It’s common to idealize a loved one who has died. From what I can tell, this idealization is a natural reaction, although I’m not exactly sure what purpose it achieves. Perhaps we recall the best parts of those we’ve lost more than the worst parts because thinking of the good things brings some light into the dark side of our grief. Perhaps this tendency protects us from too much pain, much in the way that we tend to remember the rosy parts of a childhood event and not the difficulty.
Poring through the memories of my childhood winters, for example, the memories that have stuck with me include gleeful sledding down the Big Hill (with a bonus slide onto the frozen creek after an especially fast run), attempting to make syrup candy on packed snow a la Laura Ingalls and eating the delicious failure of maple-flavored snow crystals that resulted, laughter-filled snowball fights with friends, tunnels in deep snow, the sight of seven or eight parents in a phalanx shoveling out our unplowed cul-de-sac after the blizzard of ’79, and hot cocoa and popcorn after playing outdoors. I sincerely have no visceral recollection of cold wet wrists, snow in my boots, getting smacked with a hard snowball, being conscripted into shoveling, and the general misery of being chilled down to the bone – although I know that I experienced all of that. It just hasn’t stuck with me.
By any objective measure (if objectivity is possible when measuring human beings), my brother was a pretty exceptional guy – a smart and innovative professional driven to improve education and career prospects for students, an engaged father, a loving husband, a devoted friend, a person determined to have fun and make the most of life. I haven’t yet seen the bottom of the pile of good things that people bring up when they talk about him. I assume there should be a bottom somewhere, for him as for any individual, but so far it is nowhere in sight. And indeed I find joy in hearing every last glowing compliment, hysterical story, and heartwarming testament.
But I need more. I need to hear the whole story told, and told over again with any new angles that come to mind in the retelling. I need to keep the whole person with me.
Because I knew Frank from his earliest days, I experienced him in the most unschooled and raw form possible, before he understood and applied adult filters and behavior modifications. He pestered and teased me as only a fun-loving younger brother to a buttoned-up older sister knows how to do. He told whopper lies, conjuring up one of my favorites (how he took the school crossing guard to the hospital on a motorcycle) in an attempt to calm my mother's anger following a late arrival home after school. He snuck around stealing my spare change and babysitting money, even when I hid it in places where I thought it would embarrass him horribly to look. All of this was mixed in with his intelligence and sense of humor, his caring way of looking out for me, his friendship, and of course his knack for giving me cool clothes for birthdays and Christmas -- items that always ended up being the standouts in my closet. For me, keeping him alive in my memory means remembering good and bad, challenging and wonderful, annoying and delightful.
Over the last few months I’ve found myself compelled to talk to my brother’s friends – people from grade school days all the way through his most recent community. I ask directly for what I need – uncensored, unfiltered stories of their experience of Frank. Nothing has offended or shocked me, even when people speak of times when he went off the beaten path or made them angry. As a matter of fact, the more real and honest the story, the more it warms my heart. Such stories confirm the existence of my fully human brother, filling out his multidimensional identity, shading in all his facets with varied and vivid colors.
If you have a story to tell me, I’m all ears. Don’t pretty it up for me. The real, whole guy is the one I love, the one I will continue to get to know over time as I hear more about him through you. And if you need more of the whole story about someone you loved and lost, ask for it. New colors can add unexpected dimensions to your memory and fill in some of the empty spaces in your heart.