Monday, June 27, 2011

A Tribute to an Older Brother

Today, I visited the gravesite of my oldest brother, Steve.  He was 18 months older than I.  He died in his sleep, unexpectedly, 8 months ago.

We've been waiting for his marker to be put in place, and finally today it was there.  I cried as I knelt in front of it and talked to Steve.  I was surprised at my emotions as I sat at the grave.

It's a rather nondescript little cemetery.  It's been there a long time, but it's not very big and not very well tended.  I had never heard of it before Steve, in discussing his burial plans very coincidentally 3 months before his death (a foreshadowing?), said he wanted to be buried there.  It's near the church he attended. He said he "knew some of the guys there."  He wanted to be among friends.

Its rundown nature and lack of activity whenever I am there leads me to believe the cemetery is filled with a lot of people like my brother ... those in this world without a lot of money or power. Those who might have made their way through life "by the skin of their teeth" as my dad would say. 

Steve was what you might call a "poor soul."  He had stuttered his whole life and, as a result, was teased unmercifully by classmates and neighbor kids.  It was what the schools today call "bullying," but 50 years ago nothing was done about it, even in Catholic school.  If you weren't big enough or strong enough to defend yourself, you just got beat up.  And you picked yourself up and went on.

In grade school, Steve had a neighborhood paper route and was one of the most conscientious "paperboys" ever.  When Steve was given a job, he did it and he didn't quit until it was done.  One day, on the route, a neighbor kid who had previously had the route and lost it for poor service, accosted Steve and beat him up. Steve came home beaten and bloodied, but not until after he had delivered all of his papers.

Steve wasn't the brightest kid when it came to school, but he was a genius on the subject of Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II and Queen Victoria.  He didn't have a lot of social graces and didn't quite understand the art of "small talk" in a social setting.  In recent years, as I started hearing about Asperger's Syndrome (see , I wondered if that wasn't a diagnosis that might have been assigned to him had it been identified when he was a young child.   Medicine and science hadn't reached the sophisticated heights of today.  Back then, if you were "different," you just lived with it, and so did all of your family.

When we were in high school, I have to admit I was embarrassed by Steve's behavior and his appearance.  I didn't think he was very cute.  He wore really thick glasses and had red hair ... how much worse can it get for a girl to have a brother like that?  He was clumsy when he walked, and he stuttered. We went to our parish teen nights, and I would quickly find my group of friends and not pay a lot of attention to Steve the rest of the night. I know I didn't see him on the dance floor very much.  And, yet, he had a sense of rightness about himself. He talked to some of the girls at those youth nights, and even got up the nerve to invite my best friend to Prom one year. I had forgotten all about that until she reminded me of it as his funeral. She was very proud that she was the only girl who had ever gone to Prom with Steve.  I thanked her for that memory and for the appreciation it showed for a side of my brother I didn't know.

Steve didn't have much. He didn't even graduate from high school. He was one class shy of the requirements.  He went to an all-boys Catholic school and he had to perform student service to pay the tuition. My parents felt it was important for us to get a Catholic education, but it sometimes fell to us to provide the means.  Steve swept floors and cleaned toilets at the high school he attended. He did it after school, when he should have been getting help with the English class that he was failing.  But he didn't say anything to anyone .. not to my parents, not to his teachers, not to me.  He just kept the commitment he had made to sweep the floors and clean the toilets.  And he kept going to class every day.  And when the night of graduation came, he wasn't allowed to be on stage.  My parents were told of it several days before graduation ... too late to do anything about it.  He never went back to get that final credit or the diploma.  I don't think he knew where to begin to do something like that.  And I was so busy with my own life, I never asked him if I could help.  Shame on me.

Steve had a number of jobs in his lifetime.  None of them were at a professional level, but all of them involved honest work.  He drove a truck for a lumber yard, he was a janitor at a Catholic grade school (that student service "on-the-job-training" paid off) and then he pumped gas at a gas station for about 40 years.  Steve "retired" when he was 60.  He didn't have a 401(k) or a pension .. he didn't even have very much money in the bank.  The gas station where he was employed had gotten computers to replace the old fashioned cash register.  It was beyond his desire (or ability) to learn how to operate it. He wasn't worried about how he would live or what would happen if he got sick.  He just trusted that life would somehow happen, as it always had.

So he became a "retiree" and filled his days driving to the gas station to visit friends and looking after my mom, moving with her from the family home, to an independent Senior apartment building and then to his own apartment 3 years ago when Mom went into an assisted living facility.  That, I think, was the highlight of Steve's life.  He was living on his own.  He was making it.  Not well by some standards .. but by his own standards, he was living like a prince.

Steve never married.  He lived with my parents his entire life.  Did he long to have his own home, a wife and children?  I think so. But he never complained about his lot in life. When he died, the church was filled with people.  We were in awe.  This man, whom some would call a hermit, and others might call a social misfit, was known and loved by more people than we could imagine.  They came to pay tribute to him.  We were moved to tears with the knowledge that his life had been fuller than we had ever imagined.  And he had just lived that life, never feeling the need to tell anyone about it.

I thought of all of this as I sat at Steve's grave today.  I told him I loved him and I hoped he was hobnobbing with FDR and Queen Victoria! Then I cried and told him how sorry I was that I hadn't been a better sister ... that I hadn't given him more of myself and more of my time over the years.  He had loved coming to our house and participating in family gatherings, but we didn't ever invite just him, alone. I'm sure I worried about what we would talk about if it was just him and us!  How selfish.  Not having any children of his own, he was awkward around kids, but he loved my grandchildren and was eager to hold them in his clumsy way.  Unfortunately, as they grew out of infancy, they were often unsure and scared of this somewhat tongue-tied, strange great uncle and would quickly wiggle out of his arms. He would just look after them and not ask why.  He was always happy to talk to me when I called, but I didn't call him often.  Once a year, he would telephone me ... on my birthday.  He would call me "old girl" and kid me that I was catching up with him in age.  He would have loved it that I'm now retired, proving, indeed, that I am an "old girl."  He was a great older brother .. he was a great brother, period.

I miss his voice.  I miss his teasing.  I miss him.


Michele said...

I can't keep reading your blog all in one night! Each entry has me crying harder than the last one! I miss Uncle Steve, too. I wish I made more food and sent it over to him more often. :(

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