This happened shortly after his mother died.
He was seventeen and the day after her death, he dropped out of high school and went to live with his half brother, whom he’d only met once, eight years before.
His half brother’s name was Markeus. He lived in a shotgun shack between Nogales and Tucson, at the end of a sandy road immediately beyond which rose the Baboquivari Mountains. In the opposite direction, in the middle distance, there was saguaro and mesquite and a desert as wide and windy as the sea.
Beyond that, very far away, slate-blue hills floated ghostly above the earth.
His mother had been sick for many months but refused to have herself treated. She was ready to die, she said. He could see in her eyes that this was true. Too much heartbreak and hardship in her life. She was still young — not yet fifty-five.
The sickness had started in her womb and then it spread throughout her whole body. She was at home the entire time she was sick, and he took care of her as best he could. The day before she died, she told him he was to go live with his half brother. She told him that he could find his half brother’s address in the little book she kept in her desk drawer.
The next day, when he went to her in the morning, she was unconscious though still alive. It was raining outside. His mother’s eyes were closed. The bones in her face lay like blades, threatening at any moment to slice through her papery skin. Her breath was rattled. Her veins shone prominently, and he could see her heart beating in her neck.
He went to the window and opened it to receive the cool autumn air, and then he knelt on the floor beside her and held her hand, which was so dry and thin and bird-like. He stared long into her caved and wasted face, the veins on her eyelids like rivers on a map, and he was too tired to feel much of anything beyond resignation. The heavy blankets did not rise or fall beneath her tiny breath.
He thought of death.
He stared at the heartbeat in her neck. The breeze blew into the room bringing with it the smell of dying leaves and decay and foggy moisture.
After an hour, she coughed and started to gag. She half sat up. Her eyes remained closed. She had not spoken since the day before, but now in a loud voice filled with finality and utter authenticity she called out his name:
“Thomas,” she said.
“I am here, ” he said. “I’m right here.”
He squeezed her hand more tightly, and she responded to his grip by squeezing his hand with a strength he didn’t know his fading mother possessed: her hand still living and grasping — like the autumn season, beautiful and dying.
She continued to gag. Then she stopped gagging and her raggedy breath stopped as well. He could still see her heartbeat in her neck. He watched it for a long time. He watched it pulse. The pulse grew slower and slower. Her grip eased gradually, and gradually her body went inert. Soon, her pulse stopped altogether and she died.
He thought: death is nothing to make light of.
He rose from where he knelt on the floor and gazed down at her one last time. Her wine-colored lips, the turquoise veins so visisble everywhere beneath her thin and pale skin. A small frown knit above the bridge of her nose. At length, he turned and slung his duffel bag over his shoulder, and then he left this tiny home forever.