24 August 2009


A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle. Prov. 18:19

This may be the most difficult piece I have ever written. It has taken me over a month.

My brother, Chris, passed away in Chicago on July 11. He was a bachelor and it was only several days later that my Sister and I learned of his passing.

An artist and designer, he fancied himself a man of the world, sophisticated and elite, one who enjoyed the erudite and clever society of the Second City. He was a world traveler and lived only in an adult society. He was also one of the angriest men I have ever known.

Our relationship over the years has been strained, to say the least. From my high school years forward, he seemed to take pleasure in pushing buttons and getting under my skin. For example, when I was serving in Vietnam, he wrote to me announcing that he had participated in Moratorium Day activities “to end your stupid, bloody war.” There’s a morale builder.

During the 1980’s, my Mom visited me at Marine Corps Base, Quantico. On a Sunday morning, we attended services at Memorial Chapel, a church built in the Virginia colonial style and used for religious services for the Base.

If you are ever in the Quantico area, about 40 miles south of DC on I-95, it is worth the effort to get a visitor’s pass and see the Chapel. The altar decking and altar rail are hard wood, made from teak decking from battleships and cruisers that fired in support of Marines in the Pacific. (There are small brass plates identifying the various ships. I always tried to get a position in the portion of the rail from USS California, sunk at Pearl Harbor and raised and refitted to rejoin the fray.)

When the Chapel was built in the 1950’s, it was decided that the windows would be etched glass rather than stained glass. Each window would recall one of the Wars in which the Corps had served, starting with the Revolution and continuing with the war against the Barbary pirates (“the shores of Tripoli”), the War of 1812, the Mexican War (“the halls of Montezuma”), the Civil War and through Korea. Each window contains an appropriate etching and a Bible verse.

On this visit, Mom asked to go to services early so she could see the Chapel. She was aware of the strain between Chris and me, and when she stopped at the Civil War window, she pointed to the verse, Proverbs 18:19. “That is you and your brother. Please try win the city.”

And I did try, but, to quote General A. A. Vandegrift “The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps.” As we engaged in our two or three lengthy telephone calls each year, Chris would invariably cast the bait and I would chomp down on it—hard! I left those calls in turmoil.

With the prayerful help of SWMBO, however, I began to strenuously work to avoid responding to the barbs.

I realized that I was making some progress in 2004. We were having dinner together in Chicago, and the first hour or so had been devoted to tales of recent trips and other benign activities. I had prayed for forbearance and steeled myself to roll with any verbal punches, but it was beginning to look as if he, too, had turned over a new leaf.

Then, out of the clear blue, he told me, “You’ll be surprised to hear that I will not vote for John Kerry.”

I merely nodded. “Yes,” he continued, “anyone who was too stupid to get out of going to that awful war is not smart enough to be President.” I ground several millimeters of enamel off my teeth, but God calmed me and I said nothing. Dinner ended soon thereafter and we parted.

We continued to exchange infrequent phone calls. He was a telephone junkie. Mom was his best friend, and they might exchange three or four long-distance calls per day, totaling several hours. She continued to let us both know that one of her dearest wishes was for us to be closer. In my last, lovely extended visit with her before her death, she repeated her request.

Initially, after her death in November 2007, the status quo ante prevailed. After dinner on the night of Mom’s memorial service, he reduced my 11 year old daughter, Horse Girl, to tears. It was her birthday and her combined birthday/Christmas gift was a horse. She was ecstatic.

His response was to belittle her, suggesting that when she was through with the horse, it could be put to good use as raw material for glue. When she began crying, he fell back on a typical response: “Oh, look, she’s crying. It was just conversation. Please, do grow up.”

I took her outside to calm her. “I apologize for your uncle. I don’t know why he does those things, but he has done them to me, to your Aunt Mary, and others all our lives. But I will promise you that he won’t do that to you again, OK?” She nodded, her cheeks still tear-stained.

After dinner, I took him aside. “Look, you can ping at me all you want, but from now on, treat my family with civility. Do not tell my little girl that she need s to 'grow up.' She is only 11. They have done nothing to offend you, and I won’t put up with it. I know that your group of friends have a very dry and cynical sense of humor, but an 11 year old does not need to be exposed to that, so knock it off.”

He huffed and puffed a bit, but nodded.

After that our phone calls took a turn for the better. Our last three or four conversations were the nicest I can remember since we were boys sharing a bed room at home. For that, I thank him and God. I do not have to live with the memory of a last angry conversation.

The pains of a lifetime are still there but they are healing. I pray that he has at last found peace.