The author observes another birthday for someone who isn’t around to celebrate.
Mood music for this post: “On With The Show” by Motley Crue:
I’m a lot better at remembering the day someone died than the day they were born. I guess that’s understandable. Birthdays come and go. Death dates for those who are close burn a scar into your brain that makes the moment feel like it only happened seconds ago. Even if its 14 years later or 26.
Today would have been my brother Michael’s 44th birthday. He died at 17. Sean Marley’s birthday is around Oct. 7 and I almost always forget until a week later. He died at 30.
It creeps me out to think that I’m almost 40, much older than two people who were always the older brothers I looked up to.
But for whatever reason, I woke up remembering that it’s Michael’s birthday.
The night he died — Jan. 7, 1984 — I remember clearly. He had had another bad asthma attack and we were used to them. When someone is having a major asthma attack in your presence, it’s a scary fucking thing. One of his attacks happened a year before his death while we were in a movie theater watching the James Bond “Octopussy” film. We never saw the end of it because we had to rush him to the hospital.
To this day, I have no interest in rewatching that film.
But on this night I wasn’t there. An ambulance was called in and I’m told he walked onto the back of the ambulance on his own. A couple hours later he was dead in Lynn Hospital, currently the site of a Super Stop & Shop. It shouldn’t piss me off to think he died in what is now the cereal aisle or the deli counter. But I guess it does a little bit.
Strangely enough, the memory of the day Sean Marley died is much more painful to think about, probably because I was grown up by then.
On Friday, Nov. 15, 1996 I was having a good day in the newsroom where I was writing for the Stoneham Sun. Sean had been spiraling downhill and I had last spoken with him around the previous Tuesday. He was pretty depressed during that call, and still I was too stupid and self absorbed to realize I should be taking the short walk down the street to his house to just be there for him. But I had a busy work day the following morning, and I just hung up the phone and shook my head.
So that Friday I get back to the office after attending a co-worker’s birthday lunch. The day was brilliantly sunny. Then my mother called. She was driving past Sean’s house and saw police, firefighters and an ambulance, all kinds of commotion and someone lying on the ground with EMTs standing over him. I knew at that moment it was the end. I called the Marley’s number and Sean’s wife, Joy, got on and told me he was dead.
Blog rewind: Lost Brothers
It’s been so long since Michael was with us that it’s sometimes hard to remember the exact features of his face. But here’s what I do remember:
We fought a lot. One New Year’s Eve about 30 years ago, when the family was out at a restaurant, he said something to piss me off and I picked up the fork beside me and chucked it at him. Various family members have insisted over the years that it was a steak knife, but I’m pretty sure it was a fork. Another time we were in the back of my father’s van and he said something to raise my hackles. I flipped him the middle finger. He reached for the finger and promptly snapped the bone.
We were also both sick much of the time. He had his asthma attacks, which frequently got so bad he would be hospitalized. I had my Chron’s Disease and was often hospitalized myself. It must have been terrible for our parents. I know it was, but had to become a parent myself before I could truly appreciate what they went through.
He lifted weights at a gym down the street from our house that was torn down years ago to make way for new developments. If not for the asthma, he would have been in perfect shape. He certainly had the muscles.
He was going to be a plumber. That’s what he went to school for, anyway. During one of his hospital stays, he got pissed at one of the nurses. He somehow got a hold of some of his plumbing tools and switched the pipes in the bathroom sink so hot water would come out when you selected the cold.
He was always there for a family member in trouble. If I was being bullied, he often came to the rescue.
I miss him, and find it strange that he was just a kid himself when he died. He seemed so much older to me at the time. To a 13-year-old, he was older and wiser.
He was close to a kid who lived two doors down from us named Sean Marley. After he died, I quickly latched on to Sean. We became best friends. In a way, he became a new older brother. Sean died in 1996 and the depression he suffered has been one of the cattle prods — next to my own fight with mental illness — for this blog.
A year after Sean died, I found another, much older brother named Peter Sugarman. He died in 2004 after choking on food. His death sent me over the cliff with the OCD firing in every direction. That was the year I realized I needed help and started to get it.
Blog rewind: Marley and Me
Sean Marley, who introduced me to metal music, taught me to love life, and whose death has been one of the cattle prods for my writing this blog.
I had known Sean for as long as I could remember. He lived two doors down from me on the Lynnway in Revere, Mass. He was always hanging around with my older brother, which is one of the reasons we didn’t hit it off at first.
Friends of older siblings often pick on the younger siblings. I’ve done it. It happens.
Sean always seemed quiet and scholarly to me. By the early 1980s he was starting to grow his hair long and he wore those skinny black leather ties when he had to suit up.
On Jan. 7, 1984 — the day my older brother died — my relationship with Sean began to change. Quickly. I’d like to believe we were both leaning on each other to get through the grief. But the truth of it is that it was just me leaning on him.
He tolerated it. He started introducing me to Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen and other hard-boiled music. I think he enjoyed having someone younger around to influence.
As the 1980s progressed, a deep, genuine friendship blossomed. He had indeed become another older brother. I grew my hair long. I started listening to all the heavy metal I could get my hands on. Good thing, too. That music was an outlet for all my teenage rage, keeping me from acting on that rage in ways that almost certainly would have led to trouble.
We did everything together: Drank, got high, went on road trips, including one to California in 1991 where we flew into San Francisco, rented a car and drove around the entire state for 10 days, sleeping and eating in the car.
This was before I became self aware that I had a problem with obsessive-compulsive behavior, fear and anxiety. But the fear was evident on that trip. I was afraid to go to clubs at night for fear we might get mugged. When we drove over the Bay Bridge I was terrified that an earthquake MIGHT strike and the bridge would collapse from beneath us.
I occupied the entire basement apartment of my father’s house, and we had a lot of wild parties there. Sean was a constant presence. His friends became my friends. His cousin became my cousin. I still feel that way about these people today. They are back in my life through Facebook, and I’m grateful for it.
He was a deadly serious student at Salem State College, and his dedication to his studies inspired me to choose Salem State as well. Good thing, too. That’s where I met my wife.
In 1994, things started to go wrong for Sean. He became paranoid and depressed. He tried to hurt himself more than once. I didn’t know how to react to it.
That fall, he got married and I was best man. I absolutely sucked at it because I was so self-absorbed at the time that there was no way I could effectively be there for someone else, even him.
Over the next two years, his depression came and went. He was hospitalized with it a couple times. By the summer of 1996, he was darker and more paranoid than I’d ever seen him. But I was so busy binge eating and worrying about my career that I didn’t pay enough attention.
Those two deaths pushed me along the road to a very dark place.
A lot of my own depression would follow, as would a lot of self-destructive behavior.
Fortunately, I got therapy, medication and a 12-Step recovery program for compulsive binge eating. I also let God into my life.
All I want to do now is thank God for that and say Happy Birthday to my brother.
And get on with the show.