My Brother’s Family

By Sue Pearson

I like to imagine that in the two hours before his death, my brother’s colorful, silent friends came to see him and pay their respects. A school of Sargeant Majors with their distinctive horizontal black stripes would have swooped in close to his mask then suddenly flitted backwards in a kind of ceremonial salute. Jon would have spotted the shy barracuda friend he always looked for, peeking around the corner of a knobby coral outcropping.  He would have sent her a mental greeting, “Hi, Shirley!” A long, slender Trumpetfish would have poked its familiar large head out through a tunnel in a crystalline coral cave to herald my brother’s presence. He loved these fish. They were family.

He had snorkeled along this coral reef just offshore from his Florida condo for thirty years. But on this particular day, all that experience meant nothing. My sister and I will never know what really happened. We know from autopsy reports that he didn’t have a heart attack or a stroke. “…a healthy, 52-year old male…death by accidental drowning,” the report read.  It might have been a kind of “perfect storm” disaster.  We know from witnesses my brother had been in the water for two hours. That’s a long time. He was tired. Leg cramps are a possibility. People in the area noted some rip tides that morning. Life is fragile, and living is dangerous.

My heart broke when my sister called to tell me Jon was dead. A crueler blow came later when I learned my brother had called out for help. No one came. At least not in time. There were no lifeguards on this stretch of beach, and on a steamy Fort Lauderdale day in late June, only a scattering of tourists here and there.  We were told a couple from Canada called 911, but no one who watched my brother shout and then sink, jumped in the water to help. When paramedics arrived, it was too late. My brother Jon died all alone. It seemed to us that Jon had lived with loneliness since his birth. He was born with a string of disabilities that didn’t seem connected then, but fifty years later doctors, know a lot more about autism.  His language skills were poor and his speech difficult to understand. He was tall and thin with an awkward Charlie Chaplin-like gait. Human touch was jarring, not soothing.

He lived with my parents until they died—Mother first then my father ten years later. In his will, Dad left the oceanfront condominium to Jon. I remember my brother asking me to look over his income and expenses. He was so scared without my father’s guidance. “Do you think I can live on my own?” I told him I thought he could do it. “Margie and I will help you if you get into trouble.” But my reassuring words belied my worry. I lived so far away in California. My sister was a little closer in Georgia. Jon was high-functioning, but now he didn’t have much of a safety net.

Before I returned to my home after my father’s death, I helped Jon with some routine chores. It never occurred to me that grocery shopping together would be a major event in his life. As we were pushing our loaded shopping cart back out to the car, my brother said, “So this must be what it’s like to be married…to do things together.” I wanted to cry. My loner brother never had a prospective life partner and I knew he never would. I was desperately sad he had missed so much in life—friends, a family of his own, children. I wanted him to at least know he had people who cared. “Jon, Margie and I love you very much.”

It was always hard for him to look people in the eye, so he stared at the cereal boxes in the cart. “Yes, and I love you too. Most people think I’m stupid and that’s OK with me. They just don’t understand.”

I ached for him. Few people knew that he was actually brilliant in some areas, particularly military history. He could recite battle names, dates, officers, and strategy for military conflicts from ancient to modern times. He remembered the tiny details of ordinary events. In his letters to me, he wrote pages of details on his solitary travels through Florida. Sometimes it was how many steps it took to get to the car from a restaurant or the color, feel and price of the shirts he loved to buy. “Stopped at the outlet stores and picked up six more shirts. A green, a purple, bright yellow, red, white with blue stripes, brown with a white stripe. The green one was the softest. It was $16.99…” and on and on he would go about the shirts. “I know I buy too many, but I just can’t resist.”  But he lived within his means and managed his life responsibly, all by himself, for a decade after my father’s passing.

Now my brother was gone. Without a word, my sister’s embrace at the airport unleashed shared memories that brought us both to tears.  Our brother’s lonely life had ended with a tragedy that only underscored his isolation…no friend to join him snorkeling, not even a bystander to help when he was in trouble. We stopped at an Episcopal church near Jon’s home before we drove to his apartment to begin the task of settling his estate. We decided we wanted to hold a memorial service for Jon even if we were the only two in attendance. My brother held a job with Broward County Water and Wastewater Services as a maintenance worker for nearly 28 years. We sent his supervisor an email about the memorial service. There were no others to notify.

Our first look inside my brother’s condominium brought shock.  Along the wall in the living room were stacks and stacks of hardcover books. We found more in every room. At final count, there were more than 1000 books, mostly history and famous military leaders. Hundreds of other boxes were stacked in the rooms and closets, all filled with tiny military figures – the toll well into the tens of thousands. He had a hat collection of beautiful English derbies, and then there were the shirts. Row after row, shelf upon shelf of polo shirts – the ones he told me he couldn’t resist. There was almost no furniture in the apartment, just boxes and books, and clothes. At first glance, it looked like chaos reigned.  But the shirts had been carefully laundered, folded and arranged according to color or pattern. The boxes of military figures were each labeled as to country, conflict, and date, and arranged chronologically. Margie and I began to understand. The collections and the careful categorizing and labeling were my brother’s way of adding structure and meaning to his life. He reveled in the small details and clung to them to make his way in a world that otherwise probably didn’t make much sense to him. Clearing away his things brought us new insights and even more sadness that the world had so little understood this gentle soul. With stories of greed, selfishness, hatred, and disrespect grabbing today’s headlines, my brother was an unsung gentleman, full of integrity—dependable, unflaggingly kind, utterly honest, and respectful.  But the world did not notice or care about his life or his death.

My sister and I didn’t hurry to get to the memorial service on time. There would just be the two of us and, perhaps my brother’s supervisor. I was stunned when I walked into the church sanctuary. At least fifty people, maybe more, were taking their seats near the front of the chapel.  My sister and I were confused and curious at the same time. Who were these people? Where did our lonely brother meet them?   

The priest said, “I had a short service planned for Jon’s two sisters but now it seems with so many people here it might be more meaningful to hear from them.”

The people in the pews began to raise their hands. A wondrous, yes miraculous, transformation began to unfold for me and my sister. Could our view of our brother have been wrong? All our lives we had worried about Jon, pitied him, saw him as lacking a so-called normal life. Now these people had come here out of their great need to share what they knew about Jon. The stories poured out from their hearts.

All of them worked with my brother – every one of them – from fellow maintenance workers, to construction workers, secretaries, and supervisors. One man stood, looked at Jon’s sisters, tugged on his cap and said to us, “I worked side by side with JP for many years. You know, he never missed a day of work. Had to be forced to take time off.  He loved the stray cats around the job sites and fed them regularly, talked to them, patted them even. There was one really scruffy one nobody liked but Jon. When your brother took off for a week or two of vacation, this cat just disappeared. We thought he was gone for good. But he showed up the morning Jon came back…every time.”

A big, muscular man with several days of stubble on his handsome face offered another story. “Your brother loved the big machines, especially my dozer. I just got the biggest kick out of his reaction when he got assigned to help me – like a little kid, so excited. My boss told me Jon was a great assistant but warned me to be careful with instructions. Keep it plain and simple. Well, it was getting dark and I had given him a list of instructions to turn off a piece of equipment – twist this knob, check that flange, flip this switch. I took out my flashlight and handed it to him. ‘When you’re done shuttin it down, Jon, hit me with the light.’ It took me a few seconds, but from Jon’s horrified look I knew – holy crap! “No, no. Don’t HIT me with the light. Just shine the light on me.”  The room full of people who had been dabbing at their eyes now dissolved into laughter.

Person after person stood and shared a lovely story about my brother’s kindness, his honesty, his surprising brilliance. “We had a pool going with the New York Times crossword puzzles,” another man said. “Nobody knew it – guess they will now – but I cheated on occasion. If I got stuck on a word, I would go find Jon and give him the puzzle clue. Took him maybe seconds to give me the right answer. Wouldn’t ever enter the pool himself, but we challenged him one time with a stopwatch. He got the whole New York Times puzzle done in under twenty minutes. He was amazing!”

I stood and addressed the group, emotion choking my voice. “My sister and I spent a lifetime worrying about our brother, feeling so sad he had no family close by and no friends. Today I realize you were his family. You were the ones who loved him, supported him and made him feel he belonged. These words are not enough, but thank you for looking beyond his disabilities, and for bringing his sisters from terrible sadness to great joy in one simple and surprising memorial service.”

A Course in Miracles reminds me in the workbook that “I could see peace instead of this.” “I can replace my feelings of depression, anxiety, or worry (or my thoughts about this situation or personality) with peace.” (W-34.3:6)

I keep one of Jon’s beautiful English derby hats on my desk and a few of his military figures scattered here and there in my house. I want to always remember how he touched my life and how wrong my assumptions were about his loneliness. His life was far from empty or sad. My ability to see my brother a different way allowed me to move from depression and worry to peace.

On that last day, out beyond the surf, I imagine he felt comforted by the embrace of the sea water and the silence of the creatures he had come to love. I knew about that family, but I didn’t know about the other one…the human friends who looked beyond his differentness to let Jon’s good heart touch their own. A month after his death, Jon’s supervisor sent us a photograph from the county maintenance yard. It was a picture of a new street sign. The maintenance workers installed it on a road they pass every day. It reads, “Jon Pearson Way”.  The world may not remember my brother, but his family always will.

“Before your brother’s holiness the world is still, and peace descends on it in gentleness and blessing so complete that not one trace of conflict remains to haunt you in the darkness of the night.” (T-24.VI.1:1)

“Look on your brother, and behold in him the whole reversal of the laws that seem to rule this world.” (T-24.VI.5)