Unexpected Memories

DennyinOwego with Camera

Seventeen years ago today, my older brother Denny, passed away.  It was not a sudden unexpected death but a slow decline with cancer.  His family misses him terribly.  My brother, Dan and I miss him.  I think about him a great deal.

We were a family of four boys.  Denny was the second oldest, born in 1942, he was a five-year-old when my mother brought me home, wrapped in blankets…a few days old.  The 1990’s were a bad year for our family.  I lost Chris, the eldest in ’95 and then Denny in ’98.  Now, only Dan, the third born and I are all that remains of that interesting family that lived on the corner in Owego.

Everyone who has siblings is aware that each child has a distinct personality of his or her own.  That was certainly true of the Egans.  Chris was always the science guy.  Too many pens in his pocket.  Too many rocks or fossils filling his pockets.  He went on into academia.  Dan, as a teenager, was into cars and model rockets.  I spent most of my energy in a world of dreams and fantasies of writing while struggling to keep up with being like Chris.

Denny was different.  He was the quiet one.  He didn’t like to be the center of attention, but when you spoke with him, he had a sharp wit and sensitivity that most people lacked.  To my knowledge, he never got into a fight or did anything destructive.  As an older teenager, he befriended a guy named Bob.  We all knew that Bob was gay (or queer as we would have put it then).  Denny knew it.  But my brother was probably the only friend Bob ever had.

There was an introspective nature about Denny that set him apart from the rest of us.  He loved baseball and he followed the Mets from New York to Houston when he was transferred by his company, Shell Oil.  He named his son after Tom Seaver.  He would spend hours in his room playing a board game that involved shaking dice in a can to determine the way a play would go.  I recall the game was called APBA baseball.  There’s probably a video version of it around now.  But I can still hear the rattle of those dice in the can to this day.  In fact, every time dice are thrown, I think of Denny.

It’s an unexpected memory.

He kept meticulous records of players and teams in a smart neat notebook.  He wrote the stats in a perfect format.

It’s no wonder he went on to become an accountant.

Denny never made a big deal of being a Catholic as I recall.  He was an altar boy, as we all were.  But he kept his God to himself.  He was like me in one way, however.  He seemed always conscious of death; it held a morbid and fearful power over him.  There was a story that one of his childhood friends died as a young teen.  The funeral was held at the family’s house.  I think I remember Denny telling me that the boy’s mother pushed him forward to the casket and made him kiss the boy’s forehead.

Maybe this event didn’t really happen.  In later years, my mother always denied such a thing happened, but I still wonder…

Maybe it was an unexpected memory.

Denny was also the only one of our family who saw two ghosts in our house.  The details aren’t important here.  But, over the years, I asked him about those sightings and he never wavered in his description of what he saw.  He believed it.

When Denny got sick, he was fully aware of what his situation was.  On the phone, a few months after his diagnosis, I asked him how he felt about things.  He answered:

“I know things don’t look good for me.”

I was amazed at his calm attitude.  Me, I was in tears nearly every day until I got the dreaded phone call on that dreaded day in June of 1998.

Just yesterday I picked up a sachet of balsam that is a common tourist item in the Adirondacks.  I put it to my nose and the balsam scent filled my mind of memories of camping as a family here in the Park…in the long ago days of the 1950’s.  I never think of Denny as a camper, but as a child, he loved the sand and the swimming and that balsam odor that permeated the summer forest of Golden Beach and Eighth Lake Campgrounds.

I have that sack of balsam beside me now.  I can smell the 1950’s, my cot, our tent, Chris’ canoe, and the sand on my feet.

Oddly enough, I smell a memory of Denny…the demons he carried around inside himself for decades…and I think he would love to sit with me on a beach once again.  We would tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.

Strange how powerful an unexpected memory can be.

Rest in Peace, Denny, God knows you deserve it.




Boy, You’ve Got To Carry That Weight

It’s been said that the human soul weighs 21 grams.

A gram is equal to the weight of a standard paper clip.  So, if you hold 21 paper clips in the palm of your hand, you’re hold what amounts to the heft of an eternal soul…a soul that will spend all of time in eternal bliss or never-ending torment.  21 paper clips!  That’s a pretty small amount for such a precarious an item as a human soul.

I’ve been doing some thinking about this and my musings has led me to astonishing places.  I own an iPhone and I’ve been hard at work calculating the weight (really it’s called ‘mass’, but I’ll stick with ‘weight’) of email.  My phone, like everyone else’s, receives a ton of text messages, voice mail, email and photos, among other things.  Most of this comes to me from those people I care about, but, alas, some comes unsolicited, i.e., junk mail.  I really don’t want to know about a bargain condominium in Boca Raton or a relaxing get-away weekend flight to Thule, Greenland.  This avalanche of data begins to make my iPhone heavy.  So much so, that if I carry it in my pants pocket, my pants begin to sag and droop down my leg forcing me to tighten my belt which in turn cuts off circulation between my torso and my thighs.  It can get ugly, I tell you.  So, I delete.  I delete every day.  If I’m in an aggressive deleting mood on certain days, I do so with abandon.  The little rubber nub at the tip of my stylus begins to show signs of stress fractures about the width of three microns.  Soon I’ll have to spring for a new stylus.  $18.00 for a plastic pen-like thing that won’t even write.

But, I digress.

The general rule, as I see it, is that the fewer emails and such, the lighter my iPhone becomes.  But this brings on a new and very serious dilemma: some emails are heavier than others and I am forced to make a value choice.  There are texts from my wife about not forgetting to buy the Skim Milk.  A reminder of a doctor’s appointment.  A photo of my new grandson.  Some weird object or broken down barn that caught my eye while driving.  A note from my son thanking me for getting him two tickets for a Broadway show.  A birthday wish.  A simple “I love you” from someone I love in return.

I want to keep these special emotes, but I can’t keep them all.  My pants would sag.  So, how do I choose what goes and what stays?  I’ve come up with a rough rubric to solve this situation:

  • Some stuff is too heavy to hold onto.  A threat of an argument.  A negative comment.  A bad reminder of a bad memory.  These go.
  • Some messages are light and airy like a cloud…like smoke rising from a campfire…like morning mist rising from the lake.  The love notes….a promise kept…a secret revealed…an image of an infant, smiling his first smile and caught in pixels for all time by an…an iPhone.  These stay.

Once upon a time, many of these connections were made over a telephone.  But they had to be stored in your head.  Maybe that explains why people in the 1950’s seemed to walk around with their heads hanging.  Now, this slim package of diodes and chips are, at once, your wallet, purse, scrapbook, phone book, tape recorder, camera, arcade and library.  It’s all there in the palm of your hand.  And it fits nearly everywhere.  Now, that’s heavy.  Heavier than your soul.

So heavy, it can make your pants sag.