The Last Day We Ever Close Our Eyes
I attended a buddy’s wedding yesterday, so naturally I dug my one suit out of the closet. Sitting in the hard wooden pews of the church, waiting for the wedding to start, I happened to dig through the inside chest pockets because I felt something there.
Ohhhhhhhh. That’s right. The last time I wore this suit was for my brother’s funeral. I dug out the little, crumpled two-page printout I had stuffed into the pocket. It was my little eulogy I’d written for Chris.
I completely forgot I had written this. So, as any skilled writer would do when he or she re-discovers something they’ve written, I had to read it right then.
“Don’t read that now!” my wife admonished. “You’re going to start crying!”
I gave her a little sideways glance. “I’m not going to start crying.”
Of course, I actually did start crying. Thank god they were just tiny manly tears, the kind you can still wipe away with the palm of your hand, so it looks like maybe you just had something in your eye.
I’m proud of what I wrote. I think it was a fitting send-off for my brother. And since only our immediate family attended the funeral, there were lots of folks who didn’t get to hear it. My hope is that it will benefit those who knew my brother, as well as those who simply have someone (or had someone) in their lives struggling with addiction or mental illness. As the late great Michael Herr put it, those tortured souls “doing the Survivor Shuffle between life and death, testing the pull of each and not wanting either very much.”
You are not alone.
One of the movies which as a family we all loved was “A River Runs Through It.” If you haven’t seen it, you should know that it tells the story of a family in Montana, a father and mother and two young brothers, and one of the brothers is a self-destructive drunk.
I think I liked the movie first mostly as a movie. As I got older the themes of the movie hit closer to home, and eventually, and finally, the events of the movie in some ways were the events of my life. The older brother dies, he is killed, at least in part due to his actions and his lifestyle.
Before he died, his family could, at least in part, see the way that the road was unwinding. They wanted to help him, and they all loved him, but it was all a struggling and slapping of hands together, without ever being able to grasp his hand and pull him out.
Before he died, the troubled brother’s father and his other brother were talking about him in the kitchen. So here I will let Norman Maclean tell the story.
“You are too young to help anybody and I am too old,” the father said to the son. “By help, I don’t mean a courtesy like serving him jelly on toast, or giving money.”
“Help,” he went on, is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.”
“So it is,” he said, using a well-worn transition, “that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don’t know what part to give or maybe we don’t like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where always says, “Sorry, we are just out of that part…”
The son says to him, “You make it too tough. Help doesn’t have to be anything that big.”
The Father asks him in response, “Do you think your Mother helps him by buttering his rolls?”
“She might,” the son replied. “In fact, yes, I think she does.”
“Do you think you help him?” the father asked.
“I try to,” the son replied. “My trouble is I don’t know him. In fact, one of my troubles is that I don’t even know whether he needs help. I don’t know, that’s my trouble.”
The Father thought for a second. “That should have been the subject of my talk,” he said. “We are willing to help, Lord, but what if anything is needed?”
Lots of people in this room here today tried to help my brother. Either they tried to help him directly by offering their friendship, their resources, offers of jobs to work at, or otherwise they just helped to clean up the messes he made. Other people in this room tried to help Chris by helping my parents, who towards the end became more and more his caregivers. And for all of you who helped and who tried to help, I don’t have words to express the gratitude. So many of us willed him to live, prayed for him to recover and to get his life back even as we could look into the distance and see the road unwinding.
In the end, this man who had helped hundreds of people and animals was unable to help himself. This man who, even if he had nothing, would have borrowed from someone else to give you something, was unable to give back to himself. We can no longer fault him for that. We did not live behind those eyes. We don’t know the pain and confusion that reigned inside his head, and eventually won out.
My brother is free from all of that now. The burden is lifted. As General Robert E. Lee put it, “Do not grieve for the brave dead. Sorrow for those they left behind — friends, relatives, and families. The former are at rest. The latter must suffer. The battle will be repeated there in greater force.’
‘So it is,’ we must at some point turn our attention back to our living families, to those who do need our help, our attention, our love. Chris no longer needs our help or anyone’s help. But the families do go on and the road stretches out in front of us. It is our choice to continue walking, and to honor the memory of my brother by loving and helping those who we can still touch.