Conversation No. 87 with My Dead Brother
James Swansbrough

Conversation No. 87 with My Dead Brother

There was your law-school friend who was a Navy SEAL,
            described their coping mechanisms for Hell Week.

That it was only endurable by breaking life up into segments:
            just six hours until we sleep; hour ’til lunch; ten minutes left in this rotation.

He told you how—when they couldn’t segment the suffering down any further,
            when their eyes wouldn’t focus & their muscles screamed spasms,

when the pain cave just wasn’t any deeper than the breathed word quit
            they’d tell themselves at least I’m not on fire.

You shared his anecdote with me after your brain surgery.
            I recited it back to you during radiation & chemo: At least you’re not on fire.

But the treatments felt like infused flames to you, just poison combatting death.
            You were a tree fighting off blight with lightning strikes.

You: that mad one to live, more desires in your day than hours to exercise them.
            You who burned through life like a fabulous yellow roman candle.

Well. That’s all over & past. You can tell me now what hurt most.
            If you felt all of us holding you at the end. Crying at your silence.

You can tell me how hard your last breath was. If your passing hurt.
            Or if it was as immemorable as birth; just wonderful trauma for others.
Tell me if you sensed your passage from hospice to mortuary. To crematorium.
            Tell me when the burning stopped hurting. If it ever stops.

Now that you’ve been on fire, tell me how to cope. To mourn, to venerate.
            Tell me if any of that hurt worse than knowing what you left behind.

James Swansbrough

runs a restaurant repair company in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His work has appeared in West Branch, Free State Review, Cagibi, Freshwater Review, and other journals. His poetry has been awarded "honorable mention" twice: for the 2019 Yeats Poetry Award by the W.B. Yeats Society of New York and for the 2022 New Millennium Writing Awards in Nashville. He lives in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, with his wife and daughters.