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.