Wednesday, June 10, 2009

R.I.P., my brother

Some of you (okay, one of you) wanted to know what's up with me not posting since February 1st?

Well, this has been a very stressful Spring, beginning with my brother's illness. Then the college where I have spent my entire career and where I continue to toil began offering buy-outs and instituting mandatory unpaid furlough days, all in an effort to forestall RIFs and Layoffs (aren't they the same thing?). Those of us who opted to stay and take our chances so we could hold on to our health insurance are on pins and needles. It used to be like working for your family but now everyone's looking over their shoulders.

Thirdly, I turned 60 this Spring. Actually that part hasn't been that bad. My health is still sound (knock on wood) and my weight has been down and stayed down for the better part of a year (walking my puppy a mile first thing each morning rain or shine has certainly helped).

My friends and I have lost so many contemporaries these past few years that one friend postulated "if you can just make it through your 50s, you are home free." So it was actually with a sense of relief that I turned 60. So how did I celebrate? Ate some Whole Foods carrot cake with candles on it with my daughter and my dog.

Which brings me back to my brother. He was my baby brother and my only sibling. As army brats, we grew up traveling the world together (Japan, Germany, Ohio, Kentucky, Georgia, DC, MD, Virginia, and Texas), moving every three years or so, so that when we both made it to college we sprouted roots, me in DC and he in Texas. He loved Texas as much as I love DC (I've loved DC ever since second grade, my first stint here).

My brother and I grew up fighting like cats and dogs, yet as grownups we were always there for each other. Fiercely competitive, my brother prided himself on outdoing me in everything: athletics (he played football, baseball, basketball, and golf. I rowed crew), Boy Scouts (I made it to First Class, he went all the way to Life Scout, one rank shy of Eagle Scout), grad school (he earned his Masters in Business and Public Administration 10 years before I even entered graduate school), salary (he had a string of well-paying jobs. I've stayed in the same low-paying one my whole career). Hell, he even got laid first (not something I'm proud about). He got married first too, and then did it twice more. I quit after my first and only try. You name it, he took pride in doing it first or better, and I in turn prided myself on not letting on that I cared (and I didn't. No really I didn't). I did beat him at children though, I have one (and he doted on his niece), he had none.

By the time I was in 8th grade, he was taller and bigger than me so our whole lives people naturally assumed that he was the oldest. In all honesty it was probably more due to the (ironically) sober and purposeful way he carried himself.

My brother lived hard, played hard, and partied hard. He was one of the last of the 'Good-time Charlies,' a sobriquet he embraced with relish and tried to live up to for as long as he could. He used to joke that what was the point in giving up drinking, smoking, and fatty foods, since he wasn't going to live past 50 anyway? He started smoking at 11, drinking not long after, and he scoffed at his non-drinking, non-smoking, vegetarian older brother, particularly since I had my stroke first (a mild one, thank God).

Ultimately, all his challenges, health, personal, marital, and job-related, were related directly or indirectly to his depression, which, for most of his life went undiagnosed and untreated. Sadly, the Black community in general is squeamish about acknowledging, let alone seeking and getting help for, depression and other mental problems.

Still he was healthier than me about some things. He never let worry get to him the way I do. And he had a temper and was quick to vent instead of keeping it all inside the way I do. And most important he went to sleep when he was sleepy. I fight sleep with every fiber of my being and then want to sleep as late as possible, fully awakening only after drinking one of my prodigious mugs of coffee. My brother was famous for throwing parties in his house and then once the party was jumping disappearing to go to bed. To sleep. My brother was a morning person and loved to rise with the birds.

Among the things I admired about my brother I most admired his fearless freedom from vanity. I mean he could have cared less about what people thought of him, what he did, what he said. He could be vain about grooming (particularly his hair which he managed to hold onto for life) but he never lost a moment's sleep fretting over what people might think or say about him. While I was the one fearlessly jumping out of airplanes, getting my pilots license, driving motorcycles and skiing (okay not exactly fearlessly but I did it), he was the one who was fearless in life, particularly socially. He was the one winning a twist contest in his teens, and I'm the one still reluctant to get on the dance floor at all.

In February, I took my brother (who had just finished aggressive treatment for an advanced case of prostate cancer) to the emergency room with stroke symptoms. The first stroke was mild, milder than mine had been in fact. Then a day later he suffered a second stroke accompanied by seizures. This one left him barely conscious, unable to communicate other than through nods and shakes of the head in response to yes-no questions, and through squeezing my hand with his right hand (his only still-functioning hand).

A physician friend of mine said it was "locked-in syndrome" which I had only recently learned about after seeing Julian Schnabel's great film "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" at Talk Cinema at the AFI. The character in the film, a true story, suffered a massive stroke and was left with his mind intact yet unable to move any of his body except for the eyelid of one eye. A therapist was astute enough to devise a way for him to to communicate with her by blinking this one eye every time she said the letter he intended as she painstakingly repeated the alphabet over and over awaiting his blink. In time he was able to dictate his memoirs (He had been a famous magazine editor, for French Elle, I believe). His memoir, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was published shortly before he died from complications related to the stroke. Definitely add it to your NetFlix queue if you haven't seen it, but I digress...

After 8 weeks of hospitalization, my brother's condition essentially unchanged, he suffered a third and final stroke leaving him completely comatose and he died two days later. He was 58 years old.

Looking back, I am not as sad as I would be had I not visited him all but two days out of that 8 weeks in the hospital.

Also, in recent years, as his challenges mounted, personal and health-related, I am happy that we always managed to get together for his birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I've learned the hard way not to leave oneself open to regrets about things left unsaid or issues left unresolved, so even though we spent much of those dinners together in awkward silences and small talk, at least we gave ourselves the opportunity to express ourselves. Neither of us was given to navel-gazing or talking about our 'feelings' (ew!) so we expressed ourselves in the only way we knew how, talking about family and sports and trivia. We both had a mind for trivia and when we were on the same team at Trivial Pursuit we were unbeatable!

We did not grow up in a touchy-feely family environment, though we were never in doubt about our parents' love or their pride in our accomplishments. One time a well-meaning friend guilted me into giving my father a hug. She was incredulous at the thought that I never had. My retired military father was so surprised he responded in the only way he could: with a perplexed "what's wrong, son?"

My brother would have been severely discomfited too had I tried to hug him. Once in the hospital, after my having complained about some aspect of his care, the hospital responded by sending him a music and massage therapist. I had to smile watching my brother getting his feet massaged as new-age music wafted through the air. While I am sure he enjoyed it (he likely hadn't ever had one or even considered getting one before) I could imagine him telling me "when I get well, I'm going to get you for this!" He disdained what he would have referred to as "all that new age hippie shit."

Same thing with the beard. While I have always been a liberal/progressive, tree-hugging, latter-day hippie kind of guy, my brother always played the conservative (I'm convinced it was just an attention-getting act). I think under all that bluster, he was actually a card-carrying contrarian. His brother was a hippie so he played the Alex Keaton of the family. His brother sported an afro and a life-long beard, so he affected the clean-shaven Black man look (what's more contrarian than a Black man with no facial hair?). His brother loved the R-words so he loudly proclaimed his love for the hated Dallas Cowboys, particularly during his years spent in and around DC.

I suppose I should feel guilty that, when he was essentially paralyzed those last several weeks, the nurse's aides would groom and trim his hair and the beard he had involuntarily begun to manifest. I always told him the beard was a good look for him whenever he'd take furtive steps toward growing one (which, contrarian that he was, was the surest way to guarantee that he'd quickly cut it all off).

On the morning when they called me to tell me he had passed away in the night, I went to see his body, say some things to him I couldn't/wouldn't say in life, and collect his things and I have to say, he looked down-right dapper in that salt-and-pepper goatee he was sporting. Naturally, I took some photos 'cause I'm a photographer and that's how I roll (actually that's how I distance myself from trauma).

In keeping with his wishes, he was cremated and I plan to spread his ashes in places that meant a lot to him: favorite golf courses, various places in Texas and New Mexico (he really dug the Southwest) and others I recall as time goes by. I have already spread some on our father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bottom line is I miss my brother a lot. He was always the charming, engaging, outgoing one and I was the shy quiet one. He had a gift for the witty put-down and a droll, cynical, world-weary sense of humor. He made friends easily, and everyone who took the time to know him loved him.

Though he once majored in religion ('pre-God' he called it) he was not much for church-going so we all thought the appropriate way to memorialize him was to throw him an 'Irish wake' at which friends and relatives would gather to toast to his memory. In May we did just that and the love and friendship and warmth we all shared through our remembrances of my brother made for an uplifting send-off.

My brother was a character and he lives on through the memories of those whose lives he enriched by his presence in them. Rest in peace.


Danielle said...

This is beautiful. I'm so sorry about your brother but this is a wonderful tribute to him. Thanks for sharing and being vulnerable.

Dr. F. said...

Thanks, Danielle and thanks for bothering to wade through it all. It was cathartic to write it.

This whole blogging thing makes me feel vulnerable which is why I continue to hide behind at least some pretense of anonymity.

Yep, definitely a 'behind-the-camera' kinda guy. :)

Danielle said...

I'm definitely a behind-the-lens kind of gal too. Which makes blogging under my real name a bit...weird. But it's been working out for me so far, ha.

Glad to see you back in the blogging game!