It has been exactly 3 years (1,096 days), almost to the minute, since I became “brotherless.” Actually, since I became “famliless,” but let us not get too dramatic!
Yup, it was on this very day; 3 years ago, at 9:20 am, that my big brother (and my last remaining “original” family member) took his last breath.
I knew it was coming… I was there, with him, because I knew this would be the day, but somehow it still took me by surprise. He ‘slept’ seemingly, soundly; breathing in and out, in and out. And then, he let out a breath and he never inhaled again.
This is what I wrote on the day that he died. I read it aloud at his service;
My brother Tommy died today…
I’d like to be able to tell you that he died peacefully, in his sleep, surrounded by friends and family, but that was not the case.
He died (over a period of weeks) pretty much the way he lived his life; angry, frustrated and fighting his many demons. Even once he began his end of life journey, they would not leave his side. Considering themselves his friends, they’ve hung on till the very end. This, along with the fact he was so sick, made his final journey, a very long and arduous one.
It should be said that although my brother’s “body” stopped functioning today, he actually died some 50 years ago, and I have been mourning that loss ever since.
You see, my brother Tommy, the brother I had known and loved for the first 13 years of my life, died in Vietnam sometime between the fall of 1967 and the 4th of July, 1968.
Although the United States Army was kind enough to return his somewhat broken and battered body, and what was left of his mind… the better part of him (the part many of his adult friends and acquaintances never got the chance to see) was left behind. It was left a million miles away, forever entombed in the murky waters of an unmarked, rice paddy.
Like so many of his comrades in arms, he was not prepared for what he experienced in Vietnam. And although he did only what he was trained and ordered to do, I don’t believe that my young, innocent, naive 18 year old brother ever reconciled with what he had witnessed; and I know he never forgave himself for the ‘sins’ or transgressions that he committed.
These were his demons.
Torn, between being proud to have been a Sergeant First Class in the United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division (aka “The Screaming Eagles”) and being a pacifist… he constantly struggled with grasping a genuine, understanding of who he truly was, and what he believed in… it was this conflict that ate him alive.
If you knew my brother at all, you probably had a love/hate relationship with him.
Generally he was a nice, polite, funny, generous, outgoing guy who (when he wanted to) could be quite charming… but he also had a dark side. He could become angry, hurtful, verbally abusive and quite difficult to deal with, at the drop of a hat.
He didn’t mean to be any of those things and he always regretted it. It was just that the demons sometimes possessed him and devoured his sense of right and wrong.
I have always thought that if you knew him at all, at some point during your relationship/friendship, you would have had a very legitimate reason to call him an “asshole.” If you didn’t… then you didn’t know him as well as you think you did.
Regardless of all his many shortcomings and imperfections… he was my big brother. He was a good man. He was an honest man and he always loved and protected me… his baby sister. And I, with every fibre of my being, loved him right back.
His passing leaves yet another hole in my already battered heart. After so many losses, I now imagine my heart has taken on the texture of a sea sponge… hard, rough and porous; softened only by absorbing my many tears, which just won’t stop.
My brother is finally at rest. He is finally free from the demons that have plagued and tortured him for so many years.
In the last few hours of his life, I believe I witnessed a softening in his face… his usually furrowed brow, was relaxed and smooth.
I think he may have taken the advice I whispered in his ear, earlier in the day… I’m sure he started the process of self forgiveness and acceptance. And in his final moments, came to understand that he, just like the rest of us, was flawed and tat he was nothing short of human.
Come to think of it… my brother did die peacefully with friends and family by his side. He had me, his only family and his best friend, till the very end.
I love you Tommy.
Your baby sister, Lissa
Thomas N. Grassel
March 29, 1947—March 25, 2017