5 October 2018

How to Watch Your Brother Die: A narrative poem by Michael Lassell

It's been awhile since I have, by any measure, been emotionally moved by literature - that is, until recently when I stumbled upon the narrative poem "How to Watch Your Brother Die" by American writer Michael Lassell which, despite all resistance, would prise the softer side of me wide open.

When I first read the poem, I was numbed by the myriad of emotions expressed within.  Love, pain, anger, fear, sadness, grief, confusion, hatred, regret, indignation, surprise, relief - all are so powerfully rendered in a series of seemingly casual tête-à-têtes.

As you shall soon see, in "How to Watch Your Brother Die", Lassell captivatingly speaks of issues which sadly take place every day all around us - the immeasurable pain of losing a brother to whom you've not spoken in a long time, the untold agony a lover suffers when his partner is dying,  the oft-unjust social prejudices your brother has had to endure in life - in death even - because of his sexual orientation, your coming to terms with his alternative lifestyle which, until now, you'd struggled to accept.  More notably, it reminds us of how death often leaves loved ones with a host of unanswered questions and how these can potentially tear relationships apart.  Here's the poem.

When the call somes, be calm.
Say to your wife, "My brother is dying. I have to fly
to California."
Try not to be shocked that he already looks like
a cadaver.
Say to the young man sitting by your brother's side,
"I'm his brother."
Try not to be shocked when the young man says,
"I'm his lover.  Thanks for coming."

Listen to the doctor with a steel face on.
Sign the necessary forms.
Tell the doctor you will take care of everything.
Wonder why doctors are so remote.

Watch the lover's eyes as they stare into
your brother's eyes as they stare into
Wonder what they see there.
Remember the time he was jealous and
opened your eyebrow with a sharp stick.
Forgive him out loud
even if he can't
understand you.
Realize the scar will be
all that's left of him. 

Over coffee in the hospital cafeteria
say to the lover, "You're an extremely good-looking
young man."
Hear him say,
"I never thought I was good enough looking to
deserve your brother."

"Watch the tears well up in his eyes.  Say,
I'm sorry. I don't know what it means to be
the lover of another man."
Hear him say,
"Its just like a wife, only the commitment is
deeper because the odds against you are so much
Say nothing, but
take his hand like a brother's.

Drive to Mexico for unproven drugs that might
help him live longer.
Explain what they are to the border guard.
Fill with rage when he informs you,
"You can't bring those across."
Begin to grow loud.
Feel the lover's hand on your arm
restraining you.  See in the guard's eye
how much a man can hate another man.
Say to the lover, "How can you stand it?"
Hear him say, "You get used to it."
Think of one of your children getting used to
another man's hatred.

Call your wife on the telephone. Tell her,
"He hasn't much time.
I'll be home soon."  Before you hang up say,
"How could anyone's commitment be deeper than
a husband and a wife?"  Hear her say,
"Please. I don't want to know all the details."

When he slips into an irrevocable coma,
hold his lover in your arms while he sobs,
no longer strong.  Wonder how much longer
you will be able to be strong.
Feel how it feels to hold a man in your arms
whose arms are used to holding men.
Offer God anything to bring your brother back.
Know you have nothing God could possibly want.
Curse God, but do not
abandon Him.

Stare at the face of the funeral director
when he tells you he will not
embalm the body for fear of
contamination.  Let him see in your eyes
how much a man can hate another man.

Stand beside a casket covered in flowers,
white flowers. Say,
"Thank you for coming," to each of seven hundred men
who file past in tears, some of them
holding hands.  Know that your brother's life
was not what you imagined.  Overhear two
mourners say, "I wonder who'll be next?" and
"I don't care anymore,
as long as it isn't you."

Arrange to take an early flight home.
His lover will drive you to the airport.
When your flight is announced say,
awkwardly, "If I can do anything, please
let me know."  Do not flinch when he says,
"Forgive yourself for not wanting to know him
after he told you.  He did."
Stop and let it soak in.  Say,
"He forgave me, or he knew himself?"
"Both," the lover will say, not knowing what else
to do.  Hold him like a brother while he
kisses you on the cheek.  Think that
you haven't been kissed by a man since
your father died.  Think,
"This is no moment to be strong."

Fly first class and drink Scotch.  Stroke
your split eyebrow with a finger and
think of your brother alive.  Smile
at the memory and think
how your children will feel in your arms
warm and friendly and without challenge.

How do you find the poem?  Were you moved by it?


  1. I saw it on tik tok. I couldn’t stop thinking of it. I still can’t. I’m a gay masc in his first gay relationship with a guy. We’re 21. It’s a harder life. You have to promise so much more than “a wife”. And this- the loss that came from the aids crisis- it makes me cry all the time. This poem makes me cry. Love will always be stronger than hate. Patience and compassion will always win to ignorance and suffering. Rest well to all those men. And the author- he is a lovely poet. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for this art.

    1. I also saw this on tictok, Its really made me stop and think. Im bisexual and a guy i am attracted to women but I dont see myself in a relationship with one becasue queer love just seems deeper, like theres this risk that makes it more emontional or sentimental, i dont know if this is making any sense whatsoever but that doesnt matter. I love this poem no matter how hard ive cried over it.

  2. My granddaughter brought this soul deep, thought provoking piece for me to read. The pain is obvious but so is the struggle to see beyond the pain to love that was always there between the two brothers. One of the most meaningful parts to me was when the lover told the brother to “forgive yourself for not wanting to know him when he told you.” If that was said from a deep wellspring of love that sees a more complete picture than just the surface when one says “I forgive you ” to move the situation along. If those words come from the deepest part of someone’s desire to understand and to know that here, in this world, we can do some very damaging things to one another, but like the eternal blue skies beyond the clouds, our innocence waits for healing to claim it. ‘The holiest spot on earth is where an ancient hatred has become a present love.’`1