The past week has been difficult for me. Three years ago, on October 18th, 2012, my brother passed away suddenly from an aneurysm. Every year, my family holds a memorial mass at our church in the old neighborhood where we grew up. We go out to dinner afterwards and share memories of him. He was only 45.
I miss him every day.
He was our family’s golden child, the first-born and the only son, he adored his three little sisters, and doted on us readily. When I was just 4, he would play-wrestle with me, and somehow I always won. When I was small, I would go to his high school basketball game with little pom-poms and cheer for my brother, but I didn’t want to be a cheerleader when I got to high school, I wanted to be the starting center, just like him. He was the ultimate in coolness to me, watching a new thing called MTV and wearing Ray Bans and a Members Only jacket. All my friends though he looked like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.
My brother was 10 years older than me, he was giant, standing 6′ 7″ tall. But he was also larger than life in his personality. He was the type of person that you were just drawn to. He was smart, but incredibly easy to talk to. Every where he went, he made friends. He was my hero.
When I was 9, he was in a terrible car accident. He had been in accidents before, in my mom’s car, and mom got so mad at him and she yelled and yelled. But this wasn’t like before. My mother didn’t look like she wanted to yell at anyone. Actually, she looked like wanted to cry… all the time. At my young age, I couldn’t have understood what was happening back then. He was in the ICU for a long time. In fact, I didn’t see my brother again until I was 10.
I remember going into Boston, to one of the big hospitals. My parents took me to a scary part of the hospital I had never seen before. There were very sick people there, and all kinds of machines attached to them. They led me into a room that held a single bed. The walls were covered with get well cards, there were balloons and flowers of all sorts. My father got a stool for me to stand on.
As I climbed up, all I could think about was how I had been trying to send my beloved Pound Puppy in to my brother via my parents for months. When they returned from visiting my brother, I would always asked if they had given it to him, and was always told he couldn’t see it.
What I didn’t know at the time was he couldn’t see it because he was in a coma. So, of course my first order of business was to show my brother my Pound Puppy and explain that my puppy would make him better. I held it out over the hospital bed above my brother’s face. He tried to show his appreciation, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. There was a big tube in his mouth, a ventilator, to help him breathe. No matter, I thought, I gave him a big hug, and told him to hurry home to play with me. He spent a year in that hospital.
His car accident was the first time I was told to be prepared, that my brother could die. But he pulled through. After he came home, there was a period of adjustment. Our ancient colonial was not wheelchair friendly. But, my dad made the house wheelchair accessible, my brother returned to college and life went on. I think many people would have a hard time finding out they would never walk again, but if my brother struggled with it, I couldn’t see it. Some years later he was playing another sport, Quad Rugby, and I was again on the side lines cheering for him.
Shortly after, I graduated and moved off to go to college in the South. It had been 10 years since my brother’s accident. I was out, partying with my friends, and I got a message, “Call home.”
My parents had been calling all over to find me (Ah, the days before cell phones, how did we do it?) and when I finally got in touch with them the news was not good. My brother was in the hospital with a mysterious heart problem. I jumped on the next flight home to be with my family. It turned out to be an aortic aneurysm.
I didn’t know much about his condition, but the doctors told us it was a grave matter. The aneurysm could burst and he would die within a matter of moments.
It turned out that my brother had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. My brother’s athletic nature may have contributed to the formation of the aneurysm, as all those years of pushing himself, and his heart, can cause these issues.
My brother traded in his Quickie quad rugby chair, for a more sleek black chair. He started wearing suits and ties and settled into a more calm way of life, keeping his blood pressure down so as to not aggravate his condition. Again, life went on, and we went on with it, adjusting as need be.
After the Marfan’s Syndrome diagnosis though, something strange happened. Each time they would check my brother and the status of his aneurysm, we were told to prepare for the end. My brother developed additional aneurysms over time. When they grew too large, he underwent surgery of the most amazing nature, they patched up his bulging arteries with sail cloth!
In 2009, my brother agreed to an aggressive surgery to repair an abdominal aneurysm. It did not go well, and we were told once again, it was the end. In order to do the operation, they essentially stopped all of his systems, and once they completed the patch up job, they started him up again. But his kidneys didn’t startup with the rest of him. He had dialysis treatments, and eventually was put into hospice care. But he had had enough.
By this time, he had negotiated his retirement from his job of 14 years. They were so thankful for his service, they gave him the full benefits package normally reserved for those that had worked 15 years or more. (After his passing, they named one of their conference rooms for him.)
I rarely saw him out of his hospital bed in his home after that. He had an electric wheelchair, and his wife managed to buy a wheelchair van suited to the heavy electric wheelchair. But he could no longer drive. My mother, sisters and I took turns each weekend sitting with him and his daughter, while his wife worked. When I would stay with him, our kids would play in the living room, leaving us to have wonderful long conversations. We had such fun.
In October of 2012, my parents called to let me know that my brother was once again going into the hospital. He was having some pain and not feeling well. I sent my well wishes with them, and told them to call me with an update after they visited him. Our family had learned over the years that when you first get to the hospital, there is a lot of paperwork, and nurses and doctors coming in and out of the room – it is not the best time for visiting.
On their way in to Boston, my parents had a fender bender. It had made the car inoperable, even though there was only slight damage. I loaded my son into the car and went to pick them up. Together, we continued on into town and waited while my brother got situated in his hospital room. Finally, we were able to go in to see him.
I remember everything about that room. It was small and there was nowhere to sit. My son was, oddly enough, 9 years old at the time. He told his uncle all about our upcoming cruise for his 10th birthday. We exchanged some more news amongst ourselves, and then decided to get going. My parents made plans to come see him the next day, after they took care of their vehicle. We all hugged him, and took off for home. It was very hectic, I had some of my parents belongings stuffed into the trunk of my Toyota Corolla. I ended up losing my phone somewhere in the car.
At 2am, my parents rang my doorbell. They had been trying to call me, but I didn’t answer, so they had to come out to my house. They had to drive out in the middle of the night to tell me their son, my brother, had passed away. I was in shock.
The doctors had told us this was possible, but my brother had beaten the odds so many times, it seemed run-of-the-mill to us. He was my hero and he was infallible. I was in such shock, I actually went to work the following day. I broke down in a meeting around 11 o’clock, blurted out, “My brother died.” and just left.
I don’t know that I’m not still in shock, three years later. I do know it helps that people remember him. To this end, I established a scholarship that is given to a senior at our old high school. It was something I could do to keep his memory going. And each year, when we go to the old school to give out the award, we see old faces, friends of my brother, who remember him fondly. It makes my parents proud to see good being done in his name, because he was so good.
By reading this, now you know his story too, the story of my hero.