Summer seems to be more and more a reminder of mortality -- traditionally, poetically, ass-backwards from the norm, I would think. When my English teacher Mr. Grey asked the class of high school sophomores why April is the cruelest month, I had a lengthy answer. I riffed on that sentiment without having read The Waste Land (which may not have done me any good anyway, at least at the time). Since then, of course, I have; and as someone commented on the e-board not long ago about the movie Bladerunner, "See it, learn it, live it." That is pretty much how my relationship with that poem has developed. At no other time does the waste land come into as sharp a focus for me as it does in the summertime. Possibly this has become more true since the death of my brother Paul in May of 2003, an event that preceded an abysmal summer of record proportion. I have associated summer with the apocalyptic since 1968, my 18th summer, living in Chicago and having officially set off into adult life by renting my first apartment, though I had not lived in my parents' home much for three years. Nineteen sixty-eight was fairly apocalyptic no matter where you were, but in Chicago there was a real edge to it. I was arrested twice; once was for conspiracy to incite a riot. I was so incapacitated by LSD that I would have been incapable of conspiring to ride a bicycle, and so my introduction to crime was just like everyone else's -- as an innocent man. At the end of that summer, my only sane parent, Robert Brizzolara, died.
The following summer I migrated to San Francisco. By then the summer of love had pretty much done a 180. Haight Street was boarded up, and those amber-tinted, no-shadow street lights cast the neighborhood in a historic, Betadine tint. Flowers and marijuana had been replaced by cocaine and heroin. By the end of that year, instead of attending Woodstock, I was at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Shortly after that, someone wrote to Rolling Stone's "Correspondence, Love Letters and Advice" column, "The Age of Aquarius died at Altamont. It's all over now, Baby Blue." And though that concert was in December, it was the end of my own personal endless summer of the mind in California after only six months.
Moving right along...I was married in the summer of 1977 (the Summer of Sam) at Manhattan city hall just after the blackout. Almost a month to the day of my marriage, my little bundle of mortality was given unto me, yea and verily, at Beth Israel Hospital at 3:02 a.m. during a record-breaking heat wave. The umbilical cord was seen to be pressing on my son's neck, and my wife was told to stop pushing, against all instinct. The woman doctor locked eyes with me and communicated that I must persuade my wife to stop pushing or the child would be hanged before it was born. Her silence communicated also that this must be done without alarming the mother; hysterical, she would be useless.
But again, it is my brother Paul whose postmortem presence seems to announce itself with more insistence between May and September. I dream of Paul with more frequency in the summer, and he is always a boy. The explanation is elementary, I think. While he was my closest brother in every way, it was in the summertime that our alliance was solidified and reaffirmed annually. Paul had severe dyslexia, bad vision, and hearing disorders, which were widely adjudged to be idiocy by education professionals at the time. With the exception of a few weeks when Paul was in summer school every year, those months were our time.
One summer we ran away to Greenland. It looked like a straight shot by tramp steamer from New York. We made it as far as a neighboring suburb and turned back due to some fundamental exigency I've since forgotten. Our two weeks of "grounding" in the middle of that summer served to forge inmates' camaraderie between us. Grounding was suspended for one day for the funeral of my Aunt Louise, actually a great-aunt and the first dead person I'd ever seen.
In the July heat and humidity, captured as though beneath a bell jar but under the dome of Saint Robert Bellermine's Church in Chicago, Aunt Louise looked all circus paint and powder, a silver wig with a suspect hairline. In death she wore a scowl I don't remember seeing on her face in life, as if she had tasted bad ravioli -- impossible if she had made it -- and it had killed her. The pancake makeup and whatever she had been dusted with were scored by rivulets from the falling tears of her sisters and daughter. She looked like a deflated and gaudy clown, hardly the vessel of life-at-high-volume I remembered. I cried at that funeral but not for my great aunt. It was from the memory of having been locked in that same church after my uncle's wedding two summers before.
My first trip to Mexico was not in summer but in January and by boat. My ex-wife (then girlfriend) and two acquaintances took a 48-foot ketch down the coast of Baja. Our first landfall was in Magdalena Bay. As we approached land, mostly surfing the ketch into the bay, the day grew warmer; by the time we anchored I had decided that Mexico was a good place to die. It took me years to realize that winter near the Tropic of Cancer does much to imitate a midwestern summer, that old generator of thanatopic thoughts.
Winters in San Diego are less like that, which suits me. Yet even in the heart of the most disagreeable January, here there are, inevitably, what most consider heaven-sent summer-like days. To me they are an appearance out of the corner of one's eye perversely in the wings of a summer comedy, a shadow of the reaper.
And I can hear my mother's voice down the corridor of summers past, "You're a morbid little bastid!"