The Shamrock ‘A’
by Thomas White
The light shining through the stained glass window sent a barrage of color slicing down through 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.
The light looked the same now as it did in those long, past moments, slicing my life into segments, categorizing my memories. Today it adds to the total of my life experience as it shines upon the casket sitting in front of me like a bottomless hole in my soul.
A family friend is playing the acoustic guitar softly off to the side. His sorrow can be heard as each note lovingly says goodbye to his pal. People are filling the little chapel, each with a look of senselessness painfully etched on their faces.
I am forty-four, a grandmother of three, on my second marriage and my brother is dead. It wasn’t a sudden death; it wasn’t an unexpected death; it was a real death.
The fact that he 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, as though the bass section of his speech was underscoring his life.
Each time I saw him I had to remind myself of who he was. I had to remember that the way he looked did not alter the person he had always been. I had to force myself to remember him without the pain.
Until then, I had never considered his death a possibility. I have been alive forty-four years and I have seen some things. I am not without experience; I have been married twice; I have experienced childbirth three times; become a grandmother; I have 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 would be gone - forever.
The finality of that phase seems inadequate. There should be a better word 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’ - always a pleasant connotation, never a foreboding one.
Death is unlike any other ‘first’ that we ever 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 practice making our way through life, slowly and carefully critiquing ourselves along the way. We find that perfect mate and … 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.
But death is different. Death is a one-time deal. There is no rehearsal and there is no choice. It comes fast, slow, painfully, easily, brutally, silently, or mercifully as it ends the torment. Regardless, it’s still death and there is no second chance.
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 the rest of the world was different from us, and that made me know that it was okay to be ‘normal’ and leave them all behind.
My little brother called and told me he was sick.
To be honest I’ve always had a bit of a problem with that ‘little brother’ stuff. My husband 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. But in the end it didn’t matter. Aaron was the sage. Aaron was the one who understood, on the simplest level, what was happening at our dinner table. He made it all bearable.
I remember distinctly, an afternoon 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 they advanced to the semi-finals. When the game was over and the cheering, high-fiving and backslapping was done, he 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? Did you see how far that ball went? 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. She never bothered to
look at him and said in response, “Whatever. There was a sale on eye shadow and mascara at K-Mart so I went there
right as you started.” And 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 there for an hour and then he plugged it 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 was truly bummed [K1] because I had only missed two games all season and one of them was that playoff game where my little brother was the star!
He then told me what our mom 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 the way she is, not the way 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, returning each and every slight with a vengeance.
I’ve always reacted emotionally to most situations, looking for a way to come out on top. My first reaction to most of the circumstances I find myself in was, and still is, an outburst of one kind or the other, either extreme joy or extreme anger, never anything in between, always dramatic and intense.
Aaron had always understood situations for what they were. I never saw that far into them. While I anointed our self-centered and seemingly heartless mother as an excuse for 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.” I had to attach drama.
I was blessed with an above average intelligence and cursed with a totally dysfunctional family. 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 live with them while we went through this transition. It would be silly to be nonsensical 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 didn’t want to leave the 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. David, who, after all, was one of his closest friends, told me afterwards that when Aaron had called, he sounded almost 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. David kept me laughing through the entire ordeal. It was easier for him to laugh than face the truth. Who could blame him?
And I’m not one to knock it; between he and Aaron sometimes I was able to forget that my little brother was sick. 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 us so we joined them for a day of wine tasting. After several stops, David had come back from the bar carrying 6 glasses of red wine. They were passed around and Aaron 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 just ate earwax and said, “Who here has the melanoma?”
David, of all of my brother’s friends, 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.
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 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, Bill, 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 of 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. His two daughters, who looked at Aaron as their best friend, both wrote cards and sang songs for him.
When Aaron finally passed, Dave and Shawn had only been home a few days and 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 mother has only gotten worse over time and I resent my father for putting up with her. While their youngest son was at a funeral home, having the blood drained from his body and having it replaced with embalming fluid, Christy was downstairs in a drug induced sleep; I was falling apart by the minute; Christy’s sister was trying to hold herself and the rest of the free world together, making decisions for everyone; while we were all, in reality, rudderless. At this same time, surrounded by abject pain, my father was talking income tax stories with whoever would listen 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.”
About four months prior to Aaron’s death I had an idea. I thought it would be great 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. We had decided that we would unveil our backsides just before the game started.
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 was tough enough.
Dave spoke at the service. He spoke not only about the Aaron everybody knew but also about the Aaron that the few of us knew. He spoke about his soul, his sensitivity and his deep love for his wife and his friends. It touched Christy and I deeply. I could never thank him enough for that.
The service is over now. They are preparing to carry the casket out to the black hearse and then the gravesite. I will skip that moment. I am still sitting, 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. In reality, 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 and 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/