It was a no-brainer that I would write a eulogy for my brother. I am the writer in the family, and these last two weeks my writer's mind has been organizing my thoughts into what passes for a eulogy as if by second nature. It's how I deal.
I hesitated to post such a personal and lengthy post here*, but then I realized my brother would have gotten a huge kick out of having his sister write about him. I was touched by how many people told me how he'd bragged about his sister the writer...I just wish I'd given him more to be proud of sooner. And that is perhaps the lesson of his life. Don't hesitate to take a risk, because one day it may be too late. Regrets suck.
*To protect their privacy, I've initialized the names of his loved ones.
When asked about my brother Walter, I used to describe him by saying, "Children and dogs love him."
And I think that's about the finest thing that can be said about anyone. Because dogs know—they have a sixth sense about who can be trusted. And children feel—they feel in their heart who loves them, and recognize a kindred spirit.
I have a vivid memory of Walter, about 13 or 14, swinging some of the younger neighborhood kids around in his arms until they squealed with laughter. He was a gentle giant, his stature unusual even for a well-fed suburban adolescent, his willingness to play with those many years younger even more unique.
As his little sister, I basked in his popularity—when I wasn't furious with him over some sibling spat. We had a lot of those, but I only remember him hitting me once. That was because I hid his Led Zeppelin albums. I think everyone would agree I probably deserved it.
I learned early on that my larger-than-life brother was invincible. He could do anything, perform any daredevil trick, and survive.
One of my earliest memories is on the front porch at our house on Poplar Street. I was about four, he was five or six and had just gotten his green banana seat bike. I remember him telling me to watch while he showed me his latest trick--riding with no hands and no feet. It was only a few seconds after his feet had left the pedals and his hands lifted from the steering wheel that the bike crashed to the ground.
My impressionable four-year-old eyes saw blood pouring from him in several places, his body rapidly turning black and blue. He became the monster of my nightmares, as he rose from the wreckage and walked across the yard. I screamed and ran inside for my mother. Of course I cried louder than he did, as was always the case. My big brother wasn't afraid of much.
Except shots. The kind the doctor gives you. When they took Walter in for his six-year-old vaccinations it took two nurses to hold him down. As I watched him kicking and screaming, I knew there was No. Way. I was getting any of that. If my big, strong brother was afraid of that needle, then so was I.
So when it came my turn I informed my mother that I wouldn't be participating in this school-age ritual. She didn't press the issue, because frankly, after what she'd been through with Walter, a case of smallpox didn't sound so bad.
Walter was always testing boundaries, exploring the limits--which was excellent, because then I knew exactly where they were and I made sure I didn't break the rules. The only time I was even allowed to enter my big brother's realm was when [our young aunt] P. came to visit. Then we were the irrepressible Three Musketeers, led by fearless Walter, while P. had all the great ideas. I was happy to tag along, knowing any mischief we got into would be blamed on one of them.
We ran away from home, always coming back in time for supper; made daring midnight escapes over the backyard fence; and played a game we invented called "Guess the Shakespeare quote". I kid you not; Walter was an expert on Shakespeare before he even got to ninth grade. I told you he had guts: believe me, it takes a lot of courage for a twelve-year-old boy to quote the Bard instead of Jimmy Page.
Walter also played the piano, his skill part inherited talent and part due to the incredible reach of those long hands. He played beautifully, our grandmother MeeMaw, who doubled as our piano teacher, always said. And she wouldn't have lied, even though, I'm pretty sure, Walter was always her favorite. But his real talent was baseball. Little League baseball.
Walter was the tallest in the blue uniform of Monroe Brick. He played first base and pitcher, a southpaw who pitched many winning games. And when the chips were down, bases loaded, we could count on Walter to hit the grand slams and bring them all home.
After that incident on the bike, when he turned into a black and blue, blood spurting monster before my very eyes and then miraculously survived with nothing more than a few scrapes and some coveted BandAids, I decided my brother was indestructible. He could do anything, and with Evel Knievel as his hero, he tried lots of stunts that would have killed any other kid on a banana seat bike. And the bike eventually turned into a mini bike, and then a bigger motorcycle, and then a Trans Am, which he wrecked one day when he fell asleep while driving home after a night shift. He survived that, as well as any number of minor work-related accidents.
He even survived a bad marriage, to his first wife whose name escapes me.
But after that he married a wonderful woman named B., and then he got even luckier: His lovely daughter C. was born. I don't think there was ever a prouder father. Finally, he had his OWN kid to play with! To roughhouse on the floor with, to carry on his tall, tall shoulders, to view the world with the childlike wonder he never lost.
I think life, then, was just about perfect for Walter.
I still remember the night he called me, to tell me the doctors had found a lump in his chest. They thought it was cancer. But as he described to me this baseball-sized mass, I figured it really must be a baseball. I could not comprehend the idea of life-threatening cancer and my big strong brother in the same sentence. Nope. They'd open him up and find an actual Rawlings baseball.
It was lymphoma instead. A large mass, pressing against his heart. But it didn't kill him. And he left the hospital with something even more precious: a baby boy. B. had given birth to T. the day after Walter's surgery. How lucky can one man be? Go into the hospital to have a lump cut out of your chest, and bring home another baby who fills your heart with joy.
It was much later on that his third wife M. called to tell me that Walter had had a heart attack, at just 42. Again, I greeted the news with some skepticism. He'd survived terrible bike accidents, a car accident or two, and cancer. And he survived a heart attack, going back to work eventually on the high rise buildings in Minneapolis he was so proud to have a part in constructing.
Walter was a wonderful stepfather to two children, E. and L. And a great friend to his children's friends, his friends' children, anyone who shared his Peter Pan-like love of childish things.
When they say people like to live on the edge, they were describing Walter. Except Walter took that to mean he must live on the edge of a lake. He always lived near a body of water, from the time he was born on Poplar Street, next to the Ouachita River. Even when we were growing up in a neat suburban neighborhood, we lived near enough to Bayou DeSiard that when he was old enough, Walter would grab his fishing pole and ride his bike to the bayou and spend an afternoon fishing for bream.
When he was about 15, he was fishing in the bayou when he saw a man fall out of his boat. Walter quickly reached over with his pole and helped pull the man to safety. Walter was always lending a hand, to a stranger, to a friend, to his last love, P., who needed him as much as he needed her.
When Walter moved to Minnesota, there were plenty of lakes to choose from, and he lived on several. In the winter, he literally lived ON the frozen lake, ice fishing in his ice house.
Eventually he moved back to Jones, where he was always happiest, next to the lake that eventually took his life.
Walter tempted death, from the time he was a kid on a bike, inventing stunts to impress his little sister, to the many times he drove all night after working a week on a boat on the Intracoastal canal, to the times he hung sheetrock high above the streets of Minneapolis in a fifty story building.
They say those who constantly cheat death are living life to the fullest. Perhaps it’s the lack of fear that opens up one’s world, allows one to take risks that constrain lesser mortals. Walter did live a full life, despite his too soon death. He loved and embraced those around him, with those long arms and with his fearless heart.
Those of us who knew him, who loved him, who got angry with him, who worshiped him when he hit those grand slam home runs—we’ll miss the boy, and the man he turned out to be. We’ll miss the gentle father, who cradled his babies against his hard chest while they slept, who taught his son to throw a baseball, who taught his daughter to ride a bike.
We’ll miss the friend, who was always quick with a funny line, who was always eager to go off on another adventure, who fought with us and loved us with equal passion.
We’ll miss the brother, the son, the boy who tested his limits, who brought home the trophies, who befriended and defended the neighborhood dogs and children.
We’ll mourn the man who’s gone, whom we lost so tragically, but we’ll remember him, and remember that above all, he would want us to remember him as he lived, on the edge of a lake and on the fearless edge of what was possible.
I'd like to read a poem, by Joyce Grenfell:
If I should die before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor, when I’m gone, speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must
Parting is hell.
But life goes on.
So sing as well.