I am sitting aboard an American Airlines flight. At 34,000 feet, suspended over a dark America, I don’t know where I am, only that in 2 hours I will land in Detroit. I will be home. It has been a long 9 days.
Nine days ago I was sitting in my office planning out my work schedule. When I heard my cell phone ringing and saw that my son was calling, I assumed that he was calling to tell me that he was all moved into his new apartment in Los Angeles and things were good. He had only just returned to California from a visit to see our family in Michigan. His call, unfortunately, was not a happy one.
“Hey pops,” I heard Nick’s voice say, “what’s going on?”
“Oh, not much, at work, you?”
“Have you talked to anyone?”
“No, what’s up?”
“I think you better call grandma and grandpa.”
“Why?,” I asked, anxiety just starting to creep up my neck.
“Just call them, okay?”
I did. I got no answer. I shot a text to my brother Eric saying I got a confusing call from Nick and did he know anything. I then called Nick back.
“Grandma and grandpa didn’t answer buddy and your call is freaking me out. Tell me what’s going on!”
A long pause. The he says, “Uncle Steve died.”
“I don’t know. I just found out. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”
Just then my brother Eric text back. “You got a minute? Call.”
I did. Eric didn’t know much more. I heard “massive heart attack.” I heard “about an hour ago.” I don’t remember much more.
I am from a large family. Including me, there are 9 kids, and my parents, though in their 80’s, are still healthy and mobile. Though the youngest of us is 47, we had never lost a sibling. Steve was the first. He was only 56. I’m 50. 56 is very close to 50.
As I said, we are a large family. With the exception of me in Michigan, none of my siblings live further from California than Arizona. I felt like I was stranded on an island. I was 2,000 miles away. I might as well have been on the other side off the world for how I felt at that moment.
I left work and headed home. I had to make plans. I had to book a flight, get a car, hotel, etc. Then, when I got home, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing. I couldn’t make plans. Maybe I should just fly out first thing in the morning. They usually bury people within three days don’t they? I was in limbo. Limbo is a bad place.
I waited. I kept checking airfare. It kept getting more and more expensive. I needed to make a decision. On Thursday night my sister Shelley called. She said the best she could offer was that something might happen as early as Monday or as late as Friday. Friday morning I couldn’t wait any longer. I booked a flight that got me into southern California on Sunday and put me out late on the next Friday. I let family know I was on my way.
By the time I arrived at my parents home in California’s inland empire on Sunday the plans were finalized. Viewing and memorial on Thursday, burial on Friday. More limbo.
The unexpected death of a family member is a terrible thing. While my brother and I were not close, he was my brother and I have hundreds of memories of our growing up. Some funny. Some sad. Some angry. Some weird. What was more difficult was not my own grief at the loss of my brother, but the grief I felt for his wife and three children. The grief I felt for my parents, having to bury a child. The funeral is such a necessary step in being able to move on, to acknowledge that we all have to go forward. The limbo of having to wait over a week to complete this hard, sad, but necessary ritual was a limbo that was a hell.
One area of my family life that I am always proud of is our ability to come together in difficult times. Sometimes years pass in which I don’t see any of my brothers and sisters, but when adversity strikes we all flock back home, like moths to a lamp.
It is very necessary to note that the title of this blog – Burying My Brother – has dual meaning. The first is the obvious, funerals must happen. I have covered that part already. The second is more of a figurative and emotional perspective. The need to bury the baggage of the past.
As I said, my brother and I were not close. In the past 35 years I had only seen Steve a handful of times. It wasn’t just distance that kept us apart. We were very different people. I, for the most part am fairly low key. Steve was a very “in-your-face” sort of guy. He was a braggart. He told grand tales that held not a shred of truth, but I think he told them so many times he believed them to be fact. He was loud, often a bully, and opinionated. I simply had lost a desire to spend time with him or being talked at by him. Also, over the years, Steve’s antics and behavior has caused a great deal of pain and heartache to my parents, two people who dedicated their lives to their family and truly deserved better treatment than they often received.
As a result of all this, I missed a part of Steve’s life that was growing and developing out of view from me. Through his sons, my brother had become very involved in coaching and supporting soccer. First through my nephews, and as they grew up, through various soccer clubs, and ultimately as the coach of a high school team. He spent time with each and every player. He got to know them. He helped motivate them to go to college. He helped them with college applications and gave them letters of recommendation. These kids he coached and influenced? They saw a Steve I never had, and they loved him.
On Thursday, November 12, after the visitation and viewing at the funeral home, a memorial service had been organized at the high school where Steve coached. Hundreds of people were present. The soccer kids he had coached over the years were there. Some of his former players, now in college, actually flew home just to be there. They wore their jerseys and on each sleeve was affixed a patch – In Memory of Coach Steve. The service was supposed to go from 6:30 until 7:30 or 8:00, but the line of past and current players who wanted to speak was so long that I didn’t get back to my hotel until after 11:00.
The service was nothing short of amazing. All these players and parents who spoke introduced me to a side of my brother that I had no idea existed. There are no words. Amazing is an inadedquate and weak description. The service and the speeches and the outpounring of love allowed me to accomplish the other “burial.” To bury my long held perceptions of the man I knew, and replace them with pride and love for how he had touched the lives of so many. Those kids, for whom my brother meant so much, helped me that day more than they will ever know. Steve left a legacy in his community and it was a good legacy. He is missed. He was appreciated. He was loved. I know that my entire family was equally touched.
At the burial, as I filed past my brothers casket, I leaned down and whispered a final message to my brother. I will close with that message.
“Rest well, brother. I hope that you find peace.”