January 12, 2013
I miss my brother.
I've been staring at my laptop screen, trying to write something about what it's like to lose a sibling, and the only words that come clearly are those.
I miss my brother.
Bill was the first of my seven siblings, just a year younger than I am, the guy who elbowed me out of the center of our parents' universe. We grew up eating the same fried-bologna sandwiches, watching the same Captain Kangaroo, smelling the same Georgia grass, absorbing our mother and father from approximately the same angle.
We were different, though. I crooned along with the Bee Gees; Bill rocked to Led Zeppelin. While I was rehearsing with the pompom squad, Bill brooded over the charcoal sketches he made in the bedroom he shared with his four brothers. As I bought my first professional clothes, Bill grew his hair to his waist and moved to the Oregon backwoods to paint.
For years we rarely saw each other, and rarely talked, but shortly after I moved to Chicago, he called me one night.
"How would you feel about me moving there?"
Bill, the iconoclast? Wanted to live near me? He and his girlfriend, Eloise, found an apartment a block from mine on Roscoe Street. We had good times.
After that, our paths diverged again. He married Eloise, had two sons who are now in their teens, got a job on the website of a small Colorado newspaper. He worked long hours, lived in a small house, wore thrift-shop clothes and never found enough time to paint.
Then the cancer came.
Do you ever wonder who you would reveal yourself to be if you were dying? Watching Bill, I often wondered.
Would I be so gracious? So humble and tenacious? Would my first words to visitors be "How are you?" His often were, until he could no longer speak.
Bill hoped against the cancer until the end. He used it as incentive to make art, down in the tiny basement studio that no one was allowed to enter, painting even when his fingers were bloated and burnt by chemo.
After he was laid off a year ago, losing his income and his health insurance, he sought the sunny side: "Now I can call myself a full-time painter."
The cancer took him shortly after New Year's. He was at home. Eloise, who had nursed him as the disease stole more from him every day, held his hand as he died.
During my brother's dying, I came to see more clearly who he was. Through his final time, we talked about our parents, novels, TV, music, religion, his love for his wife and sons, the importance of staying connected to your siblings. Though he lived on intravenous nutrition, unable to eat, he taught me his elaborate routine for properly buttering toast.
In his absence these last few days, Bill continues to reveal himself. Paintings of his that I'd never known about have turned up, showing parts of him I hadn't glimpsed before.
The morning of his death, Eloise opened the door of his little art studio. Sitting on an easel facing the door was a surprise gift. A portrait, almost finished, of his younger son, the one he wouldn't live to shepherd out of high school.
I miss my brother, the one I got to know better as he died, and the one I'm still discovering.
At its best, this is what death offers, a jolt that makes you look at someone you loved and wonder more carefully than you ever have: Who was that?
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