Growing up I always thought Stephen was the lucky one, and he thought I was the lucky one, brothers do that.
But Stephen was sly, he had an ingenious knack of being able to do something that we weren’t supposed to, and by the time we got discovered, I was left holding the bag and Steve would often get off scot free. He developed this skill at a very early age.
Steve and I had a room together in Sudbury and I woke up early one Saturday morning to find Stephen was already up and gone. Not wanting to miss out on any potential fun I went looking for him. Remember those huge bags of wheat puffs. They were great fun to play with when you’re 3 yrs old. I came downstairs to the kitchen and found Stephen with the bag of wheat puffs open and throwing handfuls of puffs up into the air. The floor was covered, and the bag was half empty. I knew this was going to be bad news. I had to fix this before Mom and Dad woke up.
So… I grabbed the dustpan and started scooping up the wheat puffs and putting them back into the bag. Stephen found this to be great fun because now he had an endless supply to grab and throw in the air. I was telling him to stop, and the more fuss I made, the better he liked it. This commotion did not go unnoticed. But by the time that Mother arrived in the doorway, Stephen had stopped throwing wheat puffs and had adopted the innocent and slightly disinterested look of a bystander. All Mom saw was me with a dustpan full of puffs putting them back in the bag. I got the doomsday look that all mothers have, and I froze in mid scoop. The ensuing scolding about the unsanitary nature of a dustpan and how I had now contaminated a month’s supply of breakfast food was no fun. Then, of course, Stephen, the innocent bystander, got scooped up into the loving arms of his mother, and rescued from the evil influence of his older brother. I don’t remember if I was punished but I do remember that I was not happy. Stephen, I think, thought it was great fun.
Several years later, Stephen decided that there was a score the needed settling between us. I can’t remember the cause, but I was marked as a target that needed to be brought down a peg or two. And Stephen knew just how to do it. First there was the setup. This consisted of a propaganda campaign lasting several weeks where the key message to parental headquarters was that I was constantly mistreating Stephen, and this needed to be addressed. He then upped the stakes with a series of incidents where he would provoke me to the limit of my patience. He would time it so that at just the moment that I would lose my cool and give him a swat, there would be a parent there to witness my transgression. He was so good at this and I was earning such a reputation that the mere mention of me picking on him would put me in the doghouse.
Sunday mornings at our house were always a scramble with only one bathroom. The developing grooming needs of a young teen male were creating considerable time pressures and the stress levels of everyone were on the rise. I exited the bathroom and Stephen was in. Suddenly there was a huge commotion and banging and yelling, “Greg stop, stop hitting me”. Dad came storming into the hallway looking for his target. Through my open bedroom door Dad saw me standing alone in my room getting ready. More noise came from behind the closed bathroom door. Dad opened the door and there was Stephen yelling and throwing himself around the room. “Enough, out of here” Dad said. ‘Yeesss, I win’ I thought. He finally got caught. I began to imagine the long apologies due to me for being wrongly accused. But it was not to be. As Dad passed my doorway he said sternly “and you, hurry up.” While I had to admire Stephen’s skill and tactics, the brother wars were over.
As we matured the childhood friction faded and our friendship as brothers grew. He still knew how to push my buttons but when I bought my first car everything changed. I was now a brother worth befriending. I did a lot of work fixing up that car and improving its performance. It was a pretty hopped up 69 Plymouth when I was done. Stephen loved to ride shotgun and go cruising in that car. And he was always wanting to get me into a street race because he was convinced we could outrun anyone. One night, at a stoplight, a guy in a Firebird with the requisite blonde girlfriend pulled up beside us and revved his engine. I ignored him because I was still concerned about properly breaking in my newly rebuilt engine. Not Stephen, unbeknownst to me he was making hand gestures of some sort and then the guy was yelling at me and the race was on. Stephen said confidently “Don’t worry, you can take him” as he snugged up his seatbelt. The guy was the quintessential macho 70’s guy with a fast car, pretty blonde girlfriend and he looked way bigger than me. I was not so confident. Stephen had enough confidence for both of us.
The road was deserted, the light turned green and we were off. Much to my surprise we were holding our own and starting to pull ahead. Macho missed a shift, there was an awful noise, a chuff of smoke from under his hood, and we were way out in front. The next light turned red. We stopped. Stephen was hyped, “Did you see that, that was great, way to go man.” I was nervous, Macho was now parked next to us again, he was angry, and he wanted a rematch. I did not like the prospects of the situation. Stephen said “go for it”. The light turned green, Macho hit the gas, and I turned right onto a side street.
Well down the street Macho locked up the brakes, did a 180 and was coming for us. We were not going to be allowed to embarrass him like that in front of his girlfriend. Stephen’s confidence faded. “Uh oh, what now?” “Hang on” I said and for the next 15 minutes we drove through the subdivision, lights out, turning at every corner, and eventually made it back to our house. We parked the car, quickly exited and headed into the house. “Hey Mom were home” “that’s good, everything Ok?” “Yep just went for a little drive and we’re home now” “OK dear” We looked at each other and went straight to our rooms. Stephen didn’t get me into any more street races, but he sure claimed the bragging rights for that one.
Stephen and I had some good times together as young adults and then we went our separate ways. I went off to the Air Force and Stephen went to university. Then it was marriage and families. The hopped-up cars gave way to minivans and car seats. We only saw each other a couple times of year on family holidays, but we kept in touch. Stephen was always working on some project, even after he started to get sick. Whether it was an upgrade to his computer or an improvement to his house, he always had something he was working on, and he had to tell me about it.
As time and disease progressed the projects faded, and the challenges increased. I felt guilty at times that Stephen had so much of a burden and I didn’t. But Stephen was always so appreciative for anything I did to help. He said I did a lot for him, at times I went away thinking that I hadn’t done nearly enough.
In his final days we talked and prayed together. We talked about his final arrangements and I said this is a pretty weird conversation for brothers to have. He chuckled and nodded. I said, “I just want to get it right for you Stephen”. He struggled and said, “I would do the same for you”. I squeezed his hand and said, “I know you would”.
Stephen was a blessing in my life and I will continue to learn how much of a blessing he was. His suffering is over and for that we are grateful. Stephen was a great brother and I will miss him until we meet again.
Take care Buddy, I wish you tailwinds and clear skies.