Joy to the Fishes: My brother and the music that made us

When I think of my brother it is almost always against a lush backdrop of music. Songs greeted him when he emerged into the world in the early 60s and he went on to make and carry music with him throughout his life. It wasn’t just that he gravitated toward music and musical instruments, but that he often seemed to be thinking and feeling by way of notes and lyrics. Music was the medium through which life became most real and precious to him. It was also the part of his world that most rewarded him for his loving attention. Whether he was holed up as a boy in his room listening to the Beatles’ White album or playing trumpet in the Air Force, my brother made music and, in turn, was made by it.

He died recently and quite suddenly. By “suddenly,” I mean jarringly, shockingly, completely out of the blue one evening on his porch as he reached for his keys. This, by the way, is a detail I learned from my sister — our sister, I want to say, but then I remember. I live far enough away from the city where they live — lived, I mean — that the whole situation has remained fuzzily unreal around the edges. I am, in fact, teaching myself this new reality by writing (as I am right now), and by repeating a sentence my sister bravely tested out just a few days after we were told he had died: “I no longer have a brother.”

I can’t seem to fully convince myself, though, because, no matter how many times I say it, I can feel with perfect clarity that I do still have a brother. This may be partly because, since I am the youngest of three, I was born into a life already partially constructed by my brother and sister, their voices, their preferences, their ways of saying and being. I have, then, never existed in the absence of their accompaniment, including multiple, ongoing, cacophonous musical soundtracks, scores through which I became me. I mean that I literally first learned about music from and through my siblings — including following my brother into playing the trumpet at school. But I also mean that, for better and worse, it was through the likes of the Beatles, Roberta Flack, the Carpenters, the Commodores, and Fleetwood Mac, that I moved into being a me that, by and large, I still am.

Music structured our childhood play, blared from radios at the public pool, and droned overhead at the Dairy Queen where my brother and I worked as teens. Music kept us company too during sullen days and nights as we privately nursed sorrows and grievances that we would never share, certainly not with one another. It is no wonder then that I have never been able to listen to the radio for long without thinking of my brother. Even, it must be said, during the protracted stretches of adulthood where I did not see or talk to him at all. At any point over the decades, a song by Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, or Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, or Chuck Mangione could send me crashing into memories of my brother: of mowing yards with him for money in the summer swelter, of his patience when he taught me to drive a stick shift in a rusted out red Toyota, of band concerts in school auditoriums that held the faint odor of sour milk and French fries.

Whatever the memory of my brother, whether mundane or intense, frustrating, bleak, or silly, it almost always arrives with music. Even more so now that it is suddenly no longer even possible for us to communicate in the normal way. There will be no more calls or texts, not on my birthday or on his. Not on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not even on the anniversary of our mother’s or father’s death. But as his human voice recedes, the music of him becomes more definite and insistent. In fact, I have begun to hear him not just impressionistically, but very specifically in the notes and lyrics. And so I sit in the car and laugh when I hear “Jeremiah was a bullfrog….” on the 70s station. And I am brought to a full stop in the produce aisle — see me standing there with my head cocked and a lemon in each hand — because I suddenly hear for the first time lyrics I’ve known for years: I can see Daniel waving goodbye. God, it looks like Daniel. Must be the clouds in my eyes.

5 thoughts on “Joy to the Fishes: My brother and the music that made us

  1. I am so sorry, Cathryn. This is a beautiful tribute to your brother and to the love that you shared. Thinking of you and sending love ❤️ 🙏🏻 Deen Hunt

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  2. I read this this morning and needed the day to digest it…grief has a soundtrack. It always will. Sometimes the opening notes to a song will bring you back to a happy time and other times, those same notes will leave you tearing up (and sometimes, both!)…I’m glad you have this soundtrack for your brother. I’m so sorry, though, that he died so unexpectedly. That knocks the wind out you, for sure.
    Sending you love and peace as you navigate this transition. I don’t have siblings, so I can only imagine the challenge here.
    Al

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  3. Oh no, Cathryn. Oh Cathryn, I’m so sorry to learn of this. How sudden and shocking. We are thinking of you and sending you love and care.

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  4. Oh, Cathryn. I’m so so sorry for the loss of your brother. Truly a pain and absence that only music can fill. May these memories be a blessing to you…

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  5. What a moving testimony about the special connection between a brother and sister. Sorry I couldn’t be there to hear it in person. Well done. Hugs to you my dear cousin.

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