Thanksgiving hasn’t been the same since my brother died

November 2017

Dave died at the end of November, 2012. He was 76 and had been dealing with congestive heart failure for more than a decade. He said he was surprised he outlived our father who died at 70 from lymphoma.

Dave was six years older than I was. When we were kids and our father’s mental illness made him unavailable, Dave did his best to take care of me and our youngest brother, Bob, who was two years younger than I.

In our tiny back yard, Dave ran a sports arena. When he and his friends (he called them “Willie, Humbo and Mackie”) weren’t engaged in a hard-fought game of half ball, he taught us how to hit that cut-up rubber ball into the house with a cut-off hockey stick; how to play basketball with milk cartons for baskets; and the rough and tumble game of hockey with no ice and a hard rubber ball. We even did some football and soccer, but the yard was too small.

Dave liked to make the rules and change them in the middle of the game. He also wanted to be the umpire so he could always win. But I never felt that he was competing with us. I was always glad to be in his presence and to play anything he was willing to play with me. I admired my big brother and felt very loved by him.

As we got older, the games moved inside in winter. When I got into junior high, Sunday night was game night. My friends would come over and we would play Risk, race slot cars, flip handles on a hockey game, roll the dice in Monopoly, and deal cards for Bridge or Fan Tan. Our mother would make scrambled eggs and popovers and we would all stop to eat.

Sunday nights went on while I was away in college. Our mother encouraged them because she was worried Dave was becoming reclusive. When his friends started dating, he didn’t join them. He would sit in his room for hours rolling dice and studying chess (he became quite good at it).

My mother was an incredible woman in many ways who found a way to support her family despite serious agoraphobia; and she loved her kids very much. But I think she inadvertently exacerbated Dave’s inherited generalized anxiety disorder.

I recall one upsetting incident when Dave wouldn’t attend a Boy Scout meeting at our church across the street. My mother was so upset, she put on part of his uniform (she looked ridiculous) and threatened to go in his place. I remember her standing at the front door while he begged her (begged) not to humiliate him. I was appalled.

I think in the end that my mother panicked when Dave retreated from part of the world, but she didn’t know what to do, and Dave was left to figure it out for himself.

All things considered, including the mental disease that ran in our family, Dave did a reasonably good job. He worked his way through college; got enough credits for a bachelor’s degree (although he lacked enough for a major); became a computer operator and later a COBOL programmer; married (in his mid 30s) the first woman I ever saw him with, a good woman who cared for him even after they separated later in life; had a son he adored; and, like his father before him, struggled with either unipolar or bipolar depression.

I think Dave was bipolar because he sometimes worked for weeks without any significant sleep, and he decided he could support his family by using credit cards to win the lottery, a plan that drove him into bankruptcy.

Through it all Dave remained connected and loving to the family. He helped my mother in her waning days, and always stayed close to me. He was always solicitous of my welfare even when he had his own problems to deal with.

Some of our conversations, many of which took place on long phone calls, were loud and contentious. In the family tradition we argued loudly over politics, medicine, psychology and history. The last time we three brothers got together with our father before he died, the four of us were in the kitchen talking (we thought) when my sister-in-law came in from the TV room and asked us to stop yelling so the rest of the family could hear the TV.

Dave was a student of history, and concocted some wild theories, the most bizarre of which involved President Truman working for Stalin! Another of his theories, which I rejected loudly, involved 52-year cycles, which he traced back more than a thousand years. History repeats itself, he argued, in a predictable way. Today, my older self has come to think there was something to what he said. I wish I could tell him.

I miss those arguments, and I miss our more personal discussions about health and family and kids, all conducted at normal volume. I miss my big brother!

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