The Gifts…

Shortly after my baby brother, Mark, died on April 6, 2016, I reached out to my friends.  Brian Loose gave my nephew’s fund an extremely generous donation and then took the time and effort to retouch a faded photo of Mark as I will always remember him.

I keep this photo with me everyday.  On some days, the grief overwhelms me.  I want to hear his voice.  And darkness closes in. And then this photo brings me back from the abyss.  Brian’s simple act of generosity and kindness has kept me moving forward.

I am also grateful to the gift of music and friendship of Danny Hudson.  Yes, he taught me how to drink Jim Beam and hold a grudge against the asshats in our middle school.  He also imparted a sense of honor and recklessness and courage that were/are truly unique and admirable.  However, his enduring gift was introducing me to the music of Rush “Subdivisions” and “2112”.  The band’s music became something I shared with Mark through his adolescence, taking Mark to concerts at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Two months before he was diagnosed with cancer, Mark took what little money he had and bought us nosebleed tickets to R40 at The Palace.  He called me and told me, “It’s my turn to take YOU to see Rush!”  The concert was in June of 2015.  I told him I would be there.  I hung up and found second row seats, front and center.  They were pricey, but I couldn’t wait to see his face when we got there.

With her boys…

Unfortunately, our mother was put into hospice and died of lung cancer on April 26, 2015.  We had a few sweet days with her, but they were never going to be enough.  After mom died on Sunday morning, Mark was bereft.  He was grief-stricken, as he held the side of his face and complained about his “toothache”.  The next day he was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer.

To buoy his spirits a few weeks later before the chemo and radiation started, I sent him copies of the tickets and told him we would be close enough to see Neil Peart’s sweat.  Mark was ecstatic.

The day came, June 14, 2015.  We made it to the main floor.  Mark’s eyes where wide.  He spotted Randy Johnson, the famous World Series pitcher for the Arizona DiamondBacks, and yelled out, “Big Unit!”  Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded at Mark.  Johnson was there as a photographer and a friend of Geddy Lee.  Mark was beside himself with the chance meeting.  And then the concert started.

 

All I can say is that EVERY expectation Mark had (or that I had) was blown away.  Rush kicked it…hard.  When “Closer to the Heart” came on, Mark put his big bear arm around my shoulder and squeezed me tight.  We sang together.  He turned to me and whispered through his tears, “Thank you, big brother.”  I knew that moment would be on our highlight reel.  For most of the concert, Mark held his cheek and suffered with the pain.

Fast forward through the chemo, radiation and surgery.  My sister, Laura, and older brother, George, cared for Mark, while I cared for my dad who was dying of Alzheimer’s.  I visited Mark on the Christmas break and bought him a Microsoft Surface, so he could write messages to me and everyone else.  The surgeons removed his tongue in a vain attempt to save his life.  Nevertheless, we went to the movies and laughed together.  Lots of big bear hugs and barely audible “I love you’s” through radiation-swollen cheeks.

I returned to Arizona January 1, 2016.  I got a call from the memory care facility as I was leaving the East Economy Lot at SkyHarbor.  The nurses told me that Dad was going to pass in the next week or so.  I went to see him.  I hugged him.  He looked at me with vacant eyes, and then a light went on.  Dad said, “You’re my son, Stephen, and I love you.”  And then he asked how Mark was doing.  Dad died the next day on January 2, 2016.

Mark’s death was drawing near at the end of March.  We all knew it.  Laura witnessed an awful hemorrhaging incident that almost killed Mark instantly.  George and I took over and kept a vigil at Mark’s bedside for days.  We both slept in the room next to him.  We played his favorite music (Rush, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones) and told him crazy stories that kept him in stitches of laughter.  He typed on the Surface tablet that he wanted fewer visitors.  When everyone left, he pulled me close.  He pulled out a piece of paper.  He wrote simply, “I don’t want to die.”  All my days of being a brave, supportive BIG brother came crashing down.  I held him in my arms–the little that was left of his large frame.  He was burning with fever and pain.  I sobbed.  I told him, “I don’t want you to die either.”  It’s all we could say.  And we knew that “wanting” wouldn’t make any difference.  Months earlier, Mark had e-mailed me where he wanted me to bury him and that he wanted me to do his eulogy,  because I “had so much experience.”  It was a stinky little brother joke, and we laughed.  On April 4, 2016, Mark became non-responsive.  Two days later, after a desperate fight to hang on, Mark died.

I gave his eulogy:

A few months ago, when my brother’s cancer took a turn for the worse, we had a serious “big-brother-little-brother” e-mail exchange. I urged him to make some plans. I told him that, in law school, I learned one important fact: if you sign a will, you will live to a ripe old boring age. If you don’t, a cartoon piano will drop from the sky on you. We never did get to that will, but Mark made other important decisions.

Among them, my little brother asked me to honor him with a eulogy. He joked that I had had a lot of practice recently. Such was the nature of our relationship. Playful and light-hearted to the very end. Mark met every moment, every challenge with humor and a sharp wit. He never failed to make me laugh.

However, I know that—in this moment—you will forgive me if the laughter has died on my lips.

But, his laughter lives on in my heart.

You see…Mark was a gift to us all. And he was deeply loved by his family.

His sister, Laura, practically raised him the first four years of his life and helped him get through the chemo and radiation. This is the protective and loving big sister who cleaned, decorated and furnished his apartment so he came back to A HOME after his surgery. Thank you, Laura.

Mark is deeply loved by his brother, George, who also helped him with the chemo and radiation and hospital issues. More importantly, George was Mark’s kindred spirit, providing levity and laughter. They leaned on each other during the dark hours. They kept a vigil through this cancer nightmare. Thank you, George.

Anna, who also deeply loves “Marky”, handled all of his accounts and insurance issues. She knew Mark practically all of his life, and, if you know the woman I affectionately call the “House Elf”, you would not be surprised to learn that she did EVERYTHING humanly possible to comfort and care for her brother-in-law. Thank you, Anna.

Mark is also loved by his other sister-in-law, Melissa, my wife. She never forgot his birthdays. Melissa never let holidays pass without gifts and notes of love and remembrance. Mark appreciated you more than he could ever say—he was overwhelmed by your generosity and thoughtfulness. Thank you for being with me today, and, thank you for showing my baby brother love and kindness when he felt forgotten and alone.

And I do not have time to mention Mark’s many friends—all of whom found comfort, protection and loyalty from this gentle giant.

I leave myself last.

Mark was a special gift to me. I am redeemed by my brother’s loving example. I am redeemed by his warmth and gentleness. I am redeemed by his intelligence and laughter. Mark and I couldn’t resist being irreverent and making light of the things that life threw at us. We loved all of the same movies. We could practically read each other smart alec comments like thought bubbles above each other’s heads.

Two days before he died, my brother still tried to make me laugh, making funny faces and obscene gestures.

We will all miss Mark’s hugs. Believe me. When Mark hugged you—you stayed hugged!

But, we are all flawed. And eulogies that attempt to re-write history or perpetuate lies are a dishonor to the one we have lost.

It should come as no surprise that Mark made mistakes like the rest of us. However, he never compounded those mistakes through arrogance or pride. Mark owned his mistakes. He learned from them. More than that, Mark was quick to forgive all things, suffer all things and allow his heart to lead him back, unerringly, to the righteous path. And that path is called love.

Mark’s love was never more clearly manifested than the young man he leaves in our care: Thomas Portell, Mark’s only child.

Tommy, to you, I say simply this:

We are your family, and you are not alone. You will never be alone again. You will feel the echo of your father in our laughter, our hugs and our love for you. We cannot undo your loss, but consider you Mark’s lasting gift to us, your family. You are Mark’s perfect expression of love in this life. You are treasured by us all.

Now, if Mark could speak now, he would deflate my considerable ego with a whispered “wrap it up” from the first pew.

So, I will.

I honor my brother today with a simple truth: he was a far better person than I could ever hope to be. He showed me how to live a life rooted in tenderness and kindness. As Christians, we are exhorted by St. Paul to be ambitious for the higher gifts but warned that the highest, the most urgent, the most important gift is love. All other pursuits are vanity in the absence of love.

My brother knew this. Mark lived this powerful truth. Mark loved you all. He loved me.

Please pray with me today that God will accept Mark with boundless love. And I will struggle to be a better person in a world that needs more people like my brother, Mark.

And that eulogy was the gift I tried to give back.  And the words continue to haunt me.  I want to be better, but my anger and grief are crushing burdens.

So, I answer the grief with the two things my baby brother taught me: kindness and gratitude.  Thank you, Brian.  I keep that photo close by.  Thank you, Danny.  I play the music we shared.  Most of all, thank you, Mark, for being the best little brother you could be and teaching me all of things I needed to know about the gritty and unforgiving ways life will test us.  And how you rose above it all without arrogance or pride (like I would).  You did it simply and lovingly.

I am humbled and unworthy of these gifts.  I will try to be a better man.

Peace & Love,

STP

P.S.  “The Garden” is the song that reminds me the most of my baby brother.