Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mourning my brother

Larry was 6½ years old when I was born, and very disappointed. He really wanted a pony. And looking back, he probably would have been much happier growing up with a big four-legged pet – after all, he got blamed for nearly everything. He was the older brother.

We could not have been more unlike. I was the sickly kid, and always had my face buried in a book – the Freddy the Pig series in early elementary years, then sports books, finally science fiction. I could toss down three novels in a summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of our rowhouse on Northwest Baltimore’s Royce Avenue.

My brother was gifted at sports, athletic and graceful. In high school, there was JV football and basketball, varsity swimming and track. He became a Baltimore public schools physical education teacher in 1962 – assigned that fall to his high school alma mater, Baltimore City College (Class of ’57). I was there, too, entering my senior year – and blessed with a doctor’s note that kept me out of the gym. I had my nose behind a book with an extra period of study hall.

Some days he’d pick me up and drive me to school -- charging 25 cents toward the gas. (“Times were a little tough back then,” he’d later explain, smiling.)

Larry – Jerome Lawrence Ettlin -- was born in June 1939, some 2½ years before Pearl Harbor. I came along in January 1946, at the leading edge of the post-war Baby Boomer era. Some of my friends were younger brothers of some of his friends. But we siblings really didn’t get along. And he stayed as far away from me as possible – and out of the line of fire of parental blame – as we grew up.

I fondly remember the year of the cranberry-carcinogen scare, the only Thanksgiving we didn’t squabble over the cranberry sauce. He urged me to eat all of it that I wanted.

I was about 15 when he married Natalie and moved out for good.

I didn’t miss him, not then. I was just beginning to figure out who I was – and teaching myself to type with two fingers down in the concrete-floor basement, on a metal table next to the oil-burner furnace, giving birth to eventual life as a writer. Four years later, I was marrying and moving out, finding my own way through myriad mistakes and misadventures.

Our paths crossed from time to time, like the day of a supposed race riot at one of my old schools, Pimlico Junior High. He was a teacher there, and I knew some of its other faculty members from my adolescent days. TV crews surrounded the school on the heels of an incorrect broadcast news report describing the “racial” fighting that broke out in Pimlico’s cafeteria. But it was, pure and simple, a food fight – one kid hit another with a dish of food, and it just erupted. And I was covering the melee in my relatively new gig as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

His career as a teacher lasted 30 years, and included a stint at Baltimore’s William S. Baer School for the multiply disabled. The fact that he bore a strong resemblance to comic actor Jerry Lewis – and that some colleagues knew him as “Jerry” – served my brother well, as the school year opened after the annual Labor Day weekend Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. And he truly loved the school, since the children he worked with looked forward to being there and the attention they received every day. Life doubtless looks different, growing up in a wheelchair. And even after retirement, he kept in touch as a volunteer at Special Olympics events in the city.

I can’t recall exactly how and when my brother and I began seeing each other as adults, and the gap between our differences began shrinking.

Maybe it was the open invitation in the summer months to spend time at the suburban swim club he managed – and where our daughters were getting to know each other. I spent time there through my three marriages, lounging poolside or playing a little tennis with him and then his older son, and watching my older daughter and then my younger daughter jumping off the diving board.

Maybe it was our shared genes -- particularly the bad one that ran on the male side of our family, manifesting itself as Crohn’s disease.

Then there was sharing the loss of parents – our father 20 years ago, at 78, and our mother in 2007 at the age of 92. And we’d meet up by chance now and then, visiting the nursing home where our Aunt Alice, at 102, has lived since losing a leg to a blood clot in her mid-90s.

For all the friction growing up, the bond of family was always biding its time.

I’ve learned about family through my nearly 45 years of marriage – and often joked that you have to divide by 3 to get the average. (I have learned from experience, however – as witness the current relationship with wife Bonnie nearing a 30th anniversary.)

My brother’s one marriage lasted 48 years, and if you count courtship, their relationship spanned more than half a century. You see relationships from a distance and maybe don’t appreciate their magnitude. They had two sons, Greg and Ross, and a daughter, Carol, and now a 14-year-old grandson, Jadon, but the real measure of their relationship… well, I witnessed that in recent weeks.

My wife Bonnie and I last sat down socially with Larry and Nat August 31, at the reception after attending the graveside funeral in Baltimore’s Rosedale suburb for our uncle Joseph Mignogna. We had driven our cars a short distance from the synagogue cemetery of that part of the family, to a neighboring cemetery where our parents and grandparents and half a dozen uncles rest. My brother could not recall the spot where our maternal grandmother was buried after dying of influenza in 1919. I took him to the weathered headstone of Jennie Kaplan, and then he showed me to the resting spot of Jennie’s husband David, who died in 1945 exactly a year before my birth and accounted for my name.

On Sept. 3, Bonnie and I flew to Germany to begin a monthlong visit to friends in Europe.

Two days later, I received the first of what became nearly daily emails sent by my niece – her father… my brother, emergency surgery, a strangulated bowel, blood circulation to heart and lungs affected, more surgery, unresponsive for more than a week, organs failing.

I didn’t expect to see him again. I’d close my eyes at night, in Germany, and think back to our uncle’s funeral, and Larry and I standing together as the rabbi explained the gift we offer at the burial, in each of us taking the shovel in hand and sprinkling earth gently down atop the wooden casket adorned only with a carved Star of David.

My brother turned the shovel’s blade sideways, and the clay earth spilled out and down. Then I added my offering. “It is a service you offer, something they cannot do for themselves,” the rabbi said.

Uncle Joe was family, the husband of our mother’s baby sister, a World War II combat veteran, the father of our cousins Diane and Marc, a guy who played saxophone, loved jazz, a Catholic from Philadelphia who became a Jew after marrying our youngest aunt. Funny to think that way. Our mother’s baby sister, Zelda, she’s 85 years old. The years spin past so quickly, you want to reach out and reverse the clock and remember their little Christmas tree around Hanukkah time, the little round backyard swimming pool, Wiffle ball on the tiny patch of lawn. In the end, his last months in a nursing home, Uncle Joe would remember little if any of this – Alzheimer’s having taken away the treasures that should accrue with age.

Then I’d see us standing at our parents’ shared headstone, and placing a small stone atop it – a tradition, a sign of remembrance, that you’ve visited. The stones eventually vanish. I bring more. I pick them carefully, bringing back a few from every trip, every beautiful place I find… from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, Germany’s Baltic coast….

We were back home Oct. 7, and the next day arrived at Sinai Hospital to find Larry awake and alert, but still gravely ill – and machines everywhere. Dialysis. Ventilator. Feeding. Draining. Pumping. There had been a long spell, nearly two weeks into our trip, when Larry had been pretty much unconscious. And pneumonia – repeatedly. Infections – repeatedly.

He saw us, and he smiled. I told him stories about our adventures in Europe, about visiting the London foundry that cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, and how our friend who works there gave us a rare tour, and how we saw bells cast in the 15th century that were back in the factory for new fittings. A bronze bell can last pretty much forever, but the fittings that hold it in the steeple eventually wear out, every 150 years or so – and we touched a bell resting on the foundry floor, awaiting fittings. The bell’s still-vivid inscription had the year of its casting: 1417.

Nearly six centuries, and the bell just needs new fittings and back in the steeple it goes.

If only we held up as well, I told him. And he smiled again.

I told him about a little feature I’d read on the British Air flight home, in the Times of London, in which notable authors related their “eureka” moments of discovery that opened the way for them to write. One account was of a scientist’s explanation that we are all made of stardust from cosmic explosions.

“Recycled stardust,” I said. “We’re recycled stardust.”

He smiled, and I added: “Next time around, I do not want to come back as a frog.”

We’ve been home two weeks now, and I’ve been back to the hospital as often as possible, seen a few good days but more that were mostly bad. And at every turn, up or down, Natalie is sitting at his bedside in the intensive care unit in a sterile-blue gown, her latex-gloved hand patting his wrist, her hand in his hand. “Squeeze my hand, sweetie,” she’d whisper, and sometimes there’d be a little pressure in response – and sometimes a little stronger.

Stroking his white hair, his forehead: “Be strong. Keep on being subborn.”

“I love you,” she’d whisper.

Breathing through a tracheotomy, Larry would move his lips in a silent reply: “I love you too.”

His eyebrows were expressive. “Do you want the TV turned on?” The eyebrows reply, “Doesn’t matter.”

A nurse brings a syringe and reaches for one of the incoming tubes. The eyebrows ask, “What?”

And occasionally, the eyebrows show frustration at being helpless, at losing nearly all control of one’s life. The eyebrows are easier to read than lips.

The news from the medical team was never good. With every short upswing in being alert and communicative came deeper downswings. There was a morning one week ago when his heartbeat became erratic, and they almost lost him. And there were unanswerable questions – if his heart stops, resuscitate? Crack his chest? Use the electric paddles? Let him go?

And what about treatment – how long to fight every worsening complication? When do you, when does he, say, “Enough!” When does anyone lose the will to go on? When do you surrender? Can you surrender? Should you surrender?

Natalie sat at his bedside, fighting for every moment – and encouraging him at every turn to be strong.

“I want to go home,” he would say, and so long as there was the slightest of chances of that happening, even if it meant a year or two years of sitting at his bedside and sharing her amazing strength and love, she would not yield. “I’m taking you home. We’re going to get you home. Be stubborn. Keep fighting, Lar.”

They managed a few days ago to play an hour of poker, his hobby.

“Who won?” I asked Nat.

“He did,” she said.

“That’s good,” I smiled.

“I threw away a pair of aces. If I had a pair, I threw it away.”

She needed him to win, willed him to win.

And I tried not to cry. Two aces. A simple moment of truth, of clarity, at this small, loving sacrifice.

Natalie was beyond heroic. If there is a height of bravery, she was looking down on it… with Larry at her side.

The surgeon talked with us earlier this week, about the options: escalating treatment should more complications arise; maintaining full life support and current levels of care in hoping for a turnaround in his condition; or focusing on medication to control pain while basically de-escalating the fight.

Late Tuesday afternoon, an endoscopic examination indicated deterioration of what little remained of the intestines, but Wednesday the surgeon offered a last option – one more longshot against giving up hope – to attempt surgery that would remove the damaged section and maybe the root of the infection process. There was also the possibility he would not survive the operation.

Larry was weak, but alert – and was asked whether he wanted and would agree to the risky surgery, and told that the alternative was also very bleak. He wasn’t rushed. We waited another hour for all the pain medication to wear off, and asked if he had thought about it, if he could say whether to go ahead and try it. The reply was a weak affirmative nod to going ahead and, later, his raised thumb and forefinger formed a little circle, an “OK.”

For a few minutes, as Natalie left the room, I sat in her chair and looked into my brother’s eyes that were open just a slit.

“There’s that other operation,” I said. “How about a whole-body transplant?”

He smiled back and nodded.

With Natalie and son Greg at his side, Larry motioned that he wanted to write something, and was handed a pen – then could not control it enough to make it do his bidding on a clipboard-held sheet of paper. He pointed the pen instead to a sheet of large printed letters of the alphabet, and circled the letter J, and drew a line to the next, A. Then he pointed it to the others… D, O, N.

The anesthesiologist and a team of nurses came a few minutes past 7 p.m., and Natalie gently kissed his forehead. The entourage rolled his bed out of the room, past me at the doorway, and I could see his eyes were open. Then he was rolling down the long hallway of the hospital’s ICU wing. I saw only the white hair on the top of his head, and then he was gone.


D. said...

Losing a sibling is hard.

My deepest condolences.

NIcole said...

D says it right - it is hard.

A friend of your daughter's, I read, but have never commented. I wanted to give my condolences.

Nicola Stratford said...

A moving and eloquent tribute, David. Thinking of you in your grief. Condolences also to Bonnie, who sounds to have lost a wonderful brother-in-law.

Eva Whitley said...

I remember driving down Northern Parkway with Jack, him gesturing toward Pimlico Jr. High. "Dave Ettlin's brother taught there." And so, every time I drove past it, that was the thought I had.

This was a lovely tribute. Thank you.

MitchHellman said...

I remember Larry well, though my recollection of him didn't include as much hair on his head-- and it wasn't gray then. To me he was larger than life; literally, he was a big tall guy, perfectly suited to being my gym teacher at Pimlico. I used to see him at Green Valley, too-- he always seemed to be enjoying himself.

Diane said...

Oh David, you wrote the most loving and beautiful tribute to Larry. I actually remembered all of what you recalled of our childhood. I will miss my cousin so much. My love to all of you and especially to Natalie. She has been phenomenal.

Wayne Countryman said...

Beautifully remembered and written, Dave. My sympathies.

Gary Gately said...

Beautiful, Ettlin. My sympathies and prayers.

Dr. Spaulding said...

Thank you for writing this. It is a beautiful tribute.

Jeremy Tygielski said...

beautifully written, touching soliloquy, wonderful memory

Unknown said...

Such a heart wrenching piece of writing, so sorry for your loss.

Sandy said...

What a beautiful tribute to Larry and to Natalie...........It is a most difficult thing; losing a sibling.......
May the pain soften over time and the good memories last a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written tribute, Dave, just beautiful. I'm sorry for your loss.

- Rob Hansen

Vladimir said...

Gosh, what a loss, David, please accept my condolences with a hug..yes he does look like Jerry Lewis - and in the photo he also reminded me of a music teacher I had at school - I have a memory of him engrossed in listening to an LP record of Handel's Messiah...precious lives precious memories of family and friends. Thanks for sharing.


Kyoko said...

I would like to express my deepest condolences to you and Bonnie.
the loss of family memeber is really hard. I am a Japanese and I never met your brother Larry in my life, but through your beautiful story, I can tell he is the brother you are really proud of. you have had wonderful days with him.

mari said...

My deepest condolences David. To you, Bonnie and his family. This pulls at you from all directions. Really a beautiful and honest tribute.

Anonymous said...

Every great brother should have a great rewrite man coming behind him. Fine tribute David.

Sorry for your loss and thinking of you and yours --

Dave Simon

Anonymous said...

Amazing clarity with insight that goes beyond the obvious of your relationship with your brother, David. I am deeply moved by your words. My condolences for your loss.

Nancy H said...

David, what a very moving, beautiful tribute to your brother. I feel as if I knew him a little. He will certainly be missed. Please accept my sincere condolences.

belvedere said...

A beautiful tribute. I probably met your brother when covering the Special Olympics in the past, without knowing the connection. My deepest condolences on your family's loss.

sealaura said...

i am so sorry about your brother. your post is very touching.

my deepest condolences.

Anonymous said...

Dear David,

Stan & I were deeply moved by your
most expressive and eloquent tribute to beloved Larry. I too, remember so much of what you highlighted of his life. May he rest peacefully and may you always remember the fond moments you shared together.

Cousins Harriett & Stan

Dan Thanh said...

I am so sorry for your loss. My best to you and your family. Your brother is gone, but not forgotten -- thanks to the life he led and your beautiful words.

-Dan Thanh

G Cohen said...

I have been looking for a Jerry Etlin for quite some time now. I just wanted to touch base and say hello, remember me? One thing that I did not read in your tribute to your brother is another place he had worked, and another place we had encountered each other. I had him as a gym teacher at Pimlico. Then a bout two years Jerry was working as the manager of the senior high game room at the JCC on Park Heights. We played many a high energy table tennis game. Great games. I think I may have won one time out of 50 matches over a year. Jerry, as we knew him by, was a very good man.

Unknown said...

I remember your brother when he taught at Pimlico Junior High. I am 65 now and I suspect it was his first job out of college. He did look like Jerry Lewis and always had a great smile, just as he does in the picture you posted. I lost an older brother almost 12 years ago and miss him every day.
Thanks you for sharing your memories with us.