The Last Year of My Pandemic Writer Friend

 

by Jimin Han

 

 

Every Thursday at four o’clock, I leaned my phone against a pile of books and called my friend Brian Rogers. If I was late, I’d lose my chance. He was taking medications that made him nap throughout the day. The phone’s screen switched from a graphic of his name to a video of a man adjusting a baseball cap on his head, his jaw lifted toward the camera. Brian was a man who led with his jaw. A talker who enjoyed speaking, smoothly able to fill awkward silences, he put people at ease. He was an optimist, even if he’d never claim to be, even if he didn’t have a reason to be. For one thing, he had been told he was second generation Portuguese American. He found out later that this was not true, along with many other untruths, but he weathered these the way he’d handled everything in his life, the tragedy and triumphs—making the most of the time he had, time that ended last year at fifty-six years of age.

I met Brian in 1995 in Olympic Valley at the Community of Writers summer fiction writing conference. It was held at the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, and held in a ski resort at Palisades Tahoe, at the base of the Sierra Nevada range. What is it that makes you feel emotionally connected to someone? We were all writers around a table with our black cardboard folders during that week in July. We came from various parts of the country. For some intangible reason I found myself talking with Brian the most. He made me laugh, and seemed to think I made humorous observations. Brian was only a handful of inches taller than I (five feet) and reminded me of a nine-volt battery—compact and energetic. He had a hopefulness that drew me to him. 

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We parted ways, busy with our lives on two separate coasts. He seemed to be on his way to publishing success as the George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had acquired a literary agent. I began applying to MFA programs.

 

After a circuitous route, my first novel was finally published in 2017. One reading I was invited to participate in was at the Community of Writers. I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity to return, twenty-two years later. In the announcement in the Community newsletter, I saw Brian’s name. He had recently published his debut novel too. I flew to Reno and then rented a car to drive to Olympic Valley. The ski resort was crowded with new buildings. The grassy terrain between the hotel and the lodge was now filled with other structures, a shopping and restaurant outdoor mall with bungee trampolines. 

 

Brian found me on the large deck of the chalet. I was astonished at how much he looked the same and yet different. He was worn now, like me. We hugged. Turned out we both had heart conditions. He had cardiac sarcoidosis, a rare condition caused by inflammation that can result in heart failure. The pacemaker in his heart increased his survival rate but he was older than the forty-five year median age of those who responded best to treatment. My ailment was far more common. I had ventricular tachycardia along with a myocardial bridge. An ablation was successful for the tachycardia but gone were activities I’d taken for granted: tennis and long bike rides, taking the stairs instead of the elevator of any building. For Brian it meant he couldn’t ride the tram up to the top of the mountain as we’d done years ago, it meant that his heart could stop at any time. 

 

The alumni reading was a warm welcome home. The audience was generous and supportive. Brian’s wife Tish and his two teenage children were there along with my daughter and a friend who had won a grant to attend that year. It was a reunion that felt like the beginning of the next stage of our writing careers. Our second books shimmered on the horizon, I could see them. This time there would be no self-doubt. This time Brian and I would publish our books with ease. We parted with promises to stay in touch. 

           

Indeed, this time we succeeded in staying in touch. There were small celebrations like both of us being interviewed by the writer Andrew Tonkovich for his KPFK radio show, Bibliocracy. But then, in early 2020, I received an email from Brian:

 

"A bit more than two weeks ago I had surgery to remove a mass from my brain, biopsied out as a Stage 4, aggressive tumor -- 'glioblastoma' in the clinical language. It is not a package anyone wishes to open.”

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Glioblastoma along with cardiac sarcoidosis? What were the odds? Each on their own were rare, coming in at nearly one out of one hundred thousand. He had both of them, which put him in another whole category of the rarest of rare odds, and the slimmest of chances. Unfathomable.

At the time he wrote me that email, we were learning about the first case of Covid-19 in Washington State. During this time medical doctors were trying their best to advise family, friends, and patients. It felt like we were in a siege and within Brian’s body there was a siege. Just as improbable as Covid. 

I proposed to Brian that we meet every week to talk about writing. That’s how our Thursday afternoon conversations began, he in his garage in Ladera Ranch, California and I in my room looking out at my crab apple tree in South Salem, New York. For a year, we stood on a bridge above oblivion hoping we’d make it to the other side if either of us didn’t look down. He did not want the doctors to tell him how long he had. I played down my fear of contracting Covid with my heart condition. I hadn’t realized that I was worried about my own mortality until I was faced with the certainty of his. 

I don’t know what made me think he was going to beat the odds. Who beats stage four brain cancer? At first, He didn’t seem changed by the surgery or the treatments. No change in how he related to the world. His brain was being attacked and yet he was the same Brian. The same cheerfulness, the same desire to write. He continued to walk to Starbucks to work on a book idea. 

In April, he wrote:

“Oh dear your ears were burning! I have been journaling/book writing in the mornings, and this morning I happened to be writing about our reading at Community of Writers. I think that reading formed a nice arc, from '95 to '18 (you are of course in there).”

And then twenty days later, I received a manuscript from Brian along with this note:

“Okay, so attached you are going to find roughly 170 pages. You DO NOT NEED TO READ them! Really and truly. That is a LOT of words. See below. You appear on pages 54, 146, and 147. Reading those sections is enough. I am unsure that I will actually ever send to any agent or publisher. As you know, publishing is a precarious, fickle business; and at this point in my life I can do without the rejection. But I wanted to get some copies out into the world, so I send you the working file for safekeeping.”

He told me he'd written this for Tish and his family and expected it to be put high on a shelf in his closet for them to read after he was gone.

The memoir was his perspective on his entire life: the family secrets, the lies, the turmoil of trying to be a published writer, organized into chapters on books that were central to his spirit—the books he read that kept him going, gave him the foundation to be able to have a sense of humor when life took turns that were tragic while celebrating the highs that brought him great joy.  From his grandmother’s sopas recipe – ironic because it was a Portuguese dish which he identified with the most and then discovered through a genetic test that he wasn’t Portuguese after all—to his perseverance in becoming a published writer, his love of teaching at the high school and university level, fatherhood, the friendships, the whole journey. He had a chance to look back and take stock, before it was too late.

 

This was the worst time of the pandemic, when we lived with daily uncertainty.  With our families around us, we focused on writing– the only part of anything we could control. Despite his initial email, Brian agreed that he wanted to try to write one more book anyway. To write was one thing, a tremendous accomplishment to be able to concentrate when faced with a cancer diagnosis affecting your brain, but Brian was determined to do more than that. He was set on revising and shaping his first draft into something publishable. We both got to work on editing our manuscripts. He worked on his memoir, I worked on my novel. 

To meet with Brian during this time didn’t feel odd. It felt like we had lashed our rafts together. I know this is false—an illusion. He was dying. But I believed we’d have another reading together, this time with our second books. The precariousness of our plight, his diseases, Covid threatening our lives, somehow left us no room for self-doubt. We wrote like we had no time to spare.

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“Maybe add more sense of place,” he advised me, after reading a section of my novel. 

“Maybe add the part where you gave your daughter driving lessons at one AM because it was a good time to talk,” I suggested when I read his revised pages.

It was easy enough to believe in a future. We talked about our daily lives, our children, our writing. It felt like progress was being made, the promise of vaccinations against Covid, in voting for a new president in the White House.

But progress was not being made in a positive way for Brian. A small mass had grown back. I remember the lows seemed like flukes. I remember he told me he couldn’t talk one week because he’d taken the wrong amount of medicine which had upset his stomach and threw him disoriented to the floor of his bathroom. But then he was fine again. Back in the garage with his dogs at his feet, back to talking with me about my writing and his writing.          

Friends came to visit him. One waved at me --- onscreen --- as he passed through the garage and into the house. During this period, Brian began changing the time we met, postponing a day, a week. His wife, Tish, texted me once to say that he’d asked her to let me know they were on their way to the hospital for another test. 

I wasn’t worried. Brian had always returned. The fact that Tish was texting me meant that he was okay, okay enough to remember we were supposed to talk.

His birthday came and went. He and Tish went to dinner at a favorite restaurant. He was well enough for that—a marker of normalcy.

It was November by then. We were running up to the election. Brian began to have edema due to the side effects of his treatment. His face swelled along with the rest of his body. He began to talk with me in other rooms of his house. He’d spent a night in the guest room, because he could only write there now, or he was giving Tish a chance to sleep. He was speaking to me from the sitting room off the kitchen, and I’d see his family walk in and out behind him. He couldn’t talk without falling asleep mid-sentence. 

New Year’s Day came and went. We’d made it to 2021. At the end of the month, he sent me a text: “Happy Birthday! Or so the rumor goes…” I replied that we were getting old. I imagined we had time to grow older still. 

 

Even though our talks were becoming more and more rare, I pictured future reading events. I imagined both of our books being sold to publishers and celebrating our contracts. My denial was like my dreams of my mother when she was sick where I walked into a room and she was standing, walking around completely recovered from her stroke. And she said to me, “Did you think your mother wasn’t capable of fighting back?” In those dreams I was awash in relief. How did I ever doubt?

The next two weeks passed quickly. There was one more conversation, the same cheerful voice, the same plan to meet again on Facetime. Later, I learned through Tish, that Brian went into the hospital in septic shock and didn’t come out. It went just like that. A blink and he was gone. 

Tish told me that on the day of Brian’s memorial service and other times in their yard at her lowest moments, she saw a monarch butterfly make its presence known to her. In my novel my protagonist, who has died, signals to the living in a variety of ways, through birds making strange noises and patterns resembling faces in airplane seat cushions. I told her Brian had liked that part of my novel best and the sentimental butterfly would be a perfect disguise for him. She laughed, and I could hear in her voice that she carried the optimism I’d seen in Brian. 

Kirkus Reviews gave The Whole of Moon, Brian’s only published novel (University of Nevada, 2017), an excellent appraisal, which Brian’s publisher excerpted on the cover. It reads: “Infused with subtle, evocative details, each story beautifully, quietly beats on against time’s current.” It’s true of the book, Brian’s details, every moment shining, memorably. His singular debut work as a novelist endures. I’m struck by the mention of time, as if the reviewer knew somehow even then that Brian would not have much more of it. It seems to me that we’re all caught in that motion, heading out to sea on an inexorable current. I can hear Brian’s voice in my ear, the final lines at the end of his completed memoir. I won’t give them away here. You can read it when it’s published. But it’s a paddle that he hands us, the readers. Against time’s current then, this.

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Jimin Han was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up in Rhode Island, Ohio, and New York. Her writing can be found on NPR’s “Weekend America,” in Catapult Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, and elsewhere. A Small Revolution, her first novel, was among Entropy’s Best Fiction of 2017, Pleiades Editors’ Choice 2017, and Electric Literature's Ten Galvanizing Books About Political Protest. Her new novel, The Apology, is forthcoming from Little, Brown & Co. in 2023. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Pace University.