It was just another warm Southern California morning when my cell phone rang. The caller ID read "Bruce Miller"—my brother. I had not spoken to him since a conversation we had in early September that ended in us arguing about the merits of President Trump. Bruce had voted for him and, nine months in, was still a staunch supporter. After hanging up in anger, I thought if I never talked to him again it would be just fine. In fact, we had been estranged off and on for the previous 25 years, so non-communication didn't faze me. "Gary, it's Bruce," he said, his voice sounding very weak. "I'm calling to say goodbye."
We grew up in 1950s Brooklyn. Our "house" was a three-room apartment, with Bruce and I sharing the only bedroom while our parents slept on a Castro Convertible sofa in the living room. He was my big brother by 11 years and I idolized him. His love for rock 'n' roll and sports became my love. By the time I was 7, I knew the names of every player on every New York team and the lyrics to every song by The Platters. He was the father I never had, because our actual father was oblivious to the notion that they need to do more for their sons than just putting in a hard day's work.
"What's wrong with you?" I asked.
Then came a string of barely audible words: hospital … five weeks … colostomy … infection. "I'm not gonna make it," he said quietly.
As the adrenaline rushed through me, I struggled to find some words of encouragement. "You have to make it. The Yanks just got Stanton. We're going to win the World Series." His silence spoke volumes to the gravity of the situation. "Bruce, you know I love you. I always have," I said, trying to compensate in one moment for all the times I should have told him those words but didn't.
"I know," he replied softly. Then he hung up. It was the last time I would ever hear his voice.
I remember the day he entered the United States Army. He was 18 and I was just starting third grade. We were up at dawn and reading the latest Superman comic book, compliments of Fanny's Soda Shoppe, where he worked part-time. That's why I got free egg creams while other kids had to pay the ten cents for theirs. I didn't want the morning to end because when it did he'd be off to Fort Dix and be gone for two long years. Our country was between wars, so I wasn't worried about his life—I was worried about mine. Who would play catch with me in the alleyway? Who would teach me the words to "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes? Would I have to start paying for egg creams?
Estrangements can often be a package deal. Ironically, even though my brother and I had communicated periodically over the last two decades, I hadn't spoken to his wife once in all that time. Maybe that was the reason she never alerted me to the fact he was deteriorating in a Spring Hill Florida hospital for over a month. When I reached her, I did not go into a "why didn't you call me" rant. Any feelings of anger I felt toward her took a back seat to my concern for my brother and empathy for what she might be going through. She methodically gave me the details of what had occurred without a hint of emotion. I tried my best to squelch any judgmental thoughts and asked her for his patient code.
Bruce did come home occasionally on leave from the Army. One time, I was sitting in Fanny's, drowning my sorrows in an egg cream (that I had to pay for) when he walked in and surprised me. He was in full Army uniform and looked like a movie star playing a soldier. Six foot two and very handsome will do that for you. I ran to the jukebox and in his honor played "I'm Just a Dogface Soldier" by Russ Cochran, the song I had played many times in his absence. That night, he went out to a local bar called the Pink Elephant and got pretty wasted. My parents were asleep when he returned but I had waited up for him. He headed straight to the bathroom and I watched as he got the "spins" and threw his guts up. It was so great having my big brother home again.
The patient code provided me access to his medical information. The prognosis was grim. The only chance of combating the infection attacking his body was another operation. However, in his weakened state, the expectation of him surviving the surgery was minuscule.
Miraculously, he did. Momentarily, there was hope. But then, his organs began failing and he was put on life support. His wife made the decision to take him off the ventilator the day after Christmas, with a funeral three days later in a section of the cemetery reserved for military and family. I booked a flight to Florida.
As I left childhood and became a man, I began to see my brother's many flaws, which rocked the foundation of my early idol worship. I had put him on a pedestal and, eventually, he came crashing down. I guess I could list the many conflicts we had; the disappointments that contributed to the emotional separation between us over the years. When isolated, they seem justified. But the finality of death obliterates their significance, making them meaningless, almost trivial. There's a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song that rings true: "Now all those things that seemed so important / well, they just vanish right into the air." Indeed.
I waited outside the Spring Hill Florida Holiday Inn for the Uber that would take me to the cemetery. When the driver arrived, he was wearing a New York Yankees cap; one of those coincidences that seem more than just a coincidence. I used it as the opening to the impromptu eulogy I gave at graveside to a small gathering of Bruce's immediate family and friends. I spoke about love and time lost, which may have been somewhat cryptic to the strangers I was addressing. But I wasn't saying it for them—I was saying it for me. A short time later, the American flag draping the coffin was presented to his wife and children. Then, my big brother was laid to rest.
I used to go weeks, sometimes even months, without as much as a thought to my brother. Now I think about him every day. If only I had done that when he was here.