He Was My Brother

My brother died today, the first of our generation to go.

We weren’t close, he and I—brothers by birth, but distant in life.  He was a complex man, troubled by emotional problems and addiction issues, and hard to help.

Since learning of his passing, I’ve been reflecting on his life and how it intertwined with mine.  As is often the way with me, it helps to write it down and share it.

The best parts of our relationship were during our childhood, so long ago now that I have to think hard to remember them.  We didn’t see each other much over the past five decades, nor did we speak very often by phone—telephone phobia being one of the fears he struggled with.  The last time I met with him, he looked older than I who am his elder by three years—hair gone white, walking only with assistance, racked by a persistent, phlegmy cough.

When we did meet over the years, it was almost always when he needed help.  I checked him into rehab clinics on three different occasions, lent him money, gave him a temporary bed, and after our parents’ deaths, managed his financial affairs—always feeling, I’m sorry to say, somewhat put-upon.  I could never understand why he seemed unable to respond to the many, well-intentioned interventions mounted by his sisters and me.

I have pictures of him as a young boy, nestled in the cocoon of parents and siblings, but almost no pictures of his adult years.  He always had a dreamy expression on his face in those pictures, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the notion that the onrushing realities of life would have to be faced.

He was highly intelligent, but seriously unable to apply his intellect to everyday problems and situations.  He wanted to be liked, but his social skills were lacking, to the point that he would frequently offend people without intending to.  And when he became frightened or frustrated, as he often did, he had a temper.

But he could display a quirky, astute sense of humour, too, and would smile quietly as the rest of us laughed at some of the things he said.  When at his best, he was unfailingly polite, almost Victorian in manner, and spoke deliberately in the most precise English.  Even when I, impatient with the pace of the conversation, would finish his sentences for him, he would continue on to finish in his own way, as if I hadn’t interrupted.  He could be a charmer.

He was a keen devotee of chess, a game at which he beat me regularly in our childhood, much to my chagrin.  He loved classical music, a trait we both learned from our father.  I remember listening to each other’s LP records and arguing about which was best—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’.  I find now that I love them all, and am glad we listened together.

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Reading was another of his passions, as it was for me, although our tastes were not the same.  Nevertheless, it was my brother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and William Butler Yeats, two favourites to this day, and it was he who gave me my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, perhaps my all-time favourite story.

It would have been nice if all that had continued into adulthood.  But it didn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Given his afflictions and general health near the end, I feel little sorrow at his passing—rather, I am grateful that his problems are over and he is at peace.  I picture him now, embarking upon the next phase of his eternal journey through the universe, unencumbered by his mortal restraints, free and open wide to whatever may come.

If I choose to remember him only through the good things from our time together on this earth, so be it.  If I choose to believe we loved each other despite the many obstacles, then it is so.  He was more than his illnesses and sufferings, after all.

He was my brother.

Life and Death

Just what is it that makes life worth living, anyway?  Is there a universal, one-size-fits-all answer, or is the answer situational, dependent upon the circumstances in which we each find ourselves?

And what might that answer be?  Is it happiness?  Good health?  Sex?  Wealth?  Perhaps the ultimate aphrodisiac, power?  Or some combination of these?

The existentialists among us might claim the answer is personal fulfilment, harmony with the world around us, inner peace.  Alone though we are, they might say, we are nevertheless connected to others, but on our own terms.

The religious among us might declare life’s significance arises from a meaningful relationship with one’s creator, in whatever form that creator might be rendered.  At this point in time, however, they seem unable to reconcile their competing visions with everyone else’s.

The afflicted and dispossessed peoples of the world might proclaim that life, being an endless procession of hunger, thirst, and terror, is not worth living at all.  And who is any of us, never having experienced their realities, to disagree?

But let us suppose, cheerfully, that everyone we know has found ample reason to live, to carry on, to survive.  In the face, sometimes, of personal tragedy, severe illness, serious setbacks of whatever ilk, they have persevered, even prospered, and gladly proclaim life to be the greatest gift of all.  They are, from all appearances, joyful, optimistic, and strong.

I recognize myself among this happy crew.  Wanting for none of the necessities of life, surrounded by family who love me, blessed with friends who are supportive and caring, I rise each day with a positive outlook, sure this blissful state will continue for years to come.  To state the obvious, life is to be lived.

So what do I make of the current debate swirling around us about a person’s right to an assisted death when the time comes?  How do I square my belief in the meaning of life with a possible wish to end that life at some point?  Are these two concepts even compatible?

For me, it comes down to a fundamental, primal instinct that life exists beyond this earthly planet we inhabit.  The vast universe in which we float is, itself, alive—a pulsating burst of energy, ever-expanding, interminably large.  And an infinitely small fragment of that energy, in whatever form it manifests itself, is what powers life in me.  It is my life-source.  Some, more religious than I, might call it a soul.

So when my time is up, as surely it will be someday, I take it as an article of faith that my spark of life will rejoin the universe from which it sprang—still alive, still burning, but in a vastly different form.

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Comforted by this belief, I do not fear death’s inevitability.  I do, however, harbour apprehensions about the manner in which that death might transpire.  Having been blessed, so far, to live a life worth living, I have no wish to spend whatever number of months or years in a diminished state, waiting helplessly for my life-source to reattach itself to that whence it came.

Perhaps I shall die suddenly one fine day.  Here one moment, gone in the next instant, no assistance required.  Still alive in the universe, to be sure, but departed from this realm.  I’d be happy about that—but not too soon, of course.

Lingering on, however, past the stage where my mortal coil can function properly, holds no attraction.  So I have come to the conclusion that I should be allowed and empowered to facilitate the escape of my spark of life from my failing body, and set it once again on its eternal journey in the universe.

The true meaning of life for me, it turns out, is the power, not to end it, but to release it from a failing, earthly body—freeing it to roam, as the poet, W. B. Yeats, once wrote, “…among a cloud of stars.”