Monday, May 18, 2015

Death: the Gift that Keeps on Giving (or, How I Met My Brother)

I realize the title "sounds" sarcastic, but it isn't really. I also realize people might be more interested in reading about my race at Ironman Texas, but I need to write this post first. My apologies. There is something else at work here.

It all started when I told my mother I was going to a race in Houston.



"Is that anywhere near Houston?" (Yeah, I know, but give my mother a thumbs-up for actually hearing me say the word "Texas" before you pass judgment.)

"It's IN Houston, Mom - well, actually, it's in a place called The Woodlands."

"You know who lives in Texas, don't you? ......Mark Carboni."

"Yes, I know, Mom. What do you want me to do about it?"

"He would love to see you."

Mark Carboni is my half-brother. He's the son of my father and his first wife. The last time I saw Mark, I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. He was probably in his 20s. And then he disappeared from my life. I may have asked about him, but there was no real answer. My father said he hadn't heard from Mark and that birthday cards were always returned. No one ever talked about it much... until he was mentioned in my father's will. That was the reason my mother got back in touch with Mark, and they have been talking regularly ever since.

But to me at this point, Mark was just another family member who my mother has said would "love to see me." Did my mother realize I've tried to keep in touch with my other two brothers? Did she remember that they have never seemed to care I existed? Did she remember we almost had to beg my brothers to come to my wedding (and they showed up late to the church)? Did she remember most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins couldn't find the time? (even though I was at all their weddings) Did she remember that every time I drove home to Connecticut from Ohio, my siblings never could find the time to travel a few miles to see me? Did she remember that my father told me I would "never understand this because [I] didn't have children" (apparently, when you have children, you have a blanket excuse to never see your family).

My father's funeral was ten years ago, and that was the last time I saw or spoke to either of my brothers.

Oh yeah, about my father. Ten years ago, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was diagnosed and gone in less than two months. It may have been the worst two months of my entire life. I know it was probably the worst two months of my mother's life. I don't know if it was the worst two months of my brothers' lives. But for me, it was THE worst. And not for the reasons you might think. The fallout after he was gone was nothing compared to the dying part.

You see, my father and I never got along. Ever. I spent all my formative years trying to make him like me. But I was never good enough. Valedictorian of my high school class? Great, but not good enough. It felt like I always let him down, no matter what I did. I excelled at swimming because he paid more attention to me the better I got. One of the worst moments in my swimming career was losing the state championship by a tenth of a second. ONE TENTH of a second and I was back to being a nobody. I tried to make up for it. I went to the college he wanted. I got a degree in engineering. I got a job at NASA. And yet, every time I did something that didn't fit into his plan (dating the wrong guys, not wanting to stay at NASA, not wanting to get married in Connecticut, etc.), the answer was always "shape up or ship out" - or worse: "I wash my hands of you."

Did he say these things to my brothers? I don't think so - but I really don't know. I stopped asking why, assumed it had something to do with being a "girl," and stopped trying to make him happy. I spent the last ten years of my father's life arguing with him and having him tell me I was "put on this earth only to disagree with him." Once, he even told me it was a travesty I never had children because I'll never know what it's like to have a bad kid (i.e., me). It makes you wonder how it was possible that my father's death became the worst two months of my life. I should have been happy to end the strife, right?

Family is weird, though. And my dad was the epitome of "tough love." He truly wanted me to be happy. When I wasn't, he didn't have a clue how to fix it. And, as most fathers are, he was a "fix-it" kind of guy. Car problems? He fixed it. Apartment problems? He fixed it. When I was in college and needed a lofted bed in order to put a desk in my bedroom, he build the most amazing put-it-together-yourself-it's-all-labeled wooden bed structure that surpasses anything IKEA ever created.

So yeah, he loved me. He just didn't TELL me. My mother used to say we fought all the time because we were exactly alike. Stubborn. Idealistic. Perfectionists. Thank you, Dad.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I flew home weekly, took him (and my mom) to the doctor. I talked to the doctors, did the research, called cancer treatment facilities, and ... in the end, watched him die. I watched the illness take over his body. I watched the strongest, most organized man I ever knew, lose his mental faculties when the liver toxins spread. I still cry over things that happened during the decline. Once, he got very frustrated and started ranting because the TV remote didn't work. I popped the back off to find the batteries installed improperly - I turned them around and it started working. He looked at me in shock (that I could fix something he couldn't). He asked me what I did, and I had to tell him he put the batteries in wrong. It. Broke. My. Heart. I ran upstairs "to my room" and cried for several hours. It still hurts.

When he was in the hospital, I kept it light when I was with with him. I was a cheerleader when he was afraid and in severe pain (gut-wrenching to witness). The last words he ever spoke to me were the following: "I don't want to leave you without a father."

I can still hear those words and see his face as he said them. It was a moment right out of a movie. And when I was home, or at work, or running, or in the hospital but not in his room, I cried. I cried non-stop to the social workers. When he was in hospice, I added the nurses to the list of people with whom I couldn't keep-it-together. Every time they asked what bothered me the most, the same thing came out: "Does he know that I love him?" Because I wasn't sure I ever told him. The other reason I cried was from emotional pain of watching him suffer. I would have given anything to make it go away. Until my father got cancer, I never truly understood that scene in the movie "Terms of Endearment" during which Shirley MacLaine is screaming at the nurses to "Give [her] daughter the shot!" Often I wanted to grab my father's doctors and yell: "Kill him if you have to, but make the pain go away!" (Don't judge me until you've been in my shoes.)

In the end, the one thing I could do for my father (and my mother) was to be in the room when he died. There were three people there that night: my husband Jim, my mom, and me. No, not one of my brothers.

And then something weird happened. The next day, I stopped crying. It was over, the pain was gone.

When we had to make funeral arrangements, the gift-giving started. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had already taken care of his own funeral arrangements. We knew he would have a military burial in a national cemetery (he fought in the Second World War). We didn't know that he had decided on the type of coffin, the clothing, the funeral home, and even the music (yes, there was an audio tape labeled "Funeral Music"). The funeral director read over his documents, looked up at us in amazement, and said: "This is a gift. Your father left you an amazing gift."

Over the years, there have been many more gifts. You never realize a person's influence on you until they're gone. My mother's ability to organize herself and finances after he passed is the result of his direct influence. I've begun to appreciate the hard-work ethic he instilled in me. Even the things that annoyed us about him have now become hilarious jokes to Jim and me - we can laugh and not be angry.

And the biggest gift was still yet to come.

Which brings me back to The Woodlands, Texas. I hadn't said anything to my mom, but my plan was to go there and do an Ironman. Only. I didn't have time to worry about anything else. Then, the day before we left, I got a text from Mark Carboni's wife, Betty. She and their daughter wanted to hook up with us if possible while we were in town (Mark was in Dallas and wouldn't be there).

I panicked for a split second, but, seriously, there was no reason not to. Besides, it would make my mother happy. And I realized I had the ability to choose my attitude toward this - and for once, I decided to stay positive and do it with love. I let go of all my family and sibling disappointments of the past and went in with no preconceived notions.

Then Mark decided to come home from Dallas to be there. I would now be meeting my brother. Betty and I texted times and locations, and Thursday evening, I called her to confirm everything, and she said "Do you want to talk to Carboni?" (I love that she calls him by his last name, MY last name.)

"Sure." (Sh*t just got real.)

And she put him on the phone: "Hi sis!"

I think I cracked up laughing. What an awesome, lighthearted way to begin our relationship after a 42-year hiatus. I loved him instantly. He described himself as "the only Italian with a Fu Manchu" (see photos).

This photo (taken by Betty) kind of says it all.
Without going into detail, the rest of this story is a lesson in the strength of family ties. In our first embrace in the parking lot of the Macaroni Grill, I felt a bond that one can only know as a loved family member. Mark has my - I mean, our - father's smile (even though I hadn't seen it in a long time). He has a lot of my - I mean, our - father's mannerisms. But that's where the resemblance stopped. He's easy-going, smiles a LOT, and is quick to show love. His face has laugh lines, not frown lines like his - I mean, our - father. His daughter Kasey is a beautiful, talented woman that I am thrilled to have as a niece, and I look forward to following her adventures in life. Mark's wife, Betty, is one of the most peaceful, loving souls I've ever encountered. It's easy to see why they've been together for 40 years and also why my mother loves them so much. I couldn't have asked for three more dear and loving humans to have as my family, and I am very thankful for whatever force brought it about. The only negative thing about the evening was that it had to come to an end. I found a great treasure in Houston and it was hard to let go so soon.

But there was that Ironman thing looming... although the difference now was that the success of our trip no longer depended on my performance. It was already the best trip.

On race morning I got a text from Mark telling me to be safe and that he loves me. It kept me smiling through the entire Ironman swim and bike legs (more on that in a subsequent blog).

As we were leaving Texas yesterday, I heard an echo of what my dad said to me before he died, that he didn't want to leave me without a father. I now have a reply: Dad, you didn't leave me without a father. You LEFT me with a brother. And that is, perhaps, the greatest gift of love you ever gave me.

Two more photos (stolen from Mark's Facebook page):

Sister and brother together after 42(?) years.

Can you tell Mark and I are related?
It's all in our facial expression - eye-closing must be a Carboni thing.
(L-R: Jim, Betty, me, Mark, Kasey)


  1. This is the best blog you've written yet Jeanne!!

  2. This is the best blog post I've ever read (and I read a lot of blogs). Thank you for writing this.