My Brother, Still
When my brother was a boy, he loved to leave pennies on the railroad tracks up the street from our house and wait for the freight train to flatten them as it zoomed by.
This scared my mother to death. I don't know that she ever found a flattened penny in the pocket of his jeans or heard it rattling around in the clothes dryer. More likely, she got regular dispatches from the neighborhood gossips reporting for duty.
Every so often, I'd hear her yell his name and order him to stand in front of her — "Right this minute, Mister" — for a lecture about the violent death awaiting him at the tracks.
I was six years older, and watching Chuckie's face as Mom described his inevitable dark fate was the peak of entertainment for a teenage sister who loved her brother. God, that grin of his. Mom idolized her only son, the baby of the family, and he knew it. We all knew it.
I once wrote an essay claiming that, after having three daughters, my parents hired a marching band to welcome home their newborn son. "Connie Marie, that is not true," Mom said after it was published. "You know we didn't have that kind of money back then."
I think about Chuckie's pennies on those rails every time I hear Bruce Springsteen's song One Minute You're Here, which is often. It's on his newest album, Letter to You, and of course, I bought it the day it came out. As I taught Chuckie at a young age, Bruce is proof that our people have poets, too. Knowing that helped me believe I could become a writer. Chuckie, when everyone but family knew him as Chuck, once told me that Bruce helped him make sense of life as much as anyone could.
"I lay my penny down on the rails / As the summer wind sings its last song. / One minute you're here. / Next minute you're gone."
There it is. Damn, Bruce.
This is the eve of my brother's birthday. He would be turning 58 if he hadn't killed himself in the summer of 2019. Like so many people who've lost a loved one to suicide, I've discovered this final fact of his life comes with a grief that has no expiration date.
I was one person before. I am someone else now. That's not a complaint or a plea for sympathy. It's just another fact of life.
I know I'm not alone. Nearly every week since I first wrote about Chuckie's death, I've heard from someone else who has lost a loved one to suicide. Sometimes, it's so soon they can barely find the words. Other times, it's been years, and they still feel the torment of the unanswerable whys.
As I wrote soon after Chuckie's death, he was so much more than how he died. Earlier this week, I was rifling through stacks of old family photos and came across three Polaroids of Chuckie when he was 13, the age now of my oldest grandson.
He is sitting in Dad's recliner, which means our father wasn't home. In two of the shots, Chuckie is holding both of our dogs, Shilo and Sheba. His smile is biggest, though, when only Sheba is in his arms. He had rescued her from the streets and defied Dad for months by hiding her in the garage and in his room until Mom finally brokered the truce that let her stay.
Sheba was his first love, the first of many rescues. That was his heart, always. That is his heart, still.
In this last year, I've thought so often of Chuckie as this pandemic has ravaged our country. Before decades of alcoholism caught up with him, Chuckie was at the top of his game in pharmaceutical sales. He loved educating doctors and the public about medical breakthroughs.
In his last year, he had lost everything that mattered to him. But I keep thinking that, if only I had convinced him to hang on (I know, I know), he would have found his way back somehow, when so many medical professionals have come out of retirement to save us.
Chuckie could have helped us. My brother could have made a difference. I believe this. I guess that means I believe in him.
That is my heart, still.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, The Daughters of Erietown. To find out more about Connie Schultz (email@example.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com
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