He was 71

I don’t know why this is the memory that sprang to mind when I started thinking about my older brother, Charlie.

Mom and Dad had bought a new refrigerator, so we had a big cardboard box to play with in the yard. It became a spaceship. Bruce and I were the intrepid space explorers, and Charlie was outer space: He moved the box and jostled it to simulate the journey.

Upon landing on another planet, it became quiet — almost … TOO quiet! We had made a little window flap, and I pulled it open to see Charlie with a bemused, affected look on his face.

“There’s some sort of creature out there,” I said, and took another look. Yep, there was the same funny look.

Charlie and I made fateful decisions at that point. I decided when I opened the flap a third time, I would lean forward as if pressing my face against the glass of the window. Charlie decided this would be the time the alien monster attacked, so he threw a fist at the opening window.

What I next remember is sitting on the floor of our makeshift box, holding my profusely bloody nose and laughing hysterically. I think Charlie was a little mortified but couldn’t help laughing with me. Mother was not amused, but the three boys always remembered that space mission.

I think the memory came to me because the “alien” look on Charlie’s face was actually a familiar one: his eyebrows arched, a playful smile, and a look in his eyes that suggested a shared joke — something devilish was in progress, and we were the only ones in on it. (I may have picked the selfie that I use as my website portrait because it reminds me of that look.)

Nineteen years ago, two weeks after the best times ever with my older brother including a memorable trip to a minor-league baseball game in Camden, New Jersey, and one week after I started my dream job editing the Door County Advocate in Wisconsin, word came that Charlie had had a debilitating stroke, and I rushed back. He was unconscious for many days, and I had said a final goodbye before coming home to the Badger State, but he woke up, although he never fully recovered.

Monday he needed to go to the hospital; Tuesday morning Connie called to say they’d told her he was fading fast. It was over a couple of hours later.

The world is a little more surreal today. I’d grown accustomed to Charlie being not quite the same guy, although he never stopped flashing that mischievous smile. I don’t know if I can grow accustomed to his being gone altogether.

I miss him.

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