by Tim Kelly
As soon as the phone rang, I knew something was wrong.
Who would call at 7 p.m. or so on New Year’s Eve? Too early both for “Happy New Year!” and “Happy Birthday!” Both would be appropriate after midnight, the beginning of 2020 and my Jan.1 birthday.
Older brother Mike was on the line.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” he said, and answered my question “what?” before I could ask. “Kevin just died.”
Older brother Kevin, the third child and second son of Joan and Charlie Kelly, was gone at age 72. His health was long in a downward spiral before death finally found him, in a nursing facility in Camden, Maine, at about 6 that night.
My response to my brother was less than elegant.
Seemed appropriate at the time.
I know Mike said something after that, but damned if I can remember. After hanging up I turned to The Missus and said flatly, “Kevin’s dead.”
What she said then surprised me, at first.
“Which one?” she asked.
Good question, since my family had three Kevins. My brother Kevin, her brother Kevin and my oldest sister Joan’s husband Kevin. Three Kevins, no waiting.
What? Oh, right. My brother. She hugged me and said she was sorry. Then I called our kids, one in Colorado, one in Maryland. I’m sure they offered words of concern and comfort, but damned if I can remember.
I’d wager you know what it’s like to be walking, talking and so on with your brain in neutral. Yes, just like the folks in Washington.
Sure, both parents had long ago departed, but this was the first sibling, dammit. Once seven offspring and – snap – now six. @#$% indeed.
If you knew Kevin like I knew Kevin, you wouldn’t think me crazy wondering, sort of, if he timed his exit just to mess with me. Ok, that’s more than just a little egocentric. Don’t like it? Write you own damn column. Actually, that would help, since as I sit here with big white cat pawing at the keyboard, a stoopid Disney Pixar song, “I Lava You” is running the Indy 500 through my head.
It’s part of a film short about a lonely island volcano longing for an igneous soul mate.
And the #$%ing chorus goes:
I have a dream
I hope will come true
That you’re here with me
And I am here with you
I wish that the earth, sea and sky up above
Will send me someone to lava
Come to think of it, I think Kevin planted that in me head because, well, just because. Experience tells me he timed his departure knowing we were just about to head out to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Kevin #2, The Missus’s brother, and his wife, Gina. We called and gave ‘em the news and asked if it was still OK for us to come as we both needed a diversion.
Absolutely, they said. So we went. Did pretty well, I think, in non-maudlin mixing and mingling, but we left before the ball dropped.
It’s not hard to imagine Kevin, peering out over the top of his glasses with his signature deadpan, asking me, “How was the party? And did you have a Happy Birthday?”
Oh, you rat bastard. Think you’re funny, don’t ya?
He’d feign innocence until a cherubic smile gave him away.
The phrase may be trite and overused, but there’s no denying that to know Kevin was to love him. Intelligent, generous, gregarious, kind, humorous, loquacious, argumentative (especially with me), irreverent, adventurous, audacious, the list goes on and on.
Like the rest of us, he toed the line in Catholic school. After high school he entered an up-Island drafting school. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, drafting technicians created (by hand) technical drawings used by engineers and architects. He was reprimanded more than once for adding trees and other landscaping to his drawings. That helped form the phrase, “Kevin being Kevin.”
While at the school, he boarded with a family in Bay Shore and came home on weekends. I’d sometimes ride along with Ma Kelly when picking him up, and was in the car one Friday in September 1966 when she broke the news that his best friend, Marine Lance Corporal Daniel T. Flowers, was killed in Vietnam.
They were both just 19.
Kevin’s T-square-straight suburban life perished not long after. He took to the road, gone sometimes for years, traveling all over the U.S. of A. As was common with bona fide members of the 60s counter-culture, his hair went uncut and his beard would make Santa proud.
How do I know? Somewhere, someone in the family possesses a black & white 8×10 of Kevin’s arrest (later determined to be illegal since proper permits had been obtained) outside the U.S. Capitol during an anti-war protest. He did more than talk the talk. Never did get around to asking if he ever ran his fingers over Danny’s name etched into that black granite wall just a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial.
Fortunately, Kevin didn’t let his grief and anger crush his puckish personality. He shared with me how he tried to get to Woodstock — well, he and a zillion other Hippies — but couldn’t get within 10 miles of Yasgur’s Farm. Camping out somewhere with somebody, he no doubt still enjoyed himself thoroughly, if perhaps less raucously. Perhaps less.
T’was Kevin who introduced me to ice hockey and playing on the mill pond just outside our town. We played opposing goaltenders during my quite shaky initial game. Halfway through, we switched sides and as we skated past each other, he whacked my shins with his big ol’ goalie stick and said, “Good game.”
Of course it hurt, like hell, but still I felt 10-feet-tall. Kevin likely had both outcomes in mind.
Much, much later, he was living with Ma before we sold the family manse and they downsized to a Stony Brook condo. A year after she died in 2005, brother Mike and I moved Kev up to Maine, there to live with sister Eileen and bro-in-law Gary. I told you The Missus is Gary’s little sister, right? No, I’m not going to go into that now.
An epileptic since his youth, in his later years Kevin’s spine started to deteriorate. Compounding that, his anti-seizure and pain meds often worked at cross purposes and thus Kevin entered hospital and eventually hospice care.
In August, we received word that he had but days left and Kelly kids converged on The Pine Tree State.
Leaving the nursing home after seeing Kevin for what we all thought was the last time, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I’d have said the cause was having to share a room with my little brother Dennis again, but that wouldn’t fly.
The Mrs. & Me got to see him again for what we didn’t know was the last time in October. In his wheelchair, he held court in the facility’s library, rude and rarin’ like he was so often before.
Eileen and Gary now have Kev’s ashes, and at some as yet undetermined time Kev will meet the sea and at another, we’ll all get together to share sorrow and stories.
At that time, I may, or may not, be asked to play me pipes. (Eileen has intoned that should she sleep The Big Sleep before yours truly, I am NOT to play “Amazing Grace,” which, of course, means I will. Call it “Little Brother’s Final Revenge.”
I’m pondering the possibility, though, of solemnly standing in full regalia, pipes at the ready, but going full Ethel Merman with,
I have a dream
I hope will come true
That you’re here with me
And I am here with you…
And Kevin’ll be laughing his spectral butt off.
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.