In late December, in the shadow of the hospital where my daughter was born, we buried my oldest brother.
He was nine years older than I, and he led a troubled life. But as I said at his graveside, mustering the few words I could before breaking down, "You made me laugh. You were my brother. I love you."
I'm not a believer that we go to a "better place" when we pass away. I think we get this one shot, and then ... we're gone.
But if anyone deserves a better place, it is this brother who struggled mightily during his mortal term on Earth.
We didn't know each other well. By the time I was figuring out a bit about the world around me, he was off at college. And by the time I was off at college, he was in the throes of what would be a lifelong ordeal.
Beyond that, we were wildly different people. He, like my father and other brother, was a science guy. I, in ways that my father certainly never understood or particularly appreciated, was a words guy and -- as my middle brother would often point out -- a bit of a schmoozer. Certainly there are scientists who are schmoozers, and words guys who are not, but that was the roster in my house growing up -- three scientists and a bullshit artist.
Among the three brothers there were six Ivy League degrees. Big deal? I don't know. Useful? Not as much as you might think.
For my oldest brother, he was in touch enough to realize he had not carved out much for himself with that education. The failure to capitalize on his schooling was the least of his worries. Day-to-day functioning in the world was much more daunting.
Our interactions over the years were few, brief, and not especially pleasant. My middle brother and I went off to lead somewhat traditional lives, his more than mine, with wives (me, for awhile) and kids (always the highest priority) and careers.
Our oldest brother had none of those, and while people can certainly be happy and productive and involved without spouses or children or careers, he wasn't one of them.
He drifted in and out of our lives over the years, appearing from out of nowhere, then disappearing again. He finally settled back in the northeast for a period, taking care of our mother as best he could for some time before she passed on.
At his best, he was insightful, funny, worldly and had a memory so sharp is was scary. At his worst, which was frequently, he was just ... sad.
The day after he died, a letter for him came to my address. It was an invitation to his high school reunion. I have no idea why it came to me -- I'd never gotten mail for him in 30 years, and I moved recently, so my new address wouldn't have been available to anyone who knew my brother, as far as I know. It was one of those odd occurrences that I don't need explained.
And now, he rests. Peacefully, I hope, next to our mother and father who showed him unwavering love and patience that could set an example for parents everywhere.
Though I don't know if I acknowledged it, when I was fighting for the right to raise my kids by myself, and then when I was raising them, the complete selflessness my parents showed toward my brother seemed to be a guiding force, a presence that kept my focus on what really mattered.
Years fly by. Conversations that seemed so recent about plans and dreams and things yet to do have become conversations about dreams and plans for our children and grandchildren, and the hope we can still do that which we still must do.
And occasionally, at this age, we must deal with the passing of others.
If you are in better place, brother of mine, I am happy for you. And if you are not, I am sorry for what you had to endure.
You made me laugh. You were my brother. I love you.