Tuesday, March 11, 2008


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


JIm said...

I offer my sympathies. It is very painful losing siblings and especially big brothers that we look up to. It was good to see the pictures of your family and what I assume is the old neighborhood. I don't remember your brothers, but I do remember your Mom and Dad. I remember them as very fine people who sure had their hands full with you. Of course my Dad would have said the same about me. I used to like talking to your Dad at the shop. He was always gracious and kind to me. Do you remember the time that local kid blew off his hand with some kind of pipe bomb or cherry cracker? It seems to me that he used to hang out at the shop too.

My best to your and your family at this difficult time.

Anonymous said...

Michael, sad news. It's good you were able to visit him. How nice to read your memories of your family...and the photos are very sweet. I'd forgotten you were the baby of the family.
love, suzanne

harryn said...

i am so sorry for your loss michael ...

jamie said...

love you lals.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to hear of your loss. My condolences to you and your family.

We've all traveled a long way from Tuam and Lally castle, but we meet again in our time.

Cherish the memories and make new ones for others to cherish.

tpw said...

Dear Michael:
I'm glad I had the chance to meet Robert, and I'm sorry he's gone. Your remembrance of him is really evocative. And those photos are great. As they say in the old country, he's got that tough job behind him now.

JIm said...

A while ago, Pete Cahill told me a story of his brother, Gil Hewson's brother and few other guys who signed up for Korea. They were in high school and did it after a raucous night out. Every one served except Gil's brother. Dr. Hewson used his influence and somehow got his son out. Was Robert part of that group? According to Pete, his father never did forgive Dr. Hewson.

Again, I am sorry for your loss.

Jim McKenna

Lally said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words. As far as Taum castles go, I never heard about that, just the dirt floor thatch roof cottage my father's father grew up in on a country crossroads known as Tallyho outside Athenry, a cottage I was lucky enough to see before it disintegrated after the last people to occupy it over a few centuries finally moved out and the damp set it. (my mother's Irish grandfather, a Dempsey, came over earlier and therefore her family was more "American"). And yes Jim, I remember the kid who got a few fingers blown off with a firecracker one year. My old man put him to work with me in his "Little Job'er" biz, where we worked in that little shop fixing people's toasters and irons and cutting glass for their windows etc. My father was always hiring people no one else would. But no to the other story. My brother Robert was drafted during the Korean thing, that's how he got into the Army, and the first thing they did was pull a couple of blackened teeth that the Army dentist said had been, I forget the term, like infected for a long time and that my brother must have been in a lot of pain. But he never even mentioned it. I remember those black teeth when I was a kid, part of how he could scare me. He must have been about nineteen when he was drafted and they pulled them. Then he'd scare you by pushing his bridge out with his tongue and showing the empty gap in his mouth where the teeth had been. Great big brother.

AlamedaTom said...

Lal: To me, this is what blogging is all about. I can read punditry concerning Hillary vs. Barack anywhere, but where else could I read something as real, personal, and fearless as this post.

Beautiful post; and the photos just crushed me. Like all great writing, it made me think of loved-ones, people, and events in my life with an altered perception and improved clarity.

~ Willy

harryn said...

sadness accompanies the absence of your daily postings - hope you're doing ok michael ...

Hikermedic said...

Great Post Uncle M! Living in Alaska on a very tight budget makes it tough when I can't afford to be there for every important family event. You're post helps me to mourn Uncle Robert(and Uncle Campion) and seeing the photos is really touching.These things are always tough. This past year has been a real roller coaster for all of the family. It still a shock to me that Uncle Robert looked so good while Dad was near the end and then to see how tough uncle Robert was. Thank God they both were home in the end. I feel like Uncle Campion was too in that beautiful place. Anyway with my wild job I guess I was able to postpone truly realizing that they're gone but reading your post about Uncle Robert and seeing the photos really hit the heart strings. Thanks I needed that! I'll miss them all alot but they're in a better place and hopefully we'll see them all again someday. I sure hope the rest of 2008 is less eventful!We all would be wise to live each day like it was our last and enough every minute above ground! Thanks again:)
Nephew Carl