A while back I was having an exchange with my brother in which we were
discussing how we would like to leave this earth—the trappings, the fripperies,
if you will. How we would like to be boxed up and sent away on the Disoriented
I said cremation was the right way to go because once enough family
members died you would have enough raw material for a charming garden
bench or a small koi pond. You could simply add water and stir. Chuck felt
sure that burial in the ground was the only way to go. I am not sure if it was
our Catholic roots or the need to have a location of remembrance that made
him feel this way—I only know that he did. We discussed potential burial
markers and pithy sayings we would like to have on our tombstones. I suggested
he could have “Your Order Is Up,” which would be a fitting nod at his years
as a professional chef and his current state of “deadness” when it arrived. We
both chuckled. And the subject changed.
But he took me seriously, or took the discussion seriously, and on a
fine summer day one year in late August with his beloved son by his side, he
entered the beautiful crystal blue waters off the Balboa shore and had a heart
attack. His son and the efforts (or the lack of effort) of all the lifeguards on the
scene couldn’t save him. And so he died.
He was dead. Dead. I remember at the time I kept repeating the words
in the hope that they would eventually they would mean something to me.
He liked the Grateful Dead. He liked to trip and go see them. He appreciated
and enjoyed music—real music from the 60s and 70s. Through the wall of our
adjoined bedrooms in a long-ago suburb, I got my first taste of The Who, Iron
Butterfly, The Doors, The Stones, Led Zep, and more.
My brother lived in a time where he just missed being old enough to go
to Vietnam. While he was too young to go and die for his country, he was
definitely old enough to explore the music and enough of the counterculture
of the 60s to give him a taste for the experimentation that went along with the
age. So experiment he did, to the chagrin of my mother and to the loss of some
very important aspects of coming of age mentally. All things that he would
have to do later—eventually.
There were many years during this time of experimentation that Chuck
wasn’t so easy to get along with. His rebellion took many forms. He experienced
all the hell that sometimes marks teenage years. His actions made me
fear him and avoid him—and I did, with a vengeance.
Later, when it came time for me to enter high school, I made it very clear
that I wasn’t like my brother. I wanted to be known as a straight, good kid. I
wasn’t into drugs or any of the experimentation that went with it. It scared me.
My militant stance about his lifestyle created a gulf that I needed for my own
protection, so we were estranged for a time. He went his way, and I went my
Luckily, after years of struggle and separate lives, we came together and
shared a rich and intense adult friendship—one that never left behind the singsong
madness and fun of our early years. We spoke almost daily. Thank God.
It’s been a long time now since that fateful morning that Chuck and
I were sharing our usual early-hour conversation. As we both drove in our
respective cars to our respective jobs in different states, he got hit by someone
who ran a red light in an intersection as he was turning left. His truck flipped
several times and was completely totaled—all while I listened, horrified, on my
end of the phone. I heard someone call 911 and hold the phone up to Chuck’s
ear so he and I could hear the operator state, “The paramedics are on their
way.” I heard Chuck say in a confused and annoyed voice that he was “pissed
off” because he had just paid in full for his truck. And then the line went dead.
The adrenaline in every cell of my body exploded. My blood pressure shot
through the roof, and for a few moments I had one of the worst headaches of
my life. I stopped my car in a parking lot and rocked back my head to prevent
the blood from pounding through my skull. I called a coworker who was kind
enough to come rescue me from where I sat, franticly disoriented, in a parking
lot. We went to Starbucks, the cure-all for everything from mild annoyance to
the potential death of a loved one, and I finally calmed down. I got to work
and called hospitals. Finally, four hours later, Chuck called me. My darling big
brother was alive and in one piece and he told me proudly that he had lifted
himself out of his totaled truck much to the amazement of the shocked witnesses.
He was very excited about how “studly” he looked pulling himself from
the wreckage—and then we talked.
We had the chance to say all the things you say to someone you thought
you had lost but through the grace of God and a twist of fate, you find you
didn’t. We told each other how we felt about each other. He was my adored big
brother—the person who laughingly called me “The General” and thought my
bossiness was darling. He was the big brother who had saved my life as a baby.
He made me laugh. He annoyed the hell out of me. He was infuriating and
loving and kind and mean and confused and stubborn and magical. He was
just so much. He lived out loud. He was like the ocean. Sometimes terrible and
fierce, or wild and free, playful and crazy, calm and beautiful, gentle and nurturing.
He was constantly changing. He had a saying: “You’re not sick, you’re
just changing.” Wise words, and true words too.
He was my first friend.
Once, when I got in trouble for attempting to use my baby teeth to sever
my newborn brother Chad’s toe in a fit of toddler jealousy and rage, I was duly
punished and stood in the corner behind the green chair in our living room,
sadly chastised, but still raging. I remember Chuck coming in and trying to play with me—which my mother prevented because I was currently in exile. I remember that moment decades ago like it was yesterday.
He is intertwined in all my earliest memories. He is part of the tapestry of
my family. The who-I-think-I-am. He is in my blood, my heart, and my soul.
He will never be something I can extract by processing, or coming to terms
with, or anything else.
On August 25, 2008 at 3:25 in the afternoon, on a perfect day in the
ocean at a Southern California beach we both loved, I lost my first friend—forever.
I also lost the only person who ever thought of me as his “little sister.” I
lost the person who named me the endearing and somewhat awkwardly fond
Nothing will ever be the same.
After several years of denial, I eventually got a stone for his grave. In lieu
of the pithy “Your Order is Up” marker we laughed about that long-ago day, I
asked his then-teenage son for a phrase that had meaning to the both of them.
He chose these simple words: “We had a blast!” It’s been almost nine years
now, and even though I have never actually been there to see it—I just can’t
bring myself to—each year I visit the beach at Balboa, where every boy with a
surfboard looks strangely like Chuck, and I can commune with his spirit by the
ocean he loved so well.
This was originally published in the Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.