The poet and sermon-giver, John Donne, wrote that "no man is an island" and "any man's death diminishes me." That's true, no doubt, but sometimes a particular death does more than diminish one's being or soul.
The death of my brother Alan leaves me bereft, hollow, empty. Everything seems changed and altered forever. I sense consequences that remain unseen, unknown. Never before have I awakened to the day without knowing he was alive somewhere and ready to answer my questions. No more.
A few years ago I mailed Alan a VHS tape of the movie The Straight Story, a film about two brothers. He wrote back that he liked the movie very much. He also said that he loved me and always had. Those words made my heart sing. I immediately wrote back saying "Please don't die before I do!" Alas.
I have written about my brother before, a tale of how he was part of the most perfect day of my life.
There was so much more. We fought World War II together. We dug our foxholes in the side hill west of the house. I had my submachine gun made of 1/2" galvanized pipe, tees, ells, and nipples. He had some kind of homemade wooden rifle. We collected metal and paper for the scrap drives, had a Victory Garden, bought Defense stamps for War Bonds. We met the troop trains to beg for shoulder patches. We saw all the war movies and we loved them all. Patriots to the core. Our own little band of brothers.
We were cowboys too. We built our own corral. Rounded up cattle. Had bar room fights. Gunfights in the street. We fought only bad guys, not Indians. We liked Indians. We had read the books of Ernest Thompson Seton and knew well the Indian ways.
We often discussed which movie was the best Western ever made. Was it Red River? My Darling Clementine? The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck? Or High Noon? Then, one summer evening in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1953, as I came out of the base movie theater, having just seen Shane, I said to myself I have got to tell Alan about this movie. He must see it, I thought, it is the best. Of course, he did see it, and he did agree. Shane was the best Western ever made. Young men, now, we both realized how much better if we could have seen it as boys.
And that reminds me of what I will miss the most. So many times over the years there was a news event, a book published, a movie shown, a TV program, a magazine article, or something personal, and I would think, I have got to tell Alan about this. I desired and respected his opinion. I needed to know what he thought.
Although I was sixteen months older than Alan, he was more an older brother to me than I was to him. For whatever reasons there were, I was reclusive, an emotional cripple. Alan was not without his problems but he was more normal than I was. He made friends easily; I did not. He engaged with girls easily; I did not. He explored the outside world sooner and more boldly. I hung back.
When I did make the move, I went with him and his friends since I had none of my own. He accepted me as he always had.
I spent a few days with Alan in May. There was great physical change and there were periods of mental drifting. Sleep was sporadic and short term. On two occasions, Alan, his wife Jerian, and I sat outside on the front porch of his home. He spoke of the enjoyment that gave him, pointing out the game trails for the deer who crossed the road. A bluebird flitted between a powerline and the gravel driveway. A Maryland yellowthroat could be heard singing in the brush off the lawn.
At different times, we conversed about our childhood, people we knew, some politics. Once he expounded on an article he had read about narcissism and how it is infecting our social and political life. His voice strengthened as he showed how thoroughly he had read and understood the article. I was impressed, as always.
On the morning of my departure, I stood before him as he lay propped by pillows on the couch. What now, I wondered, does he know I'm leaving? Then he raised himself slightly and held his arms open wide. I knelt on the floor beside him and wrapped my arms around him. I love you, he said. I love you, I said. A moment more, and then I broke to stand up. I stood there unable to move. He looked at me and then, gesturing with a hand, he looked at my face and gave me my last advice from him: "Just go," he said, "just get in the car and drive away." Firmly, gently, the words bathed me. I was released.
Alan died a few weeks later, much sooner than I had expected. I'm told his last four days were ugly and painful. Then the sooner the better, I thought, for him.
What now, I wonder. Like the boy in Shane, I want to cry out "Come Back!" But there is no going back.
The rider rides on.