I grew up in a family of three sisters, but I once had a brother. Brian was eight months older than I… my first cousin actually, son of my Mom’s sister, Greta. When we were just old enough to develop memories, Brian was there, living across the court in one of those one-story, U-shaped California apartment buildings that once proliferated in So. Calif. Actually our whole family lived there: aunts, uncles, grandparents, Brian’s family and mine…an Irish-Catholic commune of sorts, where we were often passed from adult to adult for watching, where women might gather to cook or chat in one apartment, men in another for cards or whiskey, and the kids in another for endless games.
In my fifth year, we moved to an actual house a few miles away, but for some reason, Brian seemed to come with us. Each Friday he would arrive and weekends were our time. Brian spent a lot of time alone at home, his older brother, Terry, being more sports-minded, making more friends. But Brian seemed to prefer the action and adventure of our house and we definitely preferred each other’s company. On each weekend and through every summer, we were inseparable. There are few memories that I have from childhood that do not include Brian.
Our particular block had about two dozen kids, ranging from 4-10. While there were a few who were older, Brian and I were the unofficial generals of the block…well, generals is too martial, we were more like ringleaders in a circus. Kids would show up at the house on Saturday morning just to see what was going to happen that day. We would announce, “Today we have a water carnival, a play, or a butterfly hunt, or, in fact, a circus. Everyone would be assigned a role and the event was on. Now these events often included minor mayhem for some of the younger kids, as they were the only ones who might fit into the space capsule or the sailing flexi, or be light enough to ride the parachute off the garage. One summer we invented the skill of moving from one end of the block to the other without ever touching the ground. Scrambling across back fences, through trees, over garages, it was a mark of achievement to complete the circuit, especially through the horrifying dog yard, where a slip of the grip would promise instant Doberman action. There are now spread across California, a number of kids who owe us thanks for an interesting childhood and perhaps a few scars. My two younger sisters seem to have both and they appreciate them to this day. The block fence crawl became an initiation rite for many a new kid over those years.
I think that I was a fairly easy going kid, pretty much open to the entertainment that presented itself. But Brian was a schemer and it was his wont to invent entertainment which often ranged from the shady to the outright illicit. I was always pleased to jump right onboard. A simple scheme might just involve access to cookies, or how to get the dog into the house unnoticed. A more elaborate plan would include spying on an attractive neighbor, terrorizing the kid next door who slept in a tent in the backyard all summer, or, his favorite, any money-making scheme.
Perhaps our most illegal, yet innocent activity was to sneak into neighboring houses when they were away for summer vacation (OK, burglarize), but not to steal things. We simply liked to see their stuff, to see how they lived. Well, perhaps a few pieces of candy went missing, but never anything more serious. We just liked the experience.
And, yes, Brian liked money…or at least what money could buy. He particularly liked tipping. When we went to Vegas with my folks, Brian would tip the doorman, the waiters, the bellman, and the pool boy….this stayed with him throughout his life. Brian was good with waiters, and was a dream uncle, as Brian was fond of slipping a kid a few bucks, “just so he would have money in his pockets.”
Together we coveted fine things. By the age of ten, we were secretly aspiring to the Playboy lifestyle, idolizing Frank Lloyd Wright, and designing sunken bars, indoor-outdoor pools (grottos), conversation pits, and of course elaborate defense systems into our imaginary modern pads. Odd as it may seem now, we would jump right on the Sunday paper, not for the comics, but for the Home section, which always featured the latest in modern home plans. We had sketchbooks filed with the wildest conceptions of homes which we would share with each other, both freely adding gun turrets, secret rooms, moats, or helipads. We never drew log cabins. Brian seemed born to pursue elegant living, though we grew up in less than elegance. He never let go of it. He became successful as an adult and always lived in stylish homes and drove the coolest cars. Cars were another passion of his. Brian could name any car on the road from a distance and the annual unveiling of next year’s models was an event that we fawned over. Of course, we were of the right age and in the right age, the mid 50’s, the cultural apex of car design: the Corvette, the T-Bird, the XKE, even the unfortunate Edsel, which we tried to like, but never did. As an adult, he often drove Corvettes.
I do not recall a summer vacation with my family that did not include Brian. Perhaps it was just a compensatory balance for my having three sisters, but I am sure that they knew Brian and I could entertain each other indefinitely. The most common trip was a couple of weeks in Yosemite, where we would have our own tent cabin and the freedom to follow marauding bears in the evening and climb the rocks of Yosemite valley in day-long wars of every imaginable kind, most of which involved a lot of sneaking around in rocks. We met adults for meals and this worked perfectly for us. We served Mass in the Yosemite chapel and we both came to associate nature as a much preferable place to find God, if He did in fact exist…we had collectively begun to have our doubts, if not about God, then about the Church that we grew up in.
Brian was bright and more world-wise than I. It did not occur to me until much later that the eight months he had on me was quite significant as far as development, at least when we were quite young. By the time I was 12, the family moved to Santa Monica and Brian and I were finally in the same school, able to focus our by then well-developed skills of organization into small power bases and endless advantages.
We were altar boys together…. not on its face exceptional, except that Brian realized that it would get us out of class endlessly to serve funerals, let us serve weddings for good money on Saturdays, and let us look at the tongues and closed-eyed religious fervor of every girl in the school during communion. When school got boring, Brian would finagle a priest to let us visit the sick with him and maybe hit a few golf balls after. By high school, Brian realized that his real power was as a kingmaker. Over our four years at St. Monica’s, not a single person was elected Student Body President without Brian as his campaign manager. For Brian invented the position and then became a four year Commissioner of Publicity. Every banner that went up in the school came through Brian. On the other hand, I became the co-editor of the school newspaper, the Mariner, and between us we controlled information in the school, helping adolescent fortunes rise and fall and shining lights where we pleased. If ever there was a 16 year old power broker, Brian was it.
We both always had part-time jobs in those years, beginning with our dual Mirror News routes. While, by high school, I moved on to a busy busboy career, Brian landed a job delivering papers at St. John’s hospital, eventually moving to surgical central supply. Byhis early 20’s Brian was the youngest administrator in any Southern California hospital, becoming head of admissions at St. John’s. His first efforts included sending the entire admission staff to spend a few days under the guidance of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where they could get a better sense of welcoming people. He realized that admission to a hospital could be frightening, and Brian made certain that every new “guest” felt anticipated and welcomed. He also introduced a strange new tool called the computer, which would collect information and assign rooms in an efficient manner. By his late 20’s, Brian was recruited by Centinela Hospital to be the administrator for the new Sports Medicine clinic growing up around Drs. Jobe and Kerlan and the new LA Laker team.
Brian and I drifted apart somewhat in high school, if not at school, in our social lives. I was much more social than he, or at least attracted to a different crowd. I began to party more and Brian seemed to work all of the time, mostly at St. Johns. Brian’s dad, Jimmy, died of cancer when Brian was in the 5th or 6th grade. This left Brian with his mother, who was not the nurturing sort. Terry managed to escape the house to the seminary at 12, leaving Brian with a self-serving mother. Thus, work was often
a respite from going home to live in a one bedroom apartment with Greta. He slept in a chair that folded out to a single bed. There was another factor working, but it had not yet raised its head. Just after high school, Brian shared with me that he was gay. I did not have to explain to him that I wasn’t. Yet, our relationship was such that I offered that whatever young sexual explorations that we shared together had simply spoiled him for anyone else. Yes, at the time he blamed his mother, but later reflection , I am told, led him to believe that he was born gay. But after our initial conversations, I never had the opportunity to talk about it with him again. It made no difference to me; it made no difference to us…so we just went on.
At eighteen, I got drafted. Through a series of miracles, I was able to land in an Air Force Reserve unit for a 32 month stint as a medic. About half-way through, I got a desperate call from Brian that he too had his number called and he was due to report. By that time, all reserve units were closed, except for perhaps for the children of the well-connected. I visited my Senior Master Sergeant that afternoon and described Brian’s medical background and skills. He told me to send Brian to him and suddenly Brian was spared Vietnam.
It was a year later when I saw Brian at Xmas. I had served a busy 20 months and was home waiting for my orders. He took me aside and said, “Do you recall that little favor you did for me last year?” I did. “Well I think that I have repaid it.” He related that he was working alone in the medical records office, processing files for active airmen who were ready for reassignment or inactive duty….and there was my file. He smiled to himself and dropped my Air Force documents into the inactive duty file, which went off to the records center in Colorado. I enrolled in classes at the local college and kept waiting for a call from the Air Force. It never came. About a year later, a letter arrived from the government, asking if there was a national emergency was I ready to serve again. I thought for a second and checked “Sure”. That was the last that I heard from the Air Force (Until, years later, when I applied to teach overseas. I had to send for my discharge papers. I wrote the Air Force and they replied, “Sorry, we did not have an address for you”. And thus my service came to a close, just after I had my degree from Cal.)
In the ’70s, Brian went off to Lubbock, Texas, earning a Masters in Marketing and Hospital Administration, and began to find himself as a gay man. He returned to the Southland to find success in a variety of positions rehabilitating failing hospitals. By the ’80s, he was living in Laguna Beach and life was, well, gay. Brian came out to the broader family not long after his mother died, though the younger family knew for years. He threw a big party in his Laguna Beach house and invited the aunts. Co-hosting the party was Brian’s flamboyant partner, Brad. Clad in tight white shorts and a pastel shirt, Brad played the piano and knew every tune, especially Irish ones. He was like a dainty, musical Robert Redford. By the end of the evening, my Mom and aunts were all taken by him and Brian was officially out. My mother loved Brian as one of her own and her only response to me was, “If God made Brian gay, he must have known what he was doing.” I was so proud of her.
Then the first of his friends died. And then another. Brian suffered a back injury in a falling elevator, causing him to retire from hospital administration. Wishing to also escape the tragedies unfolding in the gay community, he and Brad moved to Oregon and bought a small ranch near the Rogue River. He told me that he wanted to raise dogs, but in fact he just gathered lots of dogs around him and gave a shot at raising pigmy goats instead.
I dug in to run a small boarding school and raise a family, which took all that I had. By the next time we saw each other, he was very thin. He had sold the ranch and was down to a couple of dogs in a one story place on the Rogue River. His brother, Terry, had married a big-hearted Canadian nurse named Maureen, and she pretty much moved to Oregon to care for Brian. Brad was around, but was not able to give much support. We sat on a couch in the living room. I quietly shared the recent dissolution of my marriage and he then gave my kids a sweeping lesson in Irish history.
My last visit with Brian is etched on my heart. As my next school year came to a close, I left the kids at home this time and shot up the coast to Oregon. My heart sunk when I saw him. At 6’2”, Brian was down to about 70lbs. He would doze and wake and I would sit on the deck above the river with Maureen, smoking a little of the pot that I brought for him, and simply being present in the moment. As Brian needed bathed, I volunteered. I stripped him down and then stripped myself down and carried him into the shower, where we stood in a naked embrace while I scrubbed him. “I hope that you are enjoying this”, I said. And he whispered “Indeed I am, thanks.” I toweled him and carried him back to bed. He then whispered something else: “How about a wee scotch…in my crystal glasses?” So I trooped off to find his Waterford crystal and pour a drop of the good stuff. It really was only a drop. I barely wet his lips with it, but he smiled and whispered again.
“What was that?”, I said.
“We certainly gave each other a childhood, didn’t we?”
And I toasted that we certainly did. He went to sleep and he was asleep again when I left in the morning.
Brian left me a bit of money when he died. He spread it around the family really, mostly supporting the education of his nephews and nieces. I used my share to contribute to a place called Christopher House, a home in Ventura, CA, where an AIDS victim (it now had a name) could go to die with dignity and love. While Brian had a family that loved him, many gay men had suffered rejection from their families and were facing their end alone. I am sure that Brian would have approved.
I once had a brother that I loved deeply. We gave each other a childhood. If there is a heaven, I am sure that St. Peter got a good tip at the gate.