The Shamrock ‘A’
by Thomas White
The light shining through the stained glass window sent a barrage of color slicing the candle haze, dissecting the tiny chapel into segments. I categorized each segment as a separate era of my life: blue, when I was a child at church, mostly innocent with a thirst for adventure; mixed with yellow, when I was a confused bride standing next to the man I thought I would love forever; mixed with red, my eyes when they would fill with tears, which has been all too often. Today this light adds to the total of my life experience as it shines upon the casket sitting in front of me.
A family friend is playing the acoustic guitar softly off to the side. His sorrow can be felt as each note says goodbye to his pal. People are filling the little chapel, each with a look of senselessness and frustration etched on their faces.
My brother is dead. It wasn’t a sudden death; it wasn’t an unexpected death; but it was our first death.
Death is unlike any other ‘first’ that we experience. We have our first step, our first day of school, our first cafeteria lunch, our first dance, first crush, and first kiss as we make our way through life. We find that perfect mate and … our first time, our first marriage, which leads to our first child and the angst we live with for the next twenty years. We live our lives mulling over our mistakes and seeking redemption from ourselves for our ineptitude hoping for a second chance.
But death is different. Death is a one-time deal. There is no rehearsal and there is no choice. It comes fast or slow: painfully, easily, brutally, silently, or mercifully as it ends the torment. Regardless, it’s still death.
The fact that Aaron would die seemed surreal for the longest time and not until the fourth year of his illness did I consider it possible. He deteriorated slowly as the disease ate away at him, bit by bit, robbing him of his vitality. He lost his ability to walk because of the tumors on his spine. His skin became pasty, nearly transparent and his veins would gesticulate when he talked.
Each time I saw him I had to remind myself of who he was. I had to remember that the way he looked now did not alter the person he had always been. I had to force myself to remember him without the pain.
I have been around forty-four years and I have seen some things. I am not without experience; I have been married twice; I have given birth to three children; become a grandmother; I even survived my parent’s house. And yet with all this life experience I had never considered the reality that one day I would no longer find my little brother anywhere on the face of the planet. I had never considered that I could travel the globe and not find him alive, anywhere. I would never hear him laugh, hear him sing, hear him comfort me from afar.
He was just gone - forever.
The finality of that word seems inadequate. There should be a better way to describe the loss, the pain, the void - a word far more menacing than ‘forever’. ‘Forever’ reminds me of the fairy tales where everyone lived happily ever after; ‘forever’ – “I’ll love you forever” - always a pleasant connotation, never a foreboding one.
It was five and a half years ago that my phone rang and my little brother, the one saving grace in a family that redefined the term ‘dysfunctional’, called and gave me the news. My little brother was the only member of my family that laughed regularly, that made me understand that our family was different from the rest of the world, and that made me know that it was okay to be ‘normal’ and leave them far behind.
My little brother had called and told me he was sick.
To be honest I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the fact that he was my ‘little brother’. My husband, Dean, always told me it was like Fredo in The Godfather, “You’re my little brother, Mikey. I’m supposed to take care of you!” That made me laugh. Aaron was the sage. Aaron was the one who understood, on the simplest level, what was happening at our dinner table.
I was reminded of a moment we had shared growing up in the bay area of Northern California; Aaron was thirteen and had just hit two home runs in the American Legion Play-Off’s. The second one had won the game and the team advanced to the semi-finals. When the game was over and the cheering, high-fiving and backslapping was done, Aaron heard a horn bellowing from the parking lot. Looking over, he saw our mother gesturing to him from behind the wheel of her ten year old Chevy Nova, urging him to hurry. Not wanting to upset her, Aaron hurriedly grabbed his gear and ran to the car. When he got in he said, “How cool was that? I crushed it! I can’t believe I hit a walk off homer in a play off game!” He was so very excited, the way only a thirteen-year old jock could be. His long brown hair bounced under his green baseball cap as he smacked his fist into his mitt, too excited to sit still.
Our mother, with her mousy hair and her extra thirty pounds backed out of the parking spot. Not bothering to even look at him she said in response, “Whatever. There was a sale on eye shadow and mascara at K-Mart so I went there right as you started.” She drove Aaron home, not only having missed his moment of triumph for the futility of beauty but missing the opportunity to experience it with him a second time.
When they got home he told me all about the game, his five at bats, his three hits, his game winning home run. I could see him at the plate as he talked me through each pitch. An inside slider that he almost swung on, a called strike that he swore was low and a curve ball that seemed to hang for an hour and that he plugged into the big kids game on the diamond across the park. I was thrilled for him and wished that cheerleading practice hadn’t kept me from going. I had only missed two of his games all season and one of them was that playoff game where my little brother was the star!
He then told me what my mother had done. I got so angry. It was so typical. I started screaming that she was just a bitch and that she had never cared about anything that any of us did; it was always about her… and he stopped me. He reached out his hand and took my wrist and made me sit down. It was then that my little brother said the most incredible thing to me. He said, “Michelle, you can’t expect her to react the way a normal person would react. That’s not who she is. You have to accept her for who she is, not for who you want her to be. ”
There I was, sitting on the floor of my little brother’s room, a kid who I was supposed to hate at this point in my life, him being the caricatured, annoying little brother, and it hit me. He was rising above the cold, aloof environment that my parents had created while I wallowed in it.
I’ve always reacted emotionally to most situations. My first reaction to the extreme circumstances I often find myself in is an outburst of one kind or the other, either extreme joy or extreme anger, never anything in between, always dramatic and intense.
While I anointed our self-centered and seemingly heartless mother as an excuse for everything wrong my life, Aaron barely noticed her behavior and did what he felt was best for him, unaffected by her indifference. I’ve often asked myself why he could process these things and I couldn’t. If I was involved, it had to be dramatic. In my life, it was never enough for a man to say ‘I love you.’ He had to say, “I love you … despite the fact that your ass is too big, your tits are too small, you talk too much and you are so much smarter than me.” There had to be drama.
I was blessed with an above average intelligence and cursed with a totally dysfunctional psyche. In matters of school and intellect I did well, okay, I’m being modest, I-am–a-stinking-genius! I graduated #1 in my class by a large margin and received scholarship offers to fifteen different schools. I chose Stanford and would have graduated a year early and probably had several doctorates by now if not for my inability to process life. Looking at a calculus problem of any magnitude never phased me yet talking to my mother left me frustrated, infuriated and most times, crying. Unfortunately, that trait crossed over into my relationships with men. I was smarter, tougher and more motivated than anyone I had ever dated and yet I was also incurably subservient, ridiculously insecure, always begging for attention. Why?
Why do you think? My mother.
At least it’s easy to blame it on her.
Consequently, I was pregnant at seventeen (that showed her!), married and a mom at eighteen. I was out of school and instead of dissecting calculus problems with the finest minds on the west coast, I was breast feeding and trying to make dinner for a husband that was no more ready to be married than I was.
We moved from Palo Alto, back to my parent’s house because my new husband, Bob, was trying to start a business. It made sense that we lived with them while we went through this transition. It would be impractical to be resentful at this point, wouldn’t it? They would be around to help with the baby, help with our financial support and criticize everything that we did. Home sweet home.
Looking back I guess I was just so scared about the baby, my marriage and myself that I actually found comfort in that house. Being in a familiar environment helped me to work through what I had let happen to me. “Better the devil I know than the devil I don’t”, I always said. Actually, it was my mother that always said that, but that’s not the point. And, of course, Aaron was there as well.
When his diagnosis was first confirmed I cried for two days. His wife, Christy, went cold and started a worldwide internet search for the potion that she had to believe would cure him. But Aaron, he just took a deep breath and said it was time to figure out how to beat this thing. He was the one who got on the phone and called his closest friends. He talked with each of the many people that he loved and explained what the medical facts were and what he intended to do.
Of all of my brother’s friends, David was the closest. A surrogate brother, Christy always used to say. “David makes up for the brother he really has.” Our real brother is a much more involved story and we will skip it for now.
David told me when he got the call Aaron had talked like he had to go to traffic school. Dave did the best impression of Aaron, “Now look, Dave, I don’t know any other way to say this so I am just going to come right out with it, I have to go to traffic school. Now, from what we’ve learned, I have anywhere from three to five years but I can tell you now that I’ll beat that ticket. I was only three miles an hour over the speed limit and they can just go to hell.”
Aaron and Dave, Dave and Aaron, they were quite a pair. Between the two of them sometimes I was able to forget that my little brother was sick. David kept me laughing through the entire ordeal. It was easier for him to laugh than face the truth and who could blame him?
Before Aaron was too weak, he and Christy met David and his wife, Shawn, in the Napa Valley wine country for a weekend. They were only a few miles from Dean and I so we joined them for a day of wine tasting. After several vineyard stops, I had come back from the bar carrying 6 glasses of red wine. They were passed around and I said, “I’ve lost track of which glass is mine. I don’t suppose it matters; we’re all friends here.”
Never missing an opportunity, David took a tiny sip, squished up his face like he had just eaten earwax and said, “Who here has the melanoma?” Aaron squirted a fine cabernet through his nose.
Aaron was an oxymoron in terms of terminal illness. Most times, when someone becomes terminally ill people disappear from their lives, they run for the hills until it’s all over. Once it’s over, then the throngs appear from well-denied hiding places, their scrawny necks popping out of their holes to be sure the coast is clear and that nothing is contagious. They show up at the memorial service and cry and mourn as though they never had the opportunity to enjoy the deceased while they were alive.
Aaron’s friends were different. They hung around all the time; they planned parties, set up poker games. They were constantly taking him places and doing things for both Aaron and Christy. Aaron made friends after he got sick; he didn’t lose a single one.
Dave lived near Aaron and Christy for many years but had moved his family to the Pacific Northwest several years ago. They’d been gone for almost two years when he got the call from Aaron. It was tough on him being so far away and he made a concerted effort to spend as much time with him as he could, often sleeping on their lumpy couch while I took the spare bedroom with the fold out sofa. It was during these times that we started to talk. Of the many odd things that happened when Aaron got sick, the one I was most grateful for was that Dave and I became friends.
The last eighteen months of Aaron’s illness would often send him to bed early and Christy would go along to help. Aaron was a private person and very strong willed so for a long time no one could do anything for him except Christy. While she was downstairs, helping Aaron to bed, Dave and I would watch movies, talk about the world, Aaron, some sports and Aaron. I was always surprised to hear a family story that Aaron had told him repeated back to me. It gave me a tremendous amount of insight into how Aaron really felt outside of the family structure. And, to be honest - I’m not dead - he wasn’t a bad looking guy. Not that I would have ever done anything about it but it was fun to have a little flirtation at that time in my life. My husband, Dean, is a great guy, I love him very much and he thinks as much of Dave as I do. Dave’s wife, Shawn, is the best, a neurologist, who helped Aaron so very much in the final months and Dave is madly in love with her, as are we all. So, NO, nothing ever happened. But when your brother is downstairs dying, and there are empty Chinese food containers and wine bottles in front of you, you sometimes need a harmless fantasy while someone rubs your feet.
Dave and his family drove down from Washington to be with Aaron for what we all knew would be his last Christmas. Shawn spent most of that first day with Aaron, massaging and stretching him in ways that none of us would have dreamt and it took away the pain for a little bit. That was all anyone could ask for at that time. It helps to have a doctor in the house. Dave's two daughters, who looked at Aaron as their best friend, both wrote cards and sang songs for him.
Dave and Shawn had only been home a few days when Aaron passed. He was the first one we called.
He was back the next day, offering to help in any way that he could. Unfortunately, my entire family was also there, for the first time, together, and he wasn’t prepared for that reality.
I tell people repeatedly and they believe that they’re prepared for the disaster that is my family but until the wind breaks and sends its foul stench all over the room, you just don’t know.
My parents just seem to have gotten worse over time. While their youngest son was at a funeral home, having the blood drained from his body and having it replaced with embalming fluid, and we were all, in reality, rudderless - my father was talking income tax horror stories and my mother was singing under her breath as she did the dishes.
Christy was doing the best that she could. I had lost my brother but she had lost her light. She stayed in her room from the moment he passed until she heard that Dave had arrived. She came upstairs, stoic and prepared to do business, which was the only choice available to her. She kissed Dave hello, sat down and asked him to stage-manage Aaron’s funeral. She laid out what she would like to happen and turned to Dave and said, “Can you do this? You stage-managed my wedding so I guess you’re the only man for the job.”
I could see Dave’s eyes fill with tears. He just said, “Done. Not to worry.”
Four months prior to Aaron’s death I'd had an idea. I thought it would be amazing if all of Aaron’s best friends would get a tattoo commemorating him. I knew it would be something that Aaron would love, the ham that he was, and I thought it would be a great way for us to remember him. That afternoon Dave, Christy and I, along with a few others, snuck off to the Devil’s Den Tattoo and Piercing Parlor and had tattoos painfully applied to our right buttock, a green, three-leaf shamrock with a capital ‘A’ rendered in red in the center, a tribute to my brother and his love for Notre Dame football. Mine was just below the hip and just above the important part, under the bikini line I guess would be an appropriate description but I can tell you that it’s irrelevant as my bikini days are long past. There was a poker game that night and I could hardly wait to show my brother how much I loved him, how much we all loved him.
As the players started to gather around the table we all stood up and dropped the right side of our pants showing my brother our new tattoos. Everyone roared.
By the time Aaron had passed, eight people had entered the Shamrock Society. My youngest daughter went a bit overboard and had the shamrock enlarged to the size of a tennis ball. The rest of us opted for a more reasonable size, about two inches in diameter.
Christy insisted that, at the service, we all gather up front and show our tattoos. My God! I had to change my dress plans immediately and switch to a pantsuit. No way was I hiking my skirt up over my ass in front of a congregation of mourners. The day would be tough enough.
The service is over now. They are preparing to carry the casket out to the black hearse and then the gravesite. I have opted to skip that particular memory. I am still sitting in the chapel, looking at the light, waiting for reality to dawn. Many of Aaron’s friends sang during the service, some told funny stories and his favorite jokes. But all of that was just a diversion. Just one of the many ways that we are getting through today and trying to live till tomorrow, trying to give ourselves time to understand that he’s gone. Simply gone. We are left behind to try to make sense of his death knowing there is no sense to be made. A young, vital and important person died and we are left with nothing but the memories. No great insight, no moment of comprehension for the grand scheme, the ‘big picture’ and certainly no explanation for the lack of divine intervention.
The sun has moved across the sky and in the now empty chapel it passes through the stained glass at the back. The light dissects my life still only now I have a new segment, one mixed with green, shamrock green, that reminds me of Aaron, my brother, the brother who’s death has no explanation, the brother I will love without reservation, forever.
Causes Thomas White Supports
Kerry Daveline Memorial Golf Tournament for the Melanoma Society. http://www.hacknsmack.org/