Several months ago, I wrote about tearful teenagers attending a funeral service for a classmate and encouraged them to embrace the memory of a sad time because along with it comes many happy memories.
I found myself needing to listen to my own advice last week when my brother Bill shockingly and unexpectedly died.
My only brother.
My only sibling.
As my wife and I sped mile after mile on the 12-hour drive to the eastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula last Monday, I thought about this sudden and unfillable void in my life.
Thankfully, memories of happier times with my brother slowly pulled me temporarily away from the sadness.
I remembered sitting on the front porch of my parents' home on James Street in Adrian, Mich., with my brother, cousin and neighborhood friends casually debating how to spend another summer day. Should we play baseball at the nearby school? Should we ride our bikes to Island Park and spend the day exploring in the woods as Army commandos? Or should we just walk to the corner grocery store and buy bottles of RC Cola, some pretzel sticks and more Topps bubble gum and baseball cards?
I remembered the winter day, years later, when Bill led me out to his garage and there, completely disassembled, was his Corvette. Why? Because he had wondered if he could take his pride and joy apart and put it back together. Thanks to meticulous notes and a step-by-step stack of Polaroid pictures Bill reassembled that Corvette ... with no leftover parts.
I remembered all the days we spent together on golf courses from Myrtle Beach to Drummond Island in the Upper Peninsula where one fairway is bisected by the airport runway and many points in between. One of his favorite courses in our younger days was Evergreen in Hudson, Mich. It was a very pedestrian public course and I never understood why Bill liked to play there so much. He finally told me.
"Remember how my drive on the third hole always went into the gully to the right? That was intentional because you couldn't see me and I could tee it up and use my driver again," he said with a laugh.
I remembered the day Bill likely saved my life as I stood in the tenth fairway at the Cadillac, Mich., Country Club unable to breathe after hastily trying to swallow a big bite of a hot dog. Bill recognized my predicament, ran over and gave me a sharp whack between the shoulder blades. It wasn't the Heimlich maneuver, but it worked.
I remembered the day I was married and Bill was standing next to me as my best man, and I remember being the best man at his wedding, because isn't that where brothers belong?
I remembered Bill dropping out of Adrian College after one semester and going to work in the GM plant, where he lasted long enough to secure his union membership before being drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. He returned to work at GM plants until his retirement, and earned a college degree in business along the way.
I remembered Bill moving to the Upper Peninsula when he retired to be closer to his son, and getting involved in economic development for DeTour Village. He quickly became a proud, and vocal, "UPer" (pronounced Yoo-per).
I remembered him describing an encounter with then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm at an economic development conference. "She held up her (right) hand and proclaimed, 'This is Michigan,'" Bill said. "I went up to her afterwards and said, 'No, governor, this is Michigan!'" as he put his left hand above his right hand.
And I will always remember the memories I carried away from his funeral last Thursday.
The painful one is no matter how prepared you think you are, seeing the body of a loved one in a casket is overwhelming. And the finality of watching the casket being closed is even worse.
The second memory is much more pleasant and will be retold at family gatherings for years to come.
I was sitting in my son's vehicle, two back from the hearse, as the funeral director and his assistant placed funeral flags on all the vehicles. The funeral director walked past my son's vehicle on his way back to the hearse, turned around, came back and asked me, "So, would you like to drive the hearse?"
"Would you like to drive the hearse?"
"Sure ... come on."
Getting out of my son's car I thought this was the most bizarre invitation I'd ever heard. But as I settled behind the steering wheel in the hearse I realized he was giving me a very private and special opportunity to say goodbye to Bill.
"Thank you," I said repeatedly to the funeral director, as I blinked away a few tears.
On the brief ride from the church to the cemetery the funeral director talked about sensing when he can ask the "Would you like to drive the hearse" question and when to say nothing. We shared a few laughs to lighten the mood, and he saved the best line until I had parked the hearse at the cemetery.
"Now," he said with a smile, "you can say you drove your brother to his grave."