TO MY BROTHER NEIL I WILL FOREVER MISS YOU
NEIL, PAUL, CAPT. FRACK, THE AMISH PRIEST, LIFE, DEATH AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
I was at that Paul Simon Central Park concert 24 years ago where that version of Born At The Right Time was recorded. My buddy Mike and I were on a two week road trip that started with making a mockery of our 10 year High School reunion in Miami. When filling out all the forms to attend the reunion we made up all sorts of ridiculous nonsense about our lives since graduation so when we got to the event we discovered our gullible ex-classmates had pre-printed our name tags to read I was currently an Amish Priest and Mike was a Metaphysical Psychologist along with posting several of our ridiculous fictitious memories in the commemorative book. Things got sillier after that, as we pretty much just laughed our way through the event even blowing off the last day’s activities to hit the sunny beach and a bar with a ping pong table (priorities). Sounds a lot like when we were still in school. Our school years really were pretty damn good…and so has been most of my life since.
“Never been lonely. Never been lied to.
Never had to scuffle in fear. Nothing denied to.
Born at the instant. The church bells chime.
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time.”
(from Born At The Right Time by Paul Simon ’90)
Maybe it’s because we were both born and raised in nearby Queens New York neighborhoods, but I have always been able to relate to Paul Simon’s lyrics. Way, way back in 1980 when I was in High School my classmates were into the Miami’s Latino tinged disco music scene, the new wave of punk music or 1970s rock bands like Kiss and Led Zeppelin. I was a freaky oddball; I was into oldies and had a Simon and Garfunkel poster hanging in bedroom. Several years earlier my brother Neil got me hooked on their 1968 album Bookends. I’m not sure why a dorky generally happy little kid got so attached to a somber dark album about aging and growing old. It’s funny now that my whole life I have connected in my head an album about mortality with my brother Neil… especially this week
I don’t think Neil ever felt like he was born at the right time. Over a decade older than me, Neil’s DNA seemed to be a jumbled mix of the same stuff I got squishing around my cells but darker. We saw things through similar eyes and could always find common ground but whereas my perspective has usually been positive and optimistic, Neil’s depressed paranoid-ish hypochondriac views made him always feel the world was a bit against him.
I am a very lucky person. Like most folks I can get my head stuck in a funk and dwell only on the negatives in my existence but it passes fast and I awake most mornings ready to play again. My brother Neil had it hard; things always seemed difficult and he complained about it… a lot. I was born with the sunshine and he was born with that pesky little black rain cloud that always showed up at the wrong time. That’s just the way the cards were dealt.
Besides my genes, how did I get this way? Well I am the youngest of five kids, all born into a loving family raised with good values but a strong sense of not taking the world too seriously. Everybody in my family works hard but is definitely a bit quirky so I have always had lots of strange and interesting examples of how to lead my life.
Truth is I might not have posed as an Amish priest for that reunion had I not had a marathon-running brother that treated his car like the Blues Brothers’ Bluesmobile and another that juggles for a hobby and rode a unicycle to his classes at MIT. My Dad and his friend George called themselves Captain Frick and Captain Frack when they headed out on their rickety motor boat named the Andrea Doria II. My brother Neil and his buddy Dave showed up as troop leaders to a Boy Scout camping trip pretending to be MASH’s Hawkeye and Trapper John complete with helmets, golf clubs, bathrobes and a cooler full of take-out from a Manhattan Chinatown restaurant. And don’t get my sister started telling stories of back in the day.
When I was a pre-teen, Neil took it upon himself to expose me to some of the world beyond our neighborhood. He took me to my first French restaurant when I was little kid, and then for decades after never let me forget that from a menu full of foreign tasty delicacies, I ordered a hamburger. He took me to the original Benihana in mid-town Manhattan, my first Broadway show Grease, the movie American Graffiti (no wonder I liked oldies) and my first R rated movie, a double feature revival of MASH and Spies. Later he included me with a group of his friends to go to a funky Greenwich Village restaurant called David’s Pot Belly; I felt so bohemian. A few years after, when I was hanging in the City, I showed off my downtown prowess by bringing people to the same place for hot tea and a curried-tuna sandwich. I did not mention it was the only cool place I knew.
As I grew older Neil always let me visit and stay with him as long as I wanted. He was always up for a wacky adventure like when we went laughingly to an Orlando tourist trap Elvis Presley Museum together. But the other side to Neil’s kindness was his kvetchy-ness. If there was something to complain about, he did. He could be pretty difficult but it did not matter because he really always meant well and we all knew it….
You notice I’m speaking in past tense. That’s not just because my grammar is not always goodly. How I made it as an English major for two years I’ll never know…
Well now I’m just avoiding writing it. Like if I don’t type it and the words are not there glowing on the screen in front of me, then by chance they might not be true.
But they are true.
After a difficult life and a long illness my brother Neil passed away a few days ago.
It does not feel real yet. I don’t think it ever will. My Wife’s father died 14 years ago yet she still expects to see him walk around the corner. I think I will be the same way.
I might feel that I was born at the right time but maybe not Neil. He had infinitely more health issues and hard ships than I ever had, but at heart when the family was all together he was a goofball that could laugh like the rest of us. We all teased him but we deeply loved him. Simply put, he was a good guy. I have much to thank him for in my life and I am glad I got the chance to do so a few weeks ago. So now as I adjust to the world being different then it was last week I keep having songs from that Simon and Garfunkel Bookends album rolling around my head. I still think I was born at the right time. I still think I am lucky and blessed. My world is just a little bit more empty and lonely now. I will forever miss him
“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you”
(from Bookends – by Paul Simon ’68)