Updated a day later, adding more recollections. See also the amazing remembrance our sister Suede sent me, in response to mine. It changes everything.
Wednesday afternoon, unexpectedly, my younger brother Steve died, age 55. He was one of six siblings, the first of us to go.
This is the first time anything like this has happened to me, and the effect has been something to watch. I hesitate to write about this because I know so many of you have plenty of experience at death; plus, a thousand people have probably said what I have to say, and better. I just want to record some of the strange thoughts that have come to mind, partly because it’s part of the process and partly because the thoughts are weird.
And I want to remember Steve.
I got the news just before a dinner meeting Wednesday where I was to give a speech. I had no emotional reaction at first; as is apparently common, my mind zipped into running through logistics (what needs to be done, and when; “When will this sink in?”), then I got on with the evening and my travel to Toronto for the next event.
Steve and I were not close – I think I visited his home in Maryland once or twice, and the last time he visited me was in the 1980s, when we went to the Boston Public Library to research some family history. (We called Mom and said we’d been “looking up our behind.”) Since then I don’t think we did much together, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve lost a close friend. But I’ll get to that.
The flood of sobbing came without warning the next afternoon while I was telling a relative. A moment earlier I’d realized that for the past half hour I’d been cranky and nasty to people on the phone, not yet aware that I was feeling mistreated and was bitter about it and lashing out.
Stubborn, generous and quick-witted
Steve was STUBBORN about doing things his way, ever since he was a toddler; one of our family stories is that he refused to speak – he’d grunt and point. The very first words out of his mouth were one morning at breakfast, when Mom decided she just wasn’t going to respond to his grunts anymore. So, the first words he ever said were a complete sentence: “Can I have some cereal?” Obviously the thought processes were working just fine, but he was going to call the shots!
When he got angry as a toddler he’d have head-banging tantrums.
As an adult, he wasn’t going to let some fad force him to do this internet thing – he never had email, and didn’t own a computer (for that and other reasons). This year – 2013 – he finally got a cell phone. Mom says he was having fun realizing he could just call someone now, when he had the thought – no need to remember to call later!
And although he knew his smoking and drinking weren’t good for his health, he wasn’t going to let anyone tell him what to do. (He never got smashed, but was often holding a drink.) We don’t know exactly how he died – he had congestive heart failure, had had episodes of plunging blood pressure in recent years (always bouncing back quickly), and was dehydrated due to a stomach bug just before he died.
But boy was he funny. He loved getting a reaction out of people with a joke, loved laughing.
A few weeks ago he’d inhaled some dust while sawing wood. He woke up that night unable to breathe, reminiscent of the asthma he’d had as a child. He visited doctors, but I’m told he rejected each when they insisted on asking, “When are you going to stop smoking?” (I don’t know what actually happened in those visits – my point here is just that he did things on his own terms, for better or worse.)
Sharp minded – on his own terms
Boy did he love cars: both stock car racing (being involved, not watching) and being a damn good Mercedes mechanic – the kind of guy who knew mechanical things inside and out. His write-up on the funeral home’s site says
He enjoyed being both a participant and a spectator at the stock car races at Summit Point, W. Va. As a driver, he was part of “Team Twisted” and was known as “50,” from his car’s number. He worked as a member of the pit crews for other drivers, and worked with staff members in any capacity requested of him.
Of course, he preferred purely mechanical cars, before everything got computerized. He was generous beyond belief with his knowledge, forever doing something to help family with car problems – especially Dad, who loved his rattling old Mercedes diesel.
Steve was nimble and playful with words, with perfect spelling and grammar. And he was amazingly good at sudoku and other puzzles.
What comes to my mind
My reactions to his passing in the list below are senseless, which makes me think: our reactions to death must arise in a primitive part of the brain, way before conscious thought enters the process, because these thoughts entered my awareness fully formed.
- “Wait – I’m not ready.”
- “I have no experience at having one less sibling than I used to.” [“Disoriented, rudderless.”]
- “This is the beginning of the end of my generation.” [“Life has changed and will never be the same”]
- On the funeral home’s page I saw his vital statistics: “January 26, 1958 – May 8, 2013.” Huh?? The birthdates of my siblings, which I’ve known all my life, have never had a death date attached. [“This just doesn’t make sense.”]
- “I have no experience at sudden death in the family. I don’t know how to do this.” My only close family member who’s died was Dad, 2005, and his was a long slow decline.
- “A piece has been ripped out of my being. I am wounded.” Yes, I feel this way even though we weren’t close. [“Something’s wrong here.”]
The involuntary search to find justice
I find myself (senselessly but inexorably) wanting to rationalize this – to find an explanation. Of course, we all say “Well, he smoked and drank. That’s what can happen.” But that doesn’t help -as much as I know intellectually that there’s no answer, my mind wants to know “Why him and not someone else??” It must be a fundemental human drive.
The same desire for a sense of justice quickly reminds me that there’s a lot of talk about deaths in the meetings I attend and the blogs I read about medicine and its problems. And usually the deaths that get discussed are ones that shouldn’t have happened. So, considering how it’s messing me up to experience this non-error-caused death, of someone I wasn’t that close to, I can barely bear to imagine the pain so many friends have experienced when a truly loved one died by mistake while supposedly getting care. Just the thought brings me tears, sharp, bitter tears. “No. No. No. No. No, no, no, no. Not him. Not her. No.” You, all of you, my heart goes out to you again.
That will be a topic for another day. For now, we prepare for the memorial service Tuesday. We collect our memories, we record them, we gather, we say goodbye. Sunday I fly to Maryland, for Mother’s Day.
And those who were closest, especially his partner of 28 years Sharon, must prepare for life without.
Scott Strange says
I’m sorry to hear of your loss, you and your family will be in my thoughts
My heart goes out to you and your sibs, and everyone in your brother’s orbit. Especially Sharon — and your mom. Go to her now. Parents are not supposed to bury their kids.
I lost my little brother 5 years ago, suddenly. We were 6, a close family, and he was the fifth. It still doesn’t seem fathomable in any way.
Let me know if i can help.
Gail Penney says
Dave, a heartful post filled with all the humanity of one who has indeed lost a loved-one. My sincere condolences, sent to you on the wings of the four winds.
Karen Maskell says
Wonderful Blog Dave , death is a subject that needs to be discussed in families and communities. I hope this blog starts some of those important conversations and wish you & your family my condolences .
Please know, and please tell Sharon, that someone who has never met Steve or any of you… that I care… I deeply care and send prayers and positive energy your way your way.
Because Steve has been with you your entire life the mystery of his passing (as with all we lose) is something that you may never comprehend. But during this difficult time, I pray you find comfort.
Brenda French says
Dave I am the 3rd of four daughters. When my dad died all of us girls got together and shared memories of growing up. It was strange how growing up in the same house and coming from the same parents we are so different. I have often wondered which of us would be the first to go. I am glad you shared these thoughts with us. You are a great communicator and it is helpful to all of us when you share these thoughts.
Skye Lininger says
As usual, your writing is thoughtful, poignant, and worth reading. Jane and I are sorry for your loss and you and your family will be in our thoughts this Mother’s Day.
My condolences. Listen carefully at the memorial as you will learn things about him you never knew.
e-Patient Dave says
> Listen carefully at the memorial as you will learn things about him you never knew.
Boy, was THAT true, Marge!
Bart Windrum says
So death has entered your life and your family members’ lives. I have but one sibling and so cannot know the effect on a clan of siblings. I get the sense of good health in you about this, evidenced by your willingness to feel and to examine in turn. Perhaps the dust that we return to is more like soil, the better to fertilize our being after someone near dies.
Richard Meyer says
Somehow at times like these words cannot express all the a emotions you are going through. I always believed that we grieve for the living because those that leave us are with God. As long as you remember him he will always be with you
I am sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences. In expressing your complicated feelings, I recognized similar associations I feel toward one of my brothers. He narrowly averted death recently, but underwent an amputation due to diabetes. He also does things his way, even if it imperils his health. Thank you for sharing your feelings. Your blog post affirmed to me the fragility of life.
Cathy Chester says
My sincerest condolences Steve. You are your family are on my prayers. Thanks for sharing your candid comments on the passing of your brother. RIP.
Peter Elias says
Things like this are impossible to understand and difficult to accept. The wounds heal at their own pace. I can do nothing to fix this beyond reminding you that you are not alone and that I – and countless others whom you have touched – care.
Lee Gearhart says
I’m sorry for you loss, Dave. But thank you for sharing in a well-written essay.
Gonzalo Bacigalupe says
My condolences. glad to have been able to hug you that Wednesday evening. Take care, g
Kourtney Govro says
Dave, So sorry for your loss – we will be praying for you and your family.
My condolences, Dave. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Peace to you and your family.
Dave, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. So sorry for your loss.
A portrait in honesty, Dave. Which is what I think is the basic message of your current work. No death is easy, but to be clear about the ambiguity is perhaps hardest.
Heather Thiessen says
Dave. I am so sorry for you loss. My thoughts are with you and your family at this time. Please take care.
e-Patient Dave says
I’m touched by, and grateful for, the many sentiments here and on the Facebook post. One in particular, from Israeli friend Savta Dotty:
“I can understand death in the macro, like the seasons, but when it hits home there’s no answer.”
Helena Britsch says
Very well written about your feelings Dave. I didn’t realise this had happened when I saw your battle of wits and joke about being unarmed. Just be there for your mum and his partner, they will be very upset. He enjoyed his life by the sound of it but it should have been longer.
Another one of life’s varied experiences to learn from.
Pat Sullivan says
Peace be with you and your family. We do not know when we will be called Home.
Ann Zierke says
I have you and your family in my thoughts and prayers, and fully understand what you have said – and in such a very literal way. Love to you and your family.
Rene Tabak says
My sincere condolences to you and your family. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Why do we always feel so uncomfortable when speaking over the most natural thing in life? Death. Let’s hope your blog will help making this easier.
My heart is breaking for you and your family. This blog post hits so close to home for me. It expresses things that I have felt and not known how to deal with. My brother Steve died at 55 also. He was the first (and so far only) of my six siblings to die. He and I weren’t close, but I dealt with him often because I was helping him and his kids financially, and toward the end covering some of the expenses as he died from cancer. I loved him, of course, but often wanted to smack him. Then he died and I felt very little. Then it came in waves. And still does, two years later, but less so. I felt bad that I didn’t feel devastated like I thought I ought to. One of the questions you didn’t list but that I still wrestle with is whether I say “I have two brothers” or “I HAD two brothers.” Odd things. My love is here for you, Dave. (which, by the way, is the name of my other brother) If you ever want to talk about it, or anything, I’m here. And to the degree that one can understand the experience of another, I think I understand.
Sherry Reynolds @Cascadia says
Even as we mourn the passing we celebrate the life. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
My heart is breaking for you and your family. This blog post hit close to home for me and expressed things that I felt and didn’t know how to deal with. My brother Steve died at 55 also. He was the first (and so far only) of my six siblings to die. He and I weren’t close, but I dealt with him often because I was helping he and his kids financially, and toward the end covering some expenses as he died from cancer. I loved him, of course, but often wanted to smack him. Then he died and I felt less than I should. Then the tears and sadness came in waves. And still does, two years later, but less so. I felt bad that I didn’t feel devastated like I thought I ought to. A question you didn’t list but that I still wrestle with is whether I say “I have two brothers” or “I HAD two brothers.” Odd things. My love is here for you, Dave. (which, by the way, is the name of my other brother) If you ever want to talk about it, or anything, I’m here. And to the degree that one can understand the experience of another, I think I understand.
Carolyn Thomas says
Our relationships with our siblings can often become complicated as our childhood years fade, but when a sib dies, a piece of ourselves dies as well, as Susan Scarf Merrell once wrote:
“Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk.”
My deepest condolences to you and to all your extended family, Dave.
I am so sorry for your devastating loss.
I’m so sorry for your loss! He was quite young.
Five years ago, when my father died, I went back home for the funeral and family reunion. To this day it’s one of my most cherished memories. Family gathering after a long time. People had new stories, his old time friends shared stories of his youth and told me how he talked to them about me, etc.
You will get to know your brother from entirely new perspectives. Yes, life changed forever, but it’s not always for the worse.
John Novack says
I’m sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family.
Dear Dave, He was still so young! my sincere condolences to you and your family, may God rest his soul
Deanna Attai says
So very sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
Lisa Fields says
I’m so sorry to learn about your brother’s death. I promise I will keep you and your family in the Light.
Tim King says
I’m so sorry for your loss, Dave. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. -TimK
Wendy Hoechstetter says
I am so sorry to learn of this terrible loss for you and your family. Odd, after all these years, I don’t know that I even knew you had siblings other than Suede. And what a shame to learn how much you yourself didn’t know about him. Please just know that my thoughts and prayers are with all of you in this difficult time, and may your memories of Steve sustain you in the days and years ahead.
So sorry to hear of your loss. You are a fascinating person. Thanks for sharing making the world a better place.
Jody Schoger says
A sibling is one of our connections to the past and such an important one. I’m so very sorry for this difficult loss. You are in my prayers.
e-Patient Dave says
All, my sister Suede submitted an amazing, wonderful response to this. She was just 14 months older than him; they were close all through school, in ways I never realized, and stayed close forever – boy did SHE know him. Please read: https://www.epatientdave.com/2013/05/12/a-death-in-the-family-part-2-a-sister%E2%80%99s-perspective
Pat Mastors says
Dave, so very sorry for your loss. Your observations are so iconoally thoughtful, honest and human. Stitching together our feelings in the wake of loss is one of the most painful/challenging/necessary things we will ever do. Thank you for finding words.
I lost my mom on March 2. She woke up on Feb. 27 and said she didn’t feel very well. Less than 72 hours later she was pronounced dead. She wasn’t ill but an unknown tumor was lurking. Anyway, I certainly know what it is to have it happen suddenly. I have learned so much in a few short weeks, it is devastating. Dave: You have a very big life. You might find that the big world may need to get smaller so you can find some control. I will pray for you and your family. God Bless you.
e-Patient Dave says
Julie, and all, thanks again for your very kind words – and for those who shared their own losses, my sympathies are with you, too.
The family has done remarkably well, all things considered. We gathered and pulled together photos from his life, which of course led to many rememberings, and reflections on his ultimate outcome. The memorial service was packed, with great reflections from family members and friends.
And today we learned that the SCCA track where he loved to drive and play will remember him on June 9. Boy were we surprised when several people from that track (hours away) showed up at the service. One of them told me some of them had thought something wasn’t right with Steve, because the last weekend he was with them, he was tired and told them to go ahead and party without him, while he rested.
Who knows. He was outgoing in some ways, and private in others. We miss him.