This phone call has been on my mind for months. I've thought about dialing so many times, but something always came up. An e-mail. Something at work. Funny...
This phone call has been on my mind for months. I’ve thought about dialing so many times, but something always came up.
An e-mail. Something at work. Funny how I’ve always had an excuse.
Now a telephone is ringing in Indiana, and I’m about to talk to my brother for the first time in almost four years.
What led to this call was another one I had received months earlier from a different brother, an old fraternity brother. A call to join my Phi Gamma Delta pledge class from the University of Idaho for our 30-year reunion in April. Nineteen Fijis, as we are known, would gather to remember old times.
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But we did far more than rekindle old friendships that weekend. For many of us, those three days in April would touch our lives in profound ways. For me, the reunion would ripple through my life and make me see a hole within myself I hadn’t even realized was there.
Those three days in April finally would make me pick up the phone and call my big brother Barry.
Going back to my old college campus and seeing my frat brothers with beer bellies and bald spots had made me realize how quickly three decades could pass, how easily we could drift apart.
In a world of cellphones, laptops and e-mail, how could we lose touch with each other? Somehow we did.
The reunion also set off a summer of recollections, reconnections and — for me — revelations.
Andre “Andy” Pedersen, a 54-year-old pledge brother who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and who inspired the reunion, took a bus from his home in Wichita, Kan., to see Fijis in Boise, Idaho, and then flew to visit me in late July. We talked until 3 or 4 a.m. for four nights, marveling at how the connections made in April were binding everyone closer.
But something else was building inside me, something I wasn’t expecting. As I rediscovered my fraternity brothers, I couldn’t help thinking about my own blood brother, the brother I barely knew.
Big brother Barry
Barry is 65 and has survived throat cancer and two knee-replacement surgeries. I haven’t seen him since Mom’s funeral 7 ½ years ago, and haven’t talked to him since 2002. We had a silly fight — a misunderstanding, really.
Barry lives 2,000 miles away in Indiana. With Mom and Dad gone, it’s easy to lose touch. He is 13 years older and seems like he is from another generation, more of a distant uncle than a brother. He came of age with Elvis and Eisenhower, and left home to join the Army when I was only 4. I grew up in the shadow of the Beatles and LBJ, and went off to college.
Now the steel worker and the newspaper editor seem to have little in common. Each week that passes makes it easier not to talk.
I finally pick up the phone, ready to dial his number. Instead, I call my big sister in Idaho.
“Have you talked to Barry?” Bonnie asks. “He keeps wondering about his baby brother.”
I promise to call him in a few days. But I don’t, not for five more weeks.
Filling the hole
I decided to write about the reunion, and the newspaper story of how Fijis rallied around a fraternity brother with Alzheimer’s seemed to resonate with readers. I received more than 200 e-mails and phone calls, many achingly personal.
A woman wrote that she treasured every moment she spent with her father as he battled Alzheimer’s, the disease that killed my father almost 14 years ago and now stalks Andy. A man e-mailed his vow not to put off a call to a fraternity brother fighting cancer.
I called the other brothers from my class and asked them to share their lives with me for the newspaper article. As I filled my notebook, I also started to fill something inside myself — the hole I had ignored for so long. The void of losing touch with good friends.
Others probably felt the same emptiness, but we didn’t discuss that. Most men rarely talk about how they feel.
I was left searching within myself. What I saw was a 52-year-old man whose gray hair couldn’t hide who he was — a small-town kid from Idaho disconnected from his roots. Changing addresses couldn’t change my past, or the people I’d somehow lost along the way. Maybe finding them could help me find part of myself.
Both my parents were gone and my three sons were grown. I’d gone through a midlife crisis and a divorce; found a wonderful woman who was perfect for me and remarried. I should be happier than I’d ever been in my life.
Yet that empty feeling gnawed at me when no one was around and things grew too quiet.
As I made the calls to my fraternity brothers, I started thinking about the brother I still hadn’t called.
Now the phone rings 2,000 miles away. My brother’s wife answers, and we chat for a few minutes.
Then I hear the voice I haven’t heard in four years. Barry’s voice.
“Hi, brother,” I say, realizing how many times I’d greeted my fraternity brothers with those words the past few months.
As we talk, I realize something else: I have a lot more in common with my big brother than I thought.
Brothers catch up
We chat about his retirement, something I’m thinking about more as 50 fades in my rear-view mirror. We talk about trying to lose a few pounds, about how well our three grown sons are doing, about how good our lives are.
We also talk about how easy it is to let four years go by, about how terrible it would have been if something had happened to one of us before we picked up a phone.
Our four-year-old disagreement comes up, and we decide to discuss it later if we need to. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so important now.
“You know, our family was different from a lot of other families,” Barry says. “We were never really that close.”
Barry tells me he wants to go back to Idaho to visit our sister next year, a trip he made almost every year when our folks were alive.
“Let me know when you’re going,” I say. “I’ll be there.”
I’d spoken the same three words a few months before about another trip to another reunion.
Funny how one event is still rippling through my life and carrying me back home. Funny how seeing the brothers I thought I’d lost is leading me back to the brother I never really knew.
Funny how ripples from the reunion help me see something I couldn’t see before. Mom and Dad may be gone, but Barry and I are still brothers. And brothers are too important to forget.
Don Shelton is an assistant sports editor at The Seattle Times. He can be reached at 206-464-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org