Sunday, August 12, 2018

Because that was Gary

Around 3 a.m. yesterday, as we huddled in a family counseling room full of dirtied tissues and red eyes, the conversation made it around to Facebook. To me, it wasn’t real yet- the fact that my 40-year-old brother was gone, his body in the next room- it still isn’t.

A few years ago, my siblings and I discovered that one of our uncles had died via Facebook, so my sister very quickly issued a request to the stunned group mourning my brother. We decided to give it a day, to make the calls we needed to make before anyone posted anything about his death to Facebook.

Dealing with death has always felt to me like a very strange contradiction. Everything around those moments, those days, after you lose someone is always simultaneously a blur and a strangely, detailed, moment-by-moment slog. I will now always remember the midnight phone call from my sister telling me he was gone, followed by dressing quickly (and forgetting to brush my teeth), an hour drive to pick her up, and another hour to the hospital. It didn’t seem to like we were going to see my brother’s body. For two hours, we just assumed we were going to figure out what the heck was going on, and how my brother, who would inevitably be apologetically hanging out in the ER, had managed to so badly mangle a Friday night that his wife somehow thought he was dead.

But he wasn’t apologetic. This forty-year-old man, who had less than a week prior been golfing with friends and planning a trip for his one-year anniversary, was gone. And I resented that we even had to discuss when the news would flow onto people’s Facebook feeds, along with the dog photos and requests for recommendations and other inane activity that seems to trite in comparison.

Six hours later, my sister-in-law’s sister (so I guess also my sister-in-law?) was calling to tell me, among many other details, that our conversation was for naught. The local police blotter had posted information about the ambulance call that took my brother to the hospital, and some of the younger employees at the restaurant where he worked had identified him and his wife by name in the comments. I muttered much profanity, and we rushed through our last calls so we could post the information along with a request that people stop flooding his grieving wife with phone calls.

I spent most of the day railing against things- crappy maternity clothes options for a funeral, some work stuff that was requiring a lot of detangling before I could take some time off this week, and mostly how ludicrous it was that people couldn’t respect privacy or the dead and keep information off of Facebook. Last night, though, as I tried to sleep, I scrolled through the comments on my wall, my sister’s wall, and my brothers. I stopped railing. I smiled, I cried, and I gawked that the number of people posting their own tributes to Gary.

I also realized something- I didn’t really know my brother as well as I thought I did.

In our cramped “family counseling” room at the hospital, my sister-in-law had apologized as she told her family that she knew my sister would take it harder than I did. I told her not to apologize, it was simply true. Gary was my big brother, and I loved him, but he was my sister’s good friend. I never had the kind of relationship with him she did. All of the Facebook posts drove the truth of that home, and filled me with regret that I had never tried harder.

I come from a family of five. My dad and brother are a lot alike, and share some personality traits that I struggle to understand. I guess I should say were… they were a lot alike. Shit. That is going to be hard to adjust to. Either way, they both keep their emotions near the surface and were quick to anger and quick to forgive and forget. Gary was non-confrontational always. I used to wonder if he just didn’t notice behavior around him that would make me crazy, but when you got him talking, he absolutely did. He just wouldn’t ever address it.

I’m more like my mom was- my feelings are there but I keep them deep and don’t like people seeing them. I might get annoyed, but making me truly angry is quite a feat. However, once I am there, I am not quick to calm, forgive, and forget. I don’t like that about myself. However, I do like that I will tell you to your face if I am upset, generally calmly, so we can talk it out and move on.

I wonder if Gary thought of me like a robot, too logical, too cold, and too in-your-face. A week ago, I wouldn’t have cared. Now I do.

My sister is the only one that bridges the gap between all of us successfully. She is more pragmatic, like me, but her feelings are on the surface. She can’t handle confrontation at all, but moves on from anger too quickly usually for it to be necessary anyway.

And so Kara knew our brother. She knew the side his friends saw, the side I was aware of but didn’t experience often. She knew the generosity there, how liked he was, and how broad his social net was. I guess that’s another way we were just different- most of my friends I’ve known for 20 years, because I making new friends doesn’t come easily to me. For Gary, it was as natural as breathing.

As I scrolled through last night, Gary’s loss started to become real to me in a way beyond just realizing he was gone, that he would never again pass out on the couch immediately Thanksgiving dinner or show up with a bizarre potluck contribution that you couldn’t help but smile at and then eat. I lost my brother, and I lost the opportunity to know him better.

If I am being honest, I was mad at him, my slow burning kind of mad. He was a very involved uncle to my sister’s three kids. He planned ahead and took off for their birthday parties, took them trick-or-treating every year, and knew what they were interested in. He missed both of my son’s birthday parties, hadn’t seen him in eight months, and most recently skipped a cook out my sister threw us to celebrate the impending arrival of our daughter. All the love and generosity he showed his vast social network didn’t apply to my kids, and as a protective mom, I was pissed.

I know there are a lot of factors. He lived 20 minutes from Kara, and 90 from me. Kara’s kids are older and easier to form those relationships with. And, Gary and I just weren’t as close, so I couldn’t, and didn’t, have the same expectation of effort with my son. I knew part of it was on me, but I was still pissed.

And yet, all of that vanished when I looked at his body on the gurney. Gary could do that- you could want to throttle him, and then he’d made some joke or shrug something off in a way that would have you laughing and forgetting about how annoyed you were.

I saw this so clearly last October when he got married. Gary was so excited about this wedding, as w
e all were. He worked tirelessly to plan it, despite the glaring obstacle of Gary being very, very bad at planning things. And so, after the rehearsal dinner, Gary asked if some of us could spend “20 minutes or so” setting up for the reception. He directed us to the massive venue with a vague explanation of how to get in, didn’t account for the need to get 11 of us through security before we could set up, hadn’t organized the tent cards, didn’t have a plan for what we were doing, and on and on. His “20 minutes or so” ended up being nearly 3 hours. As a mom of a toddler, every extra minute was one less I got to spend alone in a hotel room, which was a rare treat I had been looking forward to.

But, try as I might, I couldn’t really get mad, because every time I started to, I would look over and Gary would be busting his ass to make everything perfect. I would notice the ten other people that got roped into that set up clusterfuck were all just going with the flow, laughing with him, because they understood that this was just Gary. He worked so hard on that wedding, on making it a day that would make Connie happy and be memorable for his guests. And it was.

After the wedding, we were all rehashing stories from it, and I was floored again by how he just knew people. We could mention anyone, even using the smallest detail, like the color of their tie or their hair cut, and Gary could instantly tell you who it was from among their nearly 200 guests. He had a story for all of them. Because that was Gary.

That was the Gary I will never get a chance to be closer to. He was my brother, and I loved him, and I am heartbroken, but the best side of him was one I didn’t know or understand well enough. That was the Gary that filled Facebook last night, driving home to me that losing someone isn’t just losing what they were in your life- it is losing what they could have been.


  1. Gary was an amazing man. I am so sorry for your loss. I want you to know how wonderful you are and that I understand your relationship with him. I also know that he loved you very much. Hugs.

  2. My thoughts and prayers are with you all at this sorrowful time.

  3. I’m so sorry for your families loss! I’ve known him since he was a teenager. Prayer and my condolences! Debbie Hamman