Death Hits a Large Family
BY Robert Brennan
June 1-7, 2003 Issue | Posted 6/1/03 at 1:00 PM
We were 10. I loved that number. I still do.
Our dad was a grocer, our mom was a mom and they did the best they could with 10 children, the first being born as the Nazis invaded Poland and the last one coming along at the same time as sputnik.
We lived in a big, drafty two-story house where my mom, a convert, took care of all of us as well as her father-in-law and an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins as our house became a kind of way station for our larger, extended family.
I was the “baby” and there was almost a never-ending upside to this position in the “lineup.” For one thing, I had three older sisters who all took turns wanting to mother me. This led to multiple trips to toy stores, amusement parks and the beach.
Having six older brothers, on the other hand, was both a boon and a curse.
The older ones were hard to get to know at first because so much of their formative years were behind them by the time of my arrival.
They would filter in and out of my daily existence and they, too, would take a turn in taking me under their wing.
One taught me how to tell time, one how to tie a tie, another how to handle a schoolyard bully. Though it had its drawbacks — namely being called the “baby” and having to walk over to any number of rouged-cheeked aunts at family parties and forced to give them some “sugar” — when all was said and done, being the last in a long line is okay.
I could brag about varsity basketball players, football and track stars — well, they told me they were stars — and then the ultimate weapon of mass destruction for any young boy on any playground in those long-ago days.
I had brothers who were U.S. Marines. Game, set and match.
Which brings me, in a very roundabout fashion, to my brother Ray, or Gunny as we called him. I use the past tense because my brother Ray died in April of lung cancer. He was a younger brother to some of us, a big brother to others of us and a twin to one of us.
When you come from a big family, and when you're way down on the bottom of the food chain as the “baby,” one thing quickly becomes clear: You've got a lot of funerals in your future. I have been to more than I can count. But they were always for “older” relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.
My brother Ray was 57. That isn't old anymore. In fact, it's getting younger every year. But 40 years of smoking Pall Mall reds caught up to my brother and ravaged him. He was tough as nails. He joined the Marines right out of high school, was given an all-expenses-paid trip to Southeast Asia courtesy of the U.S. government and came home in one piece, where he loved his wife and raised his family.
He was obstinate, stubborn, short tempered and had a mouth like a … well, like a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. He lived on cigarettes, chocolate doughnuts and coffee, and if his health hadn't turned so drastically for the worse I was half considering marketing his diet in book form.
I don't pretend to know why God chose to call my brother home when he did. But on the other hand, I am not wringing my hands or shaking a fist skyward challenging the Almighty on his timing, either. In the old days we used to pray for a “good” death. We had kind of lost the meaning of that until my crazy, maddening brother Ray showed us all how a Catholic man does it.
The night before Ray died, his wife, Josie, called me to say if I wanted to say goodbye I better come over. I didn't want to say goodbye but I went. In the family room, a hospice organization had supplied a hospital bed, and that's where Ray was when I got there. He was very uncomfortable, the cancer having spread to other parts of his body. He went in and out of consciousness, would look at me, nod and go back to sleep. Like the coward I am I came up with any number of words just to have something to say, though none of the words were “I love you.”
That wouldn't have worked for my brother anyway. This was a man who never gave the sign of peace at Mass to a single human being in his life. That was “hippy” stuff. But he lived the sign of peace in his sometimes difficult, almost always chaotic life.
His faith was as simple as a tap on a rock in the Old Testament and twice as hard. Later on that last evening, my brother Joe, a priest, came over. He was there to anoint Ray. By this time, due to the pain and the inability to get comfortable, Ray had moved to the couch in the family room. He was lying on it, his eyes closed, when Joe approached him and, in a loud voice, hoping to have Ray hear, announced he was here to anoint.
Without a word, and without opening his eyes, either, Ray struggled into a sitting position and without another prompt from my brother the priest, extended his arms and turned his palms up for reception of the holy oils. He was anointed; we all prayed the Our Father. At around four in the morning my brother was gone.
At the Reception
It was the hardest funeral I have ever attended, so far. But my brother wasn't done dispensing gifts to the siblings he left behind. During the reception afterward, as my brothers and sisters gathered together, it struck me.
Through all these years, through bickering, disagreement and un-Christian attitudes we have all participated in against one another, the death of our brother revealed to us all just how close we really are. And there was real joy in knowing I belonged to such a group of people who were at the same time so different and so alike.
There are times when it feels like we are just the sum of our imperfections, but there is never a time when the bond, though sometimes strained, is not felt between myself and all of my brothers and sisters.
Our brother Ray has shown us the way again. And as we laughed and cried, and laughed again during Ray's funeral reception, all us brothers and sisters huddled together in some kind of tribal imperative, I never felt better in my life about my family, my deceased brother and my faith.
I was going to end this piece with the oh-so-clever tagline, “Now we are nine.” But that wouldn't be accurate, because as our mother and father taught us and as we believe, Ray lives on — not just in collective memories of his nine brothers and sisters he left behind but in the reality of Christ's promise. So it looks like I'm stuck with them all.
We are still 10 and will remain 10 … forever.
Robert Brennan is a television writer in Los Angeles.
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