The impact of one life

My brother John died just about at halftime of a lousy football game on television. It was the Alamo Bowl, part of the endless line of meaningless college games played during the holiday season. My oldest brother and John’s wife were with him at the end. Oklahoma State beat Arizona 36-10. 

My brother liked to watch meaningless football games. He liked to discuss them, wrestle with them and knock around strategy, choices and formations. So, it was no surprise that he would spend his last moments on earth propped up in front of the television watching an excruciatingly dull football game. Because that is what he did. 

He died from the cancer diagnosed under a surgeon’s scalpel five years ago. He lived with it, but not as some mortal enemy to be battled furiously. Rather, he treated cancer like an unwelcome dinner guest that can’t be thrown out. He wouldn’t dignify it with being defined by it. In our last conversation, he said: “Well, I’m dying, and dying pretty soon. Nothing much to do about it. Did you see that Giants game last Sunday?” 

He was still fishing this past September, and eating fried clams at Cape Cod in October. It was only after Thanksgiving that the final, inevitable train wreck really got under way. 

Married but no kids, he played the mandolin and made his living in accounting. He could take or leave baseball, while basketball absolutely bored him silly. That was a bone of contention between us, because at age 10 I bought him a basketball for Christmas. He would remind me of that self-serving gift every year. 

Oddly enough, my brother saw his life as essentially uninteresting. He warned my oldest brother about a memorial service that would have to focus on “my uneventful life.” 

Which reminded me that in his high school senior yearbook 46 years ago, he gave this succinct description of himself: “Nothing ever happens because of me or while I am around.” 

No one who knew him felt that way. The most colorful character in fiction, an Ahab or a Hamlet, had nothing on the truth that was my brother. As Thomas Hardy wrote, I can write of him: “You was a good man and did good things.” 

John — we actually called him Toby — could teach himself foreign languages, devise his own computer programs and fish with the skill of a master, all while making an art of photography that would take your breath away. He only dropped that, he explained, when digital cameras took away the challenge. 

He was a reminder of the miracle that is the individual life. He made a difference to more souls than he would ever realize, a reminder that one of God’s great mercies are the people who touch our lives. 

I had returned to work in the days after he died, Christmas over and all the color gone out of the season. There’s a little place I go for lunch where the food is comfortable and the waitresses are young and dye their hair red or purple-streaked. 

Sitting in there, I had a bowl of soup, a garden salad and The New York Times on the side. I was still at the point where reading was hard, my thoughts drifting to John — Toby — when I should be focused. 

Lunch was over and I picked up my tab to pay. The ticket said that zero was due, and the waitresses had written on it: “Happy New Year to a nice customer. Lunch is on us!” 

They had no idea how much that little bit of nothing gave me the first real smile in too many days. 

Be good to each other. It makes all the difference. And remember my brother in your prayers.  

Because he was a good man who did good things. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.