This is my oldest brother, Ray. He’s in characteristic pose, balancing on an old tree limb, above a murky trickle of a creek in a Cook County forest preserve. Ray would scoop mud from the beds of waterways like this and keep it in a jar and watch with fascination what crawled and swam from the oozing mess.
Today would have been Ray’s 72 birthday. As it is, he lived to celebrate only 28 birthdays in his life. He died so long ago, my memories are simply sensory — an image, a smell, a feeling of gladness, happiness or comfort. I recall some key moments. Mostly I recall missing him and now as I look back on the spent years I see mostly how his living and his leaving changed me and changed everything in my family.
I see Ray in the basement, blowing up plastic models of WWII boats. He’d fashion flame and smoke out of cotton and stick it in the boat stacks and explode the boats with firecrackers in basins of water. And I see Ray bringing home crayfish to live in the basement sink. Ray deeply influenced my reading habits — it was because of him that I read Sartre at the age of 11 and other existential writers way beyond my level of comprehension. He would write creatively and it is probably because of him that I too wanted to be a writer.
Ray was a typical young man of the 60s. One day I and my preteen girl friends hid in my room devouring his Playboys. Behind closed doors, we each held up a copy, pin up unfolded in front of us and wiggled behind the images of full formed women, talking seductively in our squeaky little girl voices.
I recall that when he entered the living room at my parents house he would have the keys out and they would make a jingling noise. He would wash the car with suds on Saturdays and wore a varsity letter sweater from Lane Tech High School (we still have it). Ray loved all creatures without discrimination. I was terrified of spiders, and when I was a preteen Ray captured one in his hands and came toward me, hands folded closed, saying “Don’t be afraid – look! He’s more afraid of you …” I shrieked and went into a panic. It didn’t work. I still don’t like the creepy guys much.
There’s so much to say about Ray and the goodness of him and the sadness we all still feel that he left us so early. In many ways, as my parent’s first born, he was the promise of the family. Seven years older than I, he was the grown up I could talk to.
When I was ready to join the flower power movement at the age of 18 — it was Ray who tried to talk me out if it. I didn’t listen and I went to California with friends. The $100 bill in my shoe lasted only so long and I came home defeated about three months later. That dream was mostly over.
Ray was living on his own then, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Miami. He was married and worked at the same engineering firm as my dad.
I was still adrift in some ways, hungry to feed an adventurer’s heart, traveling out West and back repeatedly. Just three years after my first trip, I was camping at Yellow Pines, a backpacker’s camp in Yosemite Valley. For three days, sadness overwhelmed me during the two mile hike back and forth between the camp and Curry Village. I had called home every day but nobody picked up. Finally on a Thursday night, my baby sister answered. She told me Ray had died. I don’t recall what she said or her voice. I just remember the phone dangling from its cord where I had dropped it. I wailed under the moon, crying to the silver granite cliffs, then hitchhiked a ride to the Fresno Airport and took a plane home at midnight so I could attend Ray’s funeral the next day in Chicago on a steamy Friday, Aug. 13.
Those events changed my life so profoundly. I still struggle to see the path of events and the trail they left.
He left us in a mysterious way, and I recently learned something that holds the key to his leaving. It holds understanding and relief and could eclipse the tragedy with something resembling pride. But I need to understand it better before I share it.
Today on his birthday, I remember Ray and I remember the beauty of him and what he brought to all of us. I see the seeds of his short good life in the best days of my own.
His life was a rock in the river of my life and the lives of others who loved him. His presence changed the flow of events unpredictably and permanently.
Today on his birthday, I look behind and I look forward. I can see Ray balancing on this log with joy, in that moment, forever.