I am the youngest of seven children born under three marriages, but comprising only two constellations of siblings: Russell and Larum. I was perhaps six months old when my eldest brother Ronald went off to Vietnam. That should give you some sense of the remoteness the baby in the family can feel toward his oldest siblings. But ours was far from a normal family. “Blended” wouldn’t do it justice, so I leave that tale for another day.
Six boys and one girl, which means that both mom and sis were strong women in a way that could put to shame many a man I have known. Mom buried three husbands and two sons. I am very grateful she was already home to greet the latest departure. On Friday, September 29, 2017, Michael, my third-oldest brother, went home to be with his Lord and enjoy a family reunion I can only hope for. And then there were four.
One would think that having six siblings would minimize the intense sense of loss somewhat. But it doesn’t. Seven is the full set. Anyone missing leaves us less. I felt this first at the news of my brother John’s death in 1992. He was only forty-three; I was nearly twenty-eight and already overly familiar with the process of grief having lost my father when I was thirteen. As I recall it, I was deep into a construction project with my son Nikolai—a toddling two-year-old who loved stacking the blocks up into imaginary castles almost as much as I did—when I received the news. I was totally unprepared for my reaction: shock, sorrow, and relief. Relief? Yes, relief. I suppose it is time to introduce you to my brother John.
John was my mother’s second son. She was a recently minted nineteen-year-old when she had him. Though young, the drama of life had already swept her into a tale that would ultimately rival any soap opera and still surprises audiences when I tell it. John was the only boy among us with black hair. “You don’t look like the rest of them,” folks would often say. “If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that,” was his frequent reply. The rest of us boys were redheads. Barbara stood out because she was the girl. John, well, John was different.
All my siblings are charming, but I admit I am biased. John was charming in a way that would make women who knew better swoon. Handsome, athletic, driven, brilliant and armed at an early age with a sociopathic lack of conscience, John was an exhilarating and dangerous roller coaster to ride. As life would have it, he was the older sibling who showed up on the scene to “help” my mother when my father was dying of emphysema and lung cancer. “Help” meant that he was there to engage and challenge his teenaged baby brothers, Timothy and Nikolas (that’s me on the left—people often confused us even though our names only share two letters), who were the last left at home. And “help” is in quotes because his move to Arkansas from California wasn’t motivated by any sense of obligation or altruism. Narcotics officers were hot on his tail and he thought it best to let his California market fade away in his rearview mirror.
John taught us all the things older brothers shouldn’t teach their younger siblings and a few that they absolutely should. The shoulds ran the range from expanding my literary horizons to knowing how to put my fist through wood if necessary. The should-not’s I won’t list, except for this one: if you want to score a million dollars, don’t try stealing it from one guy; instead, find a way to con a million people out of a buck. That was John, the consummate conman.
Our last conversation was a godsend. We must have talked on the phone for nearly two hours. I laughed so hard I couldn’t cry anymore. “I finally got your number from Mother, but she still wouldn’t give me your address,” he said. I laughed. “John, you know I love you. I simply can’t afford you.” He laughed. Good times. He died of an overdose not long after that call. It was like having a chunk of my heart pulled out. I was sad he was gone and relieved that the danger had passed.
2007 was a monumental year for me. In June of that year, I began a new career in waste management. After nearly twenty years working in the installation and warehousing side of the commercial office furnishings industry, I landed a job managing a materials recovery facility. Essentially, I went from opening cardboard boxes to recycling them. I knew next to nothing about waste hauling and even less about running a processing facility. Fourteen-hour days were not uncommon and the commute simply added to the load. It was about midday on a Thursday when my wife called me with the news. There was no easy way to say it. My brother Timothy had passed away the night before. I have never been a big Halloween fan. His death on October 31, 2007, didn’t improve my opinion of the day any.
Classic me, I tried to keep working. I think I was able to function for about an hour and half before I admitted to myself the impossibility of it. I had to go home. Tim was my Irish twin. He was No. 6 to my No. 7, the only other biological child of my father. I should have been prepared for my reaction to the news: shock, sorrow, and ultimately relief. Relief? Yes, relief. Please let me explain.
Timothy wasn’t dangerous like John. As far as I know, he never ran a con in his life. He loved his family, cherished our mother, and adored his daughter. He was physically talented and fearless. I see cliffs as something to climb. He climbed cliffs to find higher ground to dive from. I learned to fight for self-preservation. He liked to fight for fun. I had to teach myself how to laugh out loud. His laughter could always shake the room and was more infectious than Ebola. Though some may disagree, I believe my head outweighs my heart. His heart was always bigger than his head.
Timothy taught me to dance, got me hooked on restaurant work, and had a way of talking me into schemes I should have known better to avoid—like driving him and his best friend to a party because mom never said I couldn’t take the car, never mind that I was only fourteen and unlicensed. In many ways, ours was a case of classic sibling rivalry. But our conflicts were always tempered with an abiding affection for each other. Being last in line, we experienced the most together. It was a treasure trove of memories none of the other siblings had in common. News of his death was like taking a .45-slug to the chest. The hole is still there.
My last conversation with him was a godsend. I was at work checking on one of our auxiliary warehouses when he called me on my cell phone. He was distraught over many things. He had recently been assaulted at a gas station by a group of thugs who felt he had cut them off on the highway. The experience had left him humbled and profoundly shaken. Our brother Eric, with whom we were both very close, had moved back to Spain. To make matters worse, the Spain we had grown up in no longer existed. Prone to nostalgia, the physical loss of the country he grew up in left his identity somewhat adrift. Last but not least, his little girl was going to be a legal adult and the chances of her deciding to move out to him were slim to none. There was really ever only one salve for our wounds: Jesus.
As I spoke with Timothy, we encouraged one another in our faith. I believe I helped him define his distress and in doing so, brought some relief. If the above leads you to believe that the conversation was sad and somber because of its content, then I can only surmise that the reader hasn’t spent much personal time in the company of Larums. That is not our way. There are few traumas that we can’t laugh our way through. Aside from the usual jocularity, the joy of this conversation was in the shared hearts of brothers who truly knew each other.
Timothy worked hard and played harder. He died of a heroin overdose. Mother said he must have been shocked to come to and see Jesus. She believed as I do that the high was his aim, not suicide. He was only forty-four years old.
Hard as John was to live with, Mother never fully recovered from his death. Timothy was the only honest-to-goodness mamma’s boy among us. I feared she would sink in the sorrow of his passing and never return to us. She proved me wrong. She was always surprising like that. I had been casting about in my mind for how to broach the subject of God’s mercy in Timothy’s exit with her. She kindly beat me to the punch. “Sad as I am,” she said, “I am thankful he went that way. Maybe God allowed it to save us all from something worse. What if he had gotten into an accident drunk behind the wheel and killed someone? He wouldn’t have been able to live with that. I think God was merciful to us.” That is what I mean by relief.
My earliest memory of Timothy and Michael is the same. Ron and Mike were playing catch with Tim in the living room of our California home. Timothy was the ball and he was having a blast. Having older brothers over six feet tall when you are a toddler is like having your own personal amusement park. If Timothy wasn’t an adrenalin junkie at birth, he certainly was one by the age of three.
My next memory of Michael was of him working on our mother’s car. It was an Opel coupe. I recall coming out of the house and walking down the driveway just in time to see him reach under the hood, pick the engine up, and set it down on the ground. Did I mention that Michael was big? Some people don’t believe in giants. I grew up with them.
An imposing six-and-a-half feet tall, Michael was a gearhead and a consummate prankster. When Charles Manson was going helter-skelter, Michael was knocking on the neighbors’ doors and keeling over with a toy knife protruding from his chest, his white t-shirt smeared with ketchup. I don’t know if he ever encountered an engine he didn’t think needed to come apart. He worked as a lumberjack, married young, had two children, and ultimately found his way to being employed by IBM. My grease monkey, lumberjack, giant of a brother wound up being an executive in a high-tech computer company. Folks who may consider me to be loud and perhaps a bit obnoxious have little appreciation for the din of brilliance I grew up under. As the baby, I had to be persistent to be heard. If that didn’t work, I got louder.
Our last conversation was a godsend. Michael suffered a catastrophic stroke early in 2012. We were unsure at the time if he would survive it. He did, but not entirely. Strokes have a way of removing restraint on certain aspects of personality. Certain aspects of Michael’s personality were in continual need of restraint. His wife and children were heroic in his care, but not without a price. Eventually, my nephew Matthew had to set Michael’s phone to receive only. I had not called him in some time. My sister Barbara reached out to me to let me know Michael really wanted to hear from me. Were it not for her, I would have missed the opportunity.
I am ashamed to say that I never ventured out to California to see him in the nursing home. At first I was dealing with enough fires on the home front. But ultimately, it boiled down to plain selfishness. Selfishness and fear. I had made my way through cancer. I was weary of digging holes. I didn’t possess the courage to see him that way. I kept my distance. I’m the baby, gotta love me.
I called Michael and we had a beautiful talk. He reminisced about his last visit to Virginia. I had taken my two oldest boys, Nikolai and Gavin, to play disc golf with my brother Eric. While we were chatting in the park, an old geezer who looked like a slightly run over Mark Twain shuffled his way to us and started talking to the boys. It was all I could do to keep a straight face. Michael had them going a good while before he stood up to his imposing full height and removed his Billy Bob teeth to reveal himself. We still laugh about it. The kids were so impressed that my wife bought Billy Bob teeth for all to wear when they met the new dentist. The gag worked great. Thanks, Michael!
We talked about that epic day in the park, about the time he came to my church, about the grace of God, about the love of family. In his bed, paralyzed from the waist down and a good chunk of his brain missing, Michael talked with me as a loving, older brother. He asked about my life, about my kids, about my plans. How does someone love like that? Here I was, almost put out to call him. There he was, laid low in a nursing home loving on his baby brother. It leaves me undone.
He wrestled with survival, unsure of whether he wanted to stay or go. When the news came, the feelings were familiar: sorrow and relief. His suffering was over. His time had come. Mom had a party in heaven, I am sure.
I know our times are in His hands. I believe in the imminent return of Jesus Christ and hope to experience having my mortality swallowed up by life. But if that doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I know that my corruption will put on incorruption. All that being said, if I go before He comes the only one I want feeling any relief is the Devil. I want to be full of years and in a good old age. I want to be in the same shape as Moses, whose eye wasn’t dim nor his natural force abated.
Rest in peace, my brothers. The days of our reunion will by far outweigh the days of our lives.