I’ve been thinking a lot about death this week and for a number of very good reasons. At my age, which I will deny under oath, you get used to seeing your idols and cultural icons pass away. You are less sanguine, but ultimately resigned to losing family members who are older, and classmates from schools past. But, OK, in my 74th year, I have been pummeled from all sides by loss.
This week, saw the loss of a crucial member of my absolutely favorite musical group, Crosby, Stills & Nash. I am a sucker for just about everything they did, and the prickliest member of the ensemble, David Crosby, passed away a few days ago as I write this. According to “Hotel California” a fantastic book about that whole 1970’s, Laurel Canyon music scene in LA, the three of them were attending one of Cass Elliott’s reputedly legendary parties when Steve Stills sat down to play a song. They were all in different groups, Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies and the Byrds, at the time. Crosby and Graham Nash sat down as well and chimed in on the song. The ethereal harmony that was created left them all looking at each other wide-eyed, and the seed was planted. They knew a partnership was inevitable. They couldn’t leave that kind of magic on Mama Cass’s living room floor. And don’t talk to me about Neil Young. That reedy warble never belonged and never worked for me. So now, they’ll have to continue with only Stills, Nash and Santos, according to what I’ve heard.
Last fall, by chance, I learned my college sweetheart, and the finest actress I ever saw, passed away from cancer. Her career took her from Broadway to regional theaters around the country and always to rave reviews. It had happened five years earlier and I never knew. It is somehow strange to think you have assumed someone you were once so close to was living their life in New York, and actually, it ended there years earlier. Shock doesn't begin to describe the feeling.
One of my favorite uncles, and now that I think of it, my last, died in 2022. He was the last link to my mother’s family. It struck me that when that happens, as it did on my father’s side years earlier, it places an entire generation in the archives. It's an argument for getting all the family lore and anecdotes from them and down on paper before it’s too late. I did that with my Grandmother before we lost her, and I still have her original notes. She was a high school teacher in Little Rock during the integration violence in the 1950’s. Here was someone who could tell you what it was like in first person, inside the school. I may never write about it, but then again, I might. She was a progressive, Presbyterian woman in the middle of, outside of Viet Nam, the greatest struggle of our generation. And she told that story to me. It leaves you with a certain obligation.
I’m writing this on Monday, January 30th, and my sister’s husband died today. Dennis Peters was a longtime railroad engineer, Viet Nam veteran and father of 3 children. They were married for 50 years, and in all that time he was plagued with periodic tumors of the brain. They finally forced him into retirement and he underwent an operation a week or so ago, that was to have resolved the worst of them for the long term. But that was not to be. The recovery simply wasn’t, and his condition deteriorated until today, they decided to pull the plug. Ironically, my sister had to make the same decision back in 1997 for my dad as my mother simply couldn’t bring herself to do it.
The anguish of losing a parent was illustrated by a Facebook post from his daughter, my niece Amanda...
MY DADDY’S GONE!!!! WHAT AM I GONNA DO!?!?!?! I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS!
I lost my dad in 1997 and my mother in 2008 and I recall talking with my sister and telling her, “Well, we’re orphans now.” None of you ever knew them, nor was there any reason to. You have lost parents and ultimately, we all will. My daughter will lose me one day. None of us is getting out of here alive, but it still is a shock to the system.
And finally, the one that has hit me hardest. My baby brother, and I still thought of him that way, died at the end of the year. And here was the true object lesson for me.
There were four of us siblings in my family, three boys and a girl. My sister and I were two years apart, and my next brother came 12 years after me, and the final brother 6 years after that. My mom had a number of miscarriages, and frighteningly, even tried what we later learned was the deadly drug, thalidomide, until blessedly my brothers were born with no problems. So, there was a big age gap that even forced me to remind my brothers they didn’t have to call me “sir.”
Steve was the youngest, and the most naïve and innocent of us all. Oh, he did his share of crazy in his youth, but grew up to be a big, bald, funny, kind of goofy galoot. He was clever, and often times hilarious; so much so that I hired him as an on-air producer when we started the first FM talk station in Houston. He was funny then and remained for my daughter her “crazy uncle Steve.”
But, here’s the lesson I want to impart. When we sold the station, we all went our separate ways, and Steve pursued another career path. My other brother Bill started a family of his own on a great place in the country, and my sister Laura lives in Little Rock. We stay in touch sporadically, wish each other a happy birthday on Facebook, maybe place a short call at Christmas. “How you doing? What’s up? How are the kids?” But it’s all superficial and frankly, cold.
What none of us knew was that Steve was having problems. He was lonely, drinking too much, and ultimately had a bad car wreck that landed him in the hospital and cost him his job. And apparently, he never really recovered from it all. He was the kindest of us all and had become a virtual father to a young girl who was the child of a former girlfriend who had died. In many ways he was the only dad she knew.
We siblings knew nothing of all this and Steve’s spiral downward. Due to the residual injuries from the accident, he was having trouble finding a job he could hang on to. I gather the drinking continued and finally the day after Christmas, I got a Facebook message from his surrogate daughter’s grandmother saying Steve had left their house, his phone was disconnected and they didn’t know where he was. She knew his brother was in TV and radio and tracked me down.
We filed a missing person’s report and called everyone we knew who might have some idea of his whereabouts. Turns out he was back in his old apartment, which he could no longer afford, thanks to the generosity of his old landlord. And sadly, right after New Year’s Day, that landlord opened his door and found Steve dead.
We have not found out the cause, and the medical examiner’s report is still being compiled, but suicide does not seem to be the case, at least apparently. He had some health issues that might have been contributors, but to me, the main cause is neglect. I live in a big old house in east Texas and he could have stayed here if I had bothered to ask more during our periodic conversations. Turns out my other brother had offered to let him stay at his home in the country until he got his life together, and had actually loaned him rent money unbeknownst to the rest of us.
But the truth is, and it’s embarrassing to admit, I never bothered to ask. My baby brother was in trouble, and I didn’t know. He was in need of help, and I never inquired. I was so caught up in my career and family, that my most gentle and in many ways, innocent sibling was drowning in problems, and I never knew.
The three of us paid for his cremation and I plan to spread his ashes on my parent’s graves as I think it is the most appropriate place. But this has sparked new communication among the 3 of us who remain. As I write this, I just had a long and light-hearted conversation with my brother. It's the most we have talked since his wedding. I walked in and told Karen, “I think I have reconnected with Bill and it feels good.” I am commiserating with my sister over her loss today and it is the most we have talked in years.
I suppose the point is, we separate, get involved and lose touch with those with whom we shared a goodly portion of our lives. Or maybe it’s just me who is callous enough to not keep up with my family. Either, way it is an object lesson.
There’s a moment at the end of one of my favorite Christmas movies, “Scrooged” with Bill Murray. It is reputedly completely ad-libbed and the most un-Murray speech you can imagine. It's about rediscovering the joy of Christmas and kindness, but I am reminded of it as I think about my attitude before my brother’s passing, and now.
No doubt, most of you are better people than I am and I don’t need to remind you of this. But for those self-absorbed schmucks like me who need it, please trust me on this one. You will regret not staying close to those you love, or claim to love. Because forever is forever, and there will come a day when you can’t tell them you’re sorry.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.