Oh, brother, brother, brother
I know you’ve been hangin’ on a long time
But I love you like no other
Oh, brother of mine
~ Carole King
My baby brother, Joe, died early Friday morning, March 26th. It wasn’t totally unexpected—he’d been in hospice since sometime last July and very ill for four years. Still, the phone call was something I’d feared and dreaded.
The call came mid-morning that Friday. I didn’t recognize the number, so I didn’t pick up, but as soon as I listened to the message, I knew. It was my niece Ashley’s husband, Josh, asking me to call him back. I steeled myself for the worse possible news as I called. And I got it.
I cried all day Friday as I reached out to my friends and family with the news—texting to ask if they could talk. Talking when they could. Telling them what had happened if they weren’t available to talk. My cousin Larry immediately responded by FaceTime and our conversation was extremely comforting. And, I had the best of care from my partner, Jeff, who knows all too well the devastating pain of losing someone you love.
The day passed in a haze of grief. I searched through pictures to find those I felt best showed the love in our relationship throughout our lives. There are many more, but I chose the best, and my sweet Jeff put them together in a collage for me to post.
I went to bed early and slept hard throughout the night. In the morning I couldn’t move without pain. I felt like I’d been beaten. My legs were heavy and my arms hurt as though I’d struggled against something all night. It was then I truly understood the weight of sorrow. The heaviness of grief. The mind/body connection was indisputable.
Every day since Joe’s death, I still wake up feeling physically and emotionally battered. A month later, and I still can’t believe he’s gone. He gave the best hugs, ever, and I mourn the fact that I’ll never feel one again. I’ve suffered so many losses—my father, mother, beloved grandma, older half-brother, uncle, friends, and patients—but I’ve never before experienced such physical pain at the loss. At least not that I remember.
My good friend, Cathy, who has also lost a sibling, understood the crushing pain I’m feeling. Most of my other losses were expected losses. In the natural order of things, we are supposed to outlive our older family members. Joe was my baby brother, and, as a sibling, he was the witness to much of my life. The loss of that witness feels like being torn in two.
I was only five-and-a-half when Joe was born, so I have few memories of my life before him. I liked to tell Joe I’ve loved him all his life, but I’ve also loved him most of mine. When he was born I still remember my daddy sitting me down to gently tell me I didn’t get the baby sister I’d wanted, that I had a brother. My immediate response was that I’d really wanted a brother.
How I adored that baby! We were living in Army housing on the base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and I had a few friends I brought home to show him off to. I loved holding him and feeding him. Helping Mama take care of him.
As Joe grew older, he adored me, as well. Whenever I left the house, he wanted to go with me. When we lived in El Paso, Texas, I was ten and Joe was four. I had a friend named Eloise who lived nearby, and whenever I left to go play with her, Joe followed me down the street. When I promised I’d bring him something when I came home, he’d reluctantly turn around. I always kept my promise. Most times I only brought him an interesting rock or stick I found along the way, but he was always thrilled with whatever I gave him.
All the while we were young, Daddy was in the Army and we moved so many times. Our family didn’t really settle down in Mesquite, Texas (a suburb of Dallas) until the summer I turned fourteen and was entering 9th grade. I was always the shy, new girl, making only a few real friends along the way—and then always having to say “goodbye.” Joe and I were the constants in each other’s lives throughout those years. I remember many, many hours spent in the backseat of a Studebaker station wagon as we moved from state to state, or went on family vacations.
Other family members were always across the country. We had cousins we rarely ever saw. Cousins, like Larry, who grew up in California and who I’ve only gotten to know well in recent years. So, it was just me and Joe. Mama always worked 8 to 5 as a bookkeeper wherever we lived, so, beginning the middle of 6th grade, it became my responsibility to watch Joe after school.
Like any siblings, Joe and I fought and we got into trouble, but we were always “thick as thieves.” I remember one time we were tossing a small watermelon back and forth to each other in the living room. Mama told us to stop several times, but we didn’t—until we dropped the melon and it shattered on the carpet. After Mama sent us to our separate rooms, we sat in our respective doorways and rolled a ball back and forth to each other. Joe and I depended on each other to be there, and assumed we always would.
It was only after we moved to Mesquite that we each, finally, had our own friends. Although our age differences impacted us more, we were still close. But it was in Texas where our lives began to go in very different directions.
I had a terrible time adjusting to life and school in Mesquite, whereas Joe thrived when finally planted. My choppy school history left me without a solid educational foundation, so I was behind in most subjects and not a good student. Joe, entering 3rd grade, excelled. I was shy and awkward, Joe was outgoing and immediately had a friend group, some of whom he kept all his life. I was too tall and skinny, had thin unruly hair and acne, and wore braces. Joe was handsome, with thick, straight, dark hair, an unblemished complexion, and naturally straight, white teeth. I’d not yet discovered my talent for art and writing, whereas Joe quickly became proficient at playing the drums and even had his own band called “The Clichés” for a couple years. Still, despite our differences, we spent as much time together as possible. I was proud of him.
When I left home after graduating high school, Joe was devastated. He visited me and I was back in the Dallas area after a few years, so we remained close. By the time he was in high school, I was the one he called whenever he had a problem. Joe was a rebellious teen and had a rough adolescence, at home, school, and in his relationships. I was his confidant through some very turbulent times.
Although we grew up in the same family and our parents stayed together through their own difficult times, it was in adulthood when our differences began to redefine our relationship. Joe was settled and grounded and happily at home in Texas. I, despite the pain I’d experienced being yanked around most my life (attending twenty-three schools by the time I graduated from high school), had what I called “a gypsy soul.” I was restless, hated Texas, and took every opportunity that came along to leave, although I always returned. When I came to Chicago for graduate school in 1982, I left Texas for good. Joe never left.
Over the past thirty-nine years, Joe and I visited each other, kept in touch by phone, and email, and text. I loved it when we were able to talk on the phone. Joe had a wicked sense of humor and could always make me laugh. He could also make me cry. Time and distance and misunderstandings and, finally, politics (and conspiracy theories) gradually eroded our relationship—almost to the breaking point.
Whenever Joe pulled back and disappeared from my life, I fought back. When he wouldn’t answer his phone, I left him long messages, pleading with him to please call me back. Using the power of text messaging, I sent him “I love you notes” and pictures and videos. When, after going into hospice last July 7th, Joe sent me a curt “Goodbye” text from what was to be his deathbed, I refused to accept it. I continued bombarding him with love texts until, finally, on December 28, he reached back. Our phone call was full of catching up and emotion and laughter and tears. The next morning he sent me a text telling me how much better he felt and saying “I love you Doc and please don’t ever forget that I do even when I am stupid.” I’ve printed it out and will keep it always.
The last time I talked to Joe was on his birthday, February 25. I called and he answered and we talked like nothing had ever come between us. I’ve forgiven him for all the ways he hurt me over the years, and I believe he forgave me, too. I am glad Joe is finally out of pain and at peace, and I will search for a way to celebrate his life that helps give me closure. As I write this I recognize there’s a certain poetry in our relationship here on earth having both begun and ended on his birthday. But I’ll continue to love him for the rest of my life and, depending on what happens after, maybe forever.