Blue Birthday Alternative

Today would have been my brother’s 78th birthday. He died in April, 2015. For much of his life, he was a troubled guy who left heartache in his wake. But for me, at least in our youth, he was a loving big brother who was on my side, lots of fun and very smart. He had the most astonishing ice-blue eyes. I always think about him and how life can turn out so unexpectedly rotten. While growing up together, Fred felt, for the most part, like he was glad to be intimately connected to our family. But something about him was always a bit off. I could talk with him about history and books. He was generous when he had money but his choices were always impulsive and slightly irrelevant as if he was missing part of the big picture. He didn’t seem to care much about nature except for pets. He had beautiful tropical fish tanks which one would’ve thought would be somewhat meditative but he usually stared at them in a depressed state rather than a peaceful one. He lived as a materialist until his emotional problems disrupted his earning power. I guess I’d say that whatever was his center was hollow. Mental problems are complex and certainly rooted in our physiology. I don’t understand all that happened with my brother but I know the solace I find in the natural world eluded him.

My younger sister, my brother and me.

There were family gatherings which were warm and fun. We sang at many of those after sharing a meal. Our traditional songbook included tunes passed down from our parents like “You Are My Sunshine,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” all of which had harmonies suitable for people whose vocal ranges spanned varied octaves. Those were the good moments.

Fred in his late teens

I don’t know everything that made Fred who he became but I know his abandonment by his high school love devastated him. He followed her to California when they were college freshman. Unable to persuade her to come back to him, he dropped out of school and joined the Air Force for four years. Upon his return he floundered around, looking for a job that would hold his attention and someone to love. I was fifteen when he decided to marry a beautiful but much simpler person who was simply the wrong match for his increasingly complicated behavior. Their marriage lasted long enough to produce three daughters while Fred was clearly unhappy, ill-prepared to parent anyone and still pining for what once was years before. His erratic behavior was awful for his wife, his kids and everyone else. When he was manic, he wore all of us down. When he was depressed, he was a suicide threat.

Fred kissing Michael at our rehearsal dinner, 1976
Fred and my sister-in-law visiting us, 1977

Eventually, his marriage fell apart and Fred wound up in a relationship with a significantly younger woman. They married and stayed together until his death. She was a naif, a product of an abusive, broken family who was loyal to my brother who’d evidently saved her from an unimaginably hard life. I still don’t know how she managed to survive his complicated, challenging behavior. As for him, he was filled with self-loathing about his failures. I felt that as he lived a hermetic life with few social contacts, far away from family in Las Vegas, a move I’d advocated to protect us from his intensity, that his mind atrophied from lack of intellectual engagement. I didn’t see him often after 1986 as his energy diminished along with his self-esteem. He passed through my life a few times and I visited him once out there but we fell away from each other. A sad ending.

When my mother died, a few months after Fred, she didn’t know he was gone. Sometimes thoughts of him would break through her dementia and she’d wonder why she hadn’t heard from him and still hoped that if she could just talk to him, she’d help him straighten out his life. I was my mother’s power of attorney. She’d also always said she didn’t think she could survive the death of one of her children. Although there was disagreement within our family, I insisted that we protect her from that ultimate pain. The idea of having that overwhelming knowledge drift in and out of her fragile memory seemed cruel. I took most of her last possessions, including some photos, to disperse to everyone. I often stare at the ones of my brother, a beautiful innocent little boy, before darkness took over his life. I’ve now outlived both my parents, Fred and Michael. I don’t suffer from darkness although of course I feel sadness and grief. Darkness is a different matter than those feelings. I know how to achieve solace and comfort. I can lift my spirits by finding the small bright spots in every day. So on this anniversary of Fred’s birth, I’ve decided to send out some of those bright bits to wherever he is in the universe. I wish they could’ve helped him through his life.

I hope they relieve a bit of darkness for someone besides me.

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