My big brother Charles died last night. He was just 61, but an interval of drug abuse in New York in the seventies took its toll on his formidable mind while Hepatitis C ravaged his body. Charles graduated from Mercersburg Academy and Sarah Lawrence College. He also studied at Dartmouth College and Columbia University, a paper short of his Masters. I will forever think of Charles as a college student; and as he cared little for gainful employment, Charles always lived like a college student. It was what he did best. Charles was never without a book, and always the sort of book that only scholars read. When it wasn’t a book, it was music. No one loved music more. In a stint as a record producer for Lust/Unlust Music, Charles was elated when his punk single was named “Best New Record Below 14th Street.”
Though he loved several women, Charles never married or had a family. He wasn’t grown up enough for that. His was a life of the mind, so losing his mind was losing everything. Still, when Charles had his headphones on, when he had his music, he had everything he wanted, and he was sublimely happy. How many of us accomplish that?
When someone we love dies, we cry for them, or we try to; but we mostly cry for ourselves, for all the unresolved, unspoken, unfinished pieces of our lives that bumped up against theirs. We cry for all we can never make right or share with them again. A piece of us dies, too; a piece that no one else mourns. I’m crying for my big brother, a little ashamed that I’m crying for me, regretting that things couldn’t have been different, that I didn’t do more.
A sibling is a rival for our parents’ attention, affection and pride. They are the embodiment of who we are and who we will never measure up to. They are the light and the shadow that define us, to ourselves and in the eyes of family and friends and teachers in those crucial, crucible years when we are becoming who we will become. I am who I am because my brother Charles gently guided me on my way at a time when he was my hero. I never told him that. If I had, he would have brushed it off in his self-deprecating way.
I am flooded with memories of his kindness. It was Charles who showed me how to modulate a flashlight beam and use it to carry sound. That was a pretty big deal back in the mid-1960s. I was 8, making him 14. He understood the magic, the power, of technology, and he put it in my little hands. He shared the spark as Prometheus shared fire. We were both going to be great scientists in those days of astronauts and Heathkits; although in truth, he wanted to be the great scientist, and I just wanted to be like him.
We don’t always know how much we change the trajectory of other lives. I don’t expect that Charles knew how much he meant to me or how much he influenced me. I’ll never be able to tell him. I hope it’s enough that I know.
I lost the brother I loved most and needed most a long, long time ago. The grotesque man child that took his place seemed not to miss the young genius he’d been. He had other regrets that consumed him. But that awkward, brainy, talented, modest and sweet young fellow set the standard for me. He was the big brother I wanted to make proud. He was once poised to be anything and do anything.
In the end, most would conclude he didn’t amount to much.
But I can’t feel that way because I am his legacy. He challenged me and believed in me. Even as he failed in most everyone’s eyes, there was always in him an intellect I knew I’d never equal. I never minded that because Charles never used his intellect to diminish anyone. He didn’t need to be the smartest person in the room, even when he had no equal. I wish you could have known that big brother, and I wish I could have had him all my life. I suppose its enough that I had him for a little while, a long, long time ago.
Rest in peace, big brother. I love you.