Don’t Forget Me, Bro by John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Reviewed by Gretchen A. VanOstrand
The death of a son and brother brings a fractured family together in this powerful and thought-provoking book. Mark Barr, the youngest of three sons, returns to his childhood home in West Virginia to attend the funeral of his oldest brother, Steve, who suffered from schizophrenia. The book is written entirely in first person from Mark’s perspective as the prodigal son who is now a New Yorker. The night before Steve succumbed to his untimely death due to a defect in his aortic valve, Mark reluctantly spoke to Steve and it was then that Steve prophetically expressed the desire to be buried next to his Granddad.
During his stay in West Virginia, an indignant Mark discovers that his parents decided to have Steve cremated. The ensuing battle over Steve’s remains finds Mark and his brother Greg in an awkward and unlikely truce to do right by Steve regardless of their parents’ demands. During the many conversations and altercations that Mark had with his father, it was quite apparent that the relationship he had with his sons was and continued to be very strained. The father was a sarcastic, unfeeling bully who regularly hit his young sons and belittled them whenever he could. Mark’s introspection about his own failings as a man and his relationship difficulties with women directly related to his failed relationship with his father. He also placed the blame on his father for causing Steve’s schizophrenia. During several of their verbal battles, it seemed to me that Mark goaded his father in order to start a fight. In my opinion, Mark did this in order to prove his manhood to a father who viewed him as a failure and a mama’s boy.
While visiting with Whitey, a former neighbor, Mark was given a box of photographs of Steve which were taken by Whitey. Whitey, an aging homosexual who, unbeknownst to Mark, maintained a friendship with Steve even during his worst bouts with mental illness. The photographs showed Steve in all sorts of peculiar settings in various outlandish attire. The photos, initially a source of embarrassment for Mark, eventually became important glimpses into Steve’s life as he and his mother pored over them with a magnifying glass, desperate to gain any insight into Steve’s solitary world. Mark also learned that Steve had a girlfriend, an intellectually disabled young woman. While questioning his brother’s seemingly peculiar choice for a girlfriend, Mark takes the time to get to know her in an attempt to reacquaint himself with Steve. Her memories of Steve helped Mark to see him as more than just a crazy overweight embarrassment, but a man capable of loving and caring who still enjoyed painting and giving trinkets to his girl. The fact that Steve had chosen her to be his companion was a reflection of just how deep in denial Mark was about Steve’s illness. In his mind, Steve was still the track star with a bright future, not a severely mentally ill man.
The middle brother Greg was an interesting character. Like Steve, he was very intelligent and once had a bright future ahead of him. Greg was a maintenance man, a career choice that confused Mark, as Greg always had big ambitions to attend college and have a professional career. It was unclear to me why Greg did not pursue a “better” life, but alcoholism certainly factored into that. The brother’s relationship was strained by Mark’s desertion of the family and Greg’s resentment. Mark; however, relied on Greg to fill him in on Steve’s life. Greg takes Mark to Steve’s apartment and breaks into it so Greg could help Mark understand what Steve’s life was like during his darkest days as a schizophrenic. It was during the apartment break-in that Mark confesses to Greg that he also suffers from mental illness.
Meanwhile, Mark’s mission to have Steve’s ashes scattered directly conflicted with his parents’ wishes for a simple cremation and storing the ashes in an unembellished urn. I often felt that the parents’ struggle with Steve and his illness was downplayed and that Mark, having been gone so long, was desperately trying assuage his own guilt and posthumously show Steve that he did care about him.
Eventually, Greg forges his father’s signature, takes the urn for Steve’s ashes and has it engraved with his name and birth-death dates. The family reluctantly agrees that Steve’s ashes, along with select photographs and memorabilia would adorn the mantle, which Greg and Mark would repair as a final statement of support for their brother and mother.
This story of abuse, mental illness and dysfunction was weighty reading material. I felt that the characters were very well-developed and believable. I wouldn’t say any of them were particularly likeable, but the long-suffering mother who desperately desired family harmony and peace was the most relatable to me.
I could almost feel Mark’s anger rising to the surface and as he and Greg fought. Years of unspoken family secrets and dysfunctional dynamics played out in fistfights and insults while nothing really seemed to get resolved. The story was just starting to come together for me when it ended on a relatively high note. For once, the remaining family unit was actually communicating in an attempt to come to a compromise. The fact that Steve’s ashes were put on the mantle along with pictures and books was such a triumphantant ending to so much conflict that I wanted the family to seek counseling and come to an understanding about their past and move forward. This is not a criticism of the book, merely a personal observation. I especially wanted that for Mark, who seemed so lost and scattered. There was a brief mention of a homosexual liaison that Mark had in the past, but I could not determine if it was an abusive situation or one that Mark sought out as a young adult due to his desire for a “father figure,” which Mark mentioned during his introspection about his failed relationships with women. I wanted to know more about that.
The author did a very good job of describing the West Virginia scenery and lifestyle of the people in Appalachia. As someone who has been in that part of the country often, I was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy and attention to detail.
One minor criticism that I have is that the author overused the adjective “bluish”, which was slightly irritating. I also saw a few spelling and grammatical errors, which I hope are corrected before publication. After reading Don’t Forget Me, Bro, I feel that I know the Barr family. They could be any family anywhere or your next door neighbors. As difficult as it was to read, it is my opinion that it is an important read. Mental illness, abuse and dysfunction are topics that affect many of us and are often hard to talk about. A book like this one could be a great conversation starter for many families. I would definitely recommend this book.
About Gretchen VanOstrand
Gretchen VanOstrand is the nonfiction and photography editor for Ray’s Road Review.