Lost and Found: Reflections on my brother’s passing

My brother Russel passed away recently. He battled a rare form of heart cancer for four long and tumultuous months. During his time at the hospital receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments he had good days and bad days. Mostly he was what I thought of as his normal self…kinda grumpy, kinda cranky; not entirely pleased with his predicament but trying to put on a brave face.

My parents with my brother Russel as an infant.

I come from a large close-knit family with most of us still in Oregon. Our proximity and general appreciation of one another has reinforced our bonds over the years. We are a loud and unruly bunch with dogs and kids constantly underfoot.

My brothers Zac and Russ (center) with a friend from the neighborhood.

Russel was the oldest of my five siblings and clearly cut from a different cloth. The Kauffmans are smart and hard working but Russ was flat-out brilliant. He was Valedictorian of our small rural high school where he gave his speech in Spanish so he could simultaneously mock both the teachers and his fellow students. He earned a scholarship to the prestigious Reed College in Portland and immersed himself in physics. After excelling at Reed, Stanford awarded him a full-ride scholarship where he continued his discoveries in particle physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

One of Russ’ earliest school pictures.

Russ’ modesty was the stuff of family legend. It was well known that he had solved a previously unsolved problem in the field of physics while at Reed. My father, the unofficial family historian, recalled that this tidbit about Russ’ scientific prowess was only revealed by the best man at Russ’ wedding seven years after his days at Reed. There was so much about Russ that was not necessarily shared in the world, certainly not with me.

Russ and I playing an early video game. My brother Matt and sister Matina in the background.

I had long been aware that I only knew a small piece of my brother. It was akin to sensing a vastness just beyond one’s reach. I appreciated the knowledge and skill it took to excel in physics but its rarefied nature rendered it obscure and remote to me. I barely scraped by in my only college-level physics course with a C. I witnessed the notable events in his life, weddings, the birth of his son, new jobs and other milestones, but I didn’t really know much about the person he was becoming.

From the left, Matt, Zac, Russ, and me at his second wedding.

Most of my interactions with Russ occurred at my parents’ home during family gatherings and family dynamics colored my view of him. Russ and my father had a complicated relationship. Tension always seemed to be boiling below the surface and occasionally it erupted. My brother harbored resentment about what he saw as childhood mistreatment. While the discontent seemed long past its expiration date, it meant he often seemed touchy or withdrawn when we’d all be together.

As I sorted through envelopes filled with various family photos, I was struck by how much more there was to Russ’ life. The images revealed a man and a life that I had never seen. Tender images of Russ holding his infant son, Felix. Grainy candids of him and his first wife picnicking on the grass. Russ and Felix smiling at the camera from behind colorful life jackets floating the river on a bluebird day. The images revealed a different person and presented unguarded authentic moments. They filled in the pieces I did not know were missing. They opened my eyes to the joy and mirth he found in the world.

Russ holding baby Felix.

Growing up poor in rural southern Oregon limited my options. My neighbors were a mix of dope growers, artisans, loggers, and mill workers. Very few of my peers from high school went on to college. But Russ did more than go to college. He earned a full ride to a prestigious private college. His ascent into academia blew the doors of my imagination clear off. His choices offered me a brief glimpse of college life. That was all it took. I knew it was the path for me. At the time I did not credit him for making that choice so crystal clear, but I do now. Even if he had realized his influence on my life choices he never would have said anything. He was far too modest.

Felix and Russ on the river.
Russ and Felix “playing” the drums.

When he was diagnosed and hospitalized for cancer treatment my family and I flew out to visit and provide support. After my visit, I tried to make sense of my brother’s imminent departure. My head spun with hurt and loss. I yearned to weave a few sparse threads from the chaos into some semblance of insight. I turned to Buddhist notions of being truly present and awake in the face of daily uncertainty.

Russ and Felix enjoy a snack on the grass.

What can be learned from the loss of one so young? Loss can teach us to treasure what we have. To hold each other more closely, to savor what we have and find meaning in the sadness.

There was much more to Russ than I knew and his death affected me in ways I am just beginning to understand. In a small but important way, his life opened doors for me that I never knew were closed. As he chased his dreams, his example compelled me to chase mine. Seeing through our family dynamic was like having the proverbial scales fall from my eyes. Russ’ death helped me see him and his life more completely. The realization that there was much more to him than I knew only deepened my sense of loss.

Russ at the family home in southern Oregon.

Many cultures use symbols of death, like skulls, as reminders of our innate fragility and vulnerability. On a deeply personal level, the loss of my brother strengthened my resolve to be alive, awake and present; both for myself and for those around me.

Russ and Jade at the Black Winter Ball.

Soon I will carry my brother’s ashes back home to Oregon. My family will gather to fulfill his wish that his ashes be joined with the crystal clear waters of the East Fork of the Illinois River. His soul has been released, his ashes will follow. May his life be held in loving memory. And may it serve as an eternal reminder of the power of following your dreams and the value of being known, understood, and loved.