He could rock a karaoke mic like the second coming of Elvis and dance like a tae-bo master. He made everyone laugh. That is, when he was not making them cry with his heart-wrenching renditions of Earth Wind and Fire ballads. He would drive like a madman from Sacramento to San Francisco to Vallejo and back in one day, a few times a week, all to fulfill his many duties as a culture worker, activist, employee and brother to his real sister Lyn.
There is a word for him in Tagalog: he was “sobre” – too much. And as it turned out, he was “sobre” – too much – for this world.
His name was BJ Alisago and he was my best friend and brother from another mother. He died on February 8, 2005 several months shy of his 30th birthday.
He had been healthy. He was a dancer and a mover – literally, moving furniture for Pottery Barn. But for several weeks he had felt crippling pain in his limbs. He didn’t have health insurance, so he must have been suffering terribly when he finally did go to the emergency room – twice – for treatment. Both times he was sent home with ibuprofen. The third time he went was his last. Less than 24 hours after he was admitted to the hospital, he died of organ failure due to unknown causes.
The morning after BJ died I woke up drowning. I had been crying in my sleep and the tears were waterfalls pooling in my ears and on my pillow and even somehow in the space between my collarbones. When I muscled apart gluey lashes everything I saw was fish-eyed and blurry and all I could feel was heaviness. My comforter was made of lead. If it had been lighter, maybe I could have gotten up to do something, like maybe I could have rewound time, brought BJ back and made everything right with the world.
Five years before, when we first met, it was like a family reunion. Right away we were giggling about how his suit was so big he looked like an amputee. That would become just one of our many inappropriate inside jokes. “You remind me of my sister,” he said. “She gets on my nerves, I think you’d really like her.” In fact we fell into a big sister-little brother dynamic right away, even though he was the one that was always picking up after me. Your glasses, he’d offer after several cruel minutes of watching me stumble around the apartment blind as a bat. Your phone, he said one day after it had dropped from my pocket as we danced through a protest in downtown Oakland. One day he came home, walked over to the couch and dumped my camera on my lap without a word. “Where did you find this?” I asked. “A few blocks away on the sidewalk next to your car.”
We lived together for almost two years. And while the rumors flew that we were a couple, everyone who was part of our daily lives knew otherwise. They saw us gossiping like girlfriends, coaching each other through our love lives, and turning everything from cooking to folding laundry into a matter of sibling rivalry (which of us could do it better? faster? clearly me).
“He would give his eyes for you,” a friend once told me. “Not if I gave him mine first,” I replied.
He moved in when my roommate moved out to live with her boyfriend. We bonded over broken hearts, his from an old and almost rekindled relationship, mine from a relationship that never quite was. We would stand on the stairway landing outdoors, smoking American Spirits and looking out to the corner of 21st and Florida on the Potrero side of the Mission. We did what all brokenhearted people do – we loaded ourselves up with toxic crap and talked about how much better people we were than they. “You were just too much man for her,” I said. “He had chicken legs anyway,” he said. Long drags, smoke rings and clink went our shot glasses of Jim Beam. “To us.”
He was a tortured soul just like I was though he tried not to show it. He moved through life as an artist and a ham. We got along because on the inside we were both licking our wounds. But on the outside, we were music, we were movement, we were laughter. Those three things were our church – they were how we found communion, and how we tried to tame our demons into angels.
We sang together in a band called Diskarte Namin for 5 years. Together we wrote the band’s biggest hit – the River song. He taught me how to belt and I taught him how to improvise. He showed me what it was like to be a natural frontman with his kickboxing antics and magnetic smile. He channeled Donnie Hathaway and Sam Cooke and was a little bit of Bruno Mars a decade before Bruno’s time.
When BJ died the band broke up. We just couldn’t find the heart to soldier on. We found other ways to memorialize him; the bassist, his other best friend, tatted “Benito Alisago” across a forearm, while I wrote a song for him that he surely would have hated.
The song has an outro that goes like this:
Gonna see you on the other side / never gonna say goodbye / so / put on your angel’s wings / go ‘head fly ’round and check up on things cuz / we need your blessings / we need your comfort / that all we do will continue
Now in retrospect I can imagine BJ looking down at me while I wrote those lines. He was probably smirking and thinking: be careful what you wish for.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust / to the fire circle we go
Two years after BJ’s death I was at a silent meditation retreat at the Vallecitos ranch above Taos, New Mexico. I was burnt out from work, my health was in terrible shape and a recent crisis had left me depressed. Basically, I really needed a retreat. What I got was more like a miracle.
We had just finished a long sit when clang clang went the bell, signaling the time for walking meditation. Before leaving the sanctuary, I walked upstairs to visit the altar we’d created at the beginning of the retreat. The meditation leaders had asked us to offer names or photos of any deceased loved ones we wanted to honor through our practice. I had forgotten a photo, so I tore a corner from the top sheet of a yellow legal pad and scrawled “BJ Alisago” in ballpoint pen. A little embarrassed by the jankiness of my tribute, I placed the scrap on the farthest corner of the alter, which was now on the exact opposite side of the room from where I had come up the stairs.
As soon as I stepped into the room my body began moving strangely. I was about to walk straight to the altar, but instead my right leg kept crossing in front of my left, and I ended up walking – no, limping and somehow lurching at the same time – in a diagonal across the room. What the hell?! I was thinking as my body limp-lurched along, completely independent of my mind. When I finally stopped I looked down and I was immediately in front of BJ’s name on the altar.
From there on, a conversation rang inside my head as loud as the meditation bell.
“What the hell?!” I repeated silently and not just a little afraid. “What the hell is going on?”
Apparently in response, my gaze went to a tiny chair that I hadn’t noticed before. It was empty. Then I realized the chair was right next to a sofa where I had spent hours the day before, crying my eyes out from burnout and loneliness. Suddenly my fear dissolved and an excited feeling of disbelief crept over me.
“Uh, BJ? Are you here? I mean there? Are you trying to tell me you were there the whole time? The whole time I was lying there crying were you sitting in that chair?”
Again apparently in response, my gaze lifted to the window through which I could see the grey stone fire circle outside. It was turning black with the setting sun.
“Should we go out to the fire circle?”
I turned around and waited for the limp-lurch to come back. It didn’t, and I ran down the stairs and out the door with glee. I felt like a child reunited with a long-lost playground buddy at recess.
Contrary to the norms of walking meditation, I practically skipped towards the fire circle. I felt weightless. It was as if BJ was next to me with his hand on my back pushing me along.
“This is fun!” I giggled to the wind. The twilight was turning from deep blue to ink grey and the tree shadows united to form darkness.
Ashes to ashes dust to dust / To the fire circle we go
Like a mantra, these words repeated in my mind, and I felt the push on my back lighten and then leave.
“No, no, you can’t go,” I said out loud, desperate. “No BJ, you can’t leave, then I’ll be alone again.”
As I said those very words, I realized I had reached the fire circle. Looking down at the pit I saw a pile of charred wood, and underneath it there were embers burning. I looked left and saw more than a dozen points of light as my fellow retreat goers turned on flashlights in near synchronicity. I turned around and saw the main cabin begin to glow as the caretaker lit two kerosene lamps and hung them from the eaves above the porch. One more turn and there was our meditation leader at the fireplace next to the sanctuary, tenderly, it seemed, coaxing the flames to life. I was surrounded 360 degrees by warmth and light and the protection of brotherly love. At last my gaze went skyward as out came Venus, shining like the first night star.