Thirty years. I can’t believe it’s been thirty years. Thirty years since my older brother passed away from cancer at the young age of forty. I can never remember the exact date he died. I don’t know why. It’s either the 4th, 5th or 6th of January. Just like I can’t remember the exact date my mom died, February 5? Maybe it’s a mental block of some type, like my brain just shut down on those days.Darrell was buried on a cold, blustery, snow flurrying day on the side of a hill overlooking the lake at our local cemetery. I remember there were swans on the lake, but maybe that’s not a memory from that day, maybe it’s from some other time.
Darrell was a Major in the Air National Guard so his burial was accompanied by a uniformed soldier playing Taps. I remember standing there shivering, watching the soldier standing there at attention beneath a tree and wondering how he could play that trumpet in weather so cold. I bought a long, woolen winter coat for the funeral, the first dress coat I’d ever bought. I still have that coat and every time I put it on, I think of him.
Darrell and I were a little less than two years apart in age, but for whatever reason, we were never really close. The year he was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore, we had two classes together; Typewriting (what they call keyboarding now) and Journalism. I excelled at typing and stunk at Journalism; he stunk at Typewriting and excelled at Journalism. He excelled so much that he went on to get a Masters Degree in Journalism and wrote professionally for the rest of his life, a life that was sadly cut short by cancer. Most likely, it was the same type of cancer that had killed our dad twenty-three years before when he was only 45.
There were six of us in our family; five for quite a few years until our youngest brother was born. Darrell was the first, then me, then our brother Steve. Our youngest brother didn’t come along until eight years after Steve. He came along after our mom thought her family was complete and had finally talked Dad into letting her get a job.
Dad was an old-fashioned man who believed that his wife needed to be home and he was the one who went out to work each day. So instead of going to work, she stayed home and went back to raising a baby. And she stayed home, until she had to go to work. With dad gone and four children to feed and clothe and house, she had no other option but to go to work.
I always admired Darrell. He worked for two of the St. Louis newspapers and got to meet celebrities and sports stars. He even wrote two books, Harlequin-type romances under the pseudonym “Hope Richardson”. I don’t know what happened to those books. I only remember one of them and it was about a tennis star. The only other thing I remember is he used my birthdate in the story. I always thought that was really neat.
Not too long before he died, I want to tell him how proud I was of him. I was sitting beside him on his hospital bed and right as I began to talk, a nurse walked in. She started talking completely oblivious to the tender moment she interrupted. In our family, we were never demonstrative. We didn’t hug or kiss or really show any kind of affection so displaying my feelings was really difficult as I’m sure it was with him. But when the nurse interrupted us, that was the end of it. The moment was gone.
He started having stomach issues in 1991. He had gone to Africa with the Guard and I remember the doctor thought he might have picked up some kind of stomach bug there. They did all kinds of tests for the next couple of months and everything came back negative. Toward summer of 1992, fluid began collecting fluid in his abdomen but when they tested it, it too came back negative for cancer. We all cheered at that news. But a month or so later when they tested fluid taken from his back, it tested positive for cancer.
Darrell didn’t have medical insurance. I don’t know whether they did a colonoscopy or a CAT scan or anything like that or whether anything would have made any difference. I don’t think he had chemotherapy either. Maybe the disease was too far along when it was diagnosed. A few days before he died, and he was at home, I went to see him. He was pretty much out of it but I sat down beside him and said “Hey, Darrell, it’s Marsha.” He looked up at me and mumbled “who let this bitch in here.” Needless to say, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I knew (or at least I hoped) it was the morphine talking and not some deep-seated feelings he had about me ratting him out about the Playboy magazines he’d kept beneath his bed.
Darrell’s death was a turning point in our lives. He left behind two little children and a wife who had loved him for many years. His death gave my brother the courage to come out of the closet and gave me the courage to leave the crazy alcoholic man I was married to and move on to the next chapter of my life.
He touched the lives of people he worked with and for. Major Jim Mohan of 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard wrote in his article “Farewell to a Friend” in the February 1993 issue of “On Base”, the Base’s news magazine:
Putting together the base newspaper, which was always such a chore for me, was a piece of cake for him. That’s because he was an artist both as a writer and at layout design. But that is truly the mark of an artist, never letting you see the effort that goes into their masterpieces….
During the recent holidays like many of you, I thought about Darrell and Kathy and their kids. Like many of you also I watched the traditional holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. But this time it was different. That’s because the message of the movie, that every life is important because it touches so many others, really hit home like never before. I realized how important Darrell had been in my life, not just as a friend and a fellow trivia buff. His decision years ago to leave the Guard ultimately opening up the P.A. (Public Affairs) position for me, really changed my life.
I thought about that as I watched the movie. I realized that Darrell was really my George Bailey. He had really touched my life.
As I usually do when I watch that movie I cried at the end, but this time, I cried for a different reason.
I will miss Darrell…What I will always remember is my last meeting with him. It was the December UTA. He was weak. The disease that ravaged his body had taken its toll. But there he was at drill making sure everything in P.A. was OK, and that the newspaper was going to get out.
That’s how dedicated he was, both to the unit and to his work. What kept him going was his heart. Those of you that know him, know how big it was…I’ll remember Darrell, laughing and smiling.
I never imagined that our brother, Steve, would be joining him too at such a young age. I always thought that since we’d already lost mom, dad and Darrell that we’d paid our dues and the three of us remaining kids would get to grow old together.