Today is my mom’s birthday and I usually write a little story about a memory we shared as a way to honor her. Instead, I find myself grieving the loss of my brother, who was killed in a plane crash yesterday morning, and as I’ve done so many times over the years, I’m looking through the wonderful photo albums my mom spent a lifetime putting together, and finding a little bit of peace and comfort, at least enough to want to wake up in the morning.
George was four years younger. He was born in Philadelphia, and at that time, we lived on 5th Street, and were very much a part of the Ukrainian community there. We may have been poor immigrants, but neither one of us realized it. I remember being so happy when he was brought home . . . I finally had a “doll” that I could push around in the toy baby carriage. When he finally learned how to walk, things really became fun. I “helped” him cut his hair (to our mother’s horror) and together we decorated the walls of our bedroom with lipstick.
As a baby/toddler, he did not know how to play nicely with someone his own age. When the neighbor brought her baby girl over to play with George, they couldn’t be left alone because he would beat her up.
Both of us inherited our mom’s sense of adventure and fun, and for better or worse, just plain orneriness and stubbornness. Put a couple of kids like this into country life, and you end up with more “adventures” than you bargained for.
Even though we had a huge yard and an orchard to play in when we moved to New Jersy, it was the paint cans in the shed that fascinated us. Mom always watched us through the kitchen window while cooking or washing dishes. Of course she spotted us trying to open the gallon of paint and immediately rushed out to intervene. She put the paint back and told us to leave it alone . . . as if we were going to listen. When she went back in the house, we immediately went for the paint again, but this time, we hid behind the shed so mom couldn’t see us. . . or so we thought. We were sitting on the ground and working very hard, when as if by magic, my mother’s feet appeared next to us. I think we had to go into the house after that.
George and I were the official egg gatherers. We’d go into the coop to collect eggs and got some resistance from the hens, so one of us would hold a bucket over the chicken’s head to keep from getting pecked, and the other would get the eggs. . . pretty clever for a 5 and 1 year old. We figured this out after George thought he could just pick up the hen . . . he had scratch marks over his stomach that were then doctored with mercurochrome . . . that was his usual “attire in the field” . . . shirtless with a custom-designed red mercurochrome “tattoo” . . . courtesy of the chickens he was determined to carry.
The older we got, the more elaborate the pranks and mischief became. Our dad had a habit of falling sound asleep on the sofa after supper. We decided to wrap him in thread while he slept. Mom watched and was already snickering in anticipation of the outcome. I would have been happy with just a few threads, but not George. He spent more than an hour, creating an intricate spider web of threads. Then he woke him up by pouring water in his open mouth. Well, the reaction was nothing short of the Frankenstein monster coming to life. The more dad struggled, the tighter the threads seemed to get and the madder he got. We ran away while mom was still laughing, so he got mad at mom because she said he had no sense of humor.
Our adventures became more sophisticated as well. We both learned to scuba dive in the Atlantic Ocean . . . he was the one who introduced me to flying and amateur radio. As we grew into adulthood, it made no difference that geographically we were far apart and circumstances kept us from getting together more often. When we did get together, it was as if no time had passed and we picked up where we left off.
Whichever adventure one of was involved in, the other of us felt compelled to participate whether it was snowshoeing, skiing, fishing, treasure hunting, riding horses, flying, pretending we were rounding-up cattle (more like bulls, and that did not go well . . . when we lived on a farm in Arkansas, George used to climb the rafters in the barn and then jump on a cow’s back while it was eating).
We were and are kids at heart regardless of age, and for us there was beauty in the spontaneity of the moment . . . it was playtime and surprises galore. Other than our mom, he was the only other person in my life, even to this day, I could count on who would say “OK” to any unplanned escapade . . . always a willing accomplice.
As soon as an idea was planted in his head, those wheels started turning and he would figure out how to make it work. . . . and then turn it into some kind of hilarity that usually resulted in something unexpected.
He really was much more extraordinary than most people will ever know or appreciate. Although he rarely talked about it, even after a bottle of wine, he served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. There was little that he could not do. And if he couldn’t do it, he learned how, and he wanted to teach everybody around him. When he was here last time, he insisted I needed one of those little electric welders and went to great lengths to teach me how to use it.
Undoubtedly his greatest legacy is the family he left behind . . . he and his wife, Suzy, the perfect balance to his zaniness, the love of his life (although he would never use those “mushy” words . . . ) and whom I love as a sister, raised awesome children. They filled their lives with music lessons, hiking, hockey, travel, and mostly, love. . . . there was no time or tolerance for unhealthy, detrimental behavior . . . It didn’t matter how old they were, he and Suzy were always there for each of them, and for each other.
I remember during one phone call as he was updating me on the kids’ progress in school and their plans for going to college, he proudly declared, “And they all still live at home.” If he could have had his way, he would have kept all the kids and grandkids at home with him. He truly loved being a dad. I know his kids refer to him as a “great dad,” and I can’t think of a better tribute for George.
Stories were important to George, and I imagine they still are. He wanted his kids and grandkids to know about their ancestry . . . about his life experiences and escapades. So that task now falls to me . . . I have so much more that I could share about my brother, but I’m reserving those stores for those he loved the most, his wife and children.
I remember when he had a “desk” job (manager) at the FAA . . . he truly hated being a manager and as soon as he could, he retired and went back to the only other thing that he loved as much as his family, flying. In the end, he died doing what he loved . . . little comfort to those he left behind.
Part of me is angry with the Universe, with the angels who are supposed to protect all of us, even a little angry with my mom . . . why didn’t somebody keep him safe? Could they not have reached down and pulled that plane over the trees and given him a chance to land safely? Or why didn’t somebody intervene and have the plane sputter BEFORE he started the take-off run? Don’t our loved ones have that power when they “cross over?”
So, the two people whom I love most in my life have both gone on this new “adventure” . . . and I can’t help but feel envious of that, and sad that I was left behind . . .
Mom died almost eight years ago . . . George died yesterday . . . my heart will ache for a long time. It’s going to be hard to listen to a plane fly overhead and not think of George and remember. He loved doing things on the spur of the moment and surprising everyone and whenever I heard a plane I would wonder if it was one of George’s “spur of the moment” visits.
As I was looking through the photos to include in this post, I was flooded with memories . . . reliving each moment as if it were yesterday. That is the healing power of images, of photography. And I wonder if that is what the “afterlife” is like . . . memories drift across a beautiful azure sky like soft clouds pushed and kissed by gentle breezes . . . and when we’re there, we get to pluck our favorite ones and relive the joy, and fill our souls with laughter and love . . . as often as we want. . . hold our loved ones forever . . .and never have to know loss or sadness. . . ever again.
Perhaps it is so . . . perhaps.
Good Night, George, dear brother and friend. Thank you for being a part of my life. I love you forever and miss you more than you will ever know.