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The Finished Heart

· ESSAYS

Mikal Gilmore

On Friday, April 30, I received a call around 5 p.m. from a hospice in Canby, Oregon, where my older brother Frank has lived in recent years. The call informed me that he had just died. The nurse who gave me the news was badly shaken. He had seemed tired but in good spirits just an hour before, she told me. Frank was 81.

I had been planning to see him come the middle of May, though that may have been hindered since Oregon now has the fastest-growing Covid rate in the U.S., the county where he resided in particular. Indeed, that development prevented Elaine and I from visiting the Portland area to make funeral arrangements. I had to settle for a memorial center conducting a cremation and sending his ashes to me.

Frank was the last member of the family I was born into, excepting me—a family that in a better world should not have happened. Now, though, living in the arms of my wife Elaine and her family—including her grandson, baby Aiden, born in the early days of the pandemic and now toddling all over the house squealing gleefully—sustains me during whatever is left of my own mortal passage, and brings new meanings.

Frank loved Elaine, and he took delight when, during a video call on his last birthday, I was able to introduce him to Aiden. “After all that we went through with our family,” he told me, “I’m glad that one of us has now found a better one, a true one.”

It is, as the poet said, life and life only. Even after it ends.

The day after Frank died I looked back at something I’d written about him after a December 2019 visit to Canby, which is what The Journal is offering here.

Frank's Story

Frank Gilmore, 1950s

“Do you recognize this guy?” the nurse said to my brother when she rolled him in his wheelchair to greet me at the assistive care facility.

Frank was beaming, dressed in a royal red holiday sweater. “I sure do,” he said. “It’s good to see you, Mikal. Come join me at lunch.”

Frank’s caretakers had contacted me a short while back, telling me my oldest brother was in hospice and suggesting I come for a visit. Elaine and I made the arrangements as quickly as possible, navigating around the holidays and her own travel. I arrived at the Portland Airport the night of Sunday, December 1, then endured the fuckestry of Uber, who wouldn’t take me anywhere due to some unpaid fare that I simply hadn’t incurred, forcing me to sustain a taxi ride that was three times the expense.

As Elaine can tell you, I’m ready to bolt anytime something unexpected comes up regarding a trip. I don’t like traveling—especially alone—and to be honest, this trip scared the hell out of me. This was a journey to commune with the last bit of my bloodline. Which also meant, of course, that I couldn’t bolt for any reason. So I took the long ride to Canby and checked into my Motel 6—a place that does not leave the lights on for you, despite the promise.

The word hospice portended funereal to me. I’d thought about entering one myself, when I received a Stage IV cancer diagnosis in 2015, but Elaine wouldn’t hear of it. I imagined a hospice as severe though caring at the same time. A barebones place, almost like a tomb with blankets and medical tubes.

Canby seemed the ideal place for such an asylum. It was the last town down the line before you got to the last town down the line. My motel was feet from timeworn railroad tracks, running the length of a First Street that was grimmer than any of those isolated avenues conjured by Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers, or Thornton Wilder. This was a place that time had forgotten, if it ever embraced it in the first place.

Incongruously, these train tracks and streets were lined with vivid and inviting blue-lit two-story Christmas trees, while storefronts illuminated the sidewalks with antiquated plastic Santa and nativity displays. But it was like a holiday display for nonexistence: Nobody walked these streets on any of the nights I wandered there. I didn’t see a soul roaming, just a steady stream of cars. I passed by Chinese restaurants and taverns that looked darker inside than the night outside. Through their windows I saw solitary forms. The sight reminded me of some horror story I’d read long ago by Dennis Etchison, about night places occupied by desiccated husks. You shouldn’t enter unless you were willing never to leave.

As a result, when I went to see Frank the next morning I think I was expecting his shelter to be akin to Collinwood Mansion in the old Gothic soap "Dark Shadows." Instead, I found a clean, well-lighted place, sparkling with holiday decorations and bustling with efficient and kind attendants.

Frank offered to buy me lunch and asked about Elaine. Was she with me? I explained she couldn’t come on this trip. He was disappointed. “That’s too bad,” he said. “You’d probably be happier with her here. She’s a smart and attractive woman. You married well, and you married somebody smart and half of your age.” I let that one go by. He was right on one count, after all.

Then Frank said, “Have you seen Mom yet on this trip?” That one stopped me. Our mother—Bessie—was born in 1913. If she were alive, she would be 106. Instead, she’d died in 1980. Frank had been one of the last people to see her alive. He rushed her to the hospital when her mouth abruptly erupted in blood, maybe like my mouth did a few years ago one night, just before I learned I had cancer.

Gary Gilmore, Mikal's brother, with their mother Bessie

Frank’s question wasn’t any kind of jest. He wore a concerned look. I knew he had recently suffered memory problems, but nonetheless I quickly found myself maneuvering through confusing and delicate territory, and I didn’t feel adept.

I said, “No, Frank, I’m only seeing you on this trip.”

“Well, that’s kind of you. I won’t tell her I’ve seen you. She would get mad knowing you saw me but not her.”

I spooned at the soup in front of me, trying to figure how to change the subject. Then Frank asked, “How about Dad? Do you ever hear from him? I never hear from Dad.”

Our father, Frank Harry Gilmore (Frank is named after him) was born in 1893—one-hundred and twenty-six years ago. He was 47 when Frank was born in 1940, and he died in 1960—nearly sixty years before this day and hour that we were speaking in. I told my brother the truth: I had not heard from our father in a long time.

Frank asked the same about our brother Gaylen. “I sure wish he would come see me. I always liked Gaylen.”

Then Frank asked—though I realized it was coming—the question I now dreaded most: “Do you know where Gary is?”

The Executioner's Song

Gary Gilmore's drawing of his girlfriend Nicole Barrett, an unforgettable character in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.

Gary, one year younger than Frank, died in January 1977 when he was 36, at the hands of an Utah firing squad, for two murders he had committed months before. Frank and I had been the last members of our immediate family to see him, in visits on death row during the last days of his life.

Our brother died famous: His death reintroduced the death penalty to America, and it took place because he insisted upon it. Gary withdrew all appeals and pursued in the courts to be put to death. We were all sundered, but maybe Frank was sundered the most. He left Utah that week without telling me or Gary.

Years later Frank and I visited Salt Lake City and Provo together, and Frank bore witness to me about a horror that had started when Gary was still a baby. Frank clearly loved Gary, but also clearly hated him. He couldn’t forgive our brother for what he had done—to the men he murdered or to our family. I couldn’t either. Where Frank and I parted ways about Gary was that Frank thought it was fitting he had been executed. I did not.

“I think I heard Gary is in Utah,” Frank said. “Do you think he will stay there?”

I answered truthfully: “Yes, Frank, I think Gary will stay in Utah,” though in fact I had in my company all that was left of Gary Gilmore—his bones—in a jar at home, on a windowsill.

“It’s good he’s in Utah,” Frank said. “I hope he’s found a girl, settled down, raising a family. I thought the world of Gary—we grew up together. But he carried so much anger in him. I’m afraid Dad made him that way. I hope the Mormons over there aren’t too hard on him. I hope he’s found some peace. Do you think he has?”

“Yes, Frank, I think Gary has found as much peace as he ever could hope for. I think it will last him.”

“That’s good. I always worry about him. If you hear from Gary tell him I’m thinking of him.”

This was how our first visit went. New ways of circumnavigating boneyards and brutal history. Frank had glimmers of the family pain but he could no longer remember the worst parts of it. I left his care home shaken that day.

I went back at night. Frank wanted to sit and watch TV. He had a beautiful large screen. He said, good-naturedly, “I never remember what I watch, but I watch it anyway. Or I sit here and read about the history of magic and practice my tricks.” He had a desk full of several decks of beautiful magic playing cards arrayed before him, in pristine shape.

We settled on a boxing match featuring fighters Tony Harrison and Jermell Charlo in a Junior Middleweight World Title match. It turns out the bout had already occurred but was being aired again as lure for an upcoming rematch. I hadn’t seen any of these encounters before and they were good fights. These were careful, scientific boxers, not muscle-minded brutes and brawlers, and they were well-matched. Both were careful, though Charlo seemed a little more aggressive, maybe more dominant. Still, it appeared the fight could break either way. We were truly engrossed.

Then Frank surprised me again: He began to narrate the fight nonstop—naming the kinds of punches being thrown, who was better at finding an opening, taking an opportunity, who was foolish. In effect he was calling the fight, as much to himself as to me.

At one moment he said, “Did you see that? The guy with the orange hair [Charlo] moved so quickly you’d miss it if you blinked, but I think he hurt the other guy just now.” Charlo had.

Then it all came back to me: Frank and I used to watch boxing matches all the time. Indeed, it was my brother who taught me how to watch boxing for style and stamina, for grace and edge and energy, for form and ballet. He taught me everything I knew about observing fights, and it had stayed with me.

This night, though, we were coming to different conclusions. The match went its full twelve rounds. It seemed razor close to me, but I was pretty sure that Charlo had won on points, given his assertive momentum at various points. Frank didn’t think so.

“Nah,” said my brother, “the other guy [Harrison] won. I’ll bet you anything. It will be unanimous.” Frank was right—though many viewers saw it the same way I did. That’s why a rematch, which may be on for December 21, is so avidly anticipated.

My brother and I watched two more 12-round matches that night. Frank was confident, masterfully observant. I sat back and listened, trying to see the action through his eyes, trying to learn from him again.

The next day I was back for lunch again. The questions of the day before were repeated. Time and again Frank asked if I’d seen our mother or Gaylen, if I knew where our father and Gary were. Why didn’t anybody come to see him? Didn’t they know he was so lonely? I never lied to him but I didn’t tell him that any of them—all of them—were dead. I didn’t know what the impact would be, and whether I’d be upsetting him with disclosures he’d forget anyway five minutes later. It tore at me to see him in anguish over the absence of these people who had hurt and desolated him his whole life.

Still, when Frank turned to his memories of him and me, our relationship and experiences over the years, he rarely had that same unfilled space. His recall was as vivid and detailed as mine. He relished those times. “We were good together. We went everywhere—on walks, to movies, on trips.” I began to see here a pattern of how his heart and mind might be functioning when it came to his history, how he might be choosing unconsciously what he could hold on to or forget.

That same afternoon Frank’s caretakers—his nurse and counselors—invited me into a conference room to advise me better about my brother’s condition and prospects. I related to them all I’ve written about here so far, and said that despite his amnesia or dementia—despite Frank’s confusion about missing family—he seemed nonetheless in good spirits. That is, he seemed better than I’d anticipated, though that could have been due to my visit. But then they laid it out for me. “Your brother has perhaps six months left.” That froze me. They went on to detail matters about his condition I won’t repeat here. They also added that there was nothing certain in their forecast. They had seen residents endure for seasons, or even leave hospice.

I already knew all this on one level, but I’d hoped for more. The caretakers also were looking to convince both Frank and me that I should assume power of attorney for him, for the eventuality that he might no longer prove capable of making his own decisions. That was when Frank wheeled into the room.

He knew we were discussing something serious about him and he did not want to be excluded. So the care team brought up these matters with him, without telling him about his six-month prognosis. The counselor who had called me a couple of weeks before said, “Frank, we have no instructions or authority for what we should do with you in final matters. For instance, what would you like us to do with your remains?”

Frank appeared baffled. “My remains?”

The counselor went on, gently but clearly. “Yes, your remains. What would you like us to do with the remains of you, should your life end while you are here? Right now we don’t have any clear directions.”

Frank swallowed, looked down at his folded hands on the conference tabletop, then said: “What I’d like to direct you to do with my remains is take them somewhere, bring them back to life, then get me back here in time for dinner. I really like this place.”

Everybody at the table gaped at him, except me. They weren’t sure what to say. After all, Frank is sometimes detached from reality. But this was the Frank I’d grown up with: irreverent, able to cut through formality in ways that might discomfit everybody else in the picture. I saw him do it even before I was born: Shot in the Heart’s original cover photo of my family—an American gothic portraying my father, mother, Frank, Gary and Gaylen, but not me (there was never a photo of us as an entire family; for a long time that troubled me; I felt left out, but by the time I was done writing the book I was grateful for the exclusion)—that original cover had to be scrapped because Frank was pulling a goofball, side-eyed face and self-delighted smile. Instead, I found a sober version of the same scene.

The Gilmore family. Frank and Bessie with Frank Jr. at left, Gary, and Galen.

In many family and school photos, Frank liked to undercut moments that others thought deserved respect with a mocking countenance that he saw as better deserved. “You spoiled the moment,” I remember my father and mother saying when they saw his cross-eyed expressions in developed photos. Actually, Frank was revealing a truth: This family does not deserve the respect that they aim to command.

That’s what Frank was doing in the conference room at the assisted living center. It was a great relief. I cracked up, and my brother winked at me. He said that he indeed wanted me to have sole power of attorney. He signed his name in a meticulous and stately cursive: Frank H. Gilmore. I signed mine in my typically ugly scrawl, resembling two cockroaches fucking angrily.

Nonetheless, there were details about this arrangement that unsettled my brother. They had to do with my authority to obtain his veteran records. Frank had been drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He was an active member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time and the faith was conscientiously opposed to war and participation in any form of it. Frank had told the draft board he was willing to compromise: He’d serve in the Army—he’d work as a medic—but he would not carry arms. He would not kill other people.

A draft officer said that could be arranged but it never was. When my brother refused to train with rifles or bear any weapons, he was court-martialed and sentenced to the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth. In time, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse obtained my brother’s release.

But Frank understandably remains bitter, though doesn’t know why. Or at least he seemed to have no recall this afternoon, sitting in the care center’s conference room, of his court-martial or imprisonment. Later, when it was just me and Frank’s caretakers, I apprised them about his military history and its likely bearing on his antipathy toward veterans’ benefits, even if Frank no longer recalled his time in Leavenworth.

That night Frank asked me the same questions about our family that he’d mocked in photos: Had I visited our mother? Why didn’t our father and our brother Gaylen visit him? Was Gary now better off—finally walking a straight line clear of violence and trouble?

He posed those queries a dozen times.I never lied to him or offered false remedy to what was eating at him. Frank knew something was amiss—a vital part of his frame of reference was missing. Instead, I tried to explore what remembrances and feelings he retained about those relationships. When he’d respond he was clear and accurate: He knew well their faults. He recounted how they had hurt each other, how they had used or discarded him, how our family’s damage spilled out and hurt others.

He didn’t recall that they had all fallen into dust one by one, or that Gary had murdered innocent men then insisted that the State of Utah put him to death for those killings. I wasn’t about to tell him. I’ve had to explain these matters to so many people over the years, to examine and try to account for my family’s sins. It was interesting, and a relief, not to have to do so now with the only person that knew all that better than I did—and not because he recalled it, but because he no longer could. He was still able to get to the heartbreaking stuff, but not its endings and verdicts. We’d talk like we were exploring secrets and enigmas. Though I now recalled more than Frank did, I still had never truly fathomed those mysteries. Even so, as we probed that history again, I learned something new every hour.

We also turned to other obsessions. The truth is, Frank asked me more questions about Elaine than about anybody else. He had met her twice—once in 2016, during a family vacation to Portland, as I was still recovering from my cancer treatment and was then laid low in our hotel room with a kidney infection. He encountered Elaine for the first time in the hospital. They got along well and talked candidly.

He met her again the following year, when we visited Portland for a Willie Nelson show and took him to the event. Frank didn’t remember the concert—he’d ask me repeatedly what Elaine does for a living, always surprised, and impressed, to learn that she works with Willie Nelson (whose music Frank loves, despite not recalling that outdoor performance my wife took him to). But Elaine herself Frank remembered quite well. She left him with a fascinated impression.

“She’s so young and beautiful.” I once told him she wasn’t quite as young as he thought, but he didn’t believe me. He was then shocked to learn Elaine has three adult children. How was that possible? Did she have them as a teenager? When did she and I meet? (1977). How long have we been together as a couple? (Eighteen years.) What year did we marry? (2009).

I don’t think Frank ever quite assimilated this information. “How old are you then, Mikal?” Sixty-eight, I told him. “No, how can that be? That would make you older than me.” Frank is in fact 79, but I wasn’t going to press that. I said instead, apologetically, that I was never good at math.

“What do you and your wife do for fun?” I said that, since getting our dog, Ruby (I showed him a picture and he said, “Is that a real dog? It looks just like that stuffed Lady toy from Lady and the Tramp that you had when you were little”), we now spend a lot of time with our family and the Goldendoodle. We don’t go out that much. Sometimes we watch crime stories on TV. Frank thought I meant crime drama (Elaine in fact prefers true crime) and turned on his TV. He came across a CSI. “I like these because I can always solve them before these stupid cops can, even if I can’t remember a damn thing about the mystery or what I’m solving.” I told him I did too, about almost all mystery fiction that Elaine and I watched. “I think we got that from Dad,” Frank said—and I think he’s right. Our father always spoiled endings for us with his deductive abilities.

“Can Elaine do that?”

“No, she cannot,” I replied. “It drives her crazy that I can. Sometimes she doesn’t believe that I know how a mystery will end. I try not to spoil it for her, but then when she begs me to tell her the solution, I of course have no choice. She doesn’t always believe me. But when I’m proven right, she says, ‘I hate you.’” Frank got a kick out of that. He wanted to learn as much about Elaine as possible. Telling him her flaws as a mystery-solver perhaps humanized her a bit for him. I know it does for me.

Elaine was now an essential element of my bond with Frank. “None of the rest of us—not me or Gary or Gaylen—married and raised children. That’s good—the family screwed us up too much; we would have been terrible as husbands and parents. I think Elaine has blessed you. She provided you a love and family we couldn’t. She was good to you in a way you always deserved but that our family didn’t give you. I think she saved you, MIkal.” Frank’s moments of clarity could be like beatitudes. He was helping tie the same circle for me that Elaine had.

I visited again on Wednesday and Thursday, in early afternoons and all evening. I became a bit better at talking with my brother about our family’s history. One afternoon we sat in a lovely library den lined with hardbound Reader’s Digest compendiums. RD had condensed Shot in the Heart in 1994 (and did a terrific job of it). I wondered if it was on the care center’s bookshelves but never found it.

Frank repeated his questions about our family’s neglect of him, yet we were able to inch more deeply into emotional dynamics. He now had vivid recall of many events, both good-humored and bleak. In truth, he had lost much of his bitterness against these people who had hurt him—who in effect never really visited his life with the love and reinforcement he deserved and needed. The withholding of that affection had driven him more inside, more alone, shutting off the potential of his fine mind and kind heart.

Inevitably, we touched on instances Frank had relayed to me in Shot in the Heart. As I told his support team, I never could’ve written that book without the input of my brother’s far-reaching memory and eye for keen detail and most important, without his attesting to awful events that culminated in physical and psychic ruin for us both and for others, and that still reverberate for both us and others. Many times in our visits we enjoyed the grace and help of laughter. Other times we came to the impasses made of ruin that we’d known over and over in our lives.

In particular, Frank kept circling around the star-crossed relationship between our father and Gary. In a way that is really all that Shot in the Heart is about—how my father punished Gary their entire lives together for something Gary couldn’t have helped, and how Gary both hated my father for his hard-heartedness and fought the battle against paternal authority until it executed my brother.

“Gary would’ve killed Dad if he could,” Frank said, then related the times he had saved our father from Gary’s rage. He recalled one day when both he and I had intervened—at our home on Oatfield Road, in Milwaukie, Oregon, during my father’s final weeks in 1962, as he was dying of cancer. It took place during one of the last afternoons we were all together as a family under the same roof. As Frank recollected the event, his telling was close enough to the episode as it appears in the book that I’ll simply cite that passage at length here:

Gary was using drugs a lot in these days—uppers, grass, cough syrup, some heroin, plus plenty of alcohol—and he was coming and going at odd hours, bringing strangers around, who sat waiting in his car outside. I never liked the faces I saw on those men. I felt as if they were a danger, just waiting for entrance to our house.

 

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