Today was my brother’s memorial service. He died 11 days ago on March 25 of acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). He was 52. My brother had struggled with alcoholism for many years. He tried going sober once and it lasted a year. He white-knuckled it: no AA, no counseling, no support. After that didn’t last, he gave up. His family gave up. We resigned ourselves to his fate. Until my oldest brother died last April of alcohol-related diseases: cirrhosis and hepatitis. And then six months later, in October, my father died of Alzheimer’s complications.
I’d decided then I’d had enough, I wasn’t going to lose Steve too, and I organized an intervention. While it was an “ambush,” it was a compassionate, loving intervention. And it worked. On December 28, 2012, he entered rehab and emerged fiercely committed to his sobriety. He did what he needed to do to stay sober: meetings every day, close contact with his sponsor, reading the big book, beginning to work the steps. And then he started getting sick. Sores in his mouth. Cellulitis in his legs. Pneumonia. My brother had oral cancer twice, and both times he got treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, removal of the lymph nodes) and it had gone into remission. We feared it had come back. It hadn’t. But he was back in the hospital in mid-March feeling tired and week. He went in on a Tuesday. The following Monday morning, March 25, he was diagnosed with AML. By 9:00 Monday evening he was dead. Three days before he would have received his 90-day chip.
My niece and nephew asked me to speak at their father’s service today. I’d never spoken at a funeral before. I fretted over it for two solid days. Jotting down memories. Writing stories from those memories. Discarding some and keeping others. Eventually I settled on several stories from our childhood, each of them with a humorous tone. Or so I hoped. I didn’t have a solid opening or closing, but I had some ideas rattling around in my head.
There were a lot of people at the church. I knew my brother was well-liked. He was a really nice guy. A sweet man, with a heart of gold. But still, I was surprised by the large turnout. And it ratcheted up my nerves a bit more. There were several readings done by the deacon, and then he did the eulogy. I thought his daughter was going to do it, but she lost her nerve. So it was up to me to bring Steve back to life, if only for a few moments in the chapel. It’s the least I could do for him. And his children. And his mother.
So when the time came, I took my notes and walked up to the lectern.
“This sucks, doesn’t it?” I began.
“All I’ve been able to think about these past 11 days is what a cruel merciless universe this can be. This sucks. But A and P have asked me to say a few words about their dad, and so I have to look beneath that, and find something more to say.”
This wasn’t in my notes. I’d set them on the lectern and forgotten about them.
I proceeded to tell the story of the moving-box forts, the false bridge-spotting, and the peeing on the car in Canada. I talked about him sneaking popcorn and pizza up to my room when I had to go to bed before everyone else because I was the youngest. I talked about him steering me away from dating his not-so-gentlemanly friends.
I made them laugh. Several times. Nice, hearty laughter filled the chapel. And I made them cry.
“Steve was my big brother. He was a good big brother. But we ran out of time. Still, he will always be my brother, and a father, and a son, and an uncle, and a friend. And I will miss him terribly.”
I made it through with my voice cracking only at the end.
Many, many people approached me after the service and told me how much they enjoyed what I’d said. I felt so proud.
I did it, Steve. I did it for you. I know you liked it. I know you’re proud of me. And you know how much I love you. We really brought down the house today, didn’t we?