“You need to walk Cindy before your drum lesson,” I told Ethan at dinner. Then I did what I keep promising myself I won’t do. I added, “Okay?” as though I were asking him if he would walk his dog as a favor to me. This is how the arguments start. My namby-pamby style of delegating leaves room for Ethan to try to wiggle out of chores. Then I get mad at him for doing just that.
It’s not like I don’t know any better. I’ve had the perfect role model — my half brother, twenty years my senior and the father of three grown children.
“Help your cousin unload the car,” I’ve heard him say to Ethan. Or, “You and I are going to wipe down the boat.” Without a word Ethan always complied. It had to do with Steve’s manner — his relaxed but expectant tone.
Not long ago, I told Steve I admired this about him. I think I said I’ve learned a lot from him about parenting. I hope I did. I hope my compliment was fresh on his mind.
Steve died of pneumonia a month ago. It was very sudden. My nephew called me from a hospital in Nevada on a Sunday night to tell me Steve had been admitted and that it didn’t look good. My brother was sedated so we couldn’t speak to him. He passed away that Wednesday without regaining consciousness. Last week Ethan and I flew to Nevada for his memorial service.
When I say Steve’s death was sudden, that’s only a partial truth. He had been battling cancer for the past nine years. He’d had tumors removed from his colon, his stomach and his lungs. Recently they’d found spots in his brain. I lost track of how many surgeries and chemo treatments he went through. His torso looked like a road map. Through all this, he lived like life was an art form. He tooled the west on his Harley. He went camping. He fell in love and remarried. Doctors were amazed. One, upon meeting Steve for the first time said, “So you’re Superman.”
Whenever Steve called to tell me of a bad blood test or a new tumor, I felt awful. It meant more treatments, more interruptions to his vibrant life. But at some point I stopped thinking it meant he would die anytime soon. After you’ve seen Superman dive into battle with ruthless villains three or four times and come out victorious, you don’t exactly come to expect it, but something inside you shifts a little, some vigilance relaxes.
“I can’t say goodbye to him?” Ethan asked when I told him Steve wasn’t going to make it. The stunned feeling I’d been carrying around was mirrored back to me in Ethan’s eyes. I thought of all the times I’d gotten busy and put off calling my brother. The times I let so many weeks go by, he’d leave a message on my voicemail asking if I was mad at him. Now, all I wanted was one more conversation. To hear his voice. To tell him, thank you.
Live in the moment. This is one life lesson I really want to impart to Ethan. I learned it best by watching my brother bite into a thick pastrami sandwich from David’s, the one Jewish deli in San Francisco; from going with him to pick out a t-shirt for Ethan, his excuse to check out the tempting new gear in the Harley shop; and from sitting beside him on a car trip with the windows open while he played and replayed Credence Clearwater’s Lodi.
“What are the poor people doing today?” Steve liked to ask as we tore around Donner Lake on his motorboat.
When I first heard him say it, I was appalled. I glanced at four-year-old Ethan, his head tilted back to feel the spray on his face as we sped along. Vacation days like this were a gift. I didn’t want Ethan to feel entitled to them. I didn’t want him feeling superior to anyone. At the same time there was something delicious about my brother’s irreverence. Eventually, I came to realize that he meant the poor in spirit, those who hadn’t yet figured out that life is for the tasting. Once I understood that, I wanted nothing more than for Ethan to take it in.
I’ve been on the back of a motorcycle twice in my life, once when I was nineteen with a boy whose name I no longer remember and once a few of years ago with Steve. We zoomed through the desert, all dry pink hills. I held onto Steve’s shoulders and thought about how solid he seemed, how rooted to this world. The heat and the unchanging landscape lulled me into a daze, but then I was shocked to attention by a sudden ribbon of electric blue. As we drew closer it became a creek with a few nearby picnic tables. We stopped there to talk awhile, our conversation drifting from our family history to raising children, music, love, heartbreak . . . It struck me anew how wise Steve was. As we sat looking out at the thin strip of water, I remembered calling him when my marriage ended. He’d listened while I cried long and hard. “Let it out, baby. Let it out,” he said, which was exactly what I needed from him. Then there was the time he called me, tired and scared about being so sick. On the first try he miss-dialed my number, which ends in 911, so the police came to his door. He had to hang up and call me back because he was in his underwear. Back on the phone, we both laughed. Despite the age difference, the time difference, the distance, we’d managed to become one another’s 911.
But that afternoon in the desert, neither of us needed emergency assistance. We were together on a gorgeous day and we both felt happy and well.
When it was time to head back to Steve’s house where Ethan waited with his cousins, I hesitated. He’d been lobbying for a ride on Steve’s bike, but at eight, he was still too small. I didn’t feel like getting drawn into an argument. Ah, but my brother was with me, the master of clear and calm when reasoning with kids. I took one last look at our lovely little creek then climbed back on Steve’s bike, resting my palms on his warm shoulders.
“Steve?” I said, before the roar of the motor could drown out my voice. “What do you suppose the poor people are doing today?”