It is Memorial Day and my brother has come roaring into my mind on his Harley. He is turning it in a small circle and parks it, grinning at me. His white beard is stubbly. He is a large man. The hair on his head is still salt and pepper. It will not turn snow white like my father’s.
He taught math to high school students, coached girls basketball, was addicted to fishing, especially ice fishing on the Mississippi, and died nearly 15 years ago. I miss him terribly today. I am mourning all the men and women who died too early.
When Mom had a heart attack 28 years ago, Les got the word at school and jumped on his Harley as the closest vehicle and tore up Interstate 35 out of Des Moines straight north to Mason City. A patrolman was just as fast but Les didn’t stop. He shouted what happened, and the patrolman went in front of him, clearing the rest of the way of the 2 hour trip. We Iowans love heroic stories. My brother was a storyteller, my father was a storyteller. I’m telling you a story.
My mother survived and lived another 27 years, dying on the penultimate day of 2013, unwilling to endure another Iowa winter. She was 96.
And so they are gone, my mother, my brother, and my father who died 26 years ago at age 82. Les was 59. A clot blocked his blood from going through his lungs.
Mom tippy-toed towards death without complaint or questions over years of lessening. Les left, in protest, in eight minutes. I was there for both of them, as I was for Dad who made up in the month gifted him from diagnosis to completion for his decades of silence during my childhood. We solved problems that stalemated for years. I seem to be the designated Guide to the Gate.
One of Les’s favorite stories was from when we were in high school and in the band. He played second clarinet. I played first flute. Our director was Ralph Drollinger. You know how you always remember your best teacher?
Each year we competed in the statewide Iowa band competition. Sheffield was the runt of the schools in our league, but we had practiced hard and had mastered our piece. Through the morning of the day of our competition, Mr. Drollinger had listened to the other bands. They were larger. They had better instruments.
Minutes before we went on stage he told us if we wanted to get a #1 rating, we could not play what we had prepared. The competition was too good, we had to play something more difficult. Then he handed out an atonal piece we had played only once in a mangled practice.
The piece had no rhythm or rhyme to it that we could figure. It had no melody for us to know when to come in. We had no familiar guidelines.
This man we adored said, “It’s this and we make it or we fall on our faces.” Our little band of players took our places on stage. Jay Crawford on trombone, Nancy Galvin on French horn, Gene Brouillette on trumpet, Sue Foster on oboe, Walter Stover on drums, Les and Karen Davolt on clarinet, Jan Davolt and me on flute, and maybe 15 others.
We may not have known the music but we knew everything depended on how we played it. We counted out our measures to know when to come in against all intuition. I played the flute solo with meticulous passion, surprising even myself. It seemed to be in the right place.
The applause was as loud as our relief was deep when we reached the end. We received a #1. We received much more than a #1. We went up against the big boys, not sure of anything, counted our measures, played our hearts out, and we won.
Les told that story better than I did. It is a story of life where some melody lines end abruptly and where individual players can’t grasp the whole of it at any one moment, but we each have our turn, play our best, and pray it all works.
Les, I miss you. You were to be with me until the last coda. You were to be with your wife and your daughter and your friends.
And this story of loss too soon is repeated with every man and woman who fought and died too early because of human greed, cruelty, and stupidity. It is repeated with every child and innocent killed because we do not rise to do what we are called to do, to live in harmony. We have no excuses. Death will do what death will do, but we have no excuses for hastening it.