FREEBIRD INDEED by Peter Nolan Smith

My youngest brother’s health suffered a precipitous decline in 1995. The doctors at Beth Israel along the Fenway spoke about turning the corner on AIDS, but the experimental drugs failed to stem the ruthless ravages of his aliment. His life was shrinking from years to months, but in January Michael made enough of a comeback for me to contemplate of West Coast job offer.

“We’re opening a Milk Bar in Beverly Hills.” The original club in New York had been a success lining my pockets with cash.

“Swimming pools, palm trees, and movie stars.” My brother painted a pleasant picture.

“Something like that. Do you want me to stick around?”

“No, I’ll be fine.” Michael was living with my parents on the South Shore. My father drove him to his radio station twice weekly for his show promoting gay life in Boston. “But if you see James Brolin, I want you to get his autograph.”

My baby brother loved swarthy men.

“You got it.”

I left for LA and the futuristic club opened that March. Beverly Hills had never seen such a place and I earned four times more in tips than my salary. Everyone wanted to be inside, but by July the nightlife was taking its toll on my body and soul. I wasn’t twenty anymore. It was time to quit and I had enough money to travel to Tibet for the rest of the year.

The morning after the 4th of July the telephone rang in my rented North Hollywood studio.

“Who is it?” Few people called me.

“Me.” It was my younger brother, Padraic. “Michael isn’t well.”

“How unwell?”

“I don’t think he’ll make August.”

“Fuck.”

The next day I was on a plane to Logan. My family was waiting at the hospice on the South Shore. I had seen friends die of AIDS. None of those passings prepared me for the sight of my brother’s condition.

His only nourishment was a morphine drip.

I guessed his weight to be 120.

Our family sat by his bedside. My mother patted his hand. My sisters wet his lips. My father faced the tragedy with a noble stoicism. He had done his best. Tears were for another day. My older brother read from the Bible. My youngest brother responded to none of this. I sat my his bed and didn’t leave his side for days, except to eat in the hospice’s canteen. They made a nice meatloaf.

One night I entered Michael’s room and my younger brother was playing FREEBIRD on his guitar. Paddy was a kind soul, but my youngest brother was more into show tunes and disco than southern rock.

“You know Michael hated this song?”

“I know, but in his state I figure that he would hear this song and know it was me.”

My youngest brother strummed his guitar and I joined his singing the song. I was more a punk than anything else, but I knew every word. FREEBIRD had been a huge hit for Lynard Skynard in 1972.

If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now,
‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.
But, if I stayed here with you, girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you cannot change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.

Bye, bye, its been a sweet love.
Though this feeling I can’t change.
But please don’t take it badly,
‘Cause Lord knows I’m to blame.
But, if I stayed here with you girl,
Things just couldn’t be the same.
Cause I’m as free as a bird now,
And this bird you’ll never change.
And this bird you cannot change.
Lord knows, I can’t change.
Lord help me, I can’t change.

My younger brother put down his guitar and kissed his emaciated brother on the forehead. I kissed the other side. His skin was waxen. Michael had only a little further to go in this life.

“Let’s take a photo.”

“Now?” Paddy knew how vain Michael was. It was a family trait.

“If not now, then it will be never.” Michael had hours left in his heart.

I positioned my camera on the bureau. The timer ran for thirty seconds. The camera snapped a shot of Paddy and me with my baby brother between us.

He died a day later and we buried him in the town cemetery. I fled to Asia and mourned my brother at the holiest temples in the Orient.

Upon my return I developed the roll of film from Michael’s last days. I didn’t show the shot on the bed to anyone, but Paddy.

He shook his head.

“What? You thinking about how thin he was?” I asked, taking the photo back from his hand.

“No, just thinking about how fat we were.”

I looked at the picture and laughed at the truth. Michael would have laughed too and probably did someplace in the afterlife. He was out there somewhere in the Here-Before as we all are with the ones we love.

FREEBIRD INDEED.

To hear FREEBIRD please go to the following URL

2 Comments

  1. josh hemingway
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Is this the same Peter Nolan Smith that I spent time in Tibet with for afew wild days ending up on top of the Potala Palace wearing womens Chinese Army hats…josh

  2. Posted March 12, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    josh is that you? most certainly is me. where are you? I’m in new york.

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