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Archive for November 1, 2018

Nov. 1, 2018 — Assessing a life

A part of me died early Tuesday morning.

My eldest brother, who shares a lot of the same DNA that I do when it comes to physical characteristics, succumbed to cancer and some years of hard living at the age of 68.

If you looked up the term “larger than life” in the dictionary, you’d see my brother. Tall, bearded, and, in his vital years, with a tenor voice that could shake a room.

His life adventures took him on the kind of life that Commander McBragg might have admired. He was a French student in Paris, an opera student in Vermont, an investigator for the State of New Jersey, and a counselor for the Department of Corrections, deputized to shoot a firearm if necessary. He also knew a lot about classical music — operatic, symphony orchestral music, sacred organ music, and even pre-baroque music played on instruments such as the sackbut.

He was a very cultured man, and an expert chef. He knew more about wine, tea, mushrooms, and foreign cuisine than most people. And he’s influenced me: on the top shelf of my refrigerator, I have a jar of natural peanut butter with red chili pepper paste mixed in. It’s my approximation of a Haitian condiment he introduced me to about 35 years ago, called “mamba.”

While his impact on me and my family was significant, I think he had a greater impact in his public life as a civil servant. He served as part of a New Jersey Department of Policy and Standards task force tasked to root out welfare fraud in Hudson County, then once his team kicked out the miscreants, he took the position of Director of Public Welfare for Jersey City.

The office, in an old marble-columned mansion of a building in Jersey City, underwent an almost magical transformation when he was there. When he started, the Public Welfare office was a dingy hangout for ne’er-do-wells and crooks who sometimes would receive seven welfare checks per month. A few months into his term, the office building was quiet and businesslike, with nobody roaming the halls looking for trouble. He had, figuratively and literally, cleaned house.

My brother’s impact on the city lingered long after his departure due to a heart attack at the age of 47. It would be a about a decade later when Chris Christie, then a U.S. Attorney, would indict a number of local officials who had been particular thorns in his side, including a county executive, members of the city school board and city council, and others.

Later in life, he found his calling as a monk in the Orthodox Church. His health failed him on several occasions, to the point where he was in grave condition the same week that my mother died in 2011. He managed to recover, albeit in a weakened state. Despite his weak physiology, he still had a sharp mind, an appreciation for jazz and opera, and a sharp wit.

When I visited him in the hospital for the last time a few weeks ago, he greeted a few visitors with the line, “Beware of the Ewoks.” Then, after a pregnant pause, a grin spread across his broad face. “Because I’m Jabba The Hutt.”

It was during this three-day visit to the hospital that I got to understand what made him tick. He still did not suffer fools gladly; any suggestion by hospital staff that he receive spiritual counseling was dismissed with prejudice. He couldn’t believe that his vocation as a religious man was not considered before he was asked about counseling as part of his hospital treatment.

On the final day, as I was fixing up some paperwork for him to sign, he was on his cell phone talking with someone about ordering lunch — plain turkey and a cup of black coffee. The part of my brain which was not focused on the task at hand perked up: why was he ordering lunch when the reason he was in the hospital was because he couldn’t keep anything down after eating or drinking?

Only I realized after a few minutes: that food order was meant for me. Despite a wonderful food court and a Starbucks on the first floor of the hospital, he wanted to make sure I was fed.

It is this selflessness that complements how he lived the last two decades of his life after his heart attack. He withdrew from what might be called “normal” life, taking a vow of poverty and living a life of devotion and prayers with the monastery.

The monks will bury him next week. The rest of our family will get together sometime soon to memorialize him, separate from his world. Which is likely what he wanted.