Jerry Tough Loss


On Tuesday, we buried my brother Jerry. He was 43. He’d been fine, as far as anybody could tell; he’d been out to dinner with my dad the middle of last week and seemed perfectly healthy, and they were planning to drive to DC on Friday to visit my younger brother and sister. When he didn’t show up, my dad called the cops, and they found him in his apartment, no signs of foul play or any other obvious cause or reason. He’d been in Vegas just a few weeks ago with his fraternity brothers. When we went to start cleaning out his apartment on Saturday night, his computer was still on. We’re still all in shock. It’s hard enough to explain all this to my kids; the oldest are 13 and 11 and don’t understand how a man that age can just drop dead with no warning, the youngest is 4 1/2 and just old enough to begin to grasp the finality of death. But the cruelest blow is to my dad, who is 76. My oldest brother Timmy was killed when he was hit by a car in front of our house while flying a kite in 1972; he was 7, Jerry was 5 and was a step behind him when it happened. Jerry didn’t talk much about it, any more than my mom did, but Timmy was always with them, and now both of them are with him and my dad is left behind. No man should have to bury a child, let alone two of them.

Regular readers of my blog will recall Jerry as one of the regular commenters there on topics large and small. While we were on the same page baseball-wise, we didn’t always agree on things political – he was basically a moderate Democrat, voted against Bush twice but had no illusions about Obama and I believe voted against him twice, too – but he always had something pithy and incisive to say on any topic, and usually cut to the issue faster than I did. I’ve been stealing his ideas and his one-liners for years.

Jerry was everything you’d want in a big brother. He was funny, he was cool, he was even-keeled, he was the responsible one, and he was always there. He was four years my senior: he was born in 1967, I was born in 1971. We shared a bedroom until I was 8; I thought back this weekend to us crying our eyes out when my grandfather died that year, my first experience with death in the family. He was quick and clever enough that almost nobody in the family could beat him at board games or card games; even as a kid, he was the one who could solve Rubik’s Cube without taking it apart. He’d worked as a computer programmer at the same company since graduating college in 1989.

The picture above is us with Tom Seaver at my first baseball game, August 28, 1976 (I was not quite 5 and thus not responsible for those plaid shorts, Jerry was 9); my uncle got us down on the field and we got our pictures taken with a bunch of the Mets and a few Dodgers as well. The Mets won that game on a walkoff single in the 9th, Felix Millan driving in Leo Foster. As fate would have it, our last game – I found the ticket stub in his apartment – was 34 years to the day later, August 28, 2010. We’d gotten some tickets from friends who weren’t using them, so I decided to take my son and asked Jerry if he wanted to come; he was always up for a ballgame, and being still single, he was generally free. He didn’t complain when my son wanted to get something from the Shake Shack and we ended up waiting on a 25-minute line and missing the first-inning rally that put the Astros ahead of Johan Santana and the Mets for the rest of the game (it was Santana’s next to last start of the year). We’d gone to a bunch of games with my son and sometimes my older daughter over the years, in the process seeing most of the best games I’ve seen. He had his company’s box seats and my son was just 2 when we saw the Mets win the playoff-game-forcing last game of the 1999 regular season on a Brad Clontz wild pitch; we went to the Mets’ last win at Shea, Santana’s masterful performance with the 2008 season still hanging within reach, with my son and older daughter. He was with me when we went to see U2 at Yankee Stadium in 1992, when we got stuck in traffic on the Tappan Zee Bridge leaving a show that ended after midnight and didn’t get home until after 2am. He’d seen a lot more great concerts than I ever did.

Looking back now, I realize quite how many of my interests came from him. When I was 6, he came home talking about this movie he’d seen, “Star Wars.” We got the comic books and the action figures and I basically knew the whole story by the time I actually saw it in the theater, but it didn’t matter. When I was 10 or 11, my Christmas present from him was a model ice planet Hoth built out of Styrofoam, complete with the Wampa’s cave. He got a tabletop baseball game, SHERCO baseball, and we spent endless hours compiling and playing teams that we didn’t know much more about at the time than their stat lines in the Macmillan Encyclopedia, teams like the 1894 Orioles and the 1906 Cubs. I could still tell you today what a J8K 11-16 pitcher means or a B(11)*mwmk2 hitter is like. He introduced me to The Hobbit (the first full-length book I read, in the second grade) and the Lord of the Rings. He discovered rock n’ roll around 1980 or so (my parents had no use for anything recorded after the mid-1950s), and joined the CBS/Columbia Record Club back when it was records and tapes. A few of his early purchases were embarrassing (REO Speedwagon, Eddie Rabbitt), but he was swifty on to the good stuff, buying the Beatles 1962-66 and 1967-70 compilations, the ones that just hit iTunes this week; we wore those cassettes to death on a little tape deck (for my part, Paul McCartney’s Tug of War on vinyl was the first album I bought with my own money). He bought The River on vinyl when it was newly out, and introduced me to Bruce Springsteen. He introduced me to Bloom County. He subscribed religiously to Baseball Digest, and in 1983, he introduced me to another new book he’d bought, his first Bill James Baseball Abstract. Eventually, I followed him across the Jersey border to the high school he chose (my younger brother also followed him to Lafayette College).

Jerry wasn’t one to wear nostalgia or emotion on his sleeve the way I do, but he tended to the family traditions. He helped my dad decorate the house every year for holidays after my mom died in 2002; that house is still adorned with the Halloween decorations he put up, some of which date back decades. He’d sit patiently with my kids at my dad’s house building Legos and Richard Scarry’s Puzzletown and playing Wiffle Ball, the same stuff we played as kids. Going through his apartment, I found in the medicine cabinet the ringmaster from the Fisher-Price Little People Circus Train that we had as kids, a toy set long since scattered to the four winds, a little plastic figure squatting among the aspirin bottles and contact lense solutions in his top hat and his cummerbund. The next day, going through the old photo albums, I found a picture of me (age 3, in an engineer’s hat) and Jerry (age 7) playing with the full set, Christmas morning, 1974.

For my part, I can’t help but feel not just how much I’ll miss him, but in a way the loss of that whole period of my life. My younger brother was born in 1975, my sister in 1979; I love them, but my brother scarcely remembers the first decade of my life, my sister not at all; those were the memories Jerry and I shared alone with my parents. You always expect to bury your parents, even if they die too young, as my mom did, but you expect your siblings to be there when your parents are gone.

Rest in Peace.