to let my brother go. And I did. He made his way off the rug and touched grass. He was fine. Maybe it was then.

Or maybe it was the time we played Night Market. We displayed our toys for each other to bargain over and buy. I liked my toys and hadn't gone to marvel at what he had. He came and told me that if I didn't go visit his shop he would kill himself. He was six years old then. Kids say strange things to each other, don't they? They don't know the things they say. Maybe it was then.

I was told that divers searched for my brother in the water. And then it got dark and they stopped. They stopped. Authorities on the Detroit side were alerted. I was told to be prepared for the possibility that his body might never be recovered. I was told that there wouldn't be a funeral for him until his body was found.

A few days later, his body came to the surface. There would now be a funeral. Funeral arrangements would be made.

I don't understand what it means to be dead. No, that's not true. I don't understand what it means that my brother is dead. There are words that get to it, but I don't know whether that's what my brother is now.

Grief can make you selfish. I didn't understand why there was now a new day. I wanted the clocks to stop their tick-ticking. When I heard laughter, I couldn't understand what people were going on about with their ha-has. Why wasn't he on the evening news? Why weren't flags flying at half-mast? Didn't the world know that my brother was dead? I began to hate the question "How are you?" It felt so rude and intrusive. I didn't like people calling him their brother. He was a brother to one. And he was mine.

Grief can make you remote. It removes you from what you know and the people you know, because what you know is gone. I was at the funeral and saw all the people dressed in black. I saw the coffin and was told that his body was in there. I had planned earlier to come see his body. I wanted to see and know for sure. And to touch what being dead felt like so that I could understand.

I was told that he would be buried as he was found.

"There are some broken bones," someone said. I didn't know where or which ones or how many. Was everything there and intact, if broken? Were his eyes still there? "His hair . . . ," someone began to say, but I didn't ask about it further. I was thinking of his shoes. Were his shoes still on him? And his socks—were they pulled as high as he liked to wear them, or had they bunched up around his ankles?

I realized that I perhaps didn't know the man my brother had grown up to be. The man who had jumped from the bridge that day. And my brother probably didn't want me to know him. I didn't see the body as it was found.

At the funeral, I watched a little boy who looked exactly like my brother. Seven years old. He stood with his mother the whole time. He took part in a Lao ceremony where he and his mother were wrapped in a white cloth, and that cloth was cut in front of us, to sever ties with what my brother had belonged to in this life.

The little boy came to hold my hand at some point.

Earlier, the little boy had shown me a game he was playing on a phone. You collect cash. A million here, a few more million there. And when you get billions you get to go on a rocket and launch into outer space. I asked him, "How much have you collected? Are you almost there?" He didn't say. I tried a different question. "What do you do there when you get to go to outer space? What happens then?" He told me that he didn't know and that it was just a game.

This little boy is formidable, I thought.

A few weeks before that, I had been listening to this little boy call out to my brother. "Dad," he said. ♦