The last day of the first month of the new year was the first anniversary of the death of my brother, who died at age 57 from cancer.
I took the day off work, slept in, then went for a long walk. I smiled at strangers who passed me on the sidewalk, and had a brief conversation with a young man who complimented my camera. He wants to be a photographer, he said; he is taking photography classes at the community college and saving for a professional-grade camera. I told him he was doing all the right things, gave him a silent blessing and walked on, congratulating myself on not saying a discouraging word. The odds are against him becoming a professional photographer and traveling the world for work, as he said he wants to do. He will succeed only if he is very talented and very lucky and very persistent. If he doesn’t already know that, it’s not my place to tell him, and perhaps kind words from a stranger will provide some encouragement as he pursues his dream.
My brother’s dream was to become a professional musician. In high school he played the trumpet, but after a tour in the U.S. Marine Corps and a series of job changes, he headed to Branson, Mo. Somewhere along the way he learned to play the guitar. He befriended musicians and worked in a theater that offered live shows, but in 20 years he never made it as a musician. I can’t say whether he had talent – I never heard him play. We weren’t close as children, and as adults we saw each other mostly at family weddings and funerals. The only times I visited him was when he had heart surgery, then when he was hospitalized after a motorcycle accident, and finally with his last illness, and none of those times did it occur to me to ask him to strum his guitar.
After he died, I read posts from his friends on his Facebook page. I was moved by how many of them – men and women – said they thought of him as a brother. I learned that a professional musician had written a song about him. A dog breeder named two puppies in his memory. All of them knew a man I didn’t, even though he was my brother.
He and I didn’t have much in common, and I admit I didn’t work at learning who he was as an adult rather than as the boy I knew growing up. In the years preceding his death we talked about twice a year – once when I called him on his birthday and again when he called me on mine. I dreaded those calls because they tended to be monologues on his part, but now I wonder what might have happened if I had made an effort to engage in conversation rather than simply listening with half an ear.
My brother was hospitalized for a year as the sarcoma took first his strength, then his leg and last his life. He apparently never gave up: Shortly before he died he told my other brother that even though he had no appetite he knew he needed to eat to build up his strength so he could leave the hospital.
He asked that no funeral be held. He said if someone wanted to remember him, they should give to their favorite charity or just be good to each other. It wasn’t until this most recent three-day weekend that we remaining siblings gathered with our mother for a memorial. Mom, who sat at my brother’s hospital bedside for weeks before he passed away, told us that he almost never complained. She said her son taught her how to die.
I think perhaps my brother also had lessons to teach in how to live.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.