Tuesday, January 29, 2013

“We Lost – But We Won”

I’ve spent the last week at my younger brother Eric’s and sister-in-law Joni’s home in a Chicago suburb. I drove up with one of my sisters and my parents after we learned that Joni’s doctors had run out of treatment options for the cancer she’d been keeping at bay through surgery and chemotherapy for almost nine years. (She’d been diagnosed with an advanced stage ovarian cancer in the spring of 2004.) A couple of days before we left for our visit, I’d called my brother, wanting to know how Joni, he and their daughter Hope were doing and to ask if a family entourage could visit.

Because of others’ experiences in the days to weeks before their deaths, I asked Eric if Joni had seen anyone she knew who had already passed. “Funny you should ask,” my brother said. “Joni’s been having vivid dreams lately, and the first thing Joni said when she woke up this morning was that she’d been dreaming of Brandon moments before she woke.” Eric shared what Joni had told him at the time and then Joni added more details during one of our visits early last week.

In her dream Joni is running a marathon and she has almost reached the end when Brandon joins her and runs alongside. Apparently, he’d already crossed the finish line, but he’d come back to run with her and cheer her on as she finishes. Neither was in the “winners’ circle,” but both seemed to feel the thrill of completing such a long race.  As they sat in the grass and rested, Brandon made eye contact with Joni and said, “We lost – but we won.”

Joni told me she didn’t understand why Brandon would come back to cross the finish line for a second time with her. She said she knew within the context of the dream that Brandon was a much better runner than she. (As far as I know, Joni never ran for sport or fun, whereas Brandon seemed born to run. It was the perfect context for a dream involving him!) But I told Joni, Brandon had done this before.
Preteen Brandon in Cincinnati Heart Mini-marathon
Results of 5K when Brandon was 6 y.o. and Marti Lynne was 13
When Brandon was six years old, he, my youngest sister Marti (then 13 years old) and I entered a 5K race. I figured I’d stop and walk when Brandon tired, but he took off like a bat out of hell, leaving me in the dust (and finishing five minutes ahead of me)! After crossing the finish line, he ran back until he found Marti and ran with her. She said he cheered her on, “C’mon, Aunt Marti, you can do it. You can do it,” until she finished. I found out later last week that Marti had heard from a friend of Brandon’s for whom he had done the same during a Cincinnati “Flying Pig” marathon both had entered. Brandon finished, drank a beer, and then ran back to run alongside and cheer his friend over the finish line.
Brandon cheered on by his sister Elizabeth and niece Karenna (in backpack)
Hearing the story of running alongside Marti, Joni interlocked her fingers and said, “Ah, now it makes sense.” And it did. Joni’s dream has comforted me more than any Brandon dream I’ve had since his death. It does make sense that he would be there to run alongside and cheer this non-runner, this cancer warrior women across life’s finish line and into paradise on the other side.
Warrior Joni

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.” (From the New Testament, 2nd Epistle of Timothy 4:7-8)

Each of us must explore the meaning of earthly life and consciousness. My explorations have taken me all over the map during the course of my life thus far – from life after death to not sure to unlikely to consciousness only makes sense as more than a biochemical by-product of metabolism. As for me…

They lost – but they’ve won…

Monday, January 7, 2013

Thanks, Morgan S, for the Brandon he became...

Brandon attended all-male Jesuit St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati from late summer 1988 until graduation in late spring 1992, and how he loved those four years. A select soccer player for several years prior, he went out for freshman soccer before his freshman year had even begun, but he was the last to be cut. According to the coach, “You have the skills but you’re not big enough. You’d get mowed down every time.” Brandon had always been small, light and quick, and at this point, he was still waiting for puberty and its related growth spurt. After a day or two of self-pity, he picked himself up and declared he was trying out for the cross-country team where he made many of the best friends of his life.

One of those friends, Morgan Setzer, died in early January, 1990 – the middle of their sophomore year at St. X – of a rare and undiagnosed medical condition. This past weekend marked the twenty-third anniversary of his passing. He and Brandon knew each other less than 18 months, yet Morgan continued to be a deep influence on the way Brandon lived. Several children have been given the first or middle name of "Morgan" after Morgan Setzer, including Brandon's daughter, Morgan Therese, who was going to be named for Morgan whether a girl or a boy!

I planned to post our oldest daughter’s (and Brandon’s older sister’s) eulogy, which she wrote and presented as the introduction to the funeral Mass celebrating Brandon’s life on June 6, 2012, although I wasn't sure when I'd post it. As you will read, Morgan Setzer’s friendship and death played a critical role for the rest of Brandon’s twenty-two years of life on this planet. Therefore, the anniversary of Morgan’s passing seems an appropriate time to share the heartfelt words of a grieving sister and the life-changing impact of a true friend. I can only hope that June brought a reunion of these two friends and that they've had many opportunities to run long and hard, and then relax (with a beer) while listening to Elton John's "Pinball Wizard." 

"The Brandon He Became

(Alternate Title: 'Because You Can’t, You Won’t and You Don’t Stop'
From Sure Shot by the Beastie Boys)

Good morning, I’m Elizabeth. Brandon was my best friend, and I his older sister. On behalf of my family, first let me say 'Thank you.' We have felt an enormous wave of love and support from Brandon and Christina’s networks of relatives, friends, colleagues and parishioners. Last night, over 800 people came to see him for the last time. It speaks volumes. Thanks for coming to share the joy of Brandon’s life.

Brandon was amazing. All of us gathered here physically and in spirit know this. Throughout the last few days and months, Christina and our family have heard from scores of people telling us of their appreciation for Brandon’s zest for life, his energy, generosity and adventurous spirit – and his unique way of always being at the center of the party. Especially that. It never seemed like the fun had really begun until Brandon arrived – extended-family reunions, weekends with the boys and the backyard barbeques. He was always at the center of a good time. Everyone gravitated to his warm smile and ready handshake. But for some of you who did not know Brandon as a child, you may not know that this was not how Brandon began his life.

Brandon was born into a family with some big personalities, and as a small kid, he was kind of shy. He was easy-going, but he generally stayed pretty quiet and let me boss him around a bit (as big sisters are wont to do). He was definitely not interested in being the center of attention and often shied away from big groups of friends, focusing instead on becoming a great athlete and learning all the dialogue to obscure movies, such as “The Last Dragon” and the lyrics to “Rappers’ Delight.” When we were kids, he and I often squabbled over the trivial stuff of childhood: fighting over the TV remote, who got more ice cream, whose turn it was to ride in the front seat. And whoever lost, they got the Indian burn or the noogie. Brandon did the typical kid-brother stuff like snoop through my room and listen in on my phone calls, and generally bug me when my friends were over. I don’t think anyone who knew Brandon and me as kids would’ve described us as close. But we were brother and sister, and we loved each other and left it at that.

Believe it or not, Brandon often struggled to make friends as a kid and seemed to worry a lot about his place in the social life of school. But then Brandon enrolled in St. Xavier High School, and a horrible thing happened. He didn’t make the Bomber’s freshman soccer team, a goal for which he had been striving for many years. So, he joined St. X’s Cross Country team instead, and excelled, of course, but more than that, he found a wonderful group of friends. Brandon became especially close with a teammate named Morgan Setzer. Those two got along like a house on fire and hung out a lot. They shared common interests in movies, music, skiing, etc.: the “guy” stuff of high school. Although Brandon and I were moving in very different circles at the time, I remember feeling glad for him that he had finally met a good friend who seemed to “get” him. Tragically, Morgan died in the winter of their sophomore year, and Brandon was devastated. I remember my whole family was so sad about it and worried about how this would affect him, but I was a senior in high school then and thinking about college and my social life. I quickly moved on from worrying about Brandon because he seemed “fine.”

The following June, my parents sent Brandon and me to Munich, Germany for the summer with a Rotary exchange program. We stayed with two different families. Neither of us took a shine to our German host families. Our only choice: to hang out with each other. And we did a lot of exploring that summer. We navigated the Munich public transportation system, took our first hitchhiking trips, hung out in the cafes and hiked in the Alps. And as the weeks went by and we spent more and more time together, Brandon started opening up to me about how he was dealing with his best friend Morgan’s death. He admitted that he had been very depressed. He felt guilty about still being alive when Morgan wasn’t. But Brandon also told me that going through that tough time brought him to a decision. He said that his experience with Morgan taught him that he wanted to be a person who didn’t live life in fear. He wanted to change, to become more outgoing, to try more things and live this life to the fullest. And I admired him. But I wondered how he would do this as I went off to college that fall.

That’s when Brandon became the man that many of us know today. He shed his social anxieties and began doing all those things he talked about in Germany. I took him camping in the (Red River) Gorge that year, and we went rock climbing, mountain biking. You name it – Brandon tried it. But whereas, I was a dabbler, Brandon was full on. He took to all that adventure like a fish to water. And for him it only got bigger: rappelling, spelunking, mountain climbing, kayaking, break-dancing, white water rafting, sky-diving (and darn it we were going to do that this summer to celebrate my 40th birthday), water skiing, snow-boarding, learning to cook and running a marathon. And he took us all along for the ride. As we got older though, admittedly, I was content to just hear the fun stories from his adventures rather than participate in all of them. And you know, Brandon just became the coolest guy. The man you’ve become accustomed to know, the one we will always want at the party; to take a walk with; to cook a meal with and have a spontaneous dance party in his kitchen while the Beastie Boys blare from the stereo.

I feel so privileged that I was with Brandon when he was experiencing this transition in his life and to talk to him about it, to laugh about it. He really showed me how we are all capable of changing our lives. We can decide to be the person of our dreams, to stop living in fear and embrace the life God has given us, fully. Although I’m the teacher in the family, I’ve learned more from him than I can describe. We all have. Live life to the fullest and be good to each other. That was Brandon’s prayer for all of us. I think we all endeavor to live up to that.

Again, I really want everyone to know how incredibly grateful we all feel, the fact that so many people have stepped forward to lend a hand to our family. Keep praying for survivors and volunteering in the fight against cancer by doing what you love – running, walking, donating and raising awareness. Sky dive against cancer if that’s your thing. Thank you, again."