BURRITOS IN WISCONSIN
After my brother divorced, he came every summer
to my house in Wisconsin with his kids, making
the long journey from San Francisco to Madison
as if he were coming home, the week with us respite
in his fractured world. I’d meet them at the foot
of the escalator for Arrivals—tall blond man
and his two little kids, Gabe with his tight curls
and green eyes, Fiona in ringlets and a pink polka
dot dress, a stuffed toy called “Picture Pig” clutched
beneath her arm, the family photo encased in plastic
on its plush flank a perfect quartet of loss.
The kids ran into my arms before I hugged
my brother, his blue Oxford-cloth shirt perfectly
pressed, as if he’d bought it just for the trip. I’d looked
for signs his kidney disease was worse—his face
drawn, hairline receding, the skin on his hands
and arms onion paper thin after decades on steroids.
When we hugged, a little shy at first, I felt Peter
relax, his gruff guard coming down. All week
we did summer things—swimming for hours,
catching fireflies at dusk, visiting caves and steam
trains and farms where the kids fed baby goats bottle
after bottle of milk as if there were no end to plenty.
All week, my brother, who’d caught Epstein-Barr
from a patient and couldn’t recover, slept until noon.
And all week, I cooked, especially my burritos,
with their creamy spinach filling, yellow rice,
and a crisp salad his favorite. “This is so good,”
he’d say. “This is the best food I’ve ever had.”
I thought of his words after he died, as I searched
his house, looking for papers I needed to manage
his affairs. A stray page from his disability claim
application documented fears he’d be unable to care
for his children—true at the end, though they
were older by then—he barely able to rise
from the living room bed, the house stinking
of garbage and piss, loneliness thick as dust,
despair I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try
to shake it off. I want to remember us the way
we were those summers, late sunlight warming
our faces, the picnic table covered with the red
and white checked cloth, vases of cone flowers
and Queen Anne’s lace picked by the kids, first
stars just coming out, the yard filled with fireflies.
And my brother, eating one burrito after another,
filled for a moment with everything he needed.
from Rattle #73, Fall 2021
Alison Townsend: “‘Burritos in Wisconsin, is part of a series of poems I’m writing about my late brother, who died of kidney failure at age sixty-four in 2019. A doctor himself, he was a model of grace and courage, and had one of the longest lasting kidney transplants in the world. The poem arose from various memories (especially about cooking) of the times he visited me in Wisconsin. Siblings can, I think, become homes for one another in adulthood. The poem articulates my hope that I was that for him, while bearing witness to the difficulty and loneliness of his passing. Grief crystallizes things. This is one of the few poems I’ve ever written that came nearly whole, as if dictated.”