Yesterday, I attended a graveside memorial service for a friend’s brother who died unexpectedly at age 52. We gathered in the shaded stillness of Lincoln cemetery and listened as his siblings spoke eloquently, and with welcome bursts of humor, about their brother who was to all accounts an original character. He was an MIT graduate, an inventor, a bon vivant.
Five years ago, my brother Andy died. He was 48 when he lost control of his motorcycle, just about 10 miles from my hometown of Somers, Connecticut. Andy had been living in what had been our family home. Unlike my friend’s brother, Andy struggled with demons that led to his death.
Andy was brilliant and funny. He was the baby brother–a bonus when my mother hit 40 and thought she was done. He loved cooking and photography. He delighted us with his unique holiday cards. Each year, he’d put a tiny Santa cap on some unsuspecting animal–frog, mouse. He would buy the animal from a local pet store, take its picture and then return it saying it wasn’t what he expected. Secretly we worried that he used super-glue to keep the caps on his holiday victims.
Before he was 20, he became addicted to drugs. He was incarcerated twice for drug-related issues. Despite the jail and a hundred other missteps, I always believed he would turn his life around.
I read his short eulogy standing by the urn decorated with Celtic knots. I clutched a bouquet of sunflowers as a reminder that he and I shared Leo as our sign. We were the summer babies in the family.
I have learned about Andy this past week as we have tried to sort through his life. Mostly we have learned that he had friends. Good friends who are broken-hearted by his death.
He was the baby of our family–a family of older siblings who saw his happy goofy smile as childish and his easier life as unearned. We aren’t defined by family place; Andy did not reap any great benefits from his. Early on he found himself happy in the kitchen watching the production of feeding our large family, and by age 14 he decided he’d like to be a chef. His adventures in cooking were uneven at first. There was a memorable chocolate mousse he made for me as a birthday surprise – he melted down leftover chocolate Easter bunnies and served them over melon balls. It wasn’t one of his culinary high points.
He wanted to drop out of high school and go off to France and apprentice, as European chefs do. But the leap from the cornfields of Somers to the boulevards of France was more than he could practically manage so he let that dream slip and soon much was slipping sideways in his life. Andy tried his best to make a decent life despite his demons.
Andy did not give up. Every thing that should have worked–rehab, counseling, AA–he tried. And tried and tried. During the clear spaces in his life he married three times, he was a star in the local community theater, he competed at motor-cross and rode dirt bikes, he attended photography school and produced beautiful pictures. Andy tackled his life for 48 years until a dark night and a curve he couldn’t manage got the best of him.
He was like these sunflowers … bright, a little bigger than life, and here with us for too short a season. We miss them when they’re gone.
Yesterday, my friend said he’d been trying to make sense of the loss of his brother, David. He’d also lost his father and a best friend in the past year. The lesson, he decided, was to live life fully. I agree. On the night of my brother’s funeral, Art and I became engaged; we married a year later.
Life is the lesson.