About My Brother

This was first published on August 13, 2016.

I lost someone very special to me last week. My brother Mark died unexpectedly on July 28. I had written about him last winter when I moved him from one apartment to another in “Coming Back Home”.

The new apartment was not comfortable but he was more stable than he had been in a long time and seemed to be adjusting well. I thought he might be slowing down a bit too, just moving slower, seeming to have more cognitive difficulties, and just quieter, his deep voice was softer than usual, and wondered if it was time to find a communal living situation so he would have some assistance and supervision.

Mark had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall in 2000 and was left with a disabling seizure disorder and cognitive issues. Medication kept the seizures mostly under control but he still had seizures now and then and it appears that’s what happened while he was alone in his apartment some time in the morning. I knew from doctors’ advice and friends who had siblings, spouses and even parents who had suffered traumatic brain injuries that a fatal seizure was likely at some point in Mark’s life and that it could happen while he was alone, and to prepare myself I imagined scenarios where that would happen. But preparing myself in some ways for Mark’s death was not a new thing for me. Mark had been an alcoholic most of his adult life, regularly losing his job to alcohol, was homeless and destitute, and part of me has been waiting for a call for all these years to tell me he’d been found somewhere. When I got the call in 2000 but he surprisingly lived through that experience, I reminded him he’d had a major reprieve and there was some reason he was still alive. We laughed but he took that seriously for the next ten years as I managed him through every occupational and social rehab and training program I could find for him and helped him find jobs he could manage, but eventually the jobs ended when businesses closed and they were scarce for people with his limitations, and he went back to drinking, sometimes very seriously.

His demons are no longer chasing him. His habits kept me running after him for much of his life but underneath the alcohol there wasn’t a mean bone in his body, and there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t have done for him. Though he was alone at the moment he died, he was surrounded by neighbors and friends who cared and just thought he was a really nice guy, which he was. Even the funeral director said he recognized Mark as the person who walked past his building each morning while he watered his flower boxes, and Mark would say hello as he went past to buy a Pepsi or some ice and walked back a little later. Many people knew him that way.

Mark would have been 60 years old this December and we were planning a birthday party because we laughed and were surprised he lived that long after all he’d done. He will be cremated with no viewing or service, but we will still have a get-together to honor him some time in the next month.

He loved my cats through the years and they loved him, like the day in 1988 that he took a nap on my couch and rescued kittens settled all over him, and one little dilute tortie girl decided he belonged to her and he and his girlfriend took Nikka home. My cats adored him and would play with him all day, and he with them. He was a kind and gentle person, and they knew it.

Mark with the boys. They were always ready to play when he visited.
Mark with the boys. They were always ready to play when he visited.

If his life had been more stable he would have been a great cat foster. Cookie knew a good person when she met one, as Mark gently reached around to pet her.

Cookie steps onto Mark's lap and he gently reaches to pet her, outside while I'm doing the yardwork.
Cookie steps onto Mark’s lap and he gently reaches to pet her, outside while I’m doing the yardwork.

It will take a long time for the fact that he’s not here anymore to become reality for me. He called on Tuesday to see if I could give him some money for ice. I said yes but I was in the middle of working with a customer and asked him to call later, which was typical. He didn’t call, which I didn’t really expect because he often would visit a neighbor with air conditioning, sit outside or visit one of the stores that had air conditioning. That was the last time I spoke with him.

Despite all his issues and large amounts of time apart through the years due to his alcoholism, I felt closest to my brother, probably because we are closest in age and grew up together, but I just miss him, and I always will.

If you are on Facebook you may have already read my post, but in addition to losing him, other events and the circumstances on those days created a strange reality for me, and I will be a long time both getting used to my brother being gone, and thinking about the context in which I lost him.

Falling trees, no communications, and fortuitous timing

My house is behind all those trees.
My house is behind all those trees.

You may be familiar with the big trees around my house which I adore and call Cat TV and also “my air conditioning units”. I’ve also mentioned that they are old and frail, and as much as I love them they needed to be removed because they were becoming unsafe. The tall wild black cherry has lost a small to medium sized limb each year for the past decade, and because of the level of moisture and plant sugars in the wood, branches are soft and heavy when green. The old maples are hollow, and a branch fell from one onto my electric service line and cable line week before last that knocked out the computer in my studio. A dozen more are in line to do the same.

The entrance to my house.
The entrance to my house.

When it seemed I might be able to get the work done this year I contacted my tree guy in January and got an estimate that included painting his business information on one of his new trucks; I painted signs for him before I moved in here 26 years ago and that income became part of my downpayment. Expected money did not come through and I’ve been concerned to frightened in each storm that has passed through that a large branch would come down, or a whole tree. The cherry is at the side of my yard and at the corners of two neighbor’s yards and is at least 60 feet tall, and was hit by lightning two years ago. That upright dead portion is actually still solid and pretty well-cured wood, but the branches attached to the living part were big and heavy. The whole thing would need a bucket truck to get to the top branches and no paved area is near the tree but my driveway, which is almost too far, so it’s not a simple job. The two big maples in front have to go as well because they are hollow and only a thin ring of trunk is left.

At about 7:50 am on Wednesday, the bottom branch on the cherry tree creaked, groaned, made a horrible splitting noise and landed on the ground. All the cats ran into the basement and it was hard to tell at first where it came from until I saw the extra light coming in the north facing casement window. This branch had actually reached to touch the house curving upward, and in storms bumped against the corner of the roof, but it didn’t damage a thing when it fell. There was no storm and not even a breeze, it was just a hot sunny morning.

You can see the branch curving upward outside the window in this photo from last winter.
You can see the branch curving upward outside the window in this photo from last winter.

I was pretty shaken up by that and called my tree guy again. He said he’d try to stop by to take a look at it in a day or two. All morning the branch continued settling onto the ground, cracking and rustling, but eventually it stopped and I could get some work done.

Then around 4pm I began hearing cracking noises again, louder and louder and then deeper. I kept going outside to look at the trees to see if I could determine where the branch might be, and I determined it was the cherry tree again. I called my tree guy to see if he could stop out that day, like right then, and was standing in the front yard talking to him on the phone when the splitting noise started again and I saw it was the rest of the cherry tree, all attached to the trunk in one spot and splitting off, starting to slowly fall toward me and the house. It leaned far over the yard and over the roof, and could have hit the roof and side of the house and done a good bit of damage. Instead it twisted and separated and fell on the ground in the front and back yards, only scraping the siding and pulling down the cable/internet/phone service line but not touching the electrical line just two feet above it.

I was shaken up by this, and without communications. I made an appointment with Comcast for Friday and decided to get work done then head out with my smartphone to find a wifi I could use to check email and even phone messages, and pulled out my annoying little Tracphone I keep for emergencies.

The next morning was cloudy, cooler and drizzly, and I went to a local coffeehouse to send a proof to a customer and read messages. I had envelopes to deliver to a printer and though I wanted to go back home I felt nervous and apprehensive. I thought likely I was still stressed over the tree falling, and though I didn’t really think that was the cause I decided time away from the house and the tree all over my yard would be good for me, so I drove off to deliver the envelopes with a stomach full of butterflies and a furrowed brow, hoping nothing bad was about to happen. The feeling stayed with me but started to fade as I left the printer. Back home I got more work done and in the early evening headed back to the diner’s parking lot to check messages before I went to the library’s music hall to see a show.

As I sent another proof and then checked messages, I saw a call come through from the aide who takes care of my brother’s medications and thought that was odd at 6:00 pm. I couldn’t answer it, but logged into my voice mail and read the transcript. Mark hadn’t answered the door in the afternoon when they delivered medication, and his phone wasn’t working, and he was worried. I am always worried when my brother isn’t where he’s supposed to be because of the reasons I’d described above, but it happened and he’d always turned up. I called the aide back and he said he had called the landlord to do a wellness check since I didn’t answer. I briefly explained my tree situation and said I’d go over too since I was less than five minutes away. The landlord is a friend and he and I and his twin all went to Catholic grade school together, and he has always been helpful whenever things came up with Mark, so I knew we’d at least get into the apartment and other areas in the building right away.

When I arrived the door was ajar and I heard a voice that was not my brother’s calling Mark’s name. I knocked on the door and asked if Mark was in there. The person turned out to be another of the landlord’s brothers who is an ER nurse. He told me not to come in right then, answered me that Mark was there, but that the situation was not good. It appeared Mark fell and hit his head hard enough on the wall to smash the drywall. I think I might know when it had happened too, remembering my nervous apprehension that morning.

I spent the next couple of hours talking to police and making arrangements. Mark has no money for a funeral so we would have no viewing, only cremation. I saw him in his apartment where he’d fallen, just to have some closure, and his familiar shoulders and beefy arms and legs in the new t-shirt and shorts we’d bought just a few weeks before were oddly comforting. I went home to call my sister and my niece and start making other arrangements.

What are the chances?

I was completely without communications at home except my Tracfone until Saturday morning, and no one knows the number for that Tracfone because I’d never given it out. If I had not been using the wifi with my Smartphone, which incidentally does not have phone service, for that single 10-minute period right when Mark’s aide called, I’m not sure when I would have found out because no one would have been able to get in touch with me except by coming to my door. I wouldn’t have been home from the show until about 10:30 or later, and have been going out to check messages every couple of hours.

Mark with shirt

I look around at things and at my schedule and everywhere see things in progress with my brother, his monthly shopping trip coming up the first week of the month where lately instead of him going off with his cart I’d been guiding him around the store asking if he needed cereal, milk, canned soups, and if he really drank a two-liter bottle of Diet Pepsi each day then we should get 31 bottles of Pepsi instead of running out in the middle of the month. He used to go with me to some of the festivals and places where I set up as a vendor and would help me set up, then wander around or just sit sometimes, and listen to music if there was entertainment wherever we were. The photo at the top of this article is one I took of him when he came with me to a trail cleanup for the Scott Conservancy, and I used the photo on the cover of the brochure I designed for them. He was always happy for little adventures, and unless he was having a down day was fun to be with.

This was originally published on The Creative Cat.

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