My Grandfather, My Brother



I hold in my hands an old black and white photograph of my grandfather Dan Carey. He wears a wool suit and vest, crisp white shirt, black tie, wool cap. This wasn’t his usual type of dress; Dan worked with his hands, building things with brick and stone. We cannot know the event that brought on the formal outfit, nor the reason that the camera came out. It would have been around 1900, when he was close to thirty. There are few other photographs of my grandfather from those years. He was 50 when he married my grandmother in 1922, and 52 when my mother was born. Most photographs are from those later years–in his fifties, sixties and seventies as my mother grew. But in this picture, twenty years before my mother was a thought in the world, I can see the craggy lines of my white-haired grandfather. His eyes are wary, almost hurt. His handsome mouth is set with a slight downturn. People didn’t grin in photographs in those days, so we see the serious man. And behind that, if you look, there is kindness, and a softness.

Later in life, Dan would sit at his large mahogany table and write stories and poems. My mother remembers watching him take his writings and cut them up, rearrange the paragraphs, and tape them back together with brown postal tape. He wrote about his travels out west, his childhood in upstate New York as the son of Irish immigrants, his studies of vocal technique and singing. But what he wrote about most often and most consistently was his brother Will. One hot night in the 1890s, when they were teenagers, Dan, Will and their brother Mike had stolen out the window of their little house in Hoosick Falls. They left their home and family on their way out west to strike it rich. For many years they worked together building railroads in the Pacific Northwest. Dan spent most of his time in pristine snowy wilderness, doing advance work with a dogsled team to prepare for the laying of track. He fell in love with the great trees, the wild mountains, the silent sky. Then he would return to the “end of track,” where crews of men hammered down the railroad lines amidst an encampment of prostitutes, saloonkeepers and opium dealers—all of whom were on hand when the workers received their small gold pieces as pay.

My grandfather liked to write about his adventures out west and the characters he met. He told the stories to my mother, who told them to me. But in general Dan was not his own subject. He considered himself a good, ordinary man with an ordinary-sized life, with interesting business ventures; some that failed, some that did okay, certainly none that made him rich. But my grandfather, as my mother put it, thought the sun rose and set on his brother Will. He wanted the world to know what an extraordinary creature his brother was, how he’d come up from their struggling immigrant family. Through sheer determination and an inborn engineering knack, Will built railroads all over the Northwest, then throughout China, and became a powerful millionaire. He was one of the supervising engineers for the Panama Canal, ran sawmills and mining operations, then went on to work in New York City as Director of Sanitation for Mayor LaGuardia in the 1930s. He knew President Roosevelt and visited the White House. Dan was thrilled that his little brother had managed to become someone who consorted with the smart and the powerful.

Gazing at the photograph, I notice that part of my grandfather Dan is fading. There is a sense that we are losing him, and perhaps we are. Time is receding, all of us moving on. Dan’s grandchildren are all much older than he was in this picture, and some have joined him. My younger brother Dan, named after the handsome man in this picture, died seven years ago of a sudden heart attack at 44 years old.

Now, two weeks ago, my older brother Carey just as suddenly left this life. He, too, was named after our grandfather Dan, for he was given my grandfather’s surname as his first name. Now my brother Carey is making an unknown journey towards our grandfather. I imagine it will be a joyful reunion. For though my brother did not travel out west for adventure and fortune, did not help build railroads or travel into the primordial wilderness by horse and dogsled, he and our grandfather are alike in some ways. Both re-created themselves several times, had three marriages, found the great love of their lives at 50 years old, had some years when they were lost, both wanted to strike it rich but never really did make a million dollars.

Carey Flynn, circa 1954

My sisters and I have just spent days going through old family photographs, bearing witness to my brother in his casket, attending his funeral, remembering him, replaying a million scenes from our childhood: Carey in a white suit for his First Holy Communion, handsome and devilish, or in a cowboy outfit at ten; wrestling with our brother Dan; talking for hours to his high school girlfriend on the phone; playing basketball with his friends out in our driveway, all of them shirtless and handsome; getting up early to attend the Capitol Page School; working for my father at the family business. Carey throwing wild New Year’s Eve parties at our house (when our parents traveled) well into the wee hours of the morning.  His gift for friendship, always having people around him, his Irish charm. Carey struggling in school and seeking to find his level. Carey getting married young, having a son, getting divorced, losing his way. For some years it seemed he would never find it. Then he found his third wife Beverly.

They’d known each other for years.  As it happened she was friends with his second wife, and had grown up near our neighborhood and church. Carey and Beverly could trace certain friends back to grade school.  They were both in their early fifties, both divorced with grown children, and they found themselves in each other’s radius. Whatever that thing is that helps two people come to see that they are fated for each other, they fell in love.   Carey transformed before our eyes.  He settled into a rewarding career at Verizon. He became a devoted, romantic husband. To our delight, he went back to the University of Maryland and earned his Bachelor’s Degree.  I’ll never forget my older brother, generally uninterested in classrooms and school, calling me up long-distance to talk about literature, the books he was reading, the transcendental poets (who he sort of liked), the papers he was writing for History, English and Sociology classes.  He was 55 years old.  And happy.

He and Beverly fell in love the same year that Jean and I did: 1998.   He couldn’t wait to meet Jean, and was elegant and charming when I first brought her to visit.  Then, we began to hear of a wonderful dream for their retirement:  he and Beverly had purchased a plot of land in Ocean City, Maryland, hired an architect, designed and built a beautiful house.  When Jean and I visited from California they would treat us to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, introduce us to the owner and the bartender and the waitresses, with whom they were fast friends.  They’d tell us about their latest news: the subdivision in Ocean City, the house plans, the foundation laid, the frame going up.  Then one year I was driving to Ocean City to visit them in their new beautiful home.  In that home one could see and feel that it is possible, with patience and faith, to give shape and body to just about any dream.  Then in the Spring of 2010, my retired brother, all settled with his wife in their dear house and their sweet dogs, purchased a local community bar.  In his early sixties he became a business owner, and had created an entirely new life.

My grandfather Dan Carey knew about such things.  He was a freewheeling fifty-year old single man, with a divorce and a daughter behind him, when he met my grandmother Carolyn in 1920. He was just then supervising the crews paving the roads in Pennsylvania, and happened into the General Store in Waterford. My grandmother was behind the counter doing her sums for the day. My grandfather could have walked down the road, or gotten to the General Store after it closed. It didn’t have to happen that he walked in that door. If he hadn’t, the ordinary and startling truth is that my brother Carey and I and all of our siblings and descendents simply would not exist. But Dan Carey did walk in that day, and he and my grandmother made a new life in Florida. They ran a company store together.  My grandmother became the country’s first female postmistress. Dan started a restaurant in the late 1920′s, with a player piano and likely a bit of outlawed liquor.  My mother came into the world in 1924, grew up in the wilds of Florida, went to college, grew beautiful.  In 1946, my father happened into the Carey’s restaurant and spied her at the cash register.  Two years later, their firstborn Carey came into the world, named for his grandfather, who at 76 must have held his cherished daughter’s small infant with his heart bursting.  My mother’s youngest son Dan emerged in 1960; in between we four sisters came born, all of us continuing the great stream of our ancestors’ lives.

If you put my brothers’ two names together, you get Dan Carey, the man in this one-hundred-year-old photograph. Somehow I had not understood that before this moment. As my sisters and I dug out boxes looking for pictures of my brother, one box of very old photos emerged. Most of the aged black-and-white images I had seen before, except for this wonderful picture of my grandfather. I picked it up and kept it by my bed. Now I understand why my grandfather had to emerge. Another one of his namesakes is on his way towards him.

Mornings I wake with a dull ache. I remember that my brother Carey is no more. The shocking finality is elemental in its impact. Though we all know death will come, in its specific embrace we are shattered and stunned. I will never hear my brother’s voice again. Never receive a call from him asking how Jean and I are after some big storm or earthquake. Never visit him at the bar again. Never worry for his health—not anymore. One ordinary evening a couple weeks ago, Beverly told us that she and Carey had watched TV together, holding hands on the couch, wrapped under comforters and cuddling with their two much-loved dogs. He’d turned to her and said, I love this. How could she know anything was different about that night? That it would be the last time she would turn to her beloved and say, Honey, I love this too.

Carey’s son Tommy, now 38, speaks of how he and his father had just begun to really find their way. How Carey had helped him many times, lifted him up again and again. They’d clashed for years—but they were starting to sit and simply enjoy each other. Tommy had moved to Ocean City, helped his father with odd jobs at the bar. He was on his way there the night Carey died. Instead, he received a call to rush to the hospital—his father had fainted from a heart attack after an altercation with a young man outside the bar. A few hours later, in the early morning hours, Tommy called my sister Pauline to say Carey was in Intensive Care, that the doctor said he might not make it.

Pauline’s call woke me at 2:00 am. I’d been away at a long personal writing retreat, and Jean and I had just reunited for one evening, our bodies finding each other again. Now I lay in her arms, each of us praying. In my heart I saw my brother come through, survive, live on to make a more healthy and happy life. I held and cleaved to that vision. Then another phone call, too soon. Pauline weeping on the phone. He hadn’t made it. Within hours I was on a plane to be with my family.

One obituary named my brother as one of the most popular business owners in Ocean City. People spoke of his generosity, his kindness, how he made friends everywhere and helped anyone in need. One of Beverly’s friends called him an angel—the sort of patient, considerate, one-of-a-kind man who all women hope to find. I take all these accolades for my brother into myself like good nectar. For my lost brother to have found his way into becoming such a true and good-hearted being shows us once again something about redemption, how it is always possible, how one can never know.

I can’t write about my brother Carey the way my grandfather Dan wrote about his brother Will. I can’t sing his absolute praises and tell you the stars and moon hung on his words. In my own heart and personal story, my brother’s legacy has its clouds. But perhaps it is always this way. In fact, we know that my grandfather chose to leave things out when he wrote about his brother Will, whose personal life was troubled, and whose only daughter drank herself to death in her twenties. My grandfather drew the picture that he chose, and like this photograph, he let certain parts fade. In fact, every picture both illuminates and occludes. I see real beauty in the truth of my brother’s life, that for years he roamed without a real center, but then drew something new, gentle and giving out of himself. He became showered in the love of another, and his love and commitment to Beverly shone in his soul. He and his son Tommy found each other again. He was step-father to Beverly’s son and his wife, grandfather to their young children. He purchased a community bar that serves as a meeting place, and kept it afloat during rough financial times. He became a man among family, kin and community, someone to depend upon.

In 1998, our mother died on the very day of Carey’s fiftieth birthday. After that, his life began to shift. Perhaps he was twined ever more deeply with her goodness. Perhaps in her death, he’d turned his eyes to her. I do not know. But a new, lovely and devoted man came forth.

In this moment of grief, my handsome Grandfather Dan is here beside me. He is both beautiful and disappearing into the threads of time. Last week, as a saving grace, he made his way through a cloud of photographs in a box and into my hands. May he be with Carey now as my brother moves through this great new passage. May old Dan travel with his dogsled out to Carey in the primordial, heavenly worlds in which he is now moving. May my grandfather bring Carey to our brother Dan, let them be together again. May my mother welcome her first-born into the celestial realms. May my father put his arms around him again. May my brother Carey be entirely healed, dance cartwheels through beautiful landscapes, touch the Atlantic Ocean where he spent his final years, visit the rivers of the Potomac and Anacostia where we grew up. May he visit us, his sisters, on quiet evenings, and touch in and bless his many nieces and nephews. May he be with his step-son and daughter-in-law, and with their young children as they grow. May Carey keep his son Tommy near, help him be steady, happy, and well. May he visit his beloved Beverly every day, may he brush her cheek, say I love you, I always will, I love you, we can never be apart. May my brother remind us to love each other while we still have the life. And may my grandfather Dan Carey keep his ancestral arms steady around us for a little while more. May he help my brother find his way all the way home.

College graduation, 2003

Carey with Beverly, 2007

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