Yesterday we buried my big brother.
It seems it was just moments ago I had received the teary phone call from my dad, saying the doctors had said he would probably not make it through the night. I can barely remember seeing my dad cry, and I was packing my bag even before I half realized it. A frantic call to my wife, a fruitless search for a flight that might get me there quicker, a few emails shot off to cover for us at our jobs, and we were driving up to Maine through the middle of the night.
We arrived in Bangor by 5:00 am, and by 7:00 I was beginning to think the worst was over. Stephen was resting, heavily doped up on morphine, but his heart was no longer racing and he seemed stable. My dad went home to Pittsfield to pick up a few items for mom, and we started thinking perhaps we should do the same. By 8:00, though, we realized the end was close. His breathing, labored and watery sounding, grew so shallow that sometimes we all paused and waited for long quiet moments until he took another breath.
I spent the last few minutes of my brother's life looking out his window. I wonder if he knew the view he had of the Androscoggin River, as it swept around two shallow bends, running swiftly and strongly past the old water works that jutted out into the wide stream, then past the hospital grounds. This was once a river we referred to as "the Skag", a reference to how polluted it was from the mills that lined it's shores years ago. Now it was clean, strong, healthy, the opposite of my thin, pale big brother behind me.
My wife, my mother and I were the only three in the room when he took his final weak breath around 9:00 am. My father and sister arrived a few minutes later, after he was gone.
The rest of the weekend is a bit of a blur. There were the inevitable meetings with pastors and funeral directors to make arrangements. I spent a great deal of time driving around with my wife, revisiting old haunts and memories, remembering things. Good things, bad things, just remembering is what I need sometimes, it's not so much which memories remain.
The family came up Sunday for the viewing, and that was a hard piece of work. Listen to the sobs, my own included, of everyone. But after there was time to visit and catch up with cousins whom I missed more then I knew. Then the funeral yesterday. Many people spoke, people who knew Stephen, who were touched by him and his joy of life. His guidance counselor from junior high. His lifelong friend from school. His aunt. Our sister spoke, briefly, her voice lost in her sobs. Then later it was my turn. I spoke of how Stephen could not be defined by his learning disability, that he was a swimmer... an artists... a photographer... a son... a brother.
Last came our other brother, the second oldest. Now the oldest. Hopefully my speech was as eloquent as his. He reminded us that not all heroes are in history books, that we are surrounded by heroes every day who work hard, play hard, and live life with a vigor we can hardly hope to match. I was supposed to be the smart one of the family, and here was the man I grew up disliking more then anyone else in my family speaking words I could only wish I had written. I love and admire him more then ever now.
Stephen is our hero, and he will be missed forever. Now I am tired, I am home with my wife, and the week will slowly return to some semblance of normalcy. Nothing will ever be the same again, though. For Stephen has changed me, and I thank him for the gift he has given me. His last act was to give me back my family.
What a guy.....