My last brother alive, Robert, passed yesterday, after suffering for several months from a very rare cancer.
Do you remember in Godfather 2, how Pacino stops one of his mob from testifying before a crime commission committee ala Joe Vilachi? The guy’s at least in his fifties, a murderer, a totally hardened tough guy. But Pacino flies the guy’s big brother in from Italy, a man who looks like he might be in his seventies, and just the sight of him is enough to get the capo to clam up.
My brother who just passed was that guy, the older brother you could fly in and one look from him and I’d do what was asked.
When I was a kid, our two oldest brothers went from high school into WWII, and then came back briefly before taking advantage of the G.I. Bill and going off to college, Tommy to eventually become a Franciscan friar (he's the one who passed away only a few months ago himself), and "Buddy" (as we called him) to eventually become a high school principal, but only after decades of night school to get a Ph. D. in education, after getting earlier degrees in education and music and becoming a high school music teacher, good enough to take his blue-collar Maryland high school band to the Orange Bowl, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, etc. while at the same time working his night job, playing saxophone and clarinet, and later my upright acoustic bass, behind headline acts visiting the old DC Hotels and clubs, acts like Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, etc.
So my third brother, Robert, was the only one still home as I grew into my early teens. And after serving in the Army during Korea (though stationed in Germany fixing tanks) he became a Teamster, driving trucks for the Newark breweries, like Ballantine, and then a cop, which he still was when I left home and he already had started a family of his own.
That family was, thankfully, all there with him in his new home in Georgia (our part of New Jersey having become too expensive for most of my family to afford anymore), as he peacefully moved on.
I had spent a week this past Thanksgiving down there with my youngest boy, for whom the two of my three older brothers still around by the time he arrived were more like surrogate grandfathers than uncles. And another several days, more recently, with my two oldest children, fortunately while my brother was still communicative and able to come back with his usual sarcastic wit.
Up until a few days ago he had refused any painkillers, despite his occasional grimaces or even uncontrollable exclamations of serious discomfort. But it was never his way to complain about that kind of stuff. He could complain about all the “jerks” in the world, but never his own physical travails. And even his complaints about the dumb things the world makes us put up with were usually done with humor and/or the makings of a good story, in the great tradition of the Irish and Irish-American clan we grew up in.
He was my hero, when I was a kid doing pull ups on his biceps, the "tough guy with a heart of gold." And he remained that tough guy hero, to me, right until he left us.
Once, when I was visiting him a few years ago and we were taking his daily walk together, I had to stop because of a pain I was having. I asked if that kind of thing ever happened to him, and he responded “And if it did what would be the point of talking about it?” So, after the pain passed we continued walking and talking about something other than the problems of aging, and not-so-aging, bodies.
Another time, when I first moved back to Jersey almost a decade ago, I was at his house that he was still in here, when he had to take some stuff to the dump. He opened the back of his SUV and tossed a huge bag of heavy debris or furniture or whatever it was into the vehicle like it was full of cheese puffs, and I thought to myself, I doubt if I could do that and I’m twelve years younger. And if I did do it, my back would be complaining for days.
We had our problems, especially back when I was a little wannabe juvenile delinquent and would sass our mom. Once he backhanded me so hard I slammed into the refrigerator and saw stars for a few seconds.
And later, other disagreements about the progressive and Bohemian stances I was taking that interfered with his, and my clan’s, idea of what I should be doing, caused us to become estranged. But luckily, we resolved that before it was too late.
Right up until his last few months, his voice was as strong as it was back when I was a kid and you could walk by our house in the middle of winter, when all the doors and windows were closed and doubled up with storm windows, and still hear him talking inside in his normal volume.
That sound could scare the bejesus out of me. We had two sisters that were between him and me, Joan (who passed away decades ago) and Irene, who recently reminded me of the time she and I hid out on the cellar steps until he went to bed because we were that afraid of his reprimands.
But despite my own fear as a boy, of his just giving me the eye—raising one eyebrow and staring intently at me until I stopped whatever I was doing that I wasn’t supposed to be doing, or did whatever I was supposed to be doing—his presence could also be a real asset, like the time several members of a Newark street gang followed me all the way home on the bus I took from Newark every day during my high school years.
When I waited until the last minute and then jumped out of the bus and tried my best to bravely saunter up our street, they jumped out and followed me. I thought I was going to get beat pretty badly when they reached me, but just before they did, my brother pulled up in the squad car and got out. One look from him and they were on their way back to Newark.
I had almost forgotten that, until my second oldest brother, Buddy, died and I flew in to Maryland for the funeral from L. A., where I was still living at the time. A nephew picked me up and drove me right to the wake, and after we got out of the car, before we even approached the building where the wake was being held, with the doors and windows all closed, through the thick concrete walls we could hear my brother Robert, speaking normally, for him, and my nephew said “It’s always so reassuring to hear Uncle Robert’s voice. You know you’re safe when he’s around.”
For me, he always will be.
My three big brothers before I was around (Robert between our dad's legs)
My family, me in my mom's arms, Robert in horizontally striped tie, Buddy at attention right behind me, just before joining the Navy, our other brother Tommy, in his Army Air Corps uniform, my sister Irene beside our older and taller sister Joan and my dad in his fedora
Me and my big brothers, Robert in the veritcally striped tie
Me and my brothers when I finally was almost as big as them (we're standing on a hill so it appears that I really am) with Robert all the way to my right, in the gray jacket