These lyrics are so very appropriate this day.
When you’re the fifth of five boys, you grow up accepting certain things. You’re always ‘little brother,’ no matter how old you get; no matter how how tall you get, ever if taller than the other four; no matter how big you get. With a couple of my brothers, I truly outweigh them.
In the case of my brother, Stephen, there was not merely size and height, but also a rather large expanse of time between us. How much time is there between us? Let me put it this way: technically, we’re both part of the Baby Boom, but Steve was in the first stroke of the first ‘B’ in ‘Baby.’ Whereas me, I’m the little dot after the ‘m’ in ‘Boom.’ That’s the other thing about being the youngest, it means there comes a day when you say goodbye to a sibling.
My brother Stephen succumbed to cancer. Five has become four. My mind carries back, across the expanse of time, to my dimmest earliest memories of our lives together.
I know that our truly earliest time is too early for me to recall. I always smiled and laughed when dad or mom would speak of how Stephen used to take me for walks as a means of meeting girls. Back then, all it took was a smile from a baby to get teen girls swarming and Steve was good at exploiting that rule.
Later, what I remember was gone. As the oldest, he was grown and on his own before I made it to grade school. Stephen did go out, as in out of the country! Off to Mexico and – true to form – he found a way of making something.
Stephen lined up a little cottage industry, literally. First, he rented some cottages on one of the sunny beaches of Mexico. Then he hired local women to cook and clean the places, and he intercepted people on their way to boring vacations in standard hotels, inviting them out to his beach homes.
A few drinks, his favourite was Jose Cuervo Gold, grapefruit juice and three lime wheels, he’d engage in some happy chatter and fun in the sun, and make his pitch. “Hey, how’d you like to stay here? I’ll rent it to you cheap.” Took all of about two minutes to convince most people; in no time he had the places rented.
Stephen brought in a tidy sum. He would have loved to build it into a true business, but that would have required permits and government approval. This was not Steve’s style.
When he came home, he brought a ton of clothes from local shops and tried to sell them out of the house. Yeah, always wheeling and dealing. He also gave me a woven Mexican vest. I loved it so much, I wore it to school the next day!
Yet, he didn’t stay long. His next journey took him to just about the most opposite place imaginable: Alaska! I remember pictures of him on the porch of his cabin outside of Fairbanks; he looked like the Abominable Snowman, he had a beard that stretched to his waist.
In Alaska, Stephen lived off the land for several years. He even had himself a little gold mine. When he returned home, again, he brought a small sack of actual gold nuggets.
He’d also hunted quite a bit, he had many animal pelts and he tried to sell them; yes, another deal. Stephen showed us slides he’d taken of the wonders of Alaska; they were stunning. I always looked forward to his visits; they meant the world to me, as they meant we were destined for something interesting.
Stephen took us to Anthony’s Pier 4, in Boston, for dinner. This was my first big fancy dinner. I’d never seen a wine steward before.
Finally, he heard the ‘call’ that all Robinsons know: the Island. I guess Martha’s Vineyard is as much a part of our family as any person. Maybe we should call her the sister we never had.
At any rate, Stephen bought a small colonial style place and settled down. He was finally a regular part of my life and he introduced a ‘radical’ element: hugging.
Being a New England family means being stoic and stiff is practically a given. Yeah, it’s a stereotype, but hey, stereotypes exist for a reason. He changed that in our family and I always loved getting a hug from him. Every one of them was yet another way of saying, “I love you.”
I wish we’d hugged more.
One summer, Stephen rented his house and thus needed a place to live. He stayed at the cottage with our dad and I. Oh, now that was a great time! We hung out, shared meals and had fun. We saw some great movies. ‘Broadway Danny Rose’ was one of our favourites. Afterwards, he told his friends about the movie; I did an imitation of the title character, which made Steve roar with laughter.
Stephen had rented his house to a bunch of college kids, but he covered his bases, he got names and numbers for every student, parent and school. I helped him clean up after they left. We never did figure out what the black mass embedded in ice in the back of the freezer was, but I suspect it was a new life form that evolved from a mixture of Chinese food, pizza and fish. I also walked out of there with about twenty dollars in pennies.
Then Steve found love and married Linda. This added new joys to our summers. We’d go out to dinner or a movie, stay in to play Mexican Train and share good times and good food. I will cherish those memories forever.
Of course, Steve wasn’t perfect. After all, he was a man, which, as any woman will tell you, meant he had his faults. He could be a bit frugal and then spend too much, he often didn’t return phone calls and he was definitely a Mr Know-It-All. As a friend told us, “I didn’t know there was a right way to open a door, until I met your brother Stephen.”
I also remember his strength. Dad could be a bit difficult. Steve and I had to sneak the trash out of the cottage while he was asleep! We’d load up Steve’s Volvo with as much junk as possible and he’d ferry it off to the dump.
When cancer struck, Stephen faced it with strength, determination and humour. The initial surgery went well, but the doctors didn’t get it all and, thus, we knew it would return someday. We had hoped that return would be longer away, well into the future.
Stephen and cancer taught me there is nothing as meaningless as the phrase, “I thought we’d have more time.” When he fell gravely ill, our mother, quite naturally, raced to his side with two of her five sons coming along. I was unable to go and instead sent a letter that tried to convey my feelings.
We chatted via FaceTime, Stephen and I. The first thing he said was that he loved the letter. At that moment, I was taller than a mountain and stood among giants such as Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dumas.
I don’t care about meaningless drivel like the Pulitzer, Newbery or the New York Times Best Seller List. I gave my brother a gesture of love and, in that moment, I was a great author. If I never publish another book, if I never sell another copy of any of my works, it won’t matter.
Stephen nourished my soul. I shall be a better man because of it. Now, when I’m writing and I find my strength waning, I’m tempted to flip on the television or play a game, I hear his voice whisper in my ear, “Life is too short to waste on silly stuff. Stick to what’s important and get to your writing.”
I found some words. I have no idea who wrote thee words, but they give me comfort during this difficult time.
“The tide recedes, but leaves behind bright seashells on the sand.
The sun goes down, but gentle warmth still lingers on the land. The music stops, yet echoes on in sweet soulful refrains. For every joy that passes, something beautiful remains.”
It’s been a long day without you, my brother, would that we could spend eternity in an endless summer on the Island. Until we reunite, in the next dimension, give my love to Dad and Grandmother and Grandfather and keep the dominos handy.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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