My brother Brad lived simply. He cared for animals and friends. He did not think so much about the goals of the future as he did about the feelings of the person he could help today. When he graduated from high school, I couldn’t think of his potential future either. A typewriter did not seem the right gift, nor a suitcase. I gave him a blue tie and socks to match his blue leisure suit. He would need it on his final journey, three weeks later.
That same month my brother Brad graduated from high school, my parents left our childhood home and took a job in another city. He stayed behind and took a job stringing pea vines with friends at a local farm. They worked the graveyard shift. Driving home in the early morning hours on a country lane, the driver veered off the road and crashed into a telephone pole. He and the other boys were all thrown from the car and hurt badly, but only Brad had known he should strap himself in with a seat belt. He hit the pole and died instantly.
My older brother had to identify the body. The rest of our siblings lived in other towns. I sat in the kitchen and stared at the yellow linoleum when he first called to tell me the news. An inexplicable sense of peace filled my heart before I could visualize the horror of the accident. I know now the source of this peace.
You see, Brad visited each of us, offering the same comfort he gave to every suffering chick or cat or friend in life. I felt a strange joy that he had graduated–not to go off to college, but to set out on a journey I could only imagine. In that moment, he seemed to stifle my tears. I could not cry over a life lived with such purpose—the purpose of innate compassion we struggle with as humans and yet which defines our humanity.
One of Brad’s friends had been thrown from the car, and spent four days in a coma. Everyone hovered around his bed, trying not to mention anything that might upset him, for fear he could hear. When this young man awoke from his coma and sat up, he immediately asked about the funeral. Everyone turned to him in shock.
“How did you know someone died?” they asked.
“Brad has been here with me for four days,” he said, “comforting me and telling me you all shouldn’t worry. He wants you to know that he is at peace, and is where he needs to be. He has other things to do now.” You cannot imagine the peace that news brought my mother.
At his funeral, friends had come from far and wide to tell of the ways he had encouraged them through their addictions, their family problems and their depressions. Still, thirty years passed before the past came at me full force. The moment came when I took my own children to visit my childhood home, thinking of the brother who had so much to teach us in childhood. We stood in front of the neighbor’s now-empty house, staring up the tall front steps to where a young boy once sat, alone, waiting for Brad to come get him on Halloween and take him by the hand and find him a costume and a candy sack and show him a little love.
As I told my children of Brad’s simple acts of encouragement, I broke down sobbing for the first time in all those many years. I cried over the goodness of my curly-haired brother, who had come after me and left before me. He quietly shared the art of listening to others he met along the way throughout this short life. He saw their tossing to and fro when others could not see it, and he knew just when to pull them up out of the churning waters. He quietly acted out his purpose, simply by understanding the plight of others without judging. Brad’s friendships were lined with the kind of compassion that helps a person hold the anchor without falling in. Learning this secret early, perhaps, freed him to go while the rest of us stayed.
I think of my brother, the fisher of hearts, each time I see a young boy in an ill-fitting Halloween costume walking beside a slightly taller friend.
Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression… Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring…a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93.