Today we buried my youngest brother. His ashes have been sitting in a plastic container, in a red velvet bag, on a small shelf in our bedroom since the beginning of October, one year ago. He was almost two years sober when he died, and he was living in a recovery residence in Pomona. His health was terrible - open heart surgery the year before had left him with chronic heart disease, little energy and insufficient stamina to hold a job. Still, his death was sudden and shocking.
Ken was a tag-along baby - nearly 11 years younger than I and 9 years younger than my closest sibling, Tom. He struggled his whole life long and yet he was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. He could get angry, tired and frustrated, but he did not ever say or do anything that was in any way cruel. Not many of us can say that.
When he was 50 years old, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome - an autism spectrum neurological set of behaviors and symptoms which was not even identified when he was young enough to have benefitted from intervention and treatment. We think now that he drank (secretly, for most of his adult life) as a form of self-medication - to dull the pain associated with never quite 'fitting in' socially and to quiet the noise in his head. One of the sad, sweet ironies of his death was that he had found the kind of community and companionship for which he longed in the daily AA meetings he attended. How blessed we all are that he and they found each other!
In the early morning of October 2, 2009, I got a phone call from the manager of his residence telling me that Ken had died in his sleep, just after midnight. His body was not discovered until his housemates got up and began their day. My widowed mother lives in a retirement community in LaVerne, about 10 minutes from that residence and I did not want her to be alone when she learned this terrible news. So I got on the phone and gathered some friends around her before I called and told her that her baby was suddenly gone and that I'd be there as quickly as I could get packed. About three hours later, I was there to help hold her tears, and my own.
It was a strange, sad, wonderful week of preparing Ken's memorial service. My brother Tom came from northern CA and he and mom and I did what had to be done. La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church was superb, the service went well, the reception was a warm and loving occasion for remembering.
But mom could not face any final decision about Ken's ashes - the shock was immense and she simply did not know what was best. We talked about it off and on over this year, considering burial in a cemetery - either in LaVerne or Santa Barbara - or dispersal at sea. Nothing quite felt right. Then Tom did some research and discovered that it is legal in the state of CA to bury ashes on private property. So my amazing and thoughtful husband found a sapling oak tree in our side yard and we all made plans to gather for Thanksgiving and then to put him in the ground on what would have been his 55th birthday.
There were just 5 of us there. My 89 year old mom, my husband Dick and I, my brother Tom and his wife Sandy. I put together a small service - the exact one I had used for Dad, 5 years ago February. We read scripture verses of hope and promise, we remembered our son and brother, we read the beautiful ancient prayers from the Book of Common Prayer and we sang the doxology. It was good. It was right. It was enough.
Peace to his memory - I am grateful for his life and grateful for his release from it.