zeit·geist ˈtsītˌɡīst,ˈzītˌɡīst/ noun
The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.
My brother was 19 when I was born. I remember slips of time from his wedding day, when I must have been about five years old. They were leaving for their honeymoon and I decided I wanted to give him the longest kiss ever recorded to say good-bye because I loved him so much. I barely knew him, but I loved him so much.
We didn’t see him often, as they lived a couple of states away in Chicago. He was busy doctoring and raising a few kids with his wife. When they came to visit, I mostly played with his kids…more like cousins to me than nephews and a niece. As the seventh kid, I didn’t get much time with my brother all to myself. He was a grownup, after all.
Eventually I became a grown up, too. There was a generation gap between my brother and I. There was love and mutual respect…but not a lot of familiarity. He was a bit of a legend to me. I knew the best of him from my parents, and as far as I knew, there was no “worst”. Maybe he worked too hard…maybe he didn’t come to visit often enough, but it was all understandable. He did interesting things with his kids that were different from our growing up. Fancy things. Like skiing, jumping horses, tennis. He also continued the family sport of sailing, which we all experienced those summers at the lake. His life seemed different but wonderful.
I recall his coming to visit when I was in high school, and I teased him about the fact that he was old enough to be my father. “I’m practically an adult, old man!” It didn’t seem to bother him. I think he enjoyed the wisdom that came with age. In fact, he would dole out wisdom every chance he got. He could be quite pithy. It was unusual at my age having a brother who was so worldly and wise. There were many times he would talk to me as though he was my father. It was handy that if I wanted to reject his advice, I could just say, “Hey, you’re not my dad.” But his advice was usually right on.
Interestingly, the five siblings between my brother and I elected not to have kids, so it was sort-of novel when John and I started a family. My oldest nephew was 22 when his first cousin was born. It had been a long time since there were grandkids in our clan, and my brother had gone through a lot by then. By the time we had four kids – ranging from infant to school age – my brother started coming around again. His life in the Midwest had loosened up a bit, and he was beginning to reconnect with his California family.
What happened in my relationship with my brother next was quite wonderful. We connected as adults. As parents. It was like meeting someone new, except he knew my roots and my story and my values. He knew me before I knew me. He didn’t know me well, but he was a witness and had an interesting perspective on our life. We agreed that we grew up in different families. He was the newlywed baby born around the second World War. I was the capstone, born the year Kennedy was assassinated. He was raised on Dr. Spock…I on mellowed experience. He was an only child for the first eight years…I was an only child for the last five or six. He was raised by 20 year olds, and I was raised by 40 year olds. Same parents, but different.
Even so, here we were, parents both, with similar sensibilities about kids. He was full of wisdom for me. There was contrast in our points of view with his having “seen it all” versus mine, having not seen past the age of 10. He had the advantage of a rearview mirror.
We had great conversations together. And he had great ones with my kids, too. My brother had a charming ability to talk to kids in a way that respected their intelligence. As an ER doctor, he spoke to his young patients in a way that relaxed and comforted them. I recall going to work with him once when I was in my early 20s. (It was the only way I could see him during a short stay in Chicago.) He was seeing a young boy, about eight, who had a raging fever. His mother was clearly worried and upset, and the boy seemed frightened. My brother approached him by leaning casually on the exam table, as though he’d met the kid for a cocktail. He said, “So. How’s it goin’?”
“Good.” The boy said with a furrowed brow, looking anything but good.
“Good…Good….” Pause. “So your mom tells me you’ve got a fever. You think that’s right?”
My brother hadn’t touched the kid yet, but his eyes scanned him as they spoke, gathering tiny observations that might help him with his diagnosis.
“Yeah. I guess so.” said the kid, staring at the floor.
“You’re a little hot, you mean?”
“Yeah, a little hot.”
“Hmm. OK. You’re probably right, then. It’s probably a fever.”
The kid nodded and glanced up. My brother paused again, setting a gentle pace.
“Well, maybe it’d be a good idea to listen to your heart. What d’you think?”
“OK, sure.” The boy was starting to become slightly interested.
“Here. Why don’t you put these on and you can tell me what you hear.”
He placed his stethoscope around the kid’s neck and gently positioned the eartips in his red-hot ears.
“How’s that?” my brother asked about the fit.
“Good…” Lots of goods. The boy was sitting up straight now.
“OK. Tell me what you can hear,” as he placed the chestpiece on the boy’s belly.
All quiet. The boy’s eyes were wide as he gazed at the wall and listened. My brother waited quietly with his eyebrows high, waiting for a verdict.
A smile grew on the boy’s face. “I hear gurgles.” The boy looked to my brother for the meaning behind those gurgles.
“Ah! Yes. Gurgles are very good. Now let’s listen for your heartbeat.”
He moved the device in the boy’s hand up to his chest, then took his own hand away.
“How does that sound?”
The boy listened intently.
“Ba BOOM ba BOOM ba BOOM…” the boy carefully imitated what he heard.
“Ahhhh. Good.” My brother nodded at the boy’s mother, who joined in the nodding immediately. “Does that sound good to you?” back to the boy.
“Yeah. It sounds pretty good,” nodding, too.
“OK, excellent. You mind if I take a listen?”
“Sure. Here.” The boy removed the stethoscope from his ears and handed them to my brother.
Listening to his little heart. Nodding. “That’s exactly what I hear. Good job. I think we’ll be able to figure this out together. Let’s see if we can get some more clues…”
He continued with the exam. Took his temperature, checked his throat. Listened to his lungs. All the while, involved the kid in his discoveries. By now, the mother was smiling.
So was I.
We didn’t talk about that exam afterward. When he finished giving the mother instructions and shaking the boy’s hand, we left together and he picked up where we left off talking about my job. This precious exchange with the boy was unremarkable to him. Routine. I’ll never forget this glimpse into my brother’s professional life. It was remarkable to me. I got to see who he was through the eyes of that little boy and his mom.
My brother wrote to me a couple of times. On important birthdays or after a visit. His letters were full of confidence in me, and in John and I as parents. They were full of joy about all our wonderful kids and gratitude for our own parents.
My brother died on August 6, 2003, at the age of 59. He had dilated cardiomyopathy, like many in my family. It was always his style to make a cool, wry exit, so we had a memorial gathering at a place he liked to hang out. A San Francisco beer garden called Zeitgeist. How perfect. We drank beers to honor him. We loved imagining him there, laughing and pontificating under the trees on a picnic table. We laughed a lot and cried a little, too. It was a good day. He would have enjoyed it.
He was a gifted writer. My mom says he became a doctor to support his writing habit. I ache for more of his writing now. He had so much to say….
I wish he was here. To see his kids and mine. To hug our mom who misses him so. To give me unsolicited advice and maybe read some of my stuff. But mostly I wish he was here to write some more. Something that captures the zeitgeist that was his life.
We miss you, Bo.