Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Nota Bene: I delivered a redacted version of this post at Bob's visitation and rosary on Friday, Sept. 9th. As well-received as it was, I was upstaged by my 10-year-old nephew, who told a marvellous story with the moral: "People are truly dead only when they are forgotten." Kids — ya gotta love 'em!

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For a while, whenever Bobby called me “Tonebone”, I called him “Bobfred”. In fact, there was a couple of years there when we addressed our Christmas gifts to each other that way.

Don’t ask me why; it was just one of those you-had-to-be-there things.

I only mention it because it shows how much closer we were as adults in the last eighteen years or so than we were as children, when I stepped into the big-brother-in-charge role that Ted vacated when he left for the Air Force and started his own family. But even then, we were close. Bob may have resented my bossiness and rejected any authority I had from Mom and Dad, but he would also stick up for me, just as I stuck up for him. And we may have fought physically, but 95% of the time it was just good, male-bonding-type fun (until one of us got hurt and got mad).

If I’d had any lingering resentments from that time, they disappeared the day I opened up my apartment door and saw a twenty-five-year-old man with a seventy-five-year-old face purporting to be my kid brother. It was a face such as I’d seen in pictures of victims of the Holocaust: underfed, malnourished, with a few rotting teeth left. And that was before I heard the dreadful word diabetes. From almost that day onward, a portion of my emotional and spiritual life has been spent preparing for this time; part of that was forgiving him and letting go of the petty boyhood injuries to my boyhood dignity.

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, we had a pretty comfortable childhood. We may not have had the latest fashions, but we always had new clothes whenever we needed them. We may not have eaten at Michelin three-star restaurants, but we always had enough to feed us. We didn’t go to Cancun, Maui or Paris, but we did once drive across half of America to see our cousins in Virginia, as well as out to Illinois and Indiana once a year; this was on top of our experiences when our father was stationed in Japan and the Philippines. And we were fortunate enough to grow up with aunts, uncles, cousins and one grandmother (later, both) within a few minutes’ driving distance.

But while I compared our possessions to others and despaired of our relative poverty, Bob was beginning a battle with his learning disabilities. Bob was much more intelligent than his school grades would have led one to believe; but what came naturally — or at least with some effort — to Ted, Peggy and me simply would not take easy hold with him. And this was just the first of many battles — first with LD, then with borderline juvenile delinquency, with his attempts to have a career in the Army and with the firefighters, then with going to business colleges and trade schools to find something he could do as a type-1 diabetic rather than sit on his duff all day watching TV and collecting disability checks.

For while Bob usually did what he wanted to do, even against opposition and his better judgment, so often what he wanted to do was something laudable, or at least respectable, something he could do without shame or denial. He wanted to help people, which is why he wanted to be a paramedic and, when that option was closed off to him, a nurse.

Yes, he could be selfish and self-centered at times, but he was also incredibly generous whenever he could be. Yes, he could occasionally pick on his nieces, but they never doubted for a second that he loved them; he was in fact pretty darn good with kids. Yes, he could speak thoughtlessly, not mindful of his tone of voice, but he could also hit you with a compliment when you least expected it. And there’s no doubt he was a patriot, for when his country called him to Saudi Arabia during “Desert Storm”, he went with no hesitation and did his duty with honor. Most of all, he handled the terrible effects of diabetes and its secondary complications with incredible grace and courage.

One of the greatest moments in the last few years of his life was when he and I were accepted into the Knights of Columbus. Though as gastroparesis took hold, causing him to miss many meetings, that event started him growing spiritually. Like many people, for many years he was culturally Catholic, occasionally showing up at church but more often sleeping in on Sundays. But from the day we were initiated, Bob started praying more, and reading the Bible, and asking me questions about different Catholic beliefs as the questions occurred to him. More than anything else, he loved the Knights themselves: good, solid, decent men not ashamed to be Christians, not ashamed to hold to the doctrines of the Faith and to the spiritual leadership of the Pope.

I said just above that Bob could give you a compliment when you least expected it. This last two or three weeks, Bob was often frightened of what was happening to him, as his body began its final betrayal of him and his sight dimmed. This last weekend, he told Mom he was scared of his blindness. So when I took my shift and went to visit him, I tried in my bumbling, stumbling way to tell him to place his trust in God, that the toughest prayer to understand and accept consists of just four words: “Thy Will be done.”

And while I sat there, cursing my ineptness, because I made a wretched mess out of everything I planned to say, he suddenly looked at me out of those deep blue eyes and said the last thing I could understand: “You’re the only one who understands.”

No, I don’t understand, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters.

When some men found Aristotle and told him that the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him the wisest man in the world, he replied ironically, “I must be the wisest, for I alone know that I know nothing.” Well, that’s how I feel right now. I don’t really understand why God ordered our lives this way, why He does and permits what He does.

I can’t expect to fully understand Him while I live precisely because He is what we believe Him to be: Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible. Such a God must have so transcendent a mind and purpose that no creature as limited as we are could aspire to know them in their fullness. “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. … For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:9-10, 12-13).

So I pray not to understand but to accept the things I cannot change. Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And I pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for sending us your servant, Bobby Layne, to live among us. Like so many of your gifts, perhaps, we didn’t understand the full value of it until too late. But nonetheless, we’re grateful for Your gift, and we commend his life back into your hands, as we wait in joyful hope to meet with him again in your heavenly kingdom. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

One last word of parting, to my little brother, whom I loved so very much: “See you later, Bobfred … whenever ‘later’ happens to be.”