A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Somehow, my older brother Bob seems to be defying laws of aging.
A little past his 80th year, my only sibling still appears to be in terrific shape and is as active as ever, diligently working as usual on multiple projects at the same time. His only real problem is a hearing loss.
Yet I've started to notice subtle changes when we get together on my infrequent trips to New York. Some difficulty recalling recent events. Occasional confusion, trouble concentrating and handling everyday tasks. He also tells me he's been withdrawing from social activities.
Being 15 years younger, I urge Bob to see a doctor. He tells me not to worry and he reluctantly agrees.
It turns out that my concerns are justified. After a series of medical examinations and tests, the diagnosis is a mix of brain disorders known collectively as dementia that has launched a clandestine attack.
Bob was an easy target for a relentlessly cruel aggressor. He is told that conditions associated with dementia will get worse, further reducing his thinking skills and affecting his behavior, feelings and relationships.
When we discuss the situation, Bob tries to put a positive spin on the news. But I know there is no cure. He will lose the fight no matter how much he resists, like countless dementia victims before him.
I can't help thinking of the irony. This is the man who liked to tell people that he had been such a "lucky guy" over the years.
Never injured during military service at the peak of World War II. Getting through college despite a serious shortage of money. Becoming an engineer with success in business. Blessed with a smart, loving wife and two attractive children.
And he would tell people that he was optimistic about the future, too.
Dementia is an insidious disease, and Bob’s hearing loss added to the impact. He became depressed, angry and frustrated -- especially when trying to talk on a telephone to his family and friends. He simply couldn't follow a lot of what was said.
The communications hurdle was particularly big for me, living 700 miles away in Ohio. The only way I could stay in touch with him regularly was by phone. I resolved to make the best of it, and so did he.
When I'd call, he'd greet me as “little brother,” and add something like: "I've got 15 years on you and you'll always be little in my book."
That age gap kept us from having the kind of close relationship that most brothers develop as youngsters. We grew up separately. But in the course of our phone conversations, I realized that he most enjoyed talking about memorable experiences that we had shared..
One day, we truly connected when I described my earliest recollection of him. His homecoming after the war. Walking down the street to our house, wearing his Army uniform and carrying a fully loaded duffle bag. Our family and neighbors were so glad to welcome him. I was only about 6 years old.
And we laughed when I reminded him of our dinner that night. Mom served cooked beets. I didn’t like them, but was forced to have some. Bob insisted that he loved them, but claimed with a straight face that an Army general ordered him never to eat them. No one believed him, but it worked.
While he was home, I couldn't get enough of him and we had loads of fun. Pillow fights. Throwing smelly socks at each other. "Shooting" paper clips at boats after we built them and had them floating in our bathtub.
Then there was the time he taught me to ride a bike. With his hand on the seat behind me, he kept assuring that he was there while I pedaled slowly. I gradually gained confidence -- until I saw that I was on my own at the top of our downhill driveway.
"Keep going, don't worry," he shouted as my bike picked up speed on a downward slope. Then I heard him yelling “hit the brakes, hit the brakes,” but it was too late. He had not shown me how to do that. I rode smack into the back wall of our open garage.
Unfortunately, just when I had gotten to know Bob, he went off to college in another state. We never lived in the same house again. Or even the same zip code. If only we had been closer in age…
Eventually, we both started families. There were some reunions, of course, but not often enough to offset geographic distances. Our lives drifted apart in the most fundamental, personal terms.
Much of all that came back to me during our phone conversations as he was struggling with dementia. One day, I sensed an uncommon strength in his voice. I decided to turn on a tape recorder, thinking it would be nice to hear our reminiscence again later.
Earlier that day, I saw televised ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and wondered if he would remember my calling him minutes after the first crash at the World Trade Center. We talked on and on that day while the horrors unfolded. He had not forgotten.
That was really something. Sure hope nothing like that happens again in my lifetime. But it could, you know. It's not so hard to fly a plane into a building if you have any skill at all. I used to be a pilot, you know.
Suddenly, he was veering off in a totally different direction, and focusing extremely well for a change.
Hey, do you remember a guy named David Mintzer? He was my pal, my buddy, my best friend. Funny, I never hear anybody say "pal" anymore. Why is that? I was thinking about him recently. If I hadn't gotten to know him, my life probably would have been a lot different.
Bob continued without pausing, as if he had stepped back in time.
As I started my last year in high school, we moved to a new apartment. One day, I found out David and his parents lived in the one right next to ours. It took a while for us to become friends. He was a year younger and we didn't have any classes together.
For months, we passed each other in the hall without a word until he said "hello" one afternoon. We started talking, didn't stop for about 3 hours. That's how we became pals.
One day, he asked me which college I’d be attending after graduation. He was shocked when I told him I would just be getting a job. Are you out of your mind, he asked. Didn't you talk to your parents about college yet?
The truth was that nobody at school or in my family had encouraged me to think about college, or mentioned the possibility. My father saw no need for it. He didn't even go to high school because his family made him start working right after elementary school. And he didn't have any money set aside to send me to college.
But David kept after me. If it weren't for him, I never would've asked my folks for help. I knew I needed a lot of money from them. Money they hadn't expected to spend then, near the end of the Depression, and money they didn't have anyway.
What happened next, I asked.
Somehow, my dad came up with some cash to send me, at least enough to start classes. I enrolled at the city university, determined to become an engineer.
I might have stayed if it hadn't been for World War II. I dropped out to enter the army and got sent to Europe. But I was lucky. Made it through combat without injuries and as soon as I came home, I headed back to college on the GI bill. All due to David. I'd really like to get in touch with him again. Find out what he did with his life.
After a moment, I saw it -- an opportunity to do something nice for Bob. If I could locate David, maybe they could talk again for the first time in some 60 years. Did he have any idea where David might be, I asked.
I heard many years ago that he'd become a professor, and I've got an email address for him, but I haven't tried it. Somebody gave it to me. Maybe you.
Not me. This was the first time I'd heard him mention David's name in decades. I asked for the address.
It's DavidMintzer@nwu.edu. Does that tell you anything?
An unusual name. Going to my computer for an internet search, I found a David Mintzer at Northwestern University north of Chicago. He had been a full professor in the physics field, then vice president of the school in charge of all scientific research.
Mighty impressive, I thought, but was it Bob's old friend? And the reference indicated that Mintzer had been gone for some 20 years. If he had stopped using that email address, he'd never see a message from my brother..
Checking further, I found two residential addresses for a David Mintzer -- one in a Chicago suburb, the other in southern California. It made sense. A man retires and keeps his house, but also gets another home in a warmer place. One more online search yielded a phone number. I read it twice to Bob, asking him to write it down. Then I encouraged him to try it soon.
But deep down, I knew Bob wouldn’t make the call, so I did and reached David Mintzer in California. Believe it or not, he lived only a few blocks away from the house where I lived before moving to Ohio. I knew I had the right man as soon as I identified myself and the reason for my call.
“You’re Bobby’s little brother?" he nearly shouted in excitement.
. "How is he? Where Is he? How can I get in touch with him?”
I told him how to reach “Bobby” in New York and David called immediately My brother told me right afterward that he was thrilled to hear from David and that they had a “marvelous” conversation, catching up on some of the most important developments in their lives. As it ended a couple of hours later, they agreed to make arrangements for a reunion.
Unfortunately, time ran out for Bob before that could happen.
I wish I could remember a lot more about Bob. And I regret that I didn’t understand more of what Bob was thinking and doing. Maybe if I had not been so much younger.
But there was time enough for Bob to set enduring standards for me -- strength of character, determination to be his own man, willingness to speak his mind without worrying what others might think, doing what he thought was right without pausing to see how others would act.
And even if things didn’t go his way, which happened often enough, he would say “I’m a lucky guy."
Hard to believe that my brother has been gone five years already, and that I still look occasionally at a condolence note from one of my "pals." It ended this way: “The heart that has truly loved never forgets.”
Richard Lerner, creator of this website, was a reporter, writer and editor for news organizations in Washington, DC and California.