“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” John Edgar Wideman
I am a writer, a columnist for this regional paper for over ten years. I have written about life, its challenges, losses and lessons. Yet I have not been able to write about my brother. Too important, too scary.
But, time has passed. And the time has come.
My younger brother, Paul, died last summer of a sudden heart attack. He was 59 years old.
When I think about him, these words come to mind:
A self-proclaimed, lifelong, handful-and-a-half
The grief I feel for my brother is complicated. I loved him as my blood, but–especially in adulthood–I felt least close to him among my other siblings. As we grew older, our paths in life diverged and we had less and less to say to each other.
Paul was, very simply, unconventional–born into a very conservative, conventional, Irish, Roman Catholic family.
He didn’t just think outside the box. He lived outside the box–always testing limits, shedding constraints, egging you on to live life fully. This quality of his could be exhilarating. It could also be frustratingly maddening.
Paul was like Peter Pan who never grew up.
Well into adulthood, he was still financially dependent on my parents, and borrowed significant sums from family. His child-like charm enabled him to, well…charm.
How alive he could be–free-spirited, fun, a giggle–and astoundingly irresponsible!
Paul chose to live a minimalist, almost spiritual existence. In his twenties, he left college, and discovered the teachings of an Eastern guru. This experience shaped the rest of his life. When he died, he was in this person’s employ, living in California among other devotees. He had recreated another family and life for himself. The one into which he was born never did quite fit.
Paul slipped suddenly and mysteriously out of life, single, with few assets, no will. No strings.
It was as he had lived his life.
My younger brother had an unwavering determination to be himself no matter what, no matter how different that made him from the rest of my family. That differentness was not without strain. We, his blood family, may not have understood or agreed with his choices. Nevertheless, he lived an authentic, happy life among a different family–marching always to his own drummer.
A friend of Paul’s wrote about him:
“I thought you’d be a precious treasure I would savor again and again. You left (like a thief) in the night. You lived life so simply, like a child–a wise and wonderful child.”
My grief is complicated because, while I loved my brother, I sometimes didn’t like him too very much. Even so, I always thought there’d be time to reconnect and rebuild appreciation for each other that could take us into the next decades of our lives.
I thought that I, too, could experience Paul’s childlike uniqueness–maddening though it sometimes was–for many more years to come.
I always thought there’d be time.
Paired with my grief, there is a life affirming reminder from my box-breaking, impish, child-like, handful-and-a-half younger brother. Like a voice mail message left from eternity, I can hear his voice saying:
“Live the moment, Mag. Say the words that need saying. Don’t let the moment pass. Later, Paul.”