My brother, Walt, passed away in January. I had been traveling around the world on sailboats, Global HitchHiking, and was in South Africa staying with a friend when one of my siblings suggested I should give Walt a call. When I talked to him on the phone, I could hear in his voice that his ten-year battle with prostate cancer was finally coming to a close. After I hung up with him, I started looking at flights from Johannesburg to LAX and found one leaving in a couple of days.
I messaged my sister-in-law, telling her I was coming, and to tell my brother as well. “Tell him to hold on until I get there,” I said to her half-jokingly, but half not. I really wanted to see him and hold his hand, share a story or two, and just enjoy his energy. He had always been so good to me, patient, kind, and loving. He didn’t always agree with my ways or choices, but it never got in the way of his love for me.
I was born and raised Mormon and leaving the church, from the Mormon perspective, is one of the worst things you can do to yourself, your family, and your extended family. But I did just that when I was forty, and have never had an inkling of desire to return. Despite this chasm of belief differences between me and my family, my brother was always happy to spend time with me and tell me how much he loved me. Not necessarily with words, although we always told each other those words, it wasn’t the words that let me know he loved me.
I landed in Amsterdam after the first of two flights ended and got a message from my sister-in-law that my brother had passed while I was in flight. At first, I was angry. He knew I was coming. Why wouldn’t he have waited for me to get there? Then I realized it was silly to think that way and knew it wasn’t his fault. Certainly, he didn’t die to piss me off. It was just bad timing for me and my desire to spend some time with him before he left. It wasn’t meant to be.
Going home to the funeral was a nice family reunion. All of my remaining four siblings were there with their kids and grandkids. My father was there and I got to spend some time with him and my other family members. I felt like being there had healed some wounds or supposed wounds between me and my family around me leaving the Mormon church. Maybe the wounds were only my own and allowing myself to spend time with them in memory of Walt allowed me to heal myself. Regardless, it was a positive and loving experience for me to be there.
After spending time with my kids in another state, I returned to South Africa to continue with my circumnavigation. I went from Cape Town to Namibia and then from there started the two-week passage to St Helena, a British Protectorate in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s where Napoleon was sentenced near the end of his life and where he died.
Sometime during the passage to St Helena, over a month after my brother passed away, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been listening to the Doobie Brothers, a group my brother had introduced me to when I was a teenager, and I had to stop listening. I became overwhelmed with his passing and realizing I would never see him again. I found my emotions to be uncontrollable and the grief poured out in tears and sobs as I lay in my cabin on the 42-foot sailboat. The intense grief only lasted for about an hour, but I had tremors of grief that occurred here and there over the next few days.
During that intense grief session, I felt I needed to write out my emotions, in between sobs, in the form of a poem. Forgive my older style of poetry, I was raised on Tennyson.
A slow persistent melancholy
Has plagued me recently
An overwhelming sense of grief
Has rested heavily
I thought I was exempt of pain
That death brings to my door
But how I’ve longed and yearned to see
My brother just once more
With wettened eyes the slightest things
Affect me on any day
A song, a thought, a word, a line
Remind he’s gone away
And I will never once again
Feel his warm embrace
Or see his smile or hear his laugh
Or see him cycle race
I didn’t know I’d miss him so
Else I might have long before
Returned to spend some time with him
Before he chose to go
For now I’m left with nothing else
But grief to fill the void
My brothers gone, I’ll still march on
But miss him evermore
I started out to just share this poem on Medium, but once I got to the page, I decided I had a thing or two to say. The reason I chose the title is that it’s a song by the Doobie Brothers, in honor of my brother. Make sure you love the ones you’re with and spend time with them. Being on a boat, halfway around the world, when my brother died, made me realize how far away I really am.