How to watch your brother die
Michael Lassell portrays himself as a straight man in his poem “How to Watch your Brother Die.” In reality he is a 21st century gay poet. The poem tells the story of a man, this being the straight narrator, who is called across the country to visit his brother as he lies on his deathbed.
Later in the poem we learn the dying brother is suffering from HIV, and had been disowned by his brother because of his homosexuality. As the poem goes on, the narrator creates a unique and close relationship with his brother’s lover. Through the trials of the writer, the poem conveys the struggles and judgment received by the gay community, ultimately creating a life-changing shift in his morals.
The reader can see and understand the changes in the narrator because of Lassell’s use of reversed roles, second-person voice, and symbolism. “Michael Lassell often writes about life as a gay man. He speaks bravely about sexuality and vulnerability.” (480) In this poem Lassel had to shift his role. He had to step into a perspective of someone whose beliefs are on the other side of the spectrum. What we know about the narrator before he wrote the poem is that he lived a conservative life.
We know this because he is married to a woman who has no interest in her husband’s dying brother, simply because he is gay. The lover tells him, “Forgive yourself for not wanting to know him.” (482) This tells us the narrator disagreed with his brother’s sexual orientation enough to take a step out of his life, and discontinue their relationship. By portraying the story from the view of an orthodox straight man, Lassell creates a stronger connection and understanding with his non-gay readers, while still portraying a new perspective.
Lassell tells you the story as if it is an experience you are going to soon face and teaches you how to react appropriately, walking you through each step. He used second person to allow the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. In the first line of the poem he says, “When the call comes, be calm. Say to your wife, ‘My brother is dying I have to fly to California.’” (480)
After reading the first two sentences the reader can immediately understand the heart-ships the narrator will soon face. Everyone carries a little bit of judgment but that judgment seems to drop when it’s something involving yourself or the ones you love most. Except for the dying brother, the narrator and the lover, there are no other big roles in this poem.
Even so, it doesn’t mean the other characters didn’t work together to play a key part in the poem. They symbolize the hate he had before he came, and the judgment people hold against ideas they don’t understand. The first character we are introduced to is the doctor, described as “remote” and is said to “talk with a steel face on.”
In most cases doctors show sympathy toward their patients and the patient’s loved ones, but in this instance he didn’t care. He distanced himself off from the family, and the sorrow they felt because of his opposed opinion to homosexuality. The narrator and the lover take a trip to Mexico in search of illegal drugs in hopes to help the dying brother live longer.
When the border guard learns what the drugs are for and sees the two men link arms he refuses to let them to bring the drugs through the border. When the narrator contests to this he can “See in the guard’s eye how much a man can hate another man.” (481) When the narrator makes a call home to his wife he starts to question their love because the love his brother shared with his partner was so visibly strong, she brushes this off, not wanting to know the details.
The last is the funeral director who refused to “embalm the body in fear of contamination” (482). The funeral director symbolizes the ignorance and the lack of knowledge people gain when they choose to hate someone or something.
They choose to be dumb to the idea because they cannot connect or understand it, and refuse to take a look into another man’s perspective. Before the narrator came to watch his brother die, he shared the same views as all of the characters talked about.
The wife demonstrates the commitment he has to these views, and that the epiphany he had during the loss of his brother will not be an easy life shift. Although his view on homosexuality and love changed, it doesn’t mean the world, and all its people have.
The narrator shifted his mindset completely by having a little taste of the gay man’s hardships. He started with the view that being gay is wrong and that it is okay to brush someone of so easily because of it, to feeling that judgment and not being able to wrap his mind around “another man’s hate”.
At the face of his brother’s death he was able to come to understanding of the difficult life his brother must have led by facing a constant struggle between who he was and the society that demanded what right and wrong is.
Since he had to defend himself at every corner of his existence it became clear to his brother who now feels the pain and will embrace his children upon his return home, with an additional knowledge and the sense of relief that they will not have to experience the same. .
Lassell, Michael. “How to Watch your Brother Die.” Alvarado, Beth, and Barbra Cully. Writing as Revision, Fourth Edition. Boston, MA. Pearson, 2012. 480-82. Print.