My brother Tom died today. He had been suffering from the effects of COPD for some time, and while a move from Colorado to the lower altitude of Las Vegas last fall made him more comfortable for a while, it couldn’t prevent the disease from progressing. Surgery performed last week to reduce pressure on his lungs gave some hope of prolonging his life, but the disease, a staph infection, and pneumonia had compromised his fragile lungs too much. In recent days, many members of the family had gathered in Las Vegas to say their goodbyes, and many of us were present at the hospital as he passed away peacefully.
Tom and I were born a little over three years apart, and I followed him through our elementary and high schools. The death of our father when Tom was nine and I was five left our mother as the family breadwinner. At a time when women’s roles were exemplified by the fictional June Cleaver, our mother raised four children even as she took over and continued ownership of the furniture manufacturing business that our father had owned and operated.
That meant making some hard decisions about her children, especially her two young sons. Tom had been active in the Paulist Choristers of Chicago, and he continued singing with the group for several years after our father’s death. He spent summers at choir camp and a relative’s farm in Michigan, while I spent summers in several camps, especially Camp St. Francis in Libertyville, Illinois.
The result was that we didn’t spend a great deal of time together during the summers as we were growing up. In school, each of us had our own agemates to relate to; I don’t recall having much interest in hanging out with his friends, even if they would have tolerated a kid brother hanging around. Ironically, it was years later that we became close, after I had moved to Cleveland and he had moved to Colorado. Later still, after I started a second career that has me in the car a lot, we were able to enjoy many long conversations while I would be driving home from meetings (always using a hands-free device, of course).
My, how I admired him! As an older brother, he was indisputably cool, good-looking, and popular. He was courageous and could be outrageous. He was one of the funniest people I knew. Throughout his life, he was a risk-taker. Gambling was more than a hobby: it was also a part of his style, characterizing his business dealings and many of his decisions in life. He rolled the dice when he left the city of his ancestors and his birth and struck out for the West; he rolled them when he started the company that remains his business legacy today; and he rolled the dice last year, when he and his wife Linda left their beloved mountain in an effort to reduce the strain on his lungs. His surgery was a gamble too, one whose terms he understood and accepted. He knew better than most that life deals some hands that are better than others and that you have to play the hand you’re dealt.
It was a blessing that so many of his children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces joined Linda, his sisters, and me at his bedside for his final hours. It seems that everyone had a memory to share, and it was impressive to see how many younger persons who weren’t his biological children saw him as a father figure, a source of wisdom, and a role model.
His death at too early an age (as judged by human wisdom at least) reminds us that life is a gift not to be taken for granted. Tom was not a conventionally religious man, but I think he knew that the people we love are the sign of God in our lives, and we need to hold them close while we can.
In paradisum deducant te Angeli, Tom. May the angels lead you into paradise.