My Big Tree

My brother was an old soul who knew what was important. It was never the destination, it was always the journey and the company.

My brother, Mr. Popular

According to my brother Reid, he coined the phrase, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." He swears it slipped out of his mouth one day, caught on and spread like a wave at a baseball game. To his dying day, he swore that was his and I believe it because my older brother Reid was one of the most popular people I've ever known.

Chicks dug him, guys wanted to be him, children climbed on him and dogs licked him. Reid was one of those natural charismatic people who could have started a cult if he had a snake. The yang to the world's yin.

In high school, he had his own posse who came in and out of the house in small to large clumps and usually did whatever he told them to. Fortunately, he was a kind old soul and his ideas were sweet-hearted, like his slate blue eyes. He knew what was right, and he asked for it. He led the Kent State protests at our high school, initiated the dress code sit-in and started the family protest when Mom tried to feed us tuna casserole two nights in a row. "No," said Reid. We all folded our arms. Enough was enough.

I grew up in his shadow, like a mushroom reaching for a larger life; he was older, smarter, wittier and of course thinner.

He taught me to aspire. We were raised very competitively and whether it was a game of monopoly, a match of wits, or a hand of poker he was always the one to beat.

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About four years ago, he called me from Georgia to tell me he had stage IV throat cancer. My first thoughts were that he would beat it, because he was just that special. He was also a positive-thinker who knew you could create your thoughts. As the year pedaled on, it was clear that the chemo wasn't working and his doctor told him they were out of options and to grab a fishing pole and enjoy the rest of this life. Reid didn't like to sit still so much so he continued fighting, praying, visualizing and intending.

One day, on the phone, I asked him if he were dying and he answered with that same smug, "We're all dying, Deborah. The minute you're born, you begin to die." The first time he told me that, it ruined my week—I was five. I could hear him shrug over the phone, as that was his go to for the obvious. His shrugs carried the consciousness of a thousand ancestors. "Yes, we're all dying, I'm just going on ahead of y'all." There was usually a punchline at the end of Reid's sentences, so sometimes you'd wait. But this day I waited a long time and we eventually hung up.

I threw myself on my bed and sobbed like a child, couldn't catch my breath, couldn't stop my blubbering—motorboat crying, I call it: blub,blub,blub, blub. I was weeping for all the sadness of my entire life. We'd already lost a lot of people in our family but this one was going to be tragic. I couldn't imagine a world without him, he was my oldest friend, my protector, my snake charmer. He held my memories in the palm of his hands, like a pair of dice. And there were many, many people who were going to be devastated; wife, children, grandchildren, nephews, brothers, cousins and friends—my god, so many friends.

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A few years before when he was healthy, he called me to tell me he was having a mid-life crisis: marriage issues, money problems, everything was going in the wrong direction down a one-way street in reverse. I urged him to come have his crisis on me in California, so I could help. It's a rare thing to get to spend a whole week with Reid and he was also hard to help. He had moved to Georgia 30 years before, so our visits were limited and always full of people, just the way Reid liked it. I relished the thought of having him to myself.

I live in Los Angeles and my brother had always wanted to see the "big trees," as he called them with his adult onset Georgian accent. We headed up the 5 freeway towards Yosemite so Reid could behold the Sequoias. Ten minutes into the trip, he told me to pull over.

"Why?" I whined.

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"You're the worst driver I've ever seen."

"You taught me."

"This is an intervention."

So we swapped seats and he drove to the big tree-eees. He was starting to get on my nerves the way he kept stuffing that extra diphthong into trees so it sounded like "trays." I think he twanged a little extra to annoy me. He'd left Jersey in the late '70s moved to rural Georgia with the belle who won his heart and within one year returned sounding like he dropped out of a peach tree. Moss was practically dripping off of his attitude. We were appalled at his every "Y'all" and "fixin' to" but that's what made Reid so special. He fit in wherever he went.

As we got to Yosemite, it had begun to snow and rain simultaneously. Fog was shrouding the precipitation so you couldn't be sure what it was, but something was coming down like mad. It was like we were inside a snow globe, trapped, cold and powerless but we had mittens and we were together, so we were safe.

They had begun shutting down some of the entrances to the park, so we quickly pulled up into a redwood grove and trudged the soggy trail to the grove of trees. We stood a few feet in front of the biggest redwood we could find so Reid could see his "trays." The tree was 2,000 years old—eternal, really.

There was nobody around and we smiled at each other through the blizzard. I headed back to the car to get warm and when I turned around to hurry him on, I saw him unzip his pants and spray some of his Georgian cider on a redwood!

"You redneck! That's disgusting!" I shouted.

"What? It's just a tray."

He was always right.

I was heartbroken for Reid—visibility was 1 percent, but he didn't seem to mind. He always had an easy does it attitude. He was an old soul who knew what was important in one's day, it was never the destination, always the journey and the company. To him, we were Yosemite. He couldn't have been cheerier, noting he hadn't seen snow like that since we were kids back east. It was one of the best days of my life.

The next time I saw my brother, he was dying. I know, we are all dying but he was dying first and he was dying soon. After a brief family gathering, where we all got to say our last words in New Jersey, he headed back to Georgia and hospice was called in within a few weeks.

I got the dreaded call from Ginny, my sister-in-law, to come to Georgia "pretty qu-ick," so I did. I arrived at LAX late and harried and they couldn't fit me on the plane. I started blubbering to the gate stewardess. "I have to get on this plane. My big brother is dying." The stewardess stiffened and said, "I'll get you on a plane. Stop crying, you're scaring people."

I arrived at the Savannah airport where I was met by the deputy sheriff, one of Reid's many friends from his small town of Swainsboro. He drove 95 mph with the siren on the whole hour to get me to my brother's bedside before he died, which he did with 12 minutes to spare.

Like his life, his deathbed was packed with people. I was just one of many who loved him, the older brother to the world. Reid knew I loved him, so I didn't need to remind him of my love as he was leaving. Instead, I whispered in his ear, "You come find me. You find me."

Now, I'd always hear stories about pennies from heaven. Dead people move small objects to let you know they are still with you. You might, for example, see pennies lying around that shouldn't be where they are to get your attention. Those are pennies from heaven. My boyfriend says, "Why don't they leave hundreds? That would get my attention."

After the services, I flew home to Los Angeles and the next morning, I got into my car and noticed something shiny stuck in the gear shift plate. It was a pretty new penny, lodged within the zigzags of the automatic shift plate, right by gear three (which one doesn't use on an automatic). I tried to pull it out, but it didn't move. I couldn't figure out how anybody got it there—it didn't fit and it wouldn't budge. What the hell?

I don't keep pennies so I knew there was no way they could have fallen into the slot—anyway, it didn't fit! I couldn't have put it there if someone held a gun to my head. I sat dumfounded in my garage, staring at this penny until a feeling of warmth came over me. It came to me who had gotten it in there so I smiled involuntarily as I started up my car.

That penny is still wedged in my gear shift plate. I see it everyday and smile every time I see it. It's dirtier, worn, but it makes me feel snow-globe safe.

Sometimes I touch it and say, "Hi Reid." Maybe it just was his way of letting me know that he didn't need to find me, because he would always be with me, today and tomorrow, which is indeed the first day of the rest of my life.

Or maybe it was just his way of reminding me, every single day, what a lousy driver he thought I was.

Tags: family