I sat plopped on Carol’s overstuffed sofa, surrounded by gigantic pillows. My hands cupped a thick earthenware mug filled with hot coffee and two creams. Across the living room sat my sister, Carol, perched on her favorite spot, a reddish-brown and somewhat glossy leather recliner. We were chatting and once again focused on the memories from our distant past.
Carol is my oldest sister and a full 15 years my senior, yet we had the most similar childhood experiences. These were contrasted by my sister Nancy, my dad’s favorite, and my brother Dave who my mom pampered.
Our conversation turned to my brother, Tommy, 13 years older than me. Tom was the quiet one in our family. He was over six feet tall and with a husky build; he was dark in complexion, with jet black hair and a masculine persona. I don’t have a single negative memory of Tom. Well, that would be a lie as I have many negative memories. However, they have little to do with Tom, the person; they center on other things.
I woke up in shock. My heart was racing, and I was sweating profusely. I felt nauseous. It was 2:30 in the morning, and the harvest gold wall phone in the kitchen was ringing incessantly. Instinctively, I jumped out of bed and felt a dizzy head rush that almost made me collapse to the floor. I lurched forward, making it to the small hallway between my room and the kitchen beyond. I froze, unable to move as if a giant forcefield was pressing on my shoulders. I couldn’t take a step further. I couldn’t be the person to accept the call. It was not meant for me.
My mother, Anne, rushed past me wearing an old and somewhat tattered nightgown. I could feel the heat from her body as she brushed me. Within seconds I heard her wail, “Oh no, oh God no, please God no!” I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. As usual, I had to be the strong one, the one in control. The dreaded phone call had finally come. My father, Ed, stumbled in. He was silent as he slid past me and into the kitchen. He also knew without asking. We all knew before the phone ever rang.
My brother Tommy was my oldest brother. Darkly handsome, with a dry sense of humor and an ability to write funny stories. I don’t have a lot of memories of interacting with my brother. Being 13 years my senior, he was fully adult by the time I was eight. I have a reminiscence here and there, but they consist of family interactions or situations where my role was one of an observer rather than a participant.
I recall riding with my parents as we dropped Tommy off at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. The small school was dominated by a large brick church that had a Byzantine character. I remember his red brick dormitory building and also a large pond, or was it a gigantic fountain? I have a vague recollection of eating lunch in the school’s dining hall. My father was always up for eating in school cafeterias. I’m unsure if this was because he worked as a chief operating engineer for CPS or the fact that he was never able to go away to college.
It was likely that my brother was only 18 at the time. However, in my child’s mind, he was a grown-up facing an exciting college future. Tommy was engaged to a woman named Donna, who was my sister’s co-worker. As I write this, it seems odd that someone would be engaged at 18, and this reality makes me question my historical accuracy. Perhaps he became engaged after attending St. Joe’s for a few years; I don’t know.
Donna was unhappy with Tom’s absence and made her feelings clear, forcing him to trek the 81 miles back to Chicago every weekend. The price of love was his education, and he eventually dropped out of school. This was an important lesson for me because my brother had to work in various unfulfilling office jobs. Selfish people are selfish, and soon his adoring presence was inadequate for Donna, and the relationship ended.
I mentioned my father’s intrigue with higher education, but I would also like to add that many Eastern European immigrants believe that education is THE ticket to a successful life. Embedded in my mind is my mother’s comment, “You can lose a million dollars, but no one can ever take away your education.” This lesson was also emphasized to Tommy, and it was clear to him that he needed to return to school. However, his adoration of Donna left his transcripts in shambles, and despite his innate intelligence, no school would consider him. That was until he read about Parson’s College, an institution known to give people a second chance.
He was accepted at Parson’s, where he did well academically, and graduated with a degree in business administration. At some point, he met and married his wife, Lee. At some other point, he spent several years serving in the Army. The exact sequence of all of these events eludes me.
Tommy’s life was moving forward, but I was still a kid living in our run-down bungalow on Francisco Avenue. The one that my mother didn’t want but that my father insisted on buying because it had been owned by some distant connection from his past.
Now, I was a kid in high school, and Tom was a married man. We had little in common and shared few adventures. I longed to have relationships with both of my brothers. I watched movies where older brothers protected their younger siblings. Brothers who would teach their younger brothers how to navigate the world. This was not meant for me as they were too old to connect with adolescents, yet too young to develop the empathy necessary that would make them reach out to me despite our age differences. However, college was coming, and with it, I was hopeful for the equalization that such transitions bring.
I made one of my very rare trips back home from Northern Illinois University. I was now a senior and had already taken the GRE. I was filling out applications to graduate schools as part of my plan to get a Ph.D. in microbial biochemistry, my next step in my goal to become a university professor.
It was a time of reflection that was somewhat bittersweet. My memories flashed to my 8th grade and the private meeting on our front porch that my father summoned me to. “I have decided that you will go to Gage Park, high school.” I sat shocked in silence. Gage Park had deteriorated into a poor academic institution best known for its gang activity and physical violence. My father read the look of disbelief on my face and flatly said, “If you want to learn, you can learn anywhere.” The conversation was over.
All of my siblings had gone to private high schools, so I honestly don’t know why he made such a pronouncement. I guess he was just done with parenting. Worse yet, my uncle, Nick, mentioned in passing to me that my extended relatives assumed that the only reason that I would be denied a private education was that I was too stupid to be accepted to a Catholic high school. Why else would I be sent to such a terrible place? I had to deal with not only my anger but also the shame that my extended family thought I was a moron.
When I graduated from Gage Park, I took control of my life. No one was going to pigeonhole me into what they felt I was or should be. College became the time for me to be me, and I made the most of it. I was the guy setting the curves on the tests, the one that the teachers asked if they could keep his term papers to use as examples. I was the one who was called by professors and told not to take the final exam for fear that I would push the curve too far to the right for the other students. I was a steam roller moving forward.
I was also moving forward with the connections with my older siblings. As I became an adult, our differences morphed into similarities. I was changing from an isolated only child role to an equal member of a five-siblings group. This was a gift, but then I received the most horrible news possible.
I perched myself on the edge of Carol’s couch, afraid that if I sat back, it would swallow me in its plushness. I love both of my sisters and feel immensely close to them and their kind, warm ways. Our connections have grown exponentially over the years. I’m no longer their baby brother; I am their trusted sibling. As usual, my conversation with Carol meandered.
Our respective childhoods, separated by 15 years, were so similar. We were both given buoys that kept us afloat during those times. When Carol was young, my parents lived in a flat below my grandparents. She would go up the stairs nightly to be fussed over by my then-young aunts, Mary, Lill, and Susie. They made her feel special and important. She felt that their influence significantly changed her life.
In turn, I had my friend John. We had known each other since kindergarten but became best friends, then brothers, in 6th grade. We were inseparable and saw each other every day. Our jobs were to support and take care of each other. To be there when times were tough. To high-five each other over successes. A role that we serve to this very day.
“I don’t have any negative memories of Tommy; I just wish that I had had a relationship with him,” I told Carol. “Why did it all have to end that way?”
My mind flashed back to my senior year at NIU. I have mentally blocked how I got the news, but I intensely remember how I felt after receiving it… shocked, scared, and in a panic. My brother had developed a cold, and he couldn’t shake it. He had been ill for months and was tired and run down. Finally, he went to the doctor, and his diagnosis was terrifying; he had CML or Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. The good news was that this was one of the few cancers in the 1970s that had a fairly reasonable cure rate. New treatments were emerging, and he was going to be cared for at the University of Chicago Hospital, one of the best places in the nation.
Remission, then failed remission, then no remission. Endless bone marrow punctures, toxic chemotherapies, white blood cells centrifuged from our veins and stuck into his. My big, strong, bulky brother was transformed into a wisp of smoke. I recall helping him into a car, so we could drive him back to the U of C for another round of torture. We had secured his belt as tightly as we could, yet when he stood next to the car, his pants fell between his ankles. He was a walking skeleton.
My mind traveled to a regret that still haunts me today. Tom had developed an ileus while in the hospital and was on strict NPO (nothing by mouth). He was so dry that his lips were white and cracked. “Mike, please go to the fridge and sneak me a popsicle. I’m so dry… please!” This was before I ever considered medical school, and in my lack of knowledge, I felt that I could kill him if I disobeyed the doctor’s orders. I am distressed to this day that I didn’t get him that popsicle.
Now I was in graduate school, learning about bacteria when I should have been learning about cancer. The knowledge that seemed so important to me became trivial. Why didn’t I know how to fix this problem?
And then the early-morning phone call came. After a year of suffering, my brother was dead. He was 32.
A thought flashed across Carol’s eyes. “I just remembered that I came across something that you may find useful,” she said as she started to rifle through her files. She handed me four yellowed handwritten sheets of paper.
The top of the sheets bore the letterhead of David J White and Associates, a company unknown to me. Below the letterhead were the words “Dear Michael Klina.” followed by a neat and almost feminine script scribed in black ink. I continued to read in puzzlement until a dim light bulb started to glow in my head. It was a letter written to me by my brother Tom while he was at work. The note was undated but sent to me at Christmastime when I was at NIU. I attended NIU during my junior and senior years, so it was sent in December sometime during that time. It is likely that he wrote the letter during my senior year, a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia.
The letter isn’t significant in content, which makes it all the more significant to me. It is a newsy letter, charming in its lack of any real news and full of inside jokes. There are several misspells of our last name, Kuna, four letters that were consistently mangled when our household received legal documents, adverts, magazines, and business letters. There is talk of Christmas shopping and his lack of funds because of it. There is a protective warning to me that gas stations would be closed over Christmas. There are inquiries about the mechanical reliability of my 1972 Ford Pinto, probably the worst car design of all time. Apparently, the chair of the Department of Chemistry had been reaching out to me about some sort of honors thing that Tom knew about, but I have no current memory. Tommy also made reference to my long-time friend, John, who was then my college roommate.
He ended the letter in a jokingly formal “Thomas” and added his wife’s name for completeness. He mis-signed his last name four different ways, bringing his initial joke full circle, and finally concluded with a “Kilroy was here” doodle, a usual ending for an informal correspondence that he would send to anyone.
The significance of the letter was in its insignificance. It was a note to a friend, an equal. The trauma of the last year of my brother’s life had completely made me forget the fact that we were finally connecting in a brotherly way. Yes, I wanted much more, but this was something. A random letter sent to me had somehow found its way into my sister’s files. Now, almost 50 years later, it was sent back to me to remind me that my brother Tommy did care about me. It was as if he found a way to tell me that he was looking out for me all of these years.
As I write this, I wonder if my departed brother had anything to do with the uncontrollable forces that made me leave grad school after my Master’s degree and apply to med school. A decision that seemed so foolish, bizarre, and out of context for rational me. Why would I feel compelled to do such a thing? Perhaps, the force that was guiding me was my heavenly brother, Tommy. Perhaps, he placed those four sheets of paper in my sister’s file so they could give me comfort decades later…Perhaps.
My dear brother, I wish we could have grown old together.