Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bits and pieces

A sketch of Stephen when he
was 14. He wore his hair in a
style popular for boys at the
time, parted down the middle.
We visited him and his parents
while they were camping.
Just a tiny shard of this story is mine to tell. This tiny bit right here, with care in the telling.

My brother-in-law Stephen died last week. He was born when Nancy was partway through college. He was 34, the youngest of 11 siblings, the first child to pass away.

It's customary and useful and comforting to regard how someone touched our lives, rather than grieve his absence. Accomplishments and successes, sure, but especially gifts and traits, gifts to be admired and respected, gifts that imbue memories.

Stephen was jolly whenever I saw him. Almost anything he said, he finished with a laugh. I noticed that about my dad too, such an easy laugh, mostly because I'm not that way; Stephen could laugh!

And he could talk! Gregarious, Stephen could roll on through conversations about anything, in shared examination of each other's daily lives, whether at family gatherings or frequently on the phone with his mom.

Stephen was a chef. He loved to cook as soon as he was able, it seemed, and went to school for it. At family gatherings he made dishes for far more nuanced palates than mine. Sometimes he cooked the entire holiday meal; sometimes family members hired him to cook. I can't tell if he always wanted to cook for family, or if sometimes his skills felt like a burden.

It seemed to me he was at his best and happiest the way I last saw him, at Thanksgiving, preparing a side dish — not the whole menu — the way he knew how, through many years of knowing how, to surprise his family with a new and different taste. He gave our pantry a workout.

Stephen worked in several restaurants, most of them nearby, though his last position was in a highly regarded bistro in Napa. Locally he was known to customers and some friends as Sweet Lew or Steveo, something I learned after he died.

Though I hadn't seen him do so in a long time, he played guitar, and helped teach our children how to play.

But Stephen died so young that it's difficult to partition that fact from his living. Something about 34 magnifies the sadness — an age in which one gains wisdom but still has energy to apply it. I remember thinking of well-known people who died in their 30s, how their deaths seemed such awful thefts. Keith Haring, Charlie Parker, Mozart.

Stephen drank. At family gatherings, his drinking didn't stand out: Most adults drink then. It is not inaccurate to say that alcohol stocks are well laid in during holidays and special occasions — a case of wine under a kitchen counter, coolers filled with beer, hard liquor exchanged as gifts or bought special because someone wanted to try out a cocktail, for example. Maybe it's the same at other families' gatherings. Though not much of a drinker anyway, I sure didn't feel like drinking this Christmas.

Stephen drank beyond the gatherings. I knew that in my head if not my heart. It didn't really occur to me how drinking had affected Stephen until last year, when one of his brothers took him, shaking and hallucinating, to an emergency room. The attending doctor told Stephen his liver could no longer process alcohol, and to stop drinking.

Which Stephen did for a while, but it didn't last. In the days before Christmas he became ill and again asked two of his brothers to take him to the emergency room. He lost consciousness there as his organs failed in succession. His brothers made their goodbyes and Stephen was removed from life support.

As his brother Joel (as fine a brother's keeper, by the way, as anyone could wish) said, "We all wish or wonder if there had been something more we could have done. There really was nothing … it was still up to Stephen to make the change."

Though as good as could be said, Joel's words still give little comfort. I wonder, as do others, what I could have done. Be more of a big brother-in-law, and less distant, not just one more relative. Be a better role model, provide a better setting. Alcoholism is a disease, I know, but is it born in a vacuum, ignited by nothing? Could we have made alternatives, been diversions?

I've got my own little shields and excuses. He was the little brother-in-law to horse around with when Nancy and I were first married. Then we went off to form our own family, while Stephen was growing up. Infamous in the family for staying on the periphery at family gatherings, I don't talk a lot. It was entirely my fault, then, when Stephen once asked me how my teaching was going, three years after I had changed into another career. Excuses, excuses.

I and others are at a loss, left to memories and shoulda couldas, wondering how we might have made a difference.

What to do now? Remember him.

Two moments bookend my remembrance of Stephen:

The first was when I first met him, a chipmunk-cheeked little boy, so small, so smiling. He got it in his head to take drink and food orders from his family, and at weekend gatherings, with his older siblings bringing their spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends over, he had many orders to make. He would scribble orders on a little pad, disappear into the kitchen and come back with the request — crackers and cheese on a little plate, a can of soda and glass with ice in it.

From the look on his face, you'd think it was the best game invented. Maybe it was then he caught the inkling to work in restaurants.

Nancy and Stephen's dad,
Barry, from the same
camping trip.

The second moment was at the memorial dinner for his dad, Barry, who died last year. The family gathered with neighbors from the Oregon snowbird park where my in-laws had settled, in the park's community hall.

Barry playing horseshoes
Stephen, the once undersized kid grown now taller than me, was in charge. All the children who gathered had contributed to the process in his or her way, sure, but it was Stephen's time. He didn't smile so easily that evening, less out of sorrow than in concentration over the dinner's unfolding.

He directed the dance of preparation in the kitchen, the timing of the many foods so they'd all show up on the serving table at once. I remember him stopping everyone in the kitchen at one point, and explaining safety and hygiene. This was his arena; he had wisdom to apply.

In between, I remember Stephen made a point of arranging a toast in his dad's honor, distributing foam cups and pouring gulps of Carlo Rossi® Burgundy, his dad's daily favorite, from a gallon jug. I'm sorry that I can't remember the toast itself: I was taken by this project Stephen had made for himself, almost a mission, to carry out this toast in a room full of people paying respects to his dad.

Now, remember Stephen laughing.

No comments:

Post a Comment