Letters to W: One

Dear W,

Today is Ronnie's thirtieth birthday. This is my favorite time of year, when my brother and sister and I are back-to-back in age, 30, 31, 32. His death is almost a decade past now. Considering time like this is terribly effective in terms of remembering who we were, and why we are.

Mom called early this morning to tell me about the robin in her backyard. She calls them her Ronnie Robins, and this is the first she's seen this spring--his puffed red chest, his thoughtful head cocked and pivoting in the sunlight. The robin perched on my parents newly fenced perimeter and watched Mom watch him through her kitchen window. He stayed longer than birds tend to do. 

I like your painting book. I like calling it that, specifically. I think I’m being mean-spirited. I could be more generous and refer to it as your book of paintings, but your painting book sounds funny in a way I think you’d understand.

We’ve never met, but you said my brother’s name once. Memorial Day, 2008—he was killed about a month prior. When your speechwriters called the house, it wasn’t all that surprising. My family was living our new normal. A reporter from a local station had been stalking our driveway for days, his TV hair plastered to his scalp, a helpful makeup line visible above his collar. My aunt went outside and demanded, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” or something in a similar tone. Lots of people were calling the house then. Or, we were making the calls. My mom asked me to call my brother’s girlfriend in Texas. That was the first time I’d ever spoken to Amanda, and she was calm, steady, when I could not be.

Your paintings are remarkable. Your choice of color is refreshing. I am taken aback by the way you marry light and dark in the faces of these veterans. I find the thickness of paint on each canvas appealing, and bold. Each scrape and smear deliberate, confident—I like excess of materials. As though the paint could be picked, rolled off in strips. I have an untrained eye for such things. When I do experiment with visual art, I, myself, am greedy with my chosen medium. I was always the kid who broke the crayon by pressing too hard. I have a box of dusty pastels, little vibrant nubs now, because I push and squeeze as though color will only arrive through pressure, by enthusiastic, violent force.

Why did you begin painting? And why these “Portraits of Courage”? I saw you on Jimmy Kimmel and I smiled. Then I cried, because smiling with you feels like a massive betrayal. I know you didn’t kill my brother yourself, with your painting hands. I know you’re more like a symbol—like the symbol you made out of my brother. I want to hate you, but I cannot. In fact, these days, I see your face and I feel relief. This Trump dude has been convenient for you, huh?


Who is this book for?


Are people buying it?


Where does the money go?


What did it feel like the first time you picked up a paintbrush? 


My husband bought a cake for Ronnie today. It says "Happy Birthday, Ronnie" in red cursive frosting. My husband also bought a three candle and a zero candle. We're about to eat the cake. I don't think we'll sing happy birthday, or light the numbers, or even stick them in the cake; one can only handle so much morbidity at a time, you know? My parents went to Ronnie's grave today in Colorado, left him a balloon and flowers. When the caretakers are missing, my mother digs and plants the flowers along the marble headstone rather than lay them beside. She's hoping to make the blooms more permanent. The tree they planted beside his grave is growing taller. Do you know trees cost like $1000? I found that surprising, too.

I don't know where the Ronnie Robin thing came from. I do remember the four of us, my mom, my sister, my brother, and I, getting Sonic for dinner and stopping at a car wash on the way home. Maybe then we were something like 8, 9, 10--our mother, thirty. Like Ronnie, today. Strange, the way life folds in on itself, over and over. It was this time of year, the days getting the longer, the sunset prolonged. Mom vacuumed and scrubbed our Toyota minivan, and Daisy, Ronnie, and I, walked along the the perimeter of the car wash, seeking loose change and treasure. We found a broken robin's egg, the blue of the delicate shell unmistakable. The nest must have been built in the rafters of the roof, but we couldn't find it, and we didn't look for long, because the still, shattered, baby bird held our attention. We used a leaf and stick to scoop up the body and the jewel-toned shell, and we buried the bird in the grass between the car wash and Fountain Video Rentals. When Mom finished washing the car she yelled out to us, and we went home.

Would you consider sending me a copy of your painting book? I don't think I can, in good conscience, purchase it. But I'm certain a copy is owed, at least.


Talk soon,