Sunday I built the Patrick Shrine — or, as I alternatively call it — the Wall of Dead Brothers. Right after Patrick died I ordered a set of those crown moulding shelves from Pottery Barn but I haven’t had the energy to figure out how to put them up. My walls are very old, very fragile, very bumpy but wonderful real plaster and so, putting up these moulding shelves was going to involve a lot of measuring, finding studs, and careful use of the drill. Until Sunday, I just didn’t have the energy. It all seemed too complicated. And frankly, it was the kind of thing Patrick would have done for me — I just couldn’t bring myself to do it alone.
But Sunday, after walking the dogs I decided I had to drive to Bozeman to buy a New York Times, since mine hadn’t come in the mail last week. On the way there I got thinking about the shelves, about how I could do this … so after buying a paper, I went to Home Depot in search of a good stud finder. I have a couple of not-good stud finders but my walls here are so funky that I decided to splurge on a decent one. It was between the stud finder that made noise and had a built-in tape measure, or the stud finder that didn’t make noise but had a built-in marking pencil. I took the noise one.
I’m fighting off another head cold, so I got home and thought feh, not today and sat down to read the paper. But then, somehow in the middle of the afternoon, I had a surge of creative energy. Maybe it’s the sunshine. The sun has been shining all week and I finally feel like I’m coming out of the tunnel that has been this winter — I no longer feel like I’m walking around in someone else’s skin. My life without Patrick is starting to feel real, and possible, and not always so terrible — there’s sunshine, and my garden will be blooming soon, and I have nice friends who love me, and although I’ll never get over losing him, I’m not feeling like my life has been blasted apart anymore. So I looked at these little ledges, and the wall, and the pile of photos and tschotchkes that had been collecting in the basket tray underneath the portrait of our paternal grandmother that my Uncle Jack left me when he died of AIDS several years ago. I was tired of that basket. It was messy. It was time to break it up.
So I pulled out the directions for the shelves, and managed to free the stud finder from the impossible plastic packaging. I eyeballed where I wanted the shelves to go, held one up against the wall with the level, and drew a pencil line. Then I measured, and adjusted so the three shelves would be equidistant. Then I had to find studs, and re-adjust. Finally I found two studs that were sixteen inches apart and drilled into the wall. The drill was Patrick’s — a really nice cordless drill that I’d borrowed a lot last spring to build fences for the garden. It’s one of those objects that while I certainly never would have wanted to have acquired it the way I did, I’m still awfully glad to have it. Cordless drills are one of those conveniences like gas stations with card swipers at the pump, once you’ve used one you can’t go back. So I managed to drill level holes at the right distance, and without causing big hunks of plaster to fall off my wall, and when I hooked the moulding shelves on them, miracle of miracles, they were level, and they held.
So then I started hanging photos. There’s the thirty-year old photo of Patrick and our youngest brother Michael, who died at two years old from cancer in 1972, on the beach at the resort we went to in northern Wisconsin. I remember picking that photo up a couple of years ago in California and thinking what a shame it was that when Michael died Patrick lost the opportunity to be a big brother. In the photo, Michael who was about 18 months old, is looking up at Patrick who is wearing long cutoff jean shorts, no shirt and a big floppy felt hat that belonged to one of the big boys. Patrick’s a skinny five-year old hitching up his pants and talking to someone and Michael’s looking up at him with that I-wanna-go-with-him little-kid look. It made me so sad, that day in our dining room, thinking about what a rock Patrick’s love for me had always been, how much of who I am is because I was Patrick’s Big Sister, and how sad it made me for Patrick that he’d lost the opportunity to be the Big Brother. So now they’re hanging there together on my wall — the two of them. Joseph-the-psychic tells me they’ve found one another on the other side, and said, somewhat inexplicably that they’re playing baseball. Patrick wasn’t a baseball guy in life, but who knows? Maybe in the afterlife he’s taken up a new hobby.
There are other pictures — the one of Patrick and I in a golf cart the summer after I graduated from college when I ran that awful horse show. We were both exhausted, and although it’s not a photo I particularly like of myself (which since I’m in the foreground is sort of a problem), it hung on Patrick’s office wall all those years. He liked it, and it’s of the two of us together, so on the wall it goes.
There’s the duck print I bought him from my first job ever, when I worked in a store selling duck and hunting prints. There are a couple of old duck decoys that were always in Patrick’s rooms growing up, and the Navajo duck I bought him in Tucson several years ago that has a sort of blinky expression on its face that reminded Deb and I of Patrick. Pato his Mexican guys called him. “Duck”.
There’s the “Good King Wenceslas” photo of Patrick at Christmas dinner in 1998, the year Deb came to stay with us after her marriage had broken up. She gave him warm wooly socks and he gave her a Mr. Potato Head — she said at his funeral that it was the perfect gift. In the photo Patrick is at the end of the Christmas table, wearing the paper crown from his Christmas cracker, his arms wide open, decalaiming on something to Dillon, who was about five at the time.
Then there’s the collage of pictures that Paige, Matt’s wife took of the two of us when Patrick had just picked Raymond up from the breeder. Patrick’s couching down, puppy Ray between his knees, and there’s a couple of them I like of myself, which is rare. What I like about those picutres is that they show our life together, we’ve got a new dog, I’m talking, then laughing, Patrick’s leaning down to kiss the puppy. We were happy. Things were going well. We were okay.
And then I hung his strings of credentials from a hook — all those Nascar and drag racing photo IDs — At the wake I was saying to Patrick’s big fire guys, the ones who drove two days from California for the funeral, that I didn’t know what to do with the credentials. John Newcomber told me to hang them on the Christmas tree — which I think is a great idea. “You can’t throw them out,” he said to me. “That’s a NASCAR hard card! Not just anyone gets one of those.” So until next Christmas, when I maybe have a tree again, there they are, hanging on my wall.
The topmost shelf on the wall is other family members — there’s the picture Dad sent us when he left for Europe, an old Christmas photo of Mom and Patrick and I when we lived in Madison, the portrait of us cousins as little kids (plus Randy Baker, who for years was the mystery-kid in the shot. Now he leases our fields). There’s a photo of my mother, my two aunts and my uncle as little kids lined up on the couch that I love. They’re all giggling and Molly has lost it entirely — she’s about three and has her head thrown back and a finger in her mouth.
There it is — the wall of family. My brothers are dead, my father is in Europe, my mother has taken refuge in alcohol and we can’t talk to one another, but they are my people nonetheless. There they are, for everyone to see. And I like it. The portrait Bill took for Patrick’s business, the one we used for the Mass card and the thank you card had become so entwined in my mind with Patrick’s death that I was thinking of it as his death portrait. Having it up on the wall with all those other photos of happier times makes me feel watched over in the best kind of way. It reminds me of our life together, and not just that he’s gone. And besides. I’ve always loved collage. That the walls of my living room are becoming a big collage space feels right to me.