Late that afternoon I was riding on my bicycle looking for Kevin. I had a sense of adventure and purposefulness, a reason to check and visit with neighbors up and down the street looking for my young brother, Kevin.
It was the last week before school starts, late August in Orlando, Florida. The weathermen took summers off in Florida, the forecast every day was “partly cloudy with a chance of afternoon or evening showers”. But that was changing for me now. It was almost time to return to school.
I dreaded returning, not because of school itself, but because it meant I was losing this open, expansive summer time. Time would be regimented again. “Partly cloudy with a chance of afternoon or evening showers”. So I celebrated the open time that day, that late afternoon even while I went from one haunt to another, looking for and asking about my brother Kevin.
Kevin was near three, and I was almost eleven. But as brothers we had formed a close bond. Kevin had character, he had pizazz. He was tireless, expressive and as naughty as a two-year-old can be. Kevin was hyperactive.
Kevin was so full of life, it bubbled and spilled over to everyone around him. He was also incredibly coordinated. He could toss a tiny lincoln log in the air and swing a little bat and hit it as well as I could.
I can imagine now that time must have moved slowly for him, but for the rest of us it was all we could do to keep up with him. Even when no neighbors had seen him, and I couldn’t find my brother I felt sure he would turn up, he always did. Someone looking for him would find him, or he would just appear as he had in the past from an unexpected place to the surprise of us all. Once my mother looked out the living room window of our neighbor’s house and, to her horror, saw Kevin next to the tree, taking a dump in the front yard.
That day I rode my bike back home to check and see if anyone had found him. I didn’t know I was riding on the edge of an abyss. Neighbors crowded our backyard. The earth moving beneath my feet, but I didn’t feel it. In the two feet of water in the small lake behind our house, Kevin was found floating face down. I don’t remember what I saw. I remember an attempt to resuscitate.
My first love, marriage, divorce, marriage, the birth of my daughter—all of these significant, life changing events seem scripted and much anticipated in comparison. Each brought joys, sorrows and new perspectives and moved my life in unexpected ways.
Even now, more than fifty years later, I feel the emotional earthquake still settling around me. Death, the end of a life. It was unimaginable to me then, unimaginable to that eleven year old boy. My lifeless brother was pulled from the water that afternoon.
I have rebuilt my life over that spot, that afternoon’s unimaginable moment.
I have learned over the years how difficult it was for me to form deep trusting relationships. The fear of getting so close and losing it all again, as when Kevin died, was powerful in ways I didn’t fully understand. Fear. I came to see it as fear. The fear has not been easy to quiet. It is not like learning a new word and then knowing its meaning. This fear had long tentacles and so I learned and learned again and again about the fear’s grip. Later, much later, I’m feeling the pleasure of quieting that fear.
My mother and stepfather were lost to me at the time while they mourned the loss of their son. Years later I would understand their loss, taking my own daughter to the emergency room, picking her up from a badly scraped knee and feeling that parental concern welt up in my chest and fearing the unimaginable for my own child. My brother and my parents were lost, I fell off the world’s cliff…
In the days immediately after the event, I and my other brother David spent time away from home with a neighbor and a friend of our family. Instead of attending Kevin’s funeral, a friend of the family took my brother and I on a tour of our town’s Coca-Cola bottling plant. I wanted to go to the funeral.
I believe I spoke up and said that I wanted to go to the funeral. If I did voice my feelings they were not honored. The decision was made. The bottling factory tour in my young mind was juxtaposed with what I imagined was my brothers funeral and burial.
I see the bottles ceaselessly moving on the assembly line of the bottling plant, and imagine the procession to the cemetery. The eleven year old wonders what is happening at the funeral, and wondering when the bottling plant tour will end. Since then, I have had a lot of dreams, imagining the ceremony and I have heard the dirt hitting the casket that was placed in the ground that day.