I suspect that I’ve touched on this before in the course of more than a decade of writing blogs, but some things bear repeating. Last night, while watching TV I saw a sign for Hermosa Beach, and that was enough to send me wandering down memory lane and thinking about my brother, Jim.
I grew up in a family of seven kids, where natural alliances and rivalries formed. The three older girls, what my mother referred to as “the first batch” consisted of my two older sisters and me. Janice and Jeannie were six and four years older than I was. When we were young, they palled around together and regarded me as little more than an unwelcome pest. After we were grown, that dynamic shifted and a stronger bond formed between me and my next older sister.
Between me and my mother’s “second batch,” there was another four year gap with two years separating each of the younger kids from the next one. They paired up, too, Arlan and Jim; Gary and Janie. Too young to hang with the older kids and too old for the younger ones, I was a perpetual outsider. I’ve often said that being in the middle of that eight-year separation meant that in a family of seven, I was an only child. It also turned me into an observer and a reader which eventually turned me into being a writer.
There were six years between me and my brother Jim. The two of us were pretty much oil and water. The apple of our mother’s eyes, he was bright as a copper penny. As far as I was concerned he was also an obnoxious, arrogant brat. (I’m sure my older sisters would say the same about me!) Smart as he was, he dropped out of college his freshman year, worked in the woods in Oregon for a time, and then went to Vietnam. Eventually the two of us buried the hatchet, and for a time in the early eighties I was his district manager in the life insurance industry. Not long afterwards, however, wanting to be closer to his children, he left Phoenix, returned to our home town, and signed up with the fire department.
As far as I can tell, he did a bang up job of being a first responder. He rescued a guy who had electrocuted himself on one of the radio towers on top of Juniper Flats. He saved the life of a little kid from Naco, Sonora, who had gotten his arm stuck in a sump pump. Jim managed to get the governors from two states—Sonora and Arizona—to allow fire equipment from the US to cross the international border in order to save the boy’s life. I remember Jim telling me that only when the kid had been loaded into an ambulance to be taken to the hospital did he have to sit down because his legs would no longer support him.
In June of 2001, Jim took his new wife and stepdaughters along with his beloved grandson on a vacation trip to California. There, while swimming in the Pacific off Hermosa Beach, he got into trouble in the water. A life guard raced into the water and brought him out, but Jim could not be revived. The fireman who had saved so many others could not himself be saved, and despite being in what was thought to be top physical shape, he died at age 50 of an undiagnosed heart ailment.
If you die of seemingly natural causes in Los Angeles County, you need to take a number and get in line as far as autopsies are concerned. We went to Bisbee expecting a funeral to happen almost immediately but then had to wait for several day with one foot in the air before his body could be released for transport. When they finally brought him home, people lined Tombstone Canyon as the hearse came through town. Jim’s funeral was held in the auditorium at Bisbee High School. The venue holds eight hundred people, and it was full to the brim that day. By car it’s probably close to two miles from the high school campus to Evergreen Cemetery. By the time the first vehicles reached the cemetery, there were still cars trying to leave the school parking lot.
At the cemetery, we heard the bagpipers play Amazing Grace and for the first time ever, I heard the traditional Last Call. Months later we would all bear witness to that ceremonial last call in the aftermath of 9/11, but hearing it for my brother stuck with me. And after the funeral, in a truly loaves and fishes miracle, everyone went to a nearby firehouse and all were fed. In case you’re wondering, In Damage Control I fashioned the fallen officer memorial for one of Joanna Brady’s fictional deputies after what I learned at Jim’s funeral.
Last night, though, what struck me is that it’s been not quite twenty years since then. Today Jim would be sixty-eight years old. He didn’t get to see that beloved grandson of his grow up. He didn’t live to see his daughter earn her Doctorate in Education from ASU. He didn’t live to see his daughter-in-law die in a tragic car accident. And he missed the deaths of both our parents. It had been his presence in town that allowed the folks to stay in their own home for as long as they did. Once Jim was gone, they had to move into assisted living.
And so, this morning, because of that sign seen in passing on a TV program, I’m thinking about my brother. Jim and I were never the best of friends, but I miss him.
And now you miss him, too.