My brother ill and illuminated


Sick bedOnce upon a time I had a brother. His name was John but everyone called him Kevin. Nobody knew why. It just was.

In his opening chapters he was tall and thin and brilliant and tumultuous. One time he and our father had a fistfight in the dining room after Kevin smashed all the plates our mother had laid for dinner. Our sister herded the little kids into a back room and made us kneel and pray. We could hear crashing while we prayed. Sometimes I still hear crashing when I pray.

In our family when you went off to college you never really came back. We loved each other but sometimes we didn't like each other much. This just was. Kevin went to college. I went to the same college years later because he was my hero even though he didn't talk to me more than about ten words a year and they were generally stern words at that.

But then he and his tough smiling graceful salty wife had children and some of Kevin's walls fell down. One time we got drunk watching a basketball game with a bottle between our chairs neither of us saying a word but that was a delicious and memorable evening for all the things that were said without being said.

Then my tough smiling graceful salty wife and I had children and more of Kevin's walls fell down.

Then in his 50s he found the job he loved more than any other in his whole life and he threw himself into his work with glee and joy and reverence and then he got sick and sicker and sickest and it looks like he will die before Christmas.

This just is.

In his closing chapters he was again tall and thin and brilliant but no longer tumultuous. A lot of his stern wall was a mask, it turned out. A lot of him was shy, it turned out. When he got sick something opened and he became illuminated.

He got scrawny and all his hair fell out except for a tiny scraggle on his chin so that he looked like the world's tallest thinnest goat. He never did get fulsome or sentimental or gregarious but when he smiled he meant it with all of his soul.

Near the end of his life the university he worked for gave him an award for creative and passionate service, an award he really savored and treasured, and they told him he could make a brief speech, which he did, holding onto the lectern, but then the next time our family was all together, he stood up, shakily, near the couch, tall and thin and brilliant and illuminated, and gave the entire speech he had written, which explained simply and directly and nakedly that he loved his family with a deep and inarticulate love, and that he was who he was because of his family, and nothing in life ever made him so happy or proud as to be milling around jostling with his wife and children and brothers and sister and nieces and nephews and mother and father, nothing, and if he had never been very good at saying that to us, he was sorry, but he felt that way most powerfully and deeply, and this was the time to say it, wasn't it? Which it certainly was.

I wept, sure I did, like everyone else, but you know what I remember best from that moment? Our dad, smiling. He's 90 now, our dad, and not as tall as he used to be, because as he says time contracts us, but I saw him smiling. He was sitting with our mother on the couch and they were holding hands as usual and they were both smiling at my brother and you never saw cooler smiles in all your born days.

Trust me on this one. You could go a whole life and never see cooler smiles than those. Trust me. 

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Non-fiction



submit a comment

Existing comments

Oh Brian, you've done it again.Through the tears slipping down my face I can hardly see to read the words. You are indeed graced with a beautiful gift.

Patricia Taylor | 05 October 2011  

and i am crying too. a beautiful, sad story....maybe all families have some of the elements brian has described.

rosemary | 05 October 2011  

Brian, you open to us the possibility that under the hard surface of life there might exist the real,vulnerable, fragile, beautiful, world of love after all. Thank you.

Pirrial | 05 October 2011  

Brian, thank you for this. It seems to me to be so sad that we all let time go by too fearful to be the lover we are.....................

hilary | 05 October 2011  

Thanks, Brian. I am another person who loves your ability to capture such rich humanity that really touches a deep spirit in me. It is something I value and appreciate.

Peter Dowling | 05 October 2011  

You have distilled family in all its richness and complexity
Thank you

GAJ | 06 October 2011  

I found this a very moving piece and assume you would too.

Anne Nesbitt | 19 July 2012  

Similar Articles

Atheist critic blind to current religious symbols

  • Rod Pattenden
  • 05 October 2011

Controversial Fairfax art critic John McDonald is scathing in his assessment of the 60th Blake Prize for Religious Art. His frustrated search for traditional religious symbols in the works reveals a lack of understanding of the role of images within Australia’s living religious imagination.


Australia's suburban revolution

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 06 October 2011

The redevelopment of Melbourne's St Kilda Triangle was pursued with little regard for community concerns. The Triangle Wars is a story of democracy undermined, then reasserted, as 'the people' rise to confront a government that has lost sight of the interests of those they are supposed to represent.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up