Saying goodbye to my big brother
Arts: Frank McCourt was 10 years older than his brother Alphie, who recalls Frank’s life and his peaceful death this summer in a hospice in New York
MY BROTHER Frank McCourt died on July 19 this year: one month, to the day, before his 79th birthday. The world took notice. Walter Cronkite died on July 17. My wife, Lynn, said that Frank waited a couple of days so that Walter Cronkite could have his moment. Frank McCourt? And Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America? In the same breath? Isn’t this a great country?
Frank’s early miseries are well known, as are his teaching career, his monumental success as a writer and his vast international popularity as speaker and humorist. He has always been a strong presence in my life, along with my brothers Malachy and Michael. I will never speak to him again, nor see him. I can’t believe that. But I will have to get used to the idea. Death comes to, and for, everyone.
As is well known, seven children were born to my parents. Three died and, as Malachy has pointed out, for many years the odds were in favour of the survivors. Three were gone and the four of us still stood. Now the odds have shifted.
Frank was 10 years older, and from my boyhood I remember him as being serious, austere, even: disciplined, determined and with a sense of mission. Ten years distant from any possibility of an easy relationship with him, I was a little bit intimidated. Until the day I borrowed his bike, crashed it and awaited his wrath. Wrath never came. Frank dismissed the incident without any fuss. In our Limerick, in the bleak harshness of the 1940s and 1950s, no one said I love you. But Frank didn’t chide me, or shout or threaten. No, he forbore and, to a child reared on fire and brimstone, more especially on the Irish Catholic version, such forbearance, in the face of destruction and stupidity, was nothing short of love.
In 1949 Frank left Limerick, the city of his rearing, and returned to New York, the city of his birth. We were left behind: Mam, Mike and myself. Malachy was already away in England. Our hearts broke when he left.
A long 10 years would elapse before I came to New York. And, a couple of years later, in 1961, when I was staying with Frank and his wife in Brooklyn, Frank and I went for a few beers in a bar in downtown Manhattan. All too soon it is 4am, closing time, with the dawn coming up, too late and too early to take a subway or bus. At Frank’s suggestion we walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Two men, walking side by side: fat or thin, tall or small, rich or poor. There’s a magic in that.
We are nowhere near drunk. It would be hard to get drunk even on a succession of small 15-cent glasses of beer. But we are cheerful. By this time I am as tall as Frank, my oldest brother. Out of the night and into the day we walk, out of the darkness, into the light and the promise of the future. Only in retrospect, and only after many years, did I see the symbolism. To this day I treasure it. Ever the teacher, Frank didn’t send me or walk behind me. Nor did he lead. The teacher walked beside me.
Eight or nine years later, when I was living in Dublin and attending University College, Dublin, Frank came over to work on a doctorate, at Trinity College. I was sharing an apartment with two friends. Frank lived elsewhere but he had a key to our apartment. One miserable rainy afternoon I came home to find him in the kitchen. Standing, still in his coat, he was eating a soft-boiled egg. One single, solitary, soft-boiled egg, with no bread, no butter, no tea in sight. That was his way. Only what he needed, that’s what he took. He kept the faith.
Twenty-five years later, the success of his first book, a memoir, left him bewildered. Throughout most of his adult life he had been “only the teacher”. Angela’s Ashes, a saga shot through with poverty and hunger, became the engine of his success. Now even Gourmetmagazine was asking him to write a piece. “Irony is my constant companion,” he would remark as he poked fun at his status as a newly minted big shot.
Frank survived typhoid fever as a boy and endured chronic conjunctivitis. In the 1980s he would survive cancer. Having thoroughly embraced and enjoyed his dozen years of fame, he was now afflicted with melanoma. Treatments and hospital stays would follow, all to no avail.
During his last days, in the hospice, he lies propped up in bed. Two or three other people are in the room. I indicate to him that I must leave and that I will be back tomorrow. Frank raises his right hand, the first and second fingers extended; the middle finger and the pinkie folded back, the thumb lying flat.
Smiling as he is, this gesture means something. I can tell. The others in the room are watching him and they laugh when he raises his hand. With the crinkle of a joke at the corners of his smile he forgives the others their laughter. Still looking directly at me, and with the same wide smile, he moves his right hand: upward, and slowly downward, then left to right, in a continuous motion. Oldest to youngest, fatherless now as we have ever been, in timeless rhythm he gives me his blessing. And without a thought I cross myself.
Next day Malachy and I are with him in the room. Frank’s wife, Ellen, is away, briefly, on an errand. Frank becomes agitated. His shirt is bothering him and we help him remove it. Still he tosses. We can’t settle him, can’t seem to relieve his discomfort. We decide to use the emergency device to call the nurse. “Where is it?” I ask Malachy. “It’s hanging by the side of the bed,” Malachy answers. I look for it, without success, and I continue to search, while Malachy insists. In the end, I get down on my hands and knees. Malachy, with his busted leg encased in the big black boot, begins the search on his side of the bed. Neither of us can find the device.
I have a fleeting vision of Malachy, Mike and myself, all of us under the bed searching for the device, and the nurse arriving in. “Where is everybody?” she would ask Frank. “Where have your brothers gone?”
“Damned if I know,” would be his response. “The behavior of my brothers has always been a mystery to me.” And he would sink back on his pillow, resigned, as always, to our vagaries. That was my imagining.
In the event, Malachy’s wife, Diana, had gone to summon the nurses. Frank had never been overweight and now there is not an ounce of excess. His spirit, whatever that is; his dreamer, his inspiration, the fine tuner of all his lives and of his brilliant articulation, all are pulling away.
He tosses and turns from side to side. No matter how he has been positioned in the bed, his feet always seem to find purchase against the rail at the foot. Now he moves his legs up and down, as if practising for take-off. A distillation is taking place, a fever without fever, as his spirit gains its complete ascendancy. And a smelting, as his body, reduced to its essentials, takes on a sheen and an extraordinary beauty.
Years ago Frank told me that he was strongly attracted to the writings of J Krishnamurti, to the idea that we should abandon all the grandiose notions and practices of established religion, that we should look with wonder at whatever is before us, and that, toward everyone and everything, we should behave in a just, loving and compassionate manner. He didn’t say this in so many words, but that was the message. Be guided by justice and love. That’s the most practical approach.
I hadn’t seen or sensed any angels at Frank’s bedside. No secular spirit-guides-for-hire, either. I doubt that he would want them. Instead, I believe, he had been getting himself into fighting trim, accepting change as it came, as he always did, shedding all excess baggage and preparing for the trip.
THEN THE NURSES COME. With care and tenderness, they move him up in the bed, adjust and plump up his pillows and settle him. Soon he is asleep, and he will continue in sleep. There is talk of seizure, of complications. I think I know better. On his left side, now, and with his left palm under his chin and his chin slightly raised, in the thinker’s classic pose, peacefully he sleeps.
Only days later, on Sunday afternoon, family and friends were present at the hospice. I was not. Having stayed with him all night, I was at home when the call came. At a little after 3pm Frank had stopped breathing. His body had finally wound down. It is very sad. The knowledge of his absence is sometimes overwhelming. The memory of that earlier day, that day of exaltation, offers some consolation.
A few years ago he said to me: “We are all we have, the brothers, the women and the children.” Now, of course, we are one less. But maybe, after a nice rest, and God knows he deserves it, in another 66 years, or however long it takes to reach retirement age, Frank will break away from the mass of the great vibration and, once again, lend his voice to the shunned and the excluded.