First loves. There’s the first kiss in a darkened basement of a boy-girl party in sixth grade. That feels like love.
There’s the first real “let’s go do something together as a couple” date. That feels like love, too.
There’s the first night together when you wake up in the morning and you realize that you have no desire to undo the night before or sneak out and this person you’re laying naked next to is so special that your heart needs an entirely new vocabulary. That feels like love, because it may well be.
This first love is not like that at all. This first love is not giddy. It is not gleeful. It is not blithe and exuberant. This first love is sad and melancholy and wistful.
This first love is the first time someone you love passes away.
In many ways, I am, at 56, a very fortunate man. My parents are well. Whilst I understand that at 80 and 84, I could lose them at any time, my parents are healthy and sharp of mind. My wife and son are well. My son, at 22, is handling his move from adolescence to adulthood with far more aplomb than I anticipated. My sister is successful beyond belief. Of late, I see her smile far more frequently than I have for many years.
It is my brother that I miss. Michael died on December 14, 2012. He was killed by a fiercely virulent strain of oral cancer. I’ve lost other people in my life – my grandparents, my cousin Laura when I was twelve, my college buddy Jack, my good friend and colleague Al – but there’s no death like the first time a loved one dies – the death of a first love.
Michael is my baby brother. As it is written, the younger shall bear the brunt of the elder’s abuse, yet no one else shall be allowed to lay a hand upon the younger. When he was thirteen and I was sixteen, we were in an argument in the kitchen. I shoved him. He landed on the open door to the dishwasher. Somehow, the door did not get ripped off. It did provide Michael with a bit of a diving board rebound effect. As he popped back up to vertical, he grabbed a handy milk crate and sent it whistling towards my head at a reasonable and admirable velocity. I ducked. The dent it put in the drywall twelve feet behind me remained until my parents re-did the kitchen years later.
So ended our years of fighting. I realized Mikey was pretty damn tough. I wouldn’t find out how freakin’ tough until thirty-five years later when he went fifteen rounds with the squamous cell cancer that invaded his tongue and mouth.
Because he was my younger brother, I teased the crap out of him. Just the same, I was inordinately proud of his accomplishments. He worked for years as the soft goods manager at one of the Top 100 golf shops in the world. He was responsible for a huge budget – the buying and marketing of a vast array of golf clothing and accessories.
His employ also came with perks for me. Free range balls. Huge amounts of grief and free lessons on the practice tee from the store’s staff. As Michael’s older brother, possessed of a highly tenuous grasp on golf skills, I had a large target on my back. I wore it with pride.
I’d pop in to hit a bucket of balls on their practice tees. He’d be in meetings with his staff which would dictate policy on six and seven figure accounts. He’d give a listen to sales reps desperate for fifteen minutes of his time, because those reps knew that prime access in the store and on the website could bust a product into the golf world’s top ten. His success in the wildly competitive world of golf retail made me glow.
We enjoyed one of the great ironies of our lives together in that the more successful he became in his career, the worse his golf game became. With little time to practice, his game nosedived. This meant that for the last few years of our lives together, I was able to beat him. Not that I got any better, mind you. He just got worse.
He’d hook one so deep into the woods that not even a GPS would help. Standing baffled on the tee, he’d pause and say, “Listen. Hear that? That’s the sound of another 100,000 golf balls being stamped out. Oh, and hear that? That’s a dozen reps lining up to give me another dozen golf balls.”
Two years later, I miss my brother. Perhaps you’ve heard guys say, “Man, I love him like a brother.” I’ve had guy friends about whom I’ve said that. True enough, when one of them dies, the grief hits hard, but it passes, and your life goes on. When your brother dies, the grief hits harder, lasts longer, and recoils into your brain at the most inexplicable moments. The grief becomes wistful, and melancholy. It lingers.
Michael and I talked about being alte cockers (Yiddish for old farts) together. We’d sit on a porch with Rolling Rocks in hand, and argue about the best way to get from one part of town to another, just like our grandfathers did – “Sam, nobody takes that way anymore, I’m tellin’ you…”
“Ach, you’re full of crap, Carl!”
And we’d watch our grandkids playing catch.
That’s not going to happen. First love, damn you.
If you want to read about my brother’s heroic battle with cancer, go to my personal blog Rants & Mutters, and search for “Michael.” He was awesome. You’d have liked him.
© David Stanley
David Stanley is a voice-over artist and writer, a musician, teacher & science geek, a coach, skier and bike racer. He writes on the oddities of life, sports, kids and education. You can read him at Dads Roundtable, The Good Men Project, or at his personal blog, Rants and Mutters. Follow him on Twitter @DStan58.
Part 3 of an essay series on First Love.
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