Category Archives: Death

The Last Hug

It was a beautiful moment, one whose aura has not been extinguished, despite the hurt. It was a moment of bliss. He had no way of knowing it would be the last time that he would touch her. Thanks to the picture, he now measured all pleasures and memories by that standard: was it a great movie, especially if it were his last? Would the knowledge of its numeracy trace an additional groove of recognition in his brain? Because he practiced this often, he learned that knowing one’s time to pass would render all moments useless. Nothing could be enjoyed in and of itself. The approaching darkness of a loss would cloak everything in its shadow. If you knew that your next cup of coffee would be your last, he guessed that you might never take a sip of it all.

But he sometimes looks at the picture and can’t help but get trapped in a labyrinth of what might have been. It’s a quintessential human emotion. Not regret precisely. It’s impossible to slice away the happiness that envelops the memory, just as it’s difficult not to take a moment to consider the pain that resulted from it. It’s an endless war with neither side of the emotional scale winning. He nevertheless gets comfortable and takes a minute to think back while looking at the picture. At times, he’s left with a light buoyancy, one derived from lingering happiness that he had the experience at all. At other times, he feels as if someone punched him while he was napping. “We always take away something from our moments,” he thought. “Why must we insist on a polarizing method to evaluate our experiences and memories?” Of course, he didn’t have an answer, so he did what we all do and came up with a temporary distraction, one which would occupy him until the next time he visited the memory.

He could only hope that time might continue to help him clear his mind.

He sat on the couch, his legs folded under him, the picture held between his curled fingers.

It wouldn’t matter if he slipped the picture back inside the book on the discolored end table. The image was graphed in his brain, now complexly tied to the emotions he felt during and after the hug and the picture.

When he dreamed, the picture became fragmented, polychromatic, and elusive. While he could no longer see the picture, he could feel it, like the hug itself, one radiating presence and acceptance. He put the picture aside and laid down on the couch, welcoming the dreams that might come.

Rushing

Life is easy with a cup of coffee in your hand and a sunrise on your face. If you have both and find your heart isn’t it peace, stop overthinking and start paying attention to the essential truth: this will be over before you’re ready. – x.

PS Here comes the literal rain, one way or another.

Pushups And Not Dropping Dead

Thanks to the Blue Dress Project, I’ve been doing pushups since the beginning of the month. Not continuously, though. The world record for most pushups in a day is 46,001, while the record for non-stop is over 10,000. Keeping that in mind, don’t admonish me too angrily for doing this at my age. The record holder for most in a year was 45 when he completed over 1.5 million in one year. I’ll let you know if I decide to break his record. You can start holding your breath now.

I do them in increments or sets, whether I’m on the way to the bathroom, waiting by an elevator, walking, or going to the kitchen to get a bag of PopChips. I’ve had a few surprises while doing them in unusual places. While I might not drop and do twenty next to the open casket, for example, I don’t see what’s so weird about doing pushups while listening to someone complain about how much they are being overworked. What amuses me most is the idea of having someone in great shape do them continuously near the vending machine area to determine if their subtle presence decreases junk food sales.

I have to be cautious with my shoulder, of course. Technically speaking, the medical term for what I have is “Old & Busted.” I’ve noted that a couple of surgeons seem to be following me around at work while holding scalpels. It could be my imagination. I’ve been told mine is overactive.

There are days when I reach a surprisingly high number of repetitions.

I’m not promising I’ll do them long-term, but I will do them for six weeks, until they become a new habit that I can keep if I wish to. I made a deal with myself that pushups are an exercise I like, cost nothing, and require only time, of which I have an abundance. It’s stupid NOT to experiment. That’s pretty much my take on a lot of things anymore. Including mushrooms. The la-la land variety, not the kind one finds on pizzas. I’ll report back when I’ve tried mushrooms, assuming I’ll still be able to write English or speak in complete sentences at that point.

I don’t have a goal. Other than continuing to not drop dead, of course. It is a great goal, despite all the mortuary owners secretly hoping that a lot of people might have particularly bad days. It’s nothing personal. The odds are in their favor, though. Keep that in mind as you continue to not make changes you’d like to see in your health and life. No matter what you choose, keep it in mind – and not in a superficial way. Every important thing you put off, challenges included, could forever elude you based on today’s choices. It’s nuts, isn’t it? We trick ourselves into thinking we’re making small decisions or foregoing things of no consequence only to discover that we’ve sacrificed an opportunity that is gone forever.

Many days I just stop counting as I do the pushups. If I need to practice counting, I can count the years of my life remaining. For small numbers, I can count the remaining hair on my head.

A friend at work quotes one of his many ridiculous sports heroes by saying, “It doesn’t matter how many you do. You don’t start counting until it hurts.”

My response to him is this: “You’re only as old as the woman you feel.”

I can feel a difference already. Not in my friend. He’s a musclehead.

If I had a sedentary job, I’d do 500 every day. Pushups, I mean. I’m not Wilt Chamberlain if that joke doesn’t fly over.

It’s true that a couple of people have mocked me for doing pushups. That kind of asshole is going to always find something to complain about. It doesn’t matter how I manage my life or what I do – there will be people who roll their eyes or want me to fail. Luckily, most people are great, and even if they don’t understand what the hell my point is, they play along, if only so that we can reciprocally overlook each other’s craziness.

This brings me back to the idea of incrementalism. You might not be able to do a pushup. But if you start slow and with a hint of enthusiasm, you can reach just about any goal you want to. You can learn a language by learning one word a day, walk a mile by focusing on reaching a little farther as your energy permits, or read a book a month by translating your interest into doing so into a plan that’s broken into bite-size increments. (No pun on the bite-size, by the way.)

Likewise, and just as important, if you’re happy with yourself, your life, or things about yourself, don’t get tricked into adapting because you think you should. You should be happy, and anyone who finds satisfaction in themselves has magical power.

PS: I’m rooting for Blue Dress Project to make the weight. I’ve found a renewed enthusiasm for people doing things that they’ve put off, or for finding success, no matter how large or small. If I can do it, anyone can.

Love, X

Remember, Beware

I have to start by saying I’m a hypocrite, like so many others. Sometimes people think that I overlook that. Part of that can be attributed to the torrent of words, the river of thoughts that give insight but also confuse people. I’m writing this as I walk, even as my legs protest that they carried me much too far yesterday.

I love genealogy, I looking back into the past. Sometimes maybe I’ll linger a little too fondly. But then I always have the harshness to remind me that I certainly do not idolize the halcyon days. A lot of our lives can be rendered golden through the filter of memory. It’s likely that days like yesterday will one day be gauzy and acquire the patina of remembrance.

One of the ongoing things that I see all of us doing is focusing on the silhouette and the ghosts that precede us. In itself that’s a good thing, to amplify and rejuvenate the memories of people who aren’t with us. Love remembered tends to overpower the love of our daily moments, in part because we often don’t recognize the weight of our moments as we experience them.

Those people had their spot on this Earth. They left their mark, forged bonds, or they didn’t. We should remember them in increments every day as we live our lives. Doing so amplifies the mundane and sometimes transforms our days.

If I linger too long standing on a grave, people around me wither. Our finite number of seconds doesn’t stop or pause or give a pardon for the time we spend looking back. We have to be careful not to squander the opportunity to give nourishment to the people who are breathing in the space with us.

Our ghosts don’t need warm words of acknowledged affection, an arm around their shoulder, or even a moment of silence in the face of anger as life’s moments challenge us.

Fellow hypocrites, join me in this: look back, yes, but look around. I love genealogy.

Monday

Hi. I’m Monday, here to remind you that we should be friends. If you’re 40, you’ll see me at work about 1,250 more times. If you’re 25, it will be around 2,000 more times. This life, the one that has you grumbling about going to work on Monday? It’s not a dress rehearsal. You know how this all ends, right? Love, Monday

Jackie

“Just call me a cartographer – because this post will be all over the map.” – X

Everyone is going to have their ‘last funeral’ story. Perhaps not the last of each person’s life, but the last one not impacted by covid. While my last precovid funeral wasn’t traditional, it happened in January before the country felt the virus’s hammer.

Jackie wanted a gathering of friends as a commemoration. It happened at her home in Springdale. I knew a few of the people at the gathering but most shared nothing in common with me. It was a fact that Jackie would have laughed about. One of the most complicated puzzles I had ever made with pictures was prominently displayed on the coffee table in the intimacy of their living room. The puzzle contained innumerable pictures detailing their lives. I made it with care and attention. It was an affirmation to know that it touched them enough to find a place at Jackie’s last gathering. The video and music I crafted played on loop on the large monitor nearby. Having learned the hard lesson of no backup plan, I had the video on dvd and flash drive and an executable folder of music and pictures if the other two methods failed.

Though I unexpectedly liked a couple of Post Malone’s songs before, I included a piano version of two of his songs. When I have my guard down, I sometimes hear the melodies and remember the absurdity of including it in Jackie’s memory video. I can’t imagine Jackie liking Post Malone; I know that this piano version would have struck her heartstrings with unerring certainty. In part, that expresses how I got to know her – often indirectly and through a constant barrage of banter and conversation. I also included three songs I wrote, one of which I know Jackie loved.

I said my goodbyes in the same way I got to know her: through pictures. The family asked me to do the montage of photos and choose the music. It’s a rare thing for people to trust me so intimately. I’ve known some people all my life who skipped past me for weddings (even one who I originally became ordained for) or overlooked the few things I can do well. In a way that is not immediately easy for me to write, Jackie and her husband seemed at ease with me, even despite our marked differences. I’m sure that some of my pranks were a bit too much for them – but that my intent always found favor with them.

I was volunteered into their circle by my mother-in-law, who worked with Jackie and her husband at the hospital, as did my wife and sister-in-law. What started as a simple project ultimately gave me access to their entire lives of private pictures and images. While I began by scanning hundreds of hospital pictures, I was soon compiling decades of family history.

I frequently see the thousands of pictures I carefully scanned and indexed in my photo archives, and my heart both swells and painfully beats. It was a project that I hoped would never find its end.

Even though this sort of thing is both a love and hobby of mine, it still strikes me to know that people close to me failed to take advantage of my willingness to ensure that everyone’s memories could be reproduced, protected, and shared; such endeavors leave no one without access. It’s true that on a long enough timeline, we all fade – along with everything we can touch, where we stand, and even the planet itself. Pictures have their most value while someone is alive who remembers the people in the picture.

I still see people in agony over lost videos and pictures. It’s work to keep track of our lives. It’s more work to organize it for everyone coming after us. They’ll want to see our memories. The truth is that most people, even ones who seem to appreciate the frailty of such memories, don’t take the care necessary to share them openly and widely. It’s the only way to ensure the survival of the pictures we find to be cherished.

Jackie and her husband were undoubtedly part of the backbone of the community. Both were well-known and respected. Apart from teasing back and forth about me doing something ridiculous with their treasure chest of pictures and albums, they never doubted my love for the project or that I might somehow misuse their photographs.

Because I maintained an archive of all the thousands of pictures Jackie shared with me, it was no stretch to know that I could manage a retrospective of her life when she died. That I hadn’t shared much of her life was immaterial. Anyone could see that I had an affection for her that defied our vast age difference. I continue to regret that I didn’t know her for longer. It is possible that we would not have aligned so well earlier in my life. Having thought about it in the last few months, I’m convinced it’s true.

Part of my regret of not knowing her longer is that many of her stories passed with her. I discovered quickly that both Jackie and her husband were living repositories of fascinating stories. I intended to ask her to share several hours with me with the hopes of getting her story written in a way that would bear her signature wit and charm. She became ill before that come could to fruition.

But I still have this hoard of pictures, often waiting for me to open them and peer inside. I know that I honored Jackie by taking a piece of my life and preserving hers. I made sure that everyone had copies and access; no one was left in the rain. We don’t own pictures, though we foolishly think otherwise. We are custodians, with transitory possession of these lives and this world.

The day of her death races away from me, sliding into the past, as all deaths do.

Life marches forward with callous step and indifferent regard.

As Jackie’s life fades from human memory, I watch the world and wonder about the depth of visual memory and story being lost. But it is not because of me. I’ve tipped the balance in my favor and find myself unable to stop asking people to drop their pretenses and share who and what they are with the world.

In continued memory of Jackie Lou and with a renewed dedication to the joy of pictures, X.

Humor’s Acolate

“As sorry as I was to hear of my brother’s passing, I’ll bet the news bothered him a LOT more.” – X

There’s a considerable risk in people misunderstanding you on a good day. Many of us tend to judge others with the worst possible filter. I’ve found that good people can understand and appreciate contradictory and sublime behavior. Those who don’t just aren’t my people. Old age and experience, if we’re lucky, gives us more latitude in recognizing this.

The greater danger is people hearing what you actually said, and you having no defensible context to mitigate it. So much of life is context, and much of that isn’t immediately explainable. “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” is a cliché for a reason.

The joke that started this post? I’m sure people can and will get angry if they choose to. They’ll claim I wrote it as an insult to Mike. It’s not. He would laugh his ass off reading that joke. About one hundred times over the years, I threw one of Woody Allen’s jokes at him: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Years later, I threw in another one: “My relationship with death remains the same,” he said. “I’m strongly against it.” When Mike and I were young, we both read “Death Knocks,” a story (turned play) by Woody Allen. It was a sometimes topic of hilarity, even though Mike did not like Woody Allen as he grew older. Mike and I both made many bargains with imaginary devils and deities when we were young.

Only those who can imagine hiding in the space between the bed and the wall in the dark and waiting for a parent to come for them in a drunken rage might be able to understand the connection between bargaining and gallows humor. I have a list of stories about these incidents, and some of them surprise me by being funny. If you’ve read my blog, you can see that I’ve largely refrained from identifying some of my family by name. Despite this, I still infrequently find myself at the receiving end of hateful criticism.

When we lived at City View Trailer Park in Springdale, Mike swallowed an incredible amount of tobacco juice. Several of us had played and fought down at the retched pond that once stood at the end of City View. Mike spent much of his time between punches proudly with a mouthful of tobacco. He puked violently on the floor for what seemed like a full minute. That black juice stained the purple carpet deeply. No amount of cleaning could remove it. We’ll talk later about how someone thought purple carpet in a tinderbox trailer might look attractive. When the trailer burned, the stain obstinately remained. The carpet was dark, of course, but the underlying stain plainly stood out. Years later, when Mike and I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house on Highway 49, Mike compared that stain to dealing with being helpless all those years, or nearly so. That was the same night we discovered that a nest of yellow jackets inhabited the other bedroom’s west-facing window. That’s a story for another day. As for the tobacco, despite attempts to make Mike stop, he dipped most of his adult life. I have at least three dozen pictures of him spitting into a bottle, cup, or a family member’s potted plant to prove it.

After Dad died, my cousin jimmy recommended that I watch a particular Billy Bob Thorton movie. Most people have never heard of “Daddy And Them.” You’ll be shocked if you take a look at how many stars joined this movie. Because it was set in Arkansas, it accurately grabs the absurdity of white trash living and wraps it in comedy. (A difficult feat.) After Jimmy twisted my arm and made me watch it, I did the same to Mike. In it was one of the jokes my brother and I shared as hilarious. Here’s the joke:

“Hey! Do you know what Dad would say if he were alive today?” One of us would reply, “No, what?” Dramatic pause. “Let me out!” With the last line, we scratch the air in front of us with both hands as if we were clawing our way out of the coffin. Last year, an Irish veteran stole the joke and shocked funeral attendees by having a pre-recorded tape of his voice shouting to be let out played during his service. Mike thought it was hilarious and an excellent way to separate the humorless from the good people in a crowd. “Can you imagine how tightly wound up Aunt Elsie’s panties would get if someone did that?” was part of his reply.

I have to say, though, that despite the immense teeth-gnashing my brother and I often shared, our deplorable and macabre sense of humor was unrivaled. Marines and serial killers alike cringed if they accidentally overheard our nonsense.

No matter what you’ve read and heard on sitcoms or dramas about the impossibility of confining an involuntary laugh at a funeral, my brother and I separately were a disaster; in combination, we probably deserved the death penalty. Some of the fault lies with my Dad. Even when he wasn’t drinking, he could say some of the most outrageous things devised by a human being. He once called the preacher a “co$$su$$er” in front of about 50 people just to get a leg up on him. In a twist of fate I’ve written about before, Dad and the preacher somehow became friends.

My brother Mike once unknowingly used an open mic at a funeral home in Brinkley to improvise a bit of comedy regarding our Grandma’s teeth. The funeral director sheepishly ran into the outer area to grab the mic from my brother and tell him that it was a ‘hot mic.’ It’s essential that you know that my Grandma was one of the two closest people I ever loved. Despite that, I laughed. I cannot think about that incident without losing a little bit of my soul to laughter. I’m convinced each chuckle puts me a foot further into purgatory.

There’s no greater or sublime pleasure having someone who is both smart and willing to go the extra mile for a laugh, joke, or smile – even if it burns down a few villages on the way there. I give Mike the win, though, because he could tell jokes that I wouldn’t. That’s saying a lot.

Not too many months ago, I sent my brother a collection of hand-written postcards, each with a joke from comedians we both loved. As with index cards in my back pocket, I’m also a fan of prestamped postcards for quick notes. Even while we were uneasily bickering, I wanted him to know that humor was still a big part of my life. (Even if I’m old, boring, wear a lot of black socks as leisurewear, and get too excited by an early buffet.)

Mike would see these words as a compliment.

Because of our relationship, I tend to expect someone to emerge with poison in their hearts to attempt to silence me for joking. Those who know me also know I’ve written multiple times about the fact that they have my permission to mock me to the end of the world when I’m gone, especially if it is funny or creative. Mike was not someone to pull back from a bastardly comment. The same quick and violent tongue he sometimes used to wound me also created some world-class humor. For everyone who knew Mike and watched him in action on solemn occasions, the Bobby Dean in him could not be confined or controlled. Trying to do so was just catnip for his enthusiasm to up the ante.

It’s not reasonable to accuse me of glossing over or attempting to sugarcoat Mike’s life. Equally so, I have to tip my hat when it is merited. Both of us emerged from childhood with a scorched-earth comedic streak. It probably saved us as many times as it caused us grief.

As it turns out, Mike was indeed there when death came for him. His birthday would have been November 1st, the day after Halloween. For some, it is All Souls Day. When I sat to finish Mike’s ancestry record, I noticed that his two children are the same age I was when our Dad died. Mike was 20,062 days old, the mentioning of which would irritate him due to my occasional reminder that I still keep a tab of how many days old I am.

My job is to remember the Mike who put a fish under the driver’s seat of my 1984 Oldsmobile in the middle of summer during a visit to Aunt Barbara’s. (Without telling me.) Or the Mike who read “Lord of The Rings” in almost one sitting back in the early 80s.

Please don’t fault me for taking refuge in contradictory stories about Mike. But if you do, I’ll accept that charge. Given the arc of my origins, I find this potential sin to be minuscule.

P.S. The word “acolate” is mine, one devised to denote eulogic remembrance, perhaps a day too late.

McNamara And Mike

This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.

My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.

This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.

I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.

Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.

While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.

Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.

The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.

My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.

I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.

In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.

Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.

Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.

As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.

Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.

The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.

The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.

The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.

A life lived short of its possibilities.

And The Story Both Ends & Begins

The first picture is my sister, my brother Mike, and me laying like a lump of coal. This picture was taken at Grandpa and Grandpa Cook’s house in Rich, when they lived near White Cemetery. The second was taken when we lived in Springdale for a short time.

*

My brother recently died as he neared 55. Our dad died before he turned 50.

The military was not Mike’s first, second, or third choice. But it’s the choice that got him out of Arkansas and into a career in law enforcement. Whatever else the military does, it spectacularly solves a multitude of problems when people join. It may present others, that’s true, but those are unseen and delayed when you decide to join. No matter how old we get, option fatigue is paralyzing.

Out of high school, my brother recently returned from a very brief stint at Arkansas State University. He convinced me that the military was the worst possible choice for me, even though I was being offered an incredibly cushy spot in the Army music program. As it always does, hindsight paints a panorama of choices and chances for me in the Army.

Mike then turned around unexpectedly and went directly into the Army and off to another life, leaving me with a wtf-face beyond description. He went to Germany while there were still two of them and then to Northern Illinois, where he remained.

My brother with me, before he left Springdale to join the Army. We standing in the driveway at the house on Cottonwood. Many years later, I bought a house right down the street from that spot.

Over a decade later, I seriously considered the option of the military again. I had my physical and background check, and also signed up for delayed entry. He got me out of that idea, too.

Because of our upbringing, I often wonder what would have been the course of our lives if he stayed in Springdale and I had left for the Army as a musician. Would his tendency toward drinking and anger blossom so fiercely. Would mine, had I untethered from family?

In those early years, he publicly held the family honor, even as it continued to vex him. Me? I changed my name and kept my distance. Being poor helped me in this regard. Being ignorant didn’t hurt, either. Mike gave me a lot of grief for my dislike for most of the family’s ideas of politics and how to behave. In my defense and as I increasingly learned, racism often disguised itself as politics. In part because he was the big brother and in part because he thought he was indeed the authority, he fought and lectured me to stop sharing family secrets. I often called him Mike O’Reilly, even though he wanted to break my fingers for it. As time passed, it became evident to anyone paying attention thought although I was the weird kid with the weirder name, I was dead on regarding our biography. Mike favored the Terry family while I loved the Cooks. Both had an equal measure of mishap and heartbreak. The Terry family just had a bigger rug they used to sweep everything under.

As late as last year, I was still uncovering skeletons from our family. People make movies and write books about such strangeness. Had I followed Mike’s insistence to let it go, I would have never picked up genealogy or pursued DNA trails.

Who we once were does not determine who we will be; however, its aim is so undeniably true that those who manage to escape their fate are miracles at work. A lot of smart people know their arcs. Few see themselves in the shadow of their choices. I’m often as guilty as anyone. I’ve never doubted that I inherited the infection of whatever ails my family. I’ve felt its breath to varying degrees for my entire adult life.

Mike was smarter than me. It’s unquestionable. There must be some magical sliding scale and accounting that would prioritize other things over intelligence. I would have cashed in a bucket of compassion and a dose of deafness for a lower IQ. When you are as under-prepared for adult life as we were, it is folly to follow our trajectories and assume success.

Somewhere in those years, that shared biography and its litany of grievances overtook my brother. While I arced into a middle-aged life, he let his guard down to how human he was and how inescapable the dungeon of the lesser can be to us.

While I was still talking to him at length, I asked him at least fifty times to take his time and energy and sit and write his stories. He loved to read and had lived a life stuffed with unusual characters. He told several book that he was excited about the book I was going to write. He didn’t take me up on my enthusiasm. So many stories passed with him.

No matter what anyone else said or will say, one of the things I consider a gift is to often recognize the universality of a good story. Mike had many of them. As I’ve often echoed about my youth, though Mike and I often were at odds, I’d be the first to line up to read a book of stories from his life, whether they were darkly shadowed or humorous.

I’m ready to rush ahead to the magical time when our memories shift and shuffle and lose their harsh edges. Nostalgia is one of those things that’s hard to define yet bangs a gong in all of us.

Though my dad died over twenty-seven years ago, I’m still pondering his choices, his secrets, and his pathology. I still find new revelations.


I suspect it will be the same with my brother.

We fought bitterly a few times in my life. As hard as it was for him to understand, I usually fought for quiet.

Some will exit onto the revisionist road, believing that one’s life and echoes end with death and that those who remain can change the stories of a person’s life. Others will individually have their own stories to tell and questions to ask. It is our way as human beings.

As for me, all judgement laid to rest, all I see is a reservoir of memories and stories. Whether they are told or not is not a valid question. They’ll be told, whether in whispers or shouts.

My dad, standing on a horse. Mike liked this picture.
My brother, with mom when she was Budweiser happy, in Aunt Ardith’s back yard.
Me, Mike, cousin Ricky, cousin Jimmy.
Mike, mom, dad, me. We were at Lutheran Church in Rich, near Brinkley – at mom and dad’s second wedding.
Me, with siblings, at Xmas at Aunt Ardith’s house.