“Did you turn out the lights when you left that place?” my brother Eric was fond of asking me. It was a standing gag between us. He is number four. I am number seven. Once I saw the light of day, they not only shut out the lights, they removed the mold. My mother could have no children after me.
Seven siblings would be the number of us for twenty-seven years. Then we lost John, the second born. Eric and I dug his grave together. Fifteen years later, Timothy would follow. He was number six. We had lost our second line bookends. A decade would pass before Michael, number three in the lineup, would enter his rest with our Lord. That left us at four. On New Year’s Day, 2019, Eric Larum ended his pilgrimage on this earth. The center sibling is gone. Now we are only three: the eldest and the youngest and the wonder woman in between.
In this world of broken lives and blended families, I suppose “were you close?” is a fair question to be asked when you tell a colleague that your brother died. Fair or not, I still stumbled in my answer. Was I close to my brother Eric? Too close to explain. Too close to discuss. Too tender to touch. Too raw to reach. Too painful to manage more than a subdued yes.
When we were growing up, the term “blended family” hadn’t been coined yet, which is fine because it falls far short of describing our reality. Gloria’s brood wasn’t blended. We were welded, fused together in the heat of fierce family love and tragedy. The seams and scars were all there, but they left no steps or halves in their wake. We were brothers and sister. Never mind that the older three called my father Uncle John. Never mind that the next two called my father Dad and their father Pop. Never mind that my closest cousins were my brother and sister and my oldest brothers had a different last name. Blood was blood. That was that.
Mom married young and had three sons: Ronald, John, and Michael. Her first marriage was short in number of years, but long considering the circumstances. All the boys were still under ten when she divorced her first husband. Then she met the Larums—Jim and John in particular. John noticed her first, but Jim was faster on his feet and got the first dance.
James Patrick Larum, the youngest brother of the Larum clan, was a gregarious soul by all accounts. Mother said he never met a stranger. I only know snippets of him, bits of stories told by his widow and siblings. He was the life of a party, the man to have on a hunt, the capable woodsman, a good dancer, a wise soul, a troubled soldier, a courageous man. He loved his wife. He loved his children, all five, even though only two of them were from his loins, Eric and Barbara.
Mom and Pop were only married for five years. Except for how it ended, from mother’s accounting I always gathered that they were happy years. On a camping trip near a lake, Jim drowned while rescuing Eric, then three, who had gone into the water to be with his older brothers. The tragedy left an indelible mark on the entire family, but I suspect it scarred Eric most of all.
Jim was the seventh of seven. My father, John Harold Larum, was number six. My Aunt Katy tells me that when my father announced he was going to marry Gloria, their brother’s widow; she asked him, “Why would you marry her?” “Because I saw her first,” he said.
They wed in my Uncle Glennon’s church. They had two boys, Timothy and me. Mom’s second Larum marriage lasted three times and change longer than the first. My father died when I was thirteen. To my oldest brothers, dad would always be Uncle John. For Eric, Barbara, Timothy, and me, he was always Dad. Pop was the name reserved for Jim.
For better or worse, fathers impart identity. Growing up, much was made of Timothy looking like my father. I never thought I favored him much in appearance, however much I mirrored him in heart. I am my father’s son, no doubt. But Tim was the one that most looked like him. Folks at times would think us twins. I never saw it that way. Tim looked like Dad. Everybody said so. Me? I looked like … well, I always thought I looked like Eric.
I remember the day I proudly presented my first driver’s license to my mother. When a child looks or acts like a living parent, recognition of the fact usually elicits endearment or positive commentary. When the parent is dead, the child’s resemblance touches a different emotional core. It’s difficult to avoid the spook factor. I handed Mom my license. She looked at the picture and then at me. She paled, brushed by an unexpected specter. “You look like Jim,” she said. I was used to her reactions, negative and positive, when I behaved like my father. It was a familiar dance, spook factor and all. But reminding her of the husband she buried before she married my father proved too spooky even for her.
Were Eric and I close? Mom thought I looked like Pop, a man who drowned and subsequently made my birth possible. Eric’s tragedy, my legacy. We were cousins like few others. We were brothers from the same mother.
Father’s impart identity, siblings stamp character. Hugs and blows, heart-shares and arguments shape and augment the wet clay. The farther down one is in the birth order, the more one is shaped by siblings than parents. I am the youngest of seven. Eric was number four, square in the middle, pivot man between two fathers and three older brothers and granted by God to play the lead out man for the other three Larum kids.
When I started kindergarten, it was Eric who walked me there. I was five, he was twelve. He wasn’t insensitive to my needs or age, but he didn’t allow his sensitivity to impact his stride. He would walk me there, but I had to keep up. My normal walking pace remains fast to this day, forty-eight years later.
I recall a night when I was fifteen walking home from work after closing the kitchen down near the midnight hour. Out of the dark and some distance behind, a voice bellowed my name. It was my brother Timothy hoofing his way home from parts unknown. The street was poorly lit and I had been nearly two blocks ahead of him. “How did you know it was me?” I asked him. He laughed. “Brother, I would know that walk anywhere.” How close were Eric and I? He gave me my walk.
When I was six and Eric was thirteen, we walked from Michigan to New York to catch a plane to Spain. Mom and Dad were with us, as were Timothy and Barbara. We hiked for three weeks at least. Memory tells me my pack weighed twenty pounds. Not too bad for a six-year-old, but Eric’s pack held the canned goods. He was always Big Brother.
He left home not long after our return from Spain in 1976. I was eleven. He was eighteen. I wouldn’t see him again for another five years. The occasion of our reunion was my brother Timothy’s high school graduation in San Jose, California. My mother, step-father, and I had ridden the road from Arkansas to be there.
A lot happens to an eleven-year-old’s body in five years. Last Eric had seen me, I didn’t reach his shoulders. Now he looked up at me, sixteen and filling out. He smiled. We hugged. He held me out at arm’s length, a hand on the side of each of my shoulders, open-palmed. “Well, you may be taller than me now,” he said and lifted me off my feet, “but I’m still your big brother.” It was never in doubt. To this day I remain amazed by his feat. Men who can do don’t brag. Eric was never a braggart.
He came back to Arkansas for a short stint when I was in my senior year of high school. He joined me and my buds on my best friend’s farm for a bon fire evening. Eric was seven when I was born. At twenty-four, he had no qualms about hanging out with his baby brother. Years couldn’t estrange us. He was perfectly content with extended periods of solitude and equally comfortable in a crowd of people. He never had to be the center of attention. But he was hard to miss. When we arrived at the site, my high school friends and I gathered branches and twigs for the fire. Eric came out of the woods with a tree trunk across his back. If you wanted a real bon fire, Eric was the Viking to invite.
I moved to Virginia. I met Heidi. We married and had children. Born on the Pacific coast, I was now making a life on the Atlantic seaboard. My siblings and I were scattered, but I was the outlier hanging on the eastern edge of America. I landed a contract to install office furniture overseas and invited Eric out to join me. We assembled desks by the hundreds in Naples, Italy. We climbed Vesuvius, walked on the ancient streets of Pompeii, and sipped cappuccinos together in Capri. We built cubicles together in Rota, Spain and pool tables at Oceana Naval Base in Virginia Beach.
We ended up working together for nearly five years. He lived with us, sharing a room with my older boys. In some ways, they were reliving my childhood. I gained a love of reading, crafting, and working through osmosis from my brother. My sons would soak it in from their uncle.
Working with Eric was poetry in motion, a sibling synergy I will treasure all of my days. Each anticipated the other’s moves. We could communicate with a glance, pass tools and material to each other like a dance, swap whole jokes with just a punch line, and roar together in shared joy as the rest of the crew just shook their heads. He used to tell me his friends in Spain always wondered how he could have worked for his younger brother. “I tell them I loved working with you. It was no problem for me. At work, you were the boss. At home, I was the older brother.” Proud men put on airs. Eric was a humble soul. He poured out love.
With the exception of my brother John, all my children have had the blessing of knowing their uncles and aunt. But they grew up with their Tío Eric. I was very young when my family left California, still young when I moved away from home base. My sons and daughters were somewhat isolated from my side of the family until Eric came. Through him, they would taste their grandmother’s cooking, hear their great-grandfather’s laughter, sense their forefather’s craft. He widened their context. He was a gift to us all.
A decade into his life with us in Virginia, he reconnected with the love of his youth, Marisa Mateu. Theirs is a love story written by the hand of God. Eric was always rugged, on the edge of the wild. He pitched a tent once to camp out for the night on a plot of land he and my brother Timothy were buying in Arkansas. He left the camp site six months later. Marisa tamed the lone wolf with love. They had been sweethearts as teenagers, lost contact for thirty years, and reunited through a series of events that began with one of my employees, moved through my best friend in grade school, and culminated with their marriage in 2007. After Jesus, Marisa was the best thing that ever happened to my brother.
Eric lived the last years of his life in Spain, the country that was always home for us. He and Marisa made it possible for my wife and children to see where I grew up and walk the streets I ran on as a child. As a married man with seven children, I am seldom lonely. But being able to be over there with them and my brother made me forever less alone than I was. Eric had a knack for giving gifts that kept on giving.
I have gone long. Eric would say, “Too many notes, Mozart.” I disagree. Were I able to write an entire opera, it would not be enough.
How close were Eric and I? Closer than cousins is an understatement. We shared the womb. We shared a room. We lived together as children and adults. We worshipped together. We worked together. We walked together. “Close” is insufficient to describe the nearness of heart. He was one of the very few people on earth who knew me inside out, forward and back, warts and all, and loved me still.
We both had US passports, but our citizenship is in heaven. He is there with our fathers, our mother, and our brothers in the presence of our Lord. I find comfort in the sure hope that the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, will come and transform this body to be like His glorious body and I will embrace my brother again. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.