It was 10 years ago this month that Jenn's sister ended her own life. She had been the 'black sheep' among Jenn's siblings, sort of the 'wild hippie child' type, and I usually enjoyed my own interactions with her. Even so, for whatever reasons of her own, at 47 years of age, she decided that her life was not something she wanted to continue doing, so she ended it.
I immediately thought back to her when I got word last night that my brother (call him S; he was really my step-brother, but in our blended family, we quickly dispensed with any 'step-' designations, since we were effectively a new family, starting from scratch) had ended his own life. He was 59.
I had a very, uh, complex relationship with S. When his mom married my dad, he was the oldest of three kids that she brought with her into the new marriage, and I was older of dad's two kids. To make things even more fun, we were only six months apart in age, and in the same grade in school; we were both 10 years old. So, the first year we spent together was mostly engaged in establishing a proper pecking-order for alpha-hood. And, at least at first, S was a better pecker than I was. . .
He had grown up largely on the mean streets of our hometown Up North (which, you might surmise, weren't all that mean, but you get the idea), whereas I had grown up as a pretty sheltered nerd-boy. Most of the disputes between us devolved pretty quickly into him punching me repeatedly on my shoulder, until I cried and gave up. But the long-term effect of our association, at least as far as I was concerned, was that I became less sheltered, more social, and more inclined (to say nothing of able) to physically defend myself.
At some point (probably around the same time as I had my pubescent growth-spurt), it dawned on me that I really didn't need to back down from him. One time, when we had a group of neighborhood boys in our backyard for a pickup football game, he started teasing me, riding me pretty hard, and I decided that it was time to take a stand, so I chased him around the yard for several minutes, while our friends (mostly his friends, really) watched with amusement. And I saw fear in his face. Our relationship improved after that.
At the same time, we fairly quickly found a couple significant points of common interest - we shared a passion for the Detroit Tigers, and baseball more generally, and for the Beatles' music. Together, we would stay up late at night, listening to a Tigers game from the west coast, or savoring the latest Beatles recording (33-1/3 rpm black vinyl, thank you very much). We had some epic wiffle-ball games in the backyard. And in those moments, we were brothers, and forgot all about who was pecking whom.
S was not a dumb guy, but school was never his thing, whereas I loved school, and excelled at it. Our sister, next-younger than the two of us, one grade behind us, told us how one year, on the first day of school, her teacher, who had had both S and I the year before, called her name, and recognizing the surname, looked up, scanning the class, and asked, "Are you like S, or are you like Craig?" Poor kid.
S always had a tense relationship with Dad. Having spent most of his formative years without an effective paternal presence, he didn't take well to Dad's more, um, interventionist approach. On the eve of our junior year of high school, S ran away one night, and never really came home after that. He was taken in by a family a couple hundred miles away, who called Mom and Dad, and they worked out an arrangement for S to live there and go to school for that year. The following year, he moved on again, lived on his own and got a job in the instrument-repair shop of a large music company. Sports and music were the two large themes of his life.
Our family moved to a large metropolitan area in another state, basically simultaneously with my going to college. Around the same time, S took a transfer to a place in the same metro area, so the family was, at least nominally, back in the same place together, and S re-integrated himself into the ebb and flow of the life of our family.
In his young adulthood, and really, into his 40s, S had a series of really interesting jobs, interspersed with periods of. . . less interesting jobs. He spent time working in the sales/marketing staffs of both the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs (a couple times, he got me tickets to games and got me into the clubhouse), and even went to LA for a while and worked for the Lakers (I live in Magic Johnson's hometown, but he got an autographed Lakers media guide for me). He did some freelance journalism (he was a talented writer, his lack of schooling notwithstanding), and promoted a few concerts (off the top of my head, Arlo Guthrie is one of the bigger names he ever promoted). Really interesting stuff, but somehow, none of it ever really took hold for the long-term. He had at least one 'serious' girlfriend, but never married. How shall I say it? Ummmmmm. . . substance problems. . .
The last decade or so, things didn't go well for him; work became sporadic, then nonexistent. He moved in with Mom and Dad, until Mom went to a nursing home, and Dad moved to assisted living. His final crisis seems to have been triggered when his indulgent landlord finally decided that he couldn't afford to be quite so indulgent anymore, and homelessness loomed (and homelessness, with snow already on the ground and another hard winter in the offing, is not a happy prospect).
As when Jenn's sister killed herself, my first thought is, "What the hell did you go and do that for?" I confess, I haven't lived his life; I don't know the despair that lurked in his soul. I want to think that he was loved enough to have seen his life through, but then, I ask myself, have I done enough to make him know that? (Ironically, the medical examiner found cancer in him that might well have killed him before too much longer, anyway; it's unclear at this point whether he knew about that or not)
It's a little late to say that I will miss him. In his last years, he wasn't much of a presence in our lives; he would come to family gatherings, and mostly sit quietly in a corner, away from the rest of us. So I never really knew the raw, unvarnished state of his life, until it was nearly over.
But I will miss him. We shared an awful lot of our formative years together. We fought. We reconciled. We came to respect, and, I daresay, love each other. I am so sad that his life went so badly at the end, and I wonder if I should have done more to help it go better (though, at the same time, I doubt that I could have). In the end, I am left with the sure knowledge of God's mercy, both for S and for me. And I'm grateful to have shared such of my life with him as I have. . .