I have no idea how to write what's on my mind tonight. I guess I'll just start typing and see how it goes...
My brother died four days ago. It's been over twenty years since I actually knew him. He was eight years younger than I am, which means the brother I knew was still just a kid.
While I was away at college, he got mixed up with drugs. I'd seen him once since then, in the summer of 2000 when I flew home for my sister's wedding. By then, he looked... so different. I hadn't seen anyone in my family in years at that point. The years looked like they'd been good to my sister, who had a bounce in her step and a smile on her face, almost as if no time had passed since we'd seen each other. But, for Mike, the years looked like they'd been hard. There was an unmistakable sadness in his eyes. The drugs and their aftermath had taken a toll, and even though he was clean at the time, it was obvious he could not get back what he'd lost in terms of what was to be his life.
The kid who grew up on skis probably didn't ski anymore. The kid whose teachers thought he should consider professional golf probably didn't golf anymore. The kid who used to dance at Arthur Murray dance studios probably didn't dance anymore. He wasn't that person anymore.
In death, we all become saints. Great stories are told. Bad memories are forgotten. One might suggest that a whitewashing of a person's life afterward is dishonest. But I don't think so. And I'll tell you why.
I think life is for the living, and, in a sense, death is for those of us fortunate to still be living as well.
Each of us is far too complex to truly be remembered in full. Many details will be forgotten. Others deserve to be held onto. When we die, our friends, acquaintances and loved ones will choose how to remember us as they reflect on the way each of us impacted their lives. The story of who and what we were will be in their hands. They will decide what matters and what does not.
My brother's name was Michael. I knew him as Mike.
I've always been a thinker, but Mike was a doer. By the time I was ten years old, I was writing code. I know... geeky, right? By the time Mike was ten, he could flip his bike upside down in the yard and take it apart as it rested on its seat and handlebars. I don't know if anyone taught him how to fix things. I think he just figured it out.
And that is a detail about Mike I will remember. I'll remember the things about him that made me smile and I'll let go of the rest.
That is my choice.
And when I die, if you outlive me, I hope that you will choose the memories of me that, once upon a time, made you smile and let go of the rest. We've all got a "the rest" have we not?
I'm going to share two memories of my brother with you now.
The first memory is an earlier one.
In the summer of 1990, my family rented a cottage for a week at a lovely little spot in the Pocono mountains called Big Bass Lake. I owned a small sailboat at the time - a 12 foot long fiberglass boat known as a Sunfish. Mike liked to go sailing with me. He was 11 years old and didn't weigh much, but he was surprisingly strong and absolutely fearless. This was great because it meant he could help me haul the boat to the water, and it meant that I never had to worry about a jittery passenger.
One afternoon, we were out in the middle of the lake and the wind had really picked up. My sailboat was tilted at a very sharp angle as we sliced our way across the water. But then, in an instant, a gust of wind came from a different direction and we were tossed overboard before there was any time to react.
The moment we hit the water, I started to panic. I thought "Are we ok? Where's Mike? Is the sail under water? Are we ok? WHERE'S MIKE!"
Before I could even start to figure any of that out, I heard Mike's booming laughter coming from behind me.
"Ahahahaha!!! That was awesome!"
Mike was trusting and fearless. And that is how I will remember him.
This second memory is a brief one, and rather hazy too.
The year was 1994. I was walking with Mike and a friend of his to a record shop. I don't remember us being in the store at all, yet I vividly remember walking there. I could tell Mike was sort-of showing off his older brother to his friend, as if the fact that I was in college and involved in radio made me cool. It felt flattering. I had no way of knowing at the time that it would be the last meaningful conversation we'd ever have. Though we talked again years later, as I said, he wasn't the same person later in his life. Then again, I suppose it's fair to say that none of us really are.
Mike and I talked about about music that afternoon. He was really into Green Day, and I was into some mostly obscure Canadian bands like Lowest Of The Low, and hHead.
I share that second memory as a reminder that one never knows the significance of a moment until long afterward. I try not to dwell too much on how different that conversation could have been or perhaps should have been, because that sort of thought is a trap. It's a trap that keeps one foot stuck in an unchangeable past.
It's far too easy to get lost in the whirlwind of what-ifs. What if Mike hadn't gotten into drugs? Who would he have grown to be? Would he and I have been closer?
There's no sense in contemplating what-ifs since one cannot change the past. The past is but a collection of mental souvenirs we accumulate during our travels through life. It's up to each of us to choose which memories are worthy of being kept. I'm going to let go of the memories of the Mike I didn't recognize. I'm going to keep the memories of the boy on the boat. I think Mike would have liked that.
Mike and I didn't sail many times - probably fewer than twenty - but those are my favorite memories of him because they're happy memories of just the two of us, and, because those memories represent Mike in the way I think he would like to be remembered - at least, by me.
Mike was trusting and fearless.
And that is how I will remember him.
Rest in peace my brother.
A beautifully written memoriam. I'm so sorry to hear this and I offer you a virtual hug and to say that you are in my thoughts.
This was touching. I have a feeling your brother would have wanted you to remember him this way and I bet he'd have enjoyed that story. I took a sailing class a few years ago and really enjoyed it.
Anyway, I really wanted to say I appreciate your take on remembering people after they pass away. I guess we do get to choose how we want to remember people. Seems kind of obvious but I never thought of it that way before.::::: | June 5, 2012 11:25 AM
Very nice, I'm sure that "Mike" is smiling...::::: | June 5, 2012 5:53 PM
It's true, we don't get to decide how others remember us when we're gone, but I hope I'm remembered well. I think your brother would have liked what I just read.::::: | June 6, 2012 12:18 AM