It was May of 1987. I was 18, and my brother Tony had just turned 21. We were hanging out with a few friends at my apartment. In my white stretch jeans and loose hanging sweatshirt, I stood in front of the small group telling them stories about my and Tony’s childhood in our father’s shoe repair shop. After 16 years, our father was preparing to retire and Tony was going to take over the family business. He said I could work at the shop with him.
During my make-shift stand-up routine, I talked about the time Tony and I got lost in the woods on a day-camp hike. We were both bawling and eventually found our way back because I remembered the InchWorm toy smiling in front of a run-off valve. I talked about the massive Easter egg hunts with our 12 cousins at our grandparents’ house. And, how we took scraps of leather, wet them under the tap, and stamped our names in the hide with brass tools.
I started to walk toward the kitchen to get another beer. In this particular apartment, you had to walk through the bedroom to get to the kitchen. Imagine! I hadn’t noticed my brother followed me. Tony had silky brown hair, bright green eyes, and freckles. He was wearing a brown leather jacket. “Hey,” he said, “you made me cry when you told those stories.”
I smiled. That made me so happy. Usually my main goal was to make him laugh, but if I moved him that much. Wow!
“You’re the most important woman in my life,” he said. “I love you.”
Gulp. I looked at my white leather elf boots. I felt so embarrassed. My brother had called me ugly the first nine years of my life. We used to fist fight in earnest during middle school. And, since he had been in the army for two years, we hadn’t been around each other that much. I barely eked out an “I love you too.”
“We are going to have so much fun working together in the shop,” he said. “We’ll be party buddies for the rest of our lives.”
* * *
Two days later, Tony and I had brunch at Friendly’s restaurant. We hung out for most of the day at his place, and then he drove me back to my apartment on his motorcycle. We had a couple beers and listened to Run DMC’s Raisin’ Hell. At around 8 p.m., Tony left on his motorcycle to go to the store. I fell asleep on the couch. Three hours later, I was awakened by the phone, and the soft voice of my uncle Joe saying, “Tony was killed on his motorcycle tonight.”
As you might imagine, my life was forever changed throught that experience. I went from being a carefree 18-year-old party girl to a full-on grieving woman. A woman who cried every time someone said the name Tony. A woman who threw up when she ate. A woman who jumped at the slightest noise. A woman who was certain the ghost of her dead brother would visit to tie up loose ends.
Why had I been so afraid to tell Tony I love you? He was my brother. My rock. My shield. The first boy I ever loved. And, he had invited me to work with him at our father’s shop!
So, today, if I love you, I tell you. Tony’s death was a precious lesson. He was 21. He would never grow old. That taught me how short life is. In 1987, I started to tell my family, my friends, and even acquaintances “I love you!” And you don’t even have to say it back.