The first year after the death of someone you’re close to is always the hardest, and it is always a year of firsts. Mine came more than 20 years ago, back when another deadly virus raged.
That year, Easter came and went without a 6-foot-tall bunny suddenly jumping onto my front porch with a basket of fresh croissants and soft goat cheeses to toast spring.
July 4th brought the typical fire-flowers detonating above my head, but it was bereft of the annual fondue-a-thon.
Halloween, I dressed in my finest Magenta livery and handed out homemade cheddar-goldfish crackers to the neighborhood kids — alone. Doctor Frank-N-Furter no longer made house calls.
But of all special occasions that year, I dreaded my birthday, two weeks before Christmas, the most.
The tradition was simple: a disturbingly early phone call to bless the day with good thoughts — and screw up my sleep. “Honestly, kiddo,” my brother would say, “what’s the point of family if you can’t torment them?”
This birthday, I knew the call wouldn’t come, though I still woke before dawn. Quiet, ordinary, deafening silence welcomed the morning. Without spark or splendor, I navigated the day, running errands, staying busy, returning home just as the sun’s last light slipped below the horizon. A large white package jutted out of the mailbox. I grabbed it mindlessly, putting my key in the lock. Setting the box on the foyer table, I returned to the numbing routine of my evening.
Clothes changed, and the house tidied, I found myself standing before the open refrigerator, failing to convince myself to eat. I closed the door, reaching for a glass of Burgundy instead. Passing the foyer table, I was reminded of the white box. No name, just a business address somewhere in Maryland, my brother’s home state. I pulled back the flaps, digging through snowy packing peanuts until I came to another box, this one with a card on top. I recognized his writing immediately. “Happy birthday, kiddo. On your second glass of wine yet? Hope it’s red! Say Cheese!” He had scrawled his name, Lars, across the bottom, along with the date: two months after receiving the diagnosis, six months before his death.
Lars and I loved cheese. We would skip the mild, fresh, white cheeses, lounging in their cloudy water baths at the local cheese shop. Instead, my brother and I sought the ripest, most intense flavors possible in our constant effort to “out-cheese” each other. When I joined his traveling, dazzling drag show as “R.G.” (real girl) during our last summer together, we eagerly explored local cheese shops around the country. After each excursion, we returned to our hotel, arms filled with paper-and-string wrapped treasures for the next day’s breakfast. We shared the best of ourselves — our hopes, fears, plans, dreams and burdens over mouth-watering delicacies and bottles of French Burgundy on the pier in Malibu; outside Faneuil Hall in Boston; on Hawaii’s Laniakea Beach and in Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. Then the diagnosis came. AIDs.
Incurable. Terminal. “Don’t hate me just because you can’t eat all this cheese without getting fat!” Lars said, wry as ever, finishing the last Roquefort chunk. But the joking didn’t last. Within months, his body began to decline. Soon his appetite, and then his palate, wasted along with his waist.
Eight months after being handed a death sentence, my beloved brother died. And yet, here was a birthday box for me, from him. He had taped a small notice to the back of the card: Welcome to Cheese of the Month Club: One-Year Subscription. He knew he didn’t have long and that I’d need a kick to get moving again, so he’d sent me a brilliant mature sphere of Brie de Meaux. As I savored its pungent aroma, I realized I was talking aloud, recalling projects and plans we always expected to execute with unprecedented success. Talking once more to my best friend, my partner in silliness or solemnity — my life preserver. I still missed him dearly, but I smiled.
For the first time since the afternoon of the diagnosis, delivered in a crypt-gray consultation room at the downtown men’s clinic, I spoke of hope for the future despite being afraid of what lay ahead. I placed my burdens bare before my older brother — just as I always did — over strong cheese and good French wine, finding a sense of profound peace and a much-needed course correction.
It is a ritual born of a global epidemic that I still practice today, amid a pandemic.
They say food is life, and perhaps they’re right. Lars sent me cheese, but he gave me back my life.
Ana Chevalier (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and former Maryland resident living on the East Coast.