Requiem for an Older Brother

Even from the warmth of my kitchen table, looking out the window on another day of blowing snow and a driveway that needs to be shovelled (again) I am reminded that it is still January. Five years ago this month my older brother Michael died.
He was a diabetic and a drinker, not necessarily in that order. And it is ironic that I was at a hockey game watching my oldest son playing in the Gatineau Midget Tournament when I received the bad news. “Still partaking in jock-like activities, are we?” he would have said. Seriously, he really talked like that.
In fact, he was the only one in the family who wasn’t a jock, and he prided himself on it. The rest of us would imitate how he would throw a baseball, and then fall on the ground laughing. It was great fun. In rebuttal he liked to recite his view of jock-talk: slow, mono-syllabic and full of profanity. Then he would laugh and I would punch him in the mouth.
He was the first of three family members to die in the space of slightly more than a year, and I am still probably suffering the after-effects. “I think you need counselling AND medication,” my wife will often tell me after one of my moody comments.
Michael’s eulogy was my test-case in the writing of such things. I finished it in the car on the way to his funeral and then read it out loud to my wife and kids, pleased as punch with my version of what I saw as the often-misguided life of a teasing older brother. Their assessment of my eloquence was both instantaneous and outraged. “You can’t write that,” they sputtered in indignation. “You only write about the good things.”
“Yeah, but…”, I sat back in my seat and pondered the thought. Eulogies had often seemed false to me. Every version that I had read had painted a picture of a latter-day saint, close to Leonardo da Vinci in their accomplishments and to Mother Teresa in their good works. And then I looked out at our real world. Oh, that’s why it’s in the shape it’s in. All the unselfish, over-achieving souls have died off, leaving only grasping, greedy morons to screw everything up. The truth is that my brother was an authentic original, a true character who left an impression on everyone he met.
He was the smartest of us four kids, a trait of which he never tired of reminding us. He was sociable and eccentric. In the early days of suburban Montreal, when the original residents of the village of Beaurepaire would have to wander down to the post office to pick up their mail, my then three year old brother would often make the trek with my father and engage the locals in conversation.
“I see you’re smoking your pipe tonight,” he would greet an older gentleman who would be smoking his pipe every night. “Do you know that might cause tongue cancer?”
No. Really. From the time he was old enough to absorb and then read he became a walking encyclopedia, especially about things medical. And he loved to flaunt his knowledge. He used to drive my down-to-earth and sensible mother bananas. “You better never take up drinking, Michael, because you talk enough already,” she would proclaim in exasperation at his latest episode of unsolicitated advice, as he called it.
Even as young children we display character traits that die hard. Michael starting self-medicating before that term had even been invented. My father would look for his bottle of Eno to soothe an often-irritable stomach, only to find that his eldest twelve year old son had downed it in one sitting because he liked the bubbly concoction. “You’re a weirdo,” I would tell him. “That’s not normal.”
However, he did become invaluable in treating the scrapes, bumps and bruises that were an inevitable result of an active baby-boom family in the sixties. Michael wanted to become a doctor, but an aversion to old-fashioned study prevented his acceptance to medical school. Once again my practical, hard-working mother stepped in with some sensible advice. Given his love of all things medical, the job of an orderly in a hospital might be a satisfying alternative. “Mom wants me to spend my life pushing around the piss cart,” he raged at what he considered the insult. He settled for an engineering degree from McGill and then a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Toronto. He made a lot of money, moved from Montreal to Toronto to Winnipeg, then to London, England and Paris, France with his wife and later on, three children, but he always seemed misplaced in his line of work. He should have become a doctor and to replace his desired role of writing prescriptions he took up his old habit of self-medication. He moved from twenty cups of coffee a day, to twenty Diet Cokes, to I-don’t-know-how-much vodka. He was also a Type -2 diabetic, the by-product of a lifetime weight problem.
I’m no brain surgeon or medical doctor, but even I know diabetes and alcohol are dangerous playmates. It didn’t surprise me when we got the call from my father, slightly more than a year before his own death.
But even now, as I write this second requiem, I can’t help but smile at his foibles, our battles and an imperfect life lived. We shared a lot of laughs, and even now when I say something humorous, using three big words where one short one will do, someone in my family will say, “Michael said that, didn’t he?”
And his memory always leaves a smile on my face.

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