My brother Joe would have turned 50 today and last month marked the 30th anniversary of his death. He was only 19, a month from turning 20, when he died. He has been gone 10 years longer than he lived and I have lived my life almost twice as long without him than with him. Today, I am 28 years older than he was when he died. Impossible for me to reconcile, because no matter how old I get, in my heart and mind, he is still my big brother.
Our siblings are part of our identity. Growing up, they are the witnesses to our lives and are the people we know, and who know us, better than anyone else. My twin brother Grady and I are the youngest in our family, we were born with two older brothers. The only world we knew was with Cliff and Joe. Our bonds which began circumstantially, became part of our being. We depended on each other for teasing, support, fun, arguing, generosity, selfishness, secrets, betrayals, physical violence, protection, and a union for or against our parents. These dynamics were confusing to my parents who were both only children; they simply could not understand how you could be threatening someone with a butcher knife one minute and then going outside together to play catch the next. Lucky for us, we loved and liked each other in equal measure. Which is why when Joey died, the loss created an agitating insecurity as we all struggled with the repositioning in our family. Only now, 30 years later, have I come to understand that we didn’t, or couldn’t, reposition ourselves at all. We have spent decades trying to adapt to the holes in the nucleus of our family. The first created when Joe died and again nine years later with the passing of my dad.
I can vividly feel and see how Joe would walk into a room jiggling his car keys, front pockets of his jeans slightly turned out, oxford shirt mostly untucked, dark curly hair a halo around his head, green eyes twinkling with a huge smile on his face. He had a great sense of humor; he was usually laughing about something: his energy kinetic and warm. If he wasn’t entering a room talking or laughing, he would have been humming and drumming Seeger, Clapton, Springsteen or another Classic Rock artist who met his approval. A great music enthusiast, he read the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” cover to cover multiple times. A “guide” intended as reference material was a feast for such a trivia buff and voracious reader as he.
Joe was my mentor of many things, but especially music. “Robin, there will be no B96 played in this house!” I desperately wanted him to think I was smart and cool. So, I obediently listened to and learned to love classic rock. But only after we had a couple of disco parties at the neighbor’s house where all three of my brothers stood on the street holding up Steve Dahl posters, made by my brother Cliff, chanting’ “Disco Sucks! Disco Sucks!”
Joey had this way of teasing me and making me feel better at the same time. The summer between 6th and 7th grade, one of my closest friends and I ended up with the same bathing suit. She was much thinner than I which caused me a bit of angst. Joe’s response was, “Oh Robin she will look like a little twig in it and you will look like a NICE. PORK. SAUSAGE!”
Joe and I shared sturdy statures and a great fondness of food; of course, a pork sausage was appealing to him, but none of the girls photographed in their bathing suits on the pages of “Seventeen” magazine resembled pork sausages! Even so, I felt better.
I definitely was not as intellectually curious as Joe was, few people were, other than EVERYONE else in my family. I leaned more toward physical pursuits; dancing and working out, my appearance, my peers, and thumbing through fashion magazines. This was troubling to Joe. So, one summer he spent a lot of his free time following me around reading aloud from “Time” magazine. His frustration grew as I stalked around rolling my eyes and sighing. So, he made me a deal. He said he would leave me alone if I could name the presidents of the United States backwards starting with Ronald Reagan. With a lot of coaching we got back to Herbert Hoover. “Come on Robin, he’s served more terms than any other president!”
I replied, “Wasn’t he the one who was married to Marilyn Monroe?”
Exasperated, Joe froze, looked over his glasses through the tops of his eyes and said, “President DiMaggio Robin? President DiMaggio!”
We didn’t get any farther, and I now understand that he was trying to get me to say FDR.
Joey loved music as much as he loved books. When he turned 16, he drove my mom’s hand me down, two door, V8, rear wheel drive, Oldsmobile Delta ‘88. He had a boom box he kept in the front seat plugged into the cigarette lighter and about 200 cassette tapes loose in the front and back seat. Every time he turned a corner the tapes would slide one way or the other thrashing around, not that we could hear it, the music was too loud. Lucky for Grady and me, Joe drove us to school every day our freshman year, which meant we didn’t have to take the bus. We did however have to ride in the back seat because Joe also drove two of his friends to school. Every morning we would climb into the back seat and Joe would drive us to school talking, singing, air guitaring, drumming and fishtailing the entire way. We arrived at school nauseous, bruised and slightly hard of hearing, but extremely grateful not to have to ride the bus and able to walk into school with our brother who was a senior; another example of the dichotomous manner our siblings look out for us.
Joe read constantly from the time he was about 2 and knew more trivia than anyone. He loved sports, especially major league baseball, and was a sport statistic fanatic. Instead of playing sports in high school he competed on the Academic Bowl team, was the announcer for the varsity girls’ basketball team, served as student council vice president, was a little league umpire and wrote for the underground newspaper. Wise beyond his years Joe possessed a revolutionary outlook on his establishment. He revered men and women who fought for the underground, underrepresented, under privileged and underserved. He had a profound interest in current events, the human condition, and our environment. In fact, when he died, we set up donations to Greenpeace in his name. He was able to perform uncanny impressions of Jesse Jackson and John Belushi and loved an audience. At the same time, he knew how to make people feel seen. With his gregarious charm, he connected with people easily. It’s that that has remained with us. I am proud to say that in the years following his death, I have received many notes and emails from people with whom he connected.
Of course, I have tried to age him along with us. I just can’t seem to do it. I can’t make him older than he was when he died, just as I can’t make myself older than he ever was. It’s okay, as my brother Cliff says, I think I’ll leave him right where he was; because he was pretty cool.