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Logan Silva

A Feast of Spread

Wreath of Flowers by John La Farge

There’s always time to tell stories, until there isn’t. My brother always wanted to write a book, but he never got that chance. Cancer. It takes a six foot  two, two-hundred-pound, tattoo-covered force of nature and turns him into something else entirely. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It comes in March and kills you by November, and doesn’t forget to torture you along the way, leaving a trail of misery and heartbreak in its wake. Still, my brother fought like hell and urged me to tell some stories before he passed, so I decided to write this essay.

Institutionalized. That’s a term you hear a lot. My brother had an endless fascination with my teaching career; I had an interest in his prison career. That career spanned his life, from the group home and juvenile hall as a kid to his career as a prison guard to his forays into being a prisoner himself, with a substitute teacher stint in there somewhere. His resume includes being a guard at Leavenworth and ADX Florence (The Alcatraz of the Rockies): as a prisoner, San Quentin and Soledad.  He lived his life in institutions until he left the final one, Soledad, shortly before the end.

In his last days he lived on a hospital bed in my other brother’s living room, surrounded by loved ones. My stepdad and I drove for seven hours to pick him up from Soledad, and  we didn’t recognize him: wheelchair bound, bald from chemo, weak. It hurt him to move, and we had to drive like that for hours, every little bump in the road a trauma, but he said it was better than the prison treated him. At least we didn’t chain him to a crap bucket.

We stopped in Pacifica to eat at his favorite fish and chips restaurant. The inside of the restaurant could only seat a few people, and it was mostly full, but we managed to wedge his wheelchair up to a spot, bumping patrons along the way. Number one request: a pint of Guinness. I felt conflicted, not wanting the alcohol to interfere with his treatment, but I ordered a pair of pints. It seems silly in retrospect to try and police beers and cigarettes for somebody in that situation, but my protective instinct kicked in, but the look of gratification on his face when he took his first drink as a free man was priceless. The other restaurant goers weren’t as excited to be seated near somebody clearly on his way home from prison, wearing gray sweatpants and a gray sweatshirt. I snapped a photo and the looks of disapproval in the background: even more priceless.

The night he died me, my aunt, and my cousin sang his favorite song: “Institutionalized,” by Suicidal Tendencies. “They stuck me in an institution/Said it was the only solution/To give me the needed professional help/To protect me from the enemy – myself.” A strange way to spend the night with your family, singing our punk rock hymns late into the night. He wanted to go out with a bang, so we had a party for the Seahawks/49er game on Veteran’s Day. The Niners lost in overtime, a classic game (curse you, sea chickens).  We decorated the house with a Christmas theme, and he gave my children their Christmas presents early. My brother passed later that night, around four in the morning. He was 45.

Before he left us, my brother wanted to teach my kids as many lessons as he could. Ryan taught my kids about electrical circuits before a tumor attacked his spine and he lost the ability to sit up. He made us a dart gun out of PVC pipe, paper,  and a nail. We had hours of fun spearing distant objects with our homemade darts. He could  still drive a nail through a piece of wood at ten feet at that point, even if he couldn’t sit up.

Ryan was obsessed with cooking and wanted to spread his knowledge. Our prison correspondence consisted of much recipe-swapping because he wanted to teach people about his method. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great cook, but he had a special concoction for us to try. Specifically, he wanted to teach my kids how to make spread. The recipe is simple enough: ramen, Hot Cheetos, beans, tortillas,  and whatever else you have on hand. It’s a basic recipe with room for many variations, like a culinary jazz concert. It can function as an amuse bouche, an hors d’ouevre, and an entree.

Ryan paid to have a feast of spread from the little money the state gave him. My kids learned how to make it. All you do is boil up ramen, smash up Hot Cheetos, and serve it in a tortilla. You can add whatever you want to it: boiled eggs, beans, cheese. It’s like a stone soup but with more sodium. The spread came with a lesson; consequently,  now they could feed a bunch of hungry people for a few dollars. Spread is filling and  has an interesting flavor. It’s gooey, spicy, and crunchy. You can adjust the texture and flavor profile by adding more Cheetos. Some people crush up the Cheetos, but I like to leave them whole. The lesson? Stretch what you have as far as you can and feed as many of your loved ones as possible, so nobody goes hungry. Make the most out of nothing.

That was pre-Covid. My brother’s death weighed heavily on my father, who had health problems of his own. Dad fought his own losing struggle against a different disease that ended up killing him. One day his hip was out of the socket, and he was supposed to get that fixed. Sixty or so days later, after a brutal, hopeless struggle against a massive infection he died alone, with only hospital staff around him. I actually don’t know how it went down. I was told by the hospital staff that they would take care of him and that they usually had volunteers from their “Nobody Dies Alone” program, but volunteers were scarce. I watched my brother’s life leave his body, but I don’t even know where my dad was at the time of death. We weren’t allowed to visit him after a certain point because of the Delta variant.

We had palliative care meetings that were eerily similar to the meetings we had with my brother’s care team; a deja vu of death. We discussed end of life scenarios and paperwork, final wishes and DNRs, feeding tubes and pain management. One doctor was kind enough to explain that modern medicine has all sorts of agonizing ways to keep you alive, but that life might not be worth living. I was amazed at the doctor’s eloquence as he described the various stages of hell a person could go through.

My dad kept his sense of humor until the end, until I wasn’t allowed to hear his jokes anymore. I told him my oldest son got his driver’s permit and was driving. I had planned to roll triumphantly up to his house with my son behind the wheel, but that never happened. He was lying in bed, and somewhat responsive, and I shared with him that teaching driving terrified me. He perked up, raised his head, and said I was the worst driver he’d ever seen. It’s true, it took me forever to learn to drive. I can’t remember if that was our last conversation; we shared a last laugh, I hope. I told him I loved him and that we were going to get him out of there as soon as we could, then they transferred him to a hospital in a different town that wouldn’t allow visitors. I didn’t get to talk to him on the phone; I couldn’t visit the hospital; I just waited for the inevitable final phone call to tell me that “Billy Boy,” aka my father, had died.

I got the call a few minutes before I started my teaching day. My surviving brother (a true saint) sent me a message to call him, so I stood outside of my class, and he told me over the phone that the fight was over. Death had won. Again. When my brother died, I was able to take a few days off of work for bereavement, but this time I struggled through to the end of the day, trying to hide my grief beneath the on-stage personality of a schoolteacher. I thought it would be easier this time, I really did. The first day back at school after my brother’s death I broke down in tears in front of my senior class and had to leave the room for a few minutes. I told them they were the first non-family humans I had seen for a week, and they respectfully gave me space. High schoolers can be very supportive. My community was also supportive, and I give thanks for them.

I miss their stories. Both of them could spin yarns that would last all afternoon, a series of vignettes about carousing, fixing race cars, and prison politics. I’m glad that I took the time to listen on so many occasions as they railed about their experiences in life. I miss sports stories too. Sports games just aren’t the same anymore. Now me and my surviving brother watch the games, but they used to be such a festive atmosphere, a quasi-religious experience, especially when our teams were in the Super Bowl or the World Series.

When I told my octogenarian landlord about my brother’s struggles, my landlord gave me another important lesson. He said, “you’re getting a real education now.” More words that I hold close to my heart. I would spread that message at a party, but  mass gatherings were frowned on in those days. Now we are in a state of pandemic limbo, and it all seems like a bad dream. It wasn’t even clear how many people could be invited to the funeral due to Covid restrictions. Covid didn’t kill my father, but it stole him from me.

My dad had a habit of calling me out when I wasn’t living up to the hype in life, even when it came to something as simple as sampling an ancient, pickled egg suspended in a brine full of garlic cloves and jalapenos. One Saturday morning a decade ago, as my children played in his backyard, I spilled my guts about how hard my first year of teaching was going: stabbings, arrests, theft, mayhem. I was fresh out of grad school and trying to adjust to life teaching seventh through twelfth grade at a court school. As I laid out my case, he replied, “somebody’s got to do it, son.” I think about it when I have a hard time at work. There has to be somebody to help the kids who have nothing. Somebody’s got to do it. Everybody has their role in the world.

To sum it up, find a way to celebrate in life. Teach youth a skill like making something out of nothing with spread. Tell them that somebody’s got to do it. Tell them dad was a bad driver at your age, and that sports are sometimes more than just sports. Try new foods. Always savor the moments you have with loved ones. Make the most out of nothing. Sing. Write your sorrows away.

Go San Francisco.


About the writer:
Logan Silva is a teacher and writer from Mendocino County, California. He is the child of race car drivers, farmers, and hippies. Growing up in Northern California gave him a different experience of the world: communes, reservations, and trailer parks. Through it all, Silva maintained his sense of humor and desire to learn and evolve. His academic travels have taken him from Mendocino College to Harvard, and he received an MA in history from Sonoma State University. At the moment Logan Silva is teaching seventh grade through university. His personal essay “A Feast of Spread” is about the lessons learned from the deaths of his brother and father.

Image: Wreath of Flowers by John La Farge (1835-1910). Oil on canvas. 24.1 x 13.1 inches. 1866. Public domain.

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