Brothers

My brother, Val, passed away two weeks ago.   He was my big brother, big in every sense of the word.

Val was 6 feet tall when he was 12. He finally topped out at 6’ 4”.  I was three years younger and of average height – if not a little small for my age.  I didn’t reach my full height until college.

During our early years, we tried to kill each other on a regular basis.  We fought, as brothers do, about everything and anything.

One of our on-going quarrels had to do with the light in the bedroom we shared.  I was a voracious reader.  I would start a book and stay up until I finished it, often reading far into the night.  Val complained the light kept him awake and responded by opening our bedroom window, letting in mosquitoes, moths, and half of flying creation.  I would tell him to close the window.  He would tell me to turn out the light.  Often or not, a fight would break out somewhere in between.

One night I fell asleep with the light on.  Val got up to turn off the light and noticed my mouth was open.  Out of irritation, he took the opportunity to teach me a lesson.  He caught a live moth and dropped it in my mouth.  I woke with a start and then threw up on him.

Largely, we entertained our selves by aping whatever we saw on television or in the movies. We watched wrestling with our grandfather so when my brother grabbed me by the seat of my pants and threw me into a corner bedpost, splitting my head open, I knew what to do. I hit him with a folding chair.  Chipped two teeth.

When we saw Clark Gable playing a big game hunter catch a tiger in a Burmese tiger trap, we thought that was pretty cool and had to give it a shot – never mind Burma was on the other side of the world and no one could remember the last time anyone saw a Tiger in Utah.  We dug a pit in a vacant lot between our house and the Parmaleys – our neighbors to the left – and camouflaged it with weeds and dirt.  Two days later, we were excited to see the trap had been sprung and disappointed when we found the pit empty.  We decided we hadn’t dug the hole deep enough until we found out Mrs. Parmaley had fallen in and broken a leg.

The movie Ivanhoe inspired us to organize our own jousting tournament.  We invited the entire neighborhood to compete.  We cut off the end our mothers’ brooms, sharpened the ends as best we could, and rode full tilt at each other on our bikes, trying to unseat each other.  It is a wonder we didn’t kill someone.

Westerns were far and away our favorite form of entertainment.  When we weren’t watching cowboys and Indians, we were played cowboys and Indians.  Once Val let me be the cowboy, a treat because everyone knows the cowboys always win.  My excitement disappeared with I found myself “tied to the stake” in the coal shed.  Val piled some kindling at my feet, lit a fire, and left when mom call lunch.  I wriggled free and joined him without thinking much more about it until the fire department arrived.  We burned the coal shed to the ground.

The fighting diminished as we got older and stopped when Val went off to college.  I followed him to Washington and attended GWU for no better reason than Val was there. He was a political science major.  I became a political science major.  He went to law school.  I went to law school.  And, of course, we both went to work on Capitol Hill.

Marty Walsh, our friend of long-standing, gave me his perspective on our relationship last week.  “You and Val were more than brothers,” Marty said. “You were each other’s inspiration.  He was Butch Cassidy, you were the Sundance Kid.”

In many ways, Marty is right.  When Val wanted to test the quality of care in Medicaid clinics, I was the one who led a team of investigators posing as Medicaid patients for a year while Val provided political cover for the effort.  When Val said it would be neat if we could get a look at the second set of books we knew suspect clinics kept, I was the one who found a clinic for sale in the Bronx, posed as a buyer, and tried to get a look at the real books, winding up with a mobster taking me for an enlightening ride in his car, his German Shepherd sitting on the floor between my legs, his head inches from my crotch.

At one point, we held parallel positions at the House and Senate.  Val was Counsel and Director of Oversight for the Democrats in the House.  I held the same position working for the Republicans who controlled the Senate.  A hired gun came into my office with his tail in a bunch one morning.  He said those guys on the House side were giving his client a hard time.  I asked him if the lead investigator was a big guy and he said, “Yes.”  Was he tough and aggressive?  “Yes. Yes.”   Sure sounds like my brother, I said. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you.   We never saw him again.

When one of the six trade associations representing the home health industry approached Val looking for an executive director, he recruited me.  Four years later, when we merged these associations into the National Association for Homecare, I recruited him.  Two years later, he recruited me to run a related foundation.  In all, we worked side by side for more than 30 years.

As I think of Val now, the words of Henri Nouwen come to mind. “The great challenge remains to find the eternal in the midst of the temporary,” Nouwen said, “to touch what remains in what passes and to love the ever living God in the love of the quickly passing family of people.”

Amen to that, Big Brother.  Rest in peace.  Life pulled us apart from time to time, but we were always at our best when we were together.  We will be together again.

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Here and the Hereafter

One of the great regrets of my life is that my parents never had a chance to meet my wife.  My father had lectured me repeatedly through my young years  telling me to make sure I found the right woman.  He said it was the most important decision I would ever make.  My mother simply wanted me to find a woman who would love me as much as she did.

It took me a while, but I succeeded.

It was therefore more than appropriate that my wife surprised me with a portrait of my parents on our first Christmas together.   She said the painting was done by Simmie Knox,  I had never heard of Knox but I soon learned he was a painter of national repute.  He has portraits hanging in the Supreme Court, the White House, and a number of national galleries.

We placed the portrait in a place of honor over the sofa in our living room.  When our son came along a few years later, our family would sit there together watching the things that children like to watch.

One day when he was about five, our son looking up at the portrait, stared at it for a moment, then he turned to me and said:

“You know I knew your mother before I knew you.”

His comment came out of the blue and caught me completely by surprise.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“We used to play together in heaven,” he said, “before she picked me out for you.”

Our son doesn’t remember that now, nor does he  remember saying it; but I have never been able to forget it.

The universe is alive.  Life is seamless.  It stretches forward into the future and back beyond the boundaries of time.  There is no beginning.  There is no end.

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Heroes Will Rise

The political climate in Washington is so bad it has become increasingly difficult for me to watch the evening news.  I grew up on Capitol Hill and spent half my life working there.  I left when I saw Congress becoming increasingly polarized and dysfunctional. It is of little comfort to say I saw it coming.

I remember Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey.  When I came to Washington, they were the polar extremes.  You couldn’t be further to the right than Goldwater or further to the left than Humphrey.  They disagreed on just about everything, but they managed to disagree without being disagreeable.   They were friends and treated each other with respect.

Frank Moss was my patron and mentor. In his first election, he defined himself by chosing principle over party, turning down a contribution from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that would have ensured his election when he learned there were strings attached.  They said their support was conditioned on a promise that they could have his vote whenever the lobbyists providing the cash wanted it.  Moss said, “No”, beat the odds, and won anyway.  In the process, he earned the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.

My friend, Arthur Flemming, served every president from Coolidge to Clinton. I used to enjoy asking him to compare them.  Particularly memorable is his description of the way they practiced their faiths and what it said about them:  Eisenhower issued a standing order to never turn down an invitation from a religious group if it was possible for him to be where they wanted him to be.  Rather than go to church, Nixon, in keeping with his paranoia, initiated the practice of bringing religious leaders into the White House to hold services in the Rose Garden.  The Clintons went to the same church (Foundry United Methodist) as the Doles until two things happened – word got out they were there together and Bob Dole decided to run for President.   The fact that they couldn’t be seen worshipping together said volumes about how far we have devolved.

Of all the roles in all the administrations, Arthur said he most enjoyed serving as Secretary of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower. “Every day I went to work I knew I was going to be able to do something that would help a lot of people,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get to work.”

Claude Pepper’s career included three terms in the Senate and then a return to Congress at the age of 65.  He served another twenty-six years in the House of Representatives.  He applied Ockham’s Razor for me, distilling political philosophy and defining his purpose in three words:  Make Things Better.

John Heinz didn’t have to be there.  As the heir to the Heinz Company, he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do but he chose public service and talked with pride about his grandfather’s role in establishing the Food and Drug Administration.

I remember clearly a hearing we held focusing on a nursing home chain that had killed more than a dozen patients by withholding the nutritional supplement – Ensure.  The product was expensive, the President of the chain explained, and his company had to make a profit.  Surely Heinz, as a businessman, would understand that.  I still remember the fire in Heinz’ eyes when he turned to me and said, “Give me whatever you have.  I want to bury this guy.”

These were men of principle.  Agree with their politics or not, no one questioned their honor or integrity.   I can’t help wondering where they have gone.   But when I do at times like this when it hard to turn on the television, I remember one of the enduring truths of humanity –  We are at our best when things are the worst.

“I understand finally, why the love of God created men responsible for one another and gave them hope as a virtue,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote.  “Since it made of each of them the ambassador of the same God, in hands of each rests the salvation of all.”

Heroes will rise.

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Steve Jobs’ Final Words

There is a lot of misinformation on the web concerning Steve Jobs’ final words.  As usual, the truth is better than fiction.  Here it is courtesy of his sister.

A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs, by Mona Simpson, October 30, 2011

I grew up as an only child, with a single mother.  Because we were poor and because I knew my father had emigrated from Syria, I imagined he looked like Omar Sharif.  I hoped he would be rich and kind and would come into our lives (and our not yet furnished apartment) and help us. Later, after I’d met my father, I tried to believe he’d changed his number and left no forwarding address because he was an idealistic revolutionary, plotting a new world for the Arab people.

Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.

By then, I lived in New York, where I was trying to write my first novel.  I had a job at a small magazine in an office the size of a closet, with three other aspiring writers. When one day a lawyer called me — me, the middle-class girl from California who hassled the boss to buy us health insurance — and said his client was rich and famous and was my long-lost brother, the young editors went wild.   The lawyer refused to tell me my brother’s name and my colleagues started a betting pool.  The leading candidate: John Travolta. I secretly hoped for a literary descendant of Henry James — someone more talented than I, someone brilliant without even trying.

When I met Steve, he was a guy my age in jeans, Arab – or Jewish-looking – and handsomer than Omar Sharif.  We took a long walk — something, it happened, that we both liked to do. I don’t remember much of what we said that first day, only that he felt like someone I’d pick to be a friend. He explained that he worked in computers.

I didn’t know much about computers.  I still worked on a manual Olivetti typewriter.  I told Steve I’d recently considered my first purchase of a computer: something called the Cromemco.  Steve told me it was a good thing I’d waited.  He said he was making something that was going to be insanely beautiful.

I want to tell you a few things I learned from Steve, during three distinct periods, over the 27 years I knew him. They’re not periods of years, but of states of being.  His full life.  His illness.  His dying.

Steve worked at what he loved.  He worked really hard.  Every day.

That’s incredibly simple, but true.

He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.

When he got kicked out of Apple, things were painful. He told me about a dinner at which 500 Silicon Valley leaders met the then-sitting president.  Steve hadn’t been invited.

Uninvited to the ball, he drove the third or fourth iteration of his same black sports car to Next, where he and his team were quietly inventing the platform on which Tim Berners-Lee would write the program for the World Wide Web.

Novelty was not Steve’s highest value.  Beauty was.

For an innovator, Steve was remarkably loyal. If he loved a shirt, he’d order 10 or 100 of them. In the Palo Alto house, there are probably enough black cotton turtlenecks for everyone in this church.

His philosophy of aesthetics reminds me of a quote that went something like this: “Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”

Steve always aspired to make beautiful later.

Steve was like a girl in the amount of time he spent talking about love. Love was his supreme virtue, his god of gods. He tracked and worried about the romantic lives of the people working with him.

Whenever he saw a man he thought a woman might find dashing, he called out, “Hey are you single? Do you wanna come to dinner with my sister?”

I remember when he phoned the day he met Laurene. “There’s this beautiful woman and she’s really smart and she has this dog and I’m going to marry her.”

When Reed was born, he began gushing and never stopped.  He was a physical dad, with each of his children.  He fretted over Lisa’s boyfriends and Erin’s travel and skirt lengths and Eve’s safety around the horses she adored.

None of us who attended Reed’s graduation party will ever forget the scene of Reed and Steve slow dancing.

His abiding love for Laurene sustained him. He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere.  In that most important way, Steve was never ironic, never cynical, never pessimistic.  I try to learn from that, still.

Steve had been successful at a young age, and he felt that had isolated him. Most of the choices he made from the time I knew him were designed to dissolve the walls around him.  A middle-class boy from Los Altos, he fell in love with a middle-class girl from New Jersey.  It was important to both of them to raise Lisa, Reed, Erin and Eve as grounded, normal children.  Their house didn’t intimidate with art or polish; in fact, for many of the first years I knew Steve and Lo together, dinner was served on the grass, and sometimes consisted of just one vegetable.  Lots of that one vegetable.  But one.  Broccoli.  In season. Simply prepared.  With just the right, recently snipped, herb.

Even as a young millionaire, Steve always picked me up at the airport.  He’d be standing there in his jeans.

When a family member called him at work, his secretary Linetta answered, “Your dad’s in a meeting.  Would you like me to interrupt him?”

When Reed insisted on dressing up as a witch every Halloween, Steve, Laurene, Erin and Eve all went wiccan.

They once embarked on a kitchen remodel; it took years. They cooked on a hotplate in the garage.  The Pixar building, under construction during the same period, finished in half the time.  And that was it for the Palo Alto house. The bathrooms stayed old.  But — and this was a crucial distinction — it had been a great house to start with; Steve saw to that.

This is not to say that he didn’t enjoy his success: he enjoyed his success a lot, just minus a few zeros. He told me how much he loved going to the Palo Alto bike store and gleefully realizing he could afford to buy the best bike there.

And he did.

Steve was humble.   Steve liked to keep learning.

Once, he told me if he’d grown up differently, he might have become a mathematician.  He spoke reverently about colleges and loved walking around the Stanford campus. In the last year of his life, he studied a book of paintings by Mark Rothko, an artist he hadn’t known about before, thinking of what could inspire people on the walls of a future Apple campus.

Steve cultivated whimsy.  What other C.E.O. knows the history of English and Chinese tea roses and has a favorite David Austin rose.

He had surprises tucked in all his pockets.  I’ll venture that Laurene will discover treats — songs he loved, a poem he cut out and put in a drawer — even after 20 years of an exceptionally close marriage.  I spoke to him every other day or so, but when I opened The New York Times and saw a feature on the company’s patents, I was still surprised and delighted to see a sketch for a perfect staircase.

With his four children, with his wife, with all of us, Steve had a lot of fun.

He treasured happiness.

Then, Steve became ill and we watched his life compress into a smaller circle.  Once, he’d loved walking through Paris.  He’d discovered a small handmade soba shop in Kyoto.  He downhill skied gracefully.  He cross-country skied clumsily.  No more.

Eventually, even ordinary pleasures, like a good peach, no longer appealed to him.

Yet, what amazed me, and what I learned from his illness, was how much was still left after so much had been taken away.

I remember my brother learning to walk again, with a chair. After his liver transplant, once a day he would get up on legs that seemed too thin to bear him, arms pitched to the chair back. He’d push that chair down the Memphis hospital corridor towards the nursing station and then he’d sit down on the chair, rest, turn around and walk back again. He counted his steps and, each day, pressed a little farther.

Laurene got down on her knees and looked into his eyes.

“You can do this, Steve,” she said.  His eyes widened.  His lips pressed into each other.

He tried.  He always, always tried, and always with love at the core of that effort.  He was an intensely emotional man.

I realized during that terrifying time that Steve was not enduring the pain for himself.  He set destinations:  his son Reed’s graduation from high school, his daughter Erin’s trip to Kyoto, the launching of a boat he was building on which he planned to take his family around the world and where he hoped he and Laurene would someday retire.

Even ill, his taste, his discrimination and his judgment held.  He went through 67 nurses before finding kindred spirits and then he completely trusted the three who stayed with him to the end. Tracy. Arturo. Elham.

One time when Steve had contracted a tenacious pneumonia his doctor forbid everything — even ice.  We were in a standard I.C.U. unit.  Steve, who generally disliked cutting in line or dropping his own name, confessed that this once, he’d like to be treated a little specially.

I told him:  Steve, this is special treatment.

He leaned over to me, and said: “I want it to be a little more special.”

Intubated, when he couldn’t talk, he asked for a notepad.  He sketched devices to hold an iPad in a hospital bed.  He designed new fluid monitors and x-ray equipment.  He redrew that not-quite-special-enough hospital unit.  And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.

None of us knows for certain how long we’ll be here. On Steve’s better days, even in the last year, he embarked upon projects and elicited promises from his friends at Apple to finish them.  Some boat builders in the Netherlands have a gorgeous stainless steel hull ready to be covered with the finishing wood.  His three daughters remain unmarried and he’d wanted to walk them down the aisle as he’d walked me the day of my wedding.

We all — in the end — die in medias res.  In the middle of a story.  Of many stories.

I suppose it’s not quite accurate to call the death of someone who lived with cancer for years unexpected, but Steve’s death was unexpected for us.

What I learned from my brother’s death was that character is essential:  What he was, was how he died.

Tuesday morning, he called me to ask me to hurry up to Palo Alto.  His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us.

He started his farewell and I stopped him.  I said, “Wait.  I’m coming. I’m in a taxi to the airport.  I’ll be there.”

“I’m telling you now because I’m afraid you won’t make it on time, honey.”

When I arrived, he and his Laurene were joking together like partners who’d lived and worked together every day of their lives.  He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze.

Until about 2 in the afternoon, his wife could rouse him, to talk to his friends from Apple.

Then, after awhile, it was clear that he would no longer wake to us.

His breathing changed.  It became severe, deliberate, purposeful.  I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before.

This is what I learned:  he was working at this, too.  Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

He told me, when he was saying goodbye and telling me he was sorry, so sorry we wouldn’t be able to be old together as we’d always planned, that he was going to a better place.

Dr. Fischer gave him a 50/50 chance of making it through the night.

He made it through the night, Laurene next to him on the bed sometimes jerked up when there was a longer pause between his breaths.  She and I looked at each other, then he would heave a deep breath and begin again.

This had to be done. Even now, he had a stern, still handsome profile, the profile of an absolutist, a romantic.  His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude.

He seemed to be climbing.

But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.

Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were:  OH WOW.  OH WOW.  OH WOW.

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Father’s Day

I distinctly remember the moment I looked down and saw my father’s hand coming out of my sleeve.  Until then, I had always thought I was my Mother’s son.   Since then, I have found myself thinking I am becoming more and more like my Dad every day.

Is it the age, I wonder – me catching up on the staggered track of life – or does it have more to do with the fact that I am now a Father myself?  More and more I find myself saying the things he used to say, doing the things he used to do, and marveling at how much smarter he seems now than he was then.

My father was a strong man, dynamic, and dramatic.  A man of firm conviction, he expressed his opinions frequently and forcefully.  For him, everything was monochromatic, black or white, right or wrong.  There were no shades of grey or extenuating circumstances.

He walked into harm’s way daily for 20 years to put food on our table and seemed fearless until the day I came home with 7 stitches in my lip and blood covering my shirt.  Before I could tell him what happened, he erupted like a volcano.

I remember the moment clearly because it was one of those ‘aha’ moments.  My first reaction was – “Why is he yelling at me?”   Then I realized he wasn’t yelling at me.  He was yelling for me.  He was yelling because he was afraid – not for himself, but for his son.

More than anything my Dad wanted me to get an education.  At first I thought it was because this was something he had been denied.  Now I know it had more to do with a Father’s desire to see a son reach his highest possibilities.  My son taught me that lesson.

Daily for 18 years and change, I have watched my son grow.  There is no way to describe the delight I take in seeing him discovers who he is meant to be and what he is capable of doing.

All will win, my father would say.  All will lose.  Win or lose take you best shot, let the chips fall where they may.  Get up and go on.  Never give up.

Win, lose, or draw, always try to do better, always try to make things better.  Remember it is when we are tested that our true character is revealed.

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