Remembrance by Jan Brofka Berends

Andy was always there, and always huge.
My earliest memories include him—the mighty twelve-pounder my parents brought home from the hospital resting on a pillow on my not-yet-two-year-old lap, the toddler who followed me everywhere. A partner in crime, first unfortunate victim of my every bad mood, co-conspirator in my every scheme. During childhood, more often than not, we were together, and while I know I was sometimes awful to him, I also remember defending him from tough kids on the playground outside the apartment building who didn’t want a “sticky baby” around.

Jan & Andy

I loved being with him. Even as a toddler, Andy seemed fearless. Throughout childhood, he’d do things without hesitation that absolutely frightened me. I remember when he fell head first into the well in the Zinsser park community gardens. Andy leaned a little too far out over the shallow spring-fed well that provided water for everyone’s vegetables and … tipped right in head first. The well was shallow, but neither of us had the strength or coordination to get him out. So I rushed to get my mom. She came running and saw his feet sticking up, his head submerged. She remembered grabbing him by the feet, and the slurpy sound as his head came unstuck from the mud. He was muddy and soaked. But he was unscathed … and ready for the next adventure.

Jan & Andy

We made so much music together. When I first practiced the simple piano exercises my babysitter Irina assigned, Andy would accompany me by shaking jingle bells. And we’d sing together with our mom almost every night at bedtime. I remember his four-year-old soprano piping up from the lower bunk as we sang about baby moons  and hunting foxes to the strumming of her guitar. And as we moved through the music-rich Hastings public schools, we made more and more music together. Andy seemed to gravitate toward the big, booming bottom—anchoring the madrigal choir with the bases for four years, crooning as Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, or laying down the bass guitar line in the jazz band. I remember once as he trudged down Warburton Avenue in the memorial day parade, the badly-anchored bell on his deep-throated sousaphone got turned so it was pointing directly at Chandler Gochlik’s head. Neither of them seemed to realize the problem, but through the march music the audience sure did! They could clearly hear Chandler yelling, “Andy, you’re playing to fucking loud!” Well into our twenties, we’d make music whenever we were together—piano, guitar, voices combining. Of course, once he’d picked up a movie camera, he picked up his guitar less and less often.

Jan & Andy

Still, just a couple years back, when he was staying at my house during one of his rough times, he did grab the guitar and we played together again—and we gave ourselves an hour of pure joy. He surprised me, though, by saying he thought he sucked at guitar. I’d always been somewhat in awe of his talent! Especially the way he could gather a group around him, strum away, and get everyone singing.

Of course, as we grew up, we grew … out. Not apart from each other, but we were in different grades, after all. We stayed close as brothers on family vacations, with music, even with our choice of college, and on through our parents’ divorce—but we had different friends and, increasingly, different interests. From where I sat in my quiet corners, extroverted Andy seemed to dazzle and glitter—popular, respected, and always surrounded by good friends.

So we grew into a wider world, and started taking up bigger—but more separate—parts of it. Andy especially. After college, I retreated home, uncertain what to do with this whole undefined life-thing unfolding in front of me. Andy, on the other hand, charged forward. He graduated two years after me, but he bee-lined right past me to Brooklyn to live, to work, and no doubt to have a hell of a lot of fun.

Jan & Andy

He was funny, the kind of funny that could combine witty word play and a fart joke in a single sentence. He teased everyone, and definitely didn’t refrain from teasing himself. He could make you laugh without a single word, just by pulling a ridiculous—but perfectly timed—face. He always seemed to turn embarrassment into wide smiles. Overhearing wild speculation by the altos and sopranos on a madrigal choir trip about just what male genetalia were made of—skin? bones? muscle?—he earned the lingering nickname “Mighty” by declaring—“It’s the mighty muscle!” And he relished the nickname! Along with others like “Bacon” and “Freedom.”

I just learned from one of his friends in Kenya that his propensity for gathering nicknames continued well into this century: they called him “Porno-Breather” for the way he moaned in the face of 18 hours of punishing altitude sickness. Apparently, at moments during the hike he would quietly excuse himself from a conversation, step off the path to vomit copiously, and then re-join the hikers with a smile as if nothing had happened—just like the little boy who wanted to keep playing after being dragged from the well.

Andy often had tremendous confidence, the sort that let him stuff a little too much middle-aged body into not quite enough biking outfit or plunge into any body of water stark naked, no regard for who was watching. The sort that would compel him to grab his camera when he heard gunfire, see where people were running from, and instead run to the danger. The kind that could let him easily win affection from women (maybe one of his favorite hobbies?), and just as easily let him connect intimately with any interview subject or industry luminary.

Of course, his confidence went hand in hand with a certain larger-than-life eccentricity, like the time he let his blonde locks grow down past his shoulder—but could rarely be bothered to comb them. Or when he went in the opposite direction and decided to get his hair cut at a black barber shop in his neighborhood because he didn’t believe things should be segregated … and he got a faint avant-garde pattern shaved into a third of the short, almost transparently blonde hair on the back of his pale head.

For a while he was convinced he needed to bring his own special salt to restaurants and to drink only water that had been allowed to sit in blue bottles in direct sunlight for at least three days. He insisted on the benefits of camel milk, and while living in Brooklyn would have some shipped from a farm in Pennsylvania. He took a shocking number of supplements, some imported from overseas and of dubious provenance, certain they were vital to his health.

The way he made coffee, the way he worked out (and what he wore when he did), the way he had a snippet of song for every occasion, they way he could dance like a goofball and somehow make it look good.

He eagerly embraced new experiences, and while some might have been … less than legal, others were just nutty! While on a mission trip to Jamaica, he got a ride from some chicken farmers, and accepted their offer of a tour of the slaughterhouse. He found it quite interesting … but very much regretted walking across a killing floor with no shoes! For his good sportsmanship, though, the farmers gave him a chicken for his dinner. Of course, this one hadn’t been through the slaughterhouse yet, so he and his friends had to figure out how to kill it and prep it by their beach campfire that night.

Sometimes his confidence would give out. While it must have taken one heck of a megadose of confidence to pull the trigger and spring eight hundred bucks on a knee-length Varvatos overcoat—all white—his confidence left him the first time he tried to wear it out and wound up drawing laughter from some passing teens. After that, the coat hardly left the closet in his Brooklyn apartment again.

Was in confidence or lack of it that let him break off all communication with our mother for more than a year?

And when the dark times descended—as they did more and more often—his confidence seemed to abandon him completely.

At his best, Andy loved living. He loved pleasure, and he found it everywhere. I don’t now anyone else so willing to go to great lengths optimize physical comfort. My mother remembered that when, as a little child, he’d come to her bed at night—maybe escaping from one of his early childhood anxiety attacks. He’d settle under the covers and then spend at least five or six minutes positioning his body just right before settling back into slumber.

He loved the texture of fine sheets and always invested in good ones. He loved a good friendly argument. He loved watching the way flags move in the wind. He loved fine food. He loved seeing new things. He loved music, especially if he could listen to it in the company of friends. He loved people. I think, maybe, he loved absolutely everyone a little bit, and maybe he loved best those people from whom he wanted nothing.

He thought deeply. For all his fun-loving humor, he took the world very, very seriously.

Marsha and I got married on September 15, 2001, just four days after the World Trade Center fell. Our wedding was … a little smaller than we’d planned. Planes weren’t flying, so a lot of guests couldn’t make it. (My dad, flying from Holland on September 11, made it under somewhat miraculous circumstances.)

We were all feeling raw, but still trying to celebrate despite knowing the world was changing all around us. On the day of the wedding itself, Andy—my best man, of course—abruptly disappeared into his room for a few hours. I later learned he was working on his toast.

And oh what a toast it was! He managed to say just what we all needed to hear, pulling no punches, talking about heroes, and banishing—for a while at least—the darkness of the world to let us all feel a bit of hope.

I hope he knows he’s one of my heroes.

Jan & Andy

Andy’s career speaks for itself. He would pour most the money he managed to earn from lucrative but tedious gigs in advertising into his compelling, beautiful movies. Writing with light, sound, and a hell of a lot of courage, he managed to bring to the screen, and to an audience that still needs to hear them, stories that no one else would ever tell. Urk, Blood of My Brother, When Adnan Comes Home, Delta Boys, and finally Madina’s Dream.

And we all know the sorts of places he had to go to capture these stories. Desolate deserts, storm-wracked seas, war-torn cities, a Nigerian prison, flood-drenched refugee camps, the highest mountains. Places where the only food might be a cupful of sorghum, the only shelter a bit of canvas.

But in these places, in all these places, he found people. And with his talent he connected with them. And through his intimate, unflinching camera … he loved them. He found their joy and their sorrow, their hope and despair. He found laughter even where the suffering seemed unimaginable. And he brought their stories to the rest of the world.

His sense of justice—and this, too, was big—wouldn’t have let him do otherwise. Andy was by no means always nice, but he was good. When he saw a great wrong, he impulsively longed to right it.
Andy suffered, too, of course.
If everything about Andy was big, then so was his suffering. When relationships ended, he hurt. He once said—not at all joking—that it seemed to take three times as long as a relationship lasted for him to get over it. Inevitable career setbacks could just break him.

His depression was not “just feeling blue.” It was something worse, something darker, something irrational, greedy, grasping, and immense. With plenty of money in the bank, he would obsess about money, and then hand more over to a therapist whose talent seemed to be nothing more than to make that money disappear. Andy would rage about the state of his body, but dine on pound bags of M&Ms and skip his exercise classes. He would struggle to get enough sleep, but struggle just as hard to get out of bed. He feared he’d never again get work, but then write letters that had the potential to ruin his relationships with other filmmakers, begging them to save him from himself with massive gifts of money.

His depression seemed invulnerable. It didn’t make sense, but his mind worked tirelessly to justify it. You’d prove to him that his finances were fine, and he’d shift to worries about career. Once the career concerns were assuaged, suddenly you’d realize you were arguing with him about money again.

And none of this was new. Although I hadn’t realized it at the time, even as he seemed to thrive in his twenties, he’d also go through periods where he’d ruminate over and over on his failures. He’d be paralyzed by indecision over the tiniest things, like what color socks to wear. So when faced with questions about whether to get married, he shattered. He’d call and talk for hours about his inadequacies, reject every possible path forward, and just … suffer.

He didn’t leave any sort of note in March, but since he died I’ve found two that he wrote in years past, earlier times he’d come close to losing to the overwhelming pain of depression.

I’m so sorry that talking wasn’t enough. I think we both came to realize that only over the last few years. We didn’t stop talking of course. I never heard from him so often as when he was in the depths of despair! But together we realized that his depression was impervious to argument. Fifteen years of talk therapy had done nothing, or possibly just made things worse.

Andy’s intense mistrust of Western medicine meant that, even as he realized more talking wouldn’t help, he greatly feared standard pharmaceutical treatment. He briefly experimented with a few more less-than-legal substances based on information he’d read on the internet. Not all that information may be bad … but it didn’t work for him.

But at long last, he tried standard medication. And you know what? It worked. Anyone who spent time with him between the fall of 2017 and this past winter must have seen it.

I don’t think even this treatment would have worked without the hospitality of my uncle Curt and his family, by the way, because they gave him a space in which he didn’t have to worry about anything, and in that safe space and safe time, with help from a psychiatrist, they finally found the drugs he needed.

In the fall of 2017, Andy called me with the best possible news. “It’s light a light switch got turned on,” he said. “Before the drugs started working, I didn’t think anything would ever help. Now, everything is different.”

And he began another amazing year. He did some of the best camerawork of his life. He made new friends, planted a garden that he absolutely loved working, again traveled to difficult and dangerous places, and spent time with family and friends.

Andy had always loved being an uncle (no one was more excited than he when I told him I had a baby on the way), and in 2018 we once again got to see the Uncle Andy that had rough-housed with Sylvia, or romped around the yard at her birthday parties becoming the most fun part of everything—cake and all activities forgotten—or faced off with her in the kitchen for a vicious “sock fight.” Sylvia could see the difference immediately, and they had long FaceTime calls where she caught him up on her favorite movies and books or shared her worst frustrations, and they would trade silly faces and lots and lots of laughter.

But sometime in 2018, Andy also went off his meds. Under a doctor’s supervision but against his advice, Andy tapered off his antidepressants. He told me this somewhat reluctantly. I know he didn’t like the side effects, but the doctor wanted him to stick it out for at least another six months. Still, as with so many things, when Andy set his mind on something, he charged forward.

He promised me he’d go back on the meds if there seemed to be any danger of his depression returning. Miraculously, though, he seemed OK! Even when he was briefly hospitalized—for a badly infected injury, this time, not depression—his spirits remained  high. We laughed together in the hospital room, and before long he was winging his way back to his garden in California.

Even the Parkinson’s diagnosis didn’t seem to send him right back into depression. Oh, he was sad. Sad, and angry, and confused, and … hurt. But he wasn’t depressed. On the contrary, it seemed to spur him into action. He worked a few more hard jobs, started dating again, and also worked hard at dealing with Parkinson’s. He exercised furiously, and he researched just as furiously.

I spent a week with him just after his diagnosis, and that week has given me some of my favorite memories of all time. We didn’t really have anything we had to do, so we were just brothers again, like we’d been in childhood. We walked, we laughed, we wrestled. We explored the beauty of the California coast, huddled together in a cabin heated only by a wood stove, watched movies, and talked and talked and talked. Sure, we talked about the Parkinson’s, but also about politics and family and friends and his hopes—hopes for great love, for healing, for a better world, for his career, for his garden, for good things to come to those he loved.

I loved that week. It’s one of the best in my entire life.

Something happened in February. Maybe it was the double-whammy bad news of an alternative-medicine avenue to recovery from Parkinson’s being closed and a woman he liked not calling him back. Maybe Parkinson’s was causing incurable and irreversible Lewy body dementia. Maybe he should’ve stuck it out with those antidepressants half a year earlier.

But whatever the cause, the depression was back, big and terrible as ever. I spoke to him one afternoon and we had a pleasant chat. Two days later the rumination about money, the obsession with his body, the anxiety, and the irrational despair were clearly consuming him. All the symptoms were back, and he was terrified.

Like a light switch turning back off again, joy and pleasure had vanished, and he was in intense, overwhelming pain.

He promised to get back on meds, and for the first time even decided to take the Parkinson’s drugs that would have helped with his symptoms even if they wouldn’t cure it. But relief didn’t come fast enough. Two weeks after his symptoms were back, he was gone.

Andy, you left us far too soon, and we don’t want to say goodbye. We miss you. As you once wrote to me, Marsha, and Sylvia in one of those notes I found, I love you forever.

At the end of my mother’s book Whole Child/Whole Parent, she wrote a goodbye poem called “Bon Voyage,” and I want to read part of it.

Someone I know is going away.
I was thinking about how I don’t want him to go,
And how it is sad to be left behind.
Then I found a card.
There is a beach in the foreground
With huge tracks like a land machine’s
Going down toward the sea.
At the end of the tracks is no land machine,
But after all a huge turtle
Just heading into the sea—
The endless sea that stretches before him.
So this card calls to mind the fact that
Where the land ends and the sea begins
The turtle ceases to be a grave, ungainly
Plodding creature,
And becomes something graceful and free
That can go on effortlessly forever.

Andy, I’m so sorry I couldn’t do enough. I miss you so badly. I hope you found that freedom you so desperately wanted. Not just freedom from things—from pain and fear— but somehow freedom to be what you want to be, what you always have been, effortlessly and forever.
I love you.