(Editor’s note: I’ve been reading the Sheesley-Patterson heroin overdose case. It was a bit close to home in that my brother died amid similar circumstances. Those who did not help him were not so much neglectful as they were unaware, uninformed and under the influence. It’s sad to see it happen. My brother’s incident was some two decades ago on this exact weekend. Here’s a piece I wrote in 2009 on our family’s Memorial Day remembrance.)
It was just my son’s homework assignment.
But it quickly — albeit subtly — became a reminder of how a simple gesture can resonate beyond its original intentions.
The Dobbins Elementary School class assignment for my fourth-grader, Max, was to identify yourself through 100 things in your home.
One, for example, represented how many guitars he owns.
Two is how many brothers.
The assignment continued through No. 100.
It is tough for one fourth-grader to consider all of the quantities in his life, so his homework quickly became a family project after dinner one night.
We used some creative accounting. I don’t think we have 37 light switches, but it seemed reasonable and became our answer, as did forks for the number 26.
We arrived at 68, and my older son blurted an answer without hesitation.
“The year Uncle Mark was born.”
It was a startling answer only in that my sons had never met my brother.
Fourteen years ago, he died at age 27.
Healthy life. Dumb decision. End of story.
But it’s not that simple for folks who live on in the shadows of a loved one’s death. The shadows exist if that loved one lived a long, healthy life and died ready for the end, assured of a life fulfilled. But the shadows are darker and more defined if the loved one wasn’t ready and didn’t fulfill all of his dreams and aspirations.
That was Uncle Mark, for sure.
His tale is a tale endured in many families.
Memorial Day weekend is a period to remember and reflect on those who died for their country.
But in that reflection, I also remember Mark. He did not die for his country. But this weekend is significant in that it is when he died in 1995.
As a community and a country, we grandly remember our soldiers with stoic ceremonies, and it is rightfully so.
For families such as ours, the tributes are quieter, more personal and often cloaked in ways that reflect either their personalities or their untimely circumstances. The various reflections happen throughout the year — birthdays, death days, holidays, etc.
As it turns out, my kids know Uncle Mark largely through my Yahoo sign-on: mark68.
Some people get tattoos; some folks plant memory gardens. I remember shopping for a home one time and seeing a shrine of sorts to a young deceased person.
I have an email sign-on.
I didn’t think too hard about it when I set it up years ago. It was a spontaneous choice. I didn’t foresee it becoming a reminder for my sons.
My sons also know Uncle Mark through pictures around our home.
There is also the annual trek to the cemetery at Christmas to place a wreath at his grave. And there are the stories.
In the 14 years since his death, talking about Mark has become easier.
Early on, there was a hesitation in bringing up Mark’s name. It was never a forbidden practice. It was just an issue of human nature and knowing that speaking of him stirred sad memories — even in the funniest of Mark tales.
In recent years — no surprise — it’s become easier and more normal to talk about Mark in a tone that would indicate that you just talked to him.
Our family’s grown in the 14 years since three brothers became two.
If my son’s homework assignment was mine and I had to fill in the No. 2, for me it would still represented the number of brothers I have.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.