“It’s snowing,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
That’s the last thing I heard Brett say before we got cut off. I was driving out to Intake, one of the best-known fishing access sites in Eastern Montana, 17 miles north of Glendive, where I was working as a newspaper reporter.
“You sound at peace,” I said.
He wasn’t there any more. Bad connection.
This wasn’t the first time I thought I lost him.
The previous Saturday Brett’s step-mother, Sue – who was truly Brett’s second mother – woke me with an early phone call, saying she was sure it was his last day. She wanted me to know there was a chance I’d be able to talk to him and say goodbye.
I had feared this day. I knew it was going to come. We all did, but I found no comfort in it, no peace.
The rest of the day, I couldn’t think about anything else.
Shortly before I went to band practice with the Life After Work Band (L.A.W.), Sue called and gave the phone to Brett.
For the first time, I told him that I loved him.
The first time we met was at my dad’s church, New Hope Presbyterian, in Fishers, Indiana.
Brett, his younger sister Erica, his father and Sue just moved there from Michigan.
That was fifth grade. Shortly after meeting we ended up snorkeling buddies on the school trip to Key Largo, Florida.
One of my first colorful memories of Brett is him puking off the boat of kids, beautiful fish from around the coral reefs coming up and eating it.
As sick as he was, he couldn’t help but laugh.
That was usually the case. He was almost always able to laugh.
We became friends right away. We both tried out for the school play that year. He was the witch doctor and I was an ensign.
It was Brett’s performance as that witch doctor that stole the junior high production and often made me think of him as a “confident nerd.”
The same confident nerd that would tell the ether bunny joke in a crowded lecture hall at Purdue University.
“What is the ether net for?” he asked the class.”To catch the ether bunny.”
He didn’t care about the reaction, really. He got a kick out of it.
But some things he – and no one else – could find humorous.
Just a few years before he moved to Indiana, Brett lost his mother to cancer.
A year and a half before we talked as I drove out to Intake, his sister was diagnosed with cancer.
Brett was first diagnosed with cancer the summer before sophomore year. It was a bad limp that turned tragic.
During summer gym, he got in a playful fight with his sister. She kicked him and he fell. A sharp pain took him over.
Never would they have expected it to be bone cancer.
As he went through treatment after treatment, as his friends wheeled him around the halls of Hamilton Southeastern High School, he remained one of the top students in our grade, determined to not let the disease defeat him.
He was a survivor, his attitude carried him through. Like it said in his obituary, “Brett was very positive and always happy and demonstrated to everyone he knew what it meant to truly live.”
He wouldn’t let himself get discouraged, whether by making jokes about his VIP handicapped parking spot or wearing silly hats and getting away with it. He was laughing more than he was crying.
I never saw him cry. Never even heard about him doing it.
But I heard about him doing everything else. He pursued a PhD in computer science from the prestigious University of Illinois, he learned how to bartend. Brett even learned how to ride a motorcycle.
I did, however, see him lose faith, start to give up. Of course, by then he’d warned me that this day was coming.
“You know me, Charlie,” he said. “I don’t go down easy, I’ve been fighting this over and over again, but it’s going to get me this time.”
He said this shortly before the belly dancers started their performance.
We were in Louisville eating a Ramsi’s on Bardstown Road on my 26th birthday. One of the girls recognized me.
“Aren’t you in Montana?” she asked.
“I came back for a visit.”
“Isn’t it your birthday?” she said. “We’ve got something for you,” she said.
The belly dancers did a private show for us on the patio. Brett shook his head and let out one of his distinctive laughs.
“Charlie, Charlie, Charlie,” he said.
That’s probably the best thing that could have happened. It made it easier for both of us to have that conversation, now that we were happier.
Brett had tumors in his lungs, tumors in is leg. One leg was already amputated.
When he lost that leg, his sense of humor was strongly in tact. That Halloween, he dressed up as a shark attack victim and limped along, carrying his new prosthetic leg around doused in fake blood.
You’d never think of a prosthetic leg as hilarious, but he found ways. He was always laughing with you.
When he came to visit me in Big Sky, Montana, on my 25th birthday, we went horseback riding.
About halfway through the two-hour tour, his fake leg got loose. The stirrup pressed the release button without his knowledge. He was in the back and had to yell out to the wrangler, “I need to stop. My leg fell off.”
The tourists in town for a wedding didn’t know how to react. Fortunately the wrangler noticed Brett had a prosthetic leg when she strapped him in so she didn’t panic.
I looked back at him and smiled.
We joked about that every time we saw each other afterward. I even told the story during the eulogy.
That Montana trip was unexpected and could not have been timed any more coincidentally.
My father and I were hiking the Teepee trail one day earlier that summer, talking about Brett.
“I admire him for continuing to work on his PhD,” my dad, who had just taken early retirement after preaching at the Big Sky Presbyterian church for two years, said. “But if I were Brett, I’d come out to God’s Country. I’d see as much beauty as possible. I’d explore, I’d live.”
Shortly after we returned to my parents’ house in the West Fork meadow, Brett called.
“I’d like to come out to see you in Big Sky next month,” he said.
His obituary was not stretching when it said, “He had a never ending thirst for knowledge and adventure and loved to share what he learned.”
When we went to Yellowstone National Park, this was especially the case. Everything we saw fascinated him, especially the geysers. Or, as he called them, the “otherworldly thermal basins.”
On his website, Brett wrote, “The bacterial mats and mineral deposits surrounding the geysers and hot springs exhibited deep fractal complexity and were just as interesting to examine at as the thermal features themselves.”
Brett also wrote in his blog that cancer was the reason for taking the trip, but it wasn’t the only reason. He would have made it west, regardless, he said.
He loved to travel. In his little red Celica he made it coast to coast. When he went east, I went with him. One day just the two of us toured New York City. His fascination with everything was inspirational.
The year before he died, Brett presented one of his technical papers related to his research in New Zealand.
“It was probably the most beautiful place I ever saw,” he said.
And, while there, he fell in love with a girl in his U of I classes, a girl he’d longed for most of his time in grad school.
Brett did all of this knowing his time was limited. That year – 2010 – his condition was failing fast.
I was in Indianapolis for a wedding that summer and went to visit him at the hospital. Spent several hours with him.
It was that day, while I was sitting in the room, that he told the doctors he didn’t want to continue chemotherapy treatments.
His attitude had changed. He wasn’t all smiles. He couldn’t hide it anymore. And, worst of all, he couldn’t live with it.
The last time I saw him was the following October, at his sister’s wedding. Her condition had also worsened, but it didn’t stop her from making a dream come true and looking beautiful on her wedding day.
It was not easy for Brett, as he was on morphine. But he had enough in him to give a toast, throwing some of his signature humor into the speech by joking about how much hospital staff was at the wedding between him and Erica.
He wanted to deliver a message to Erica about not having much time left, a heartfelt message that was more “goodbye” than “good luck” but he stopped, tearing up and sitting down.
Brett loved his little sister perhaps more than anything or anyone. It was when she got cancer that his attitude first changed.
“I got mad at God,” he said. “That’s when I stopped believing.”
Watching her suffer was more than he could handle.
“Take me,” Brett said. “Leave her alone.”
I knew that would be the last time I saw him. It was painful for him to try to be the Brett we remembered, but he still tried.
Every week I feared that phone call from Sue.
Not even two months later, it came.
When I talked to him that cold afternoon in December, he didn’t have that confidence, that humor or that joy. The conversation was rushed. We both knew what the conversation was about, we knew what to say and we didn’t want to say it, we didn’t want to have that talk.
Brett was struggling. He was on a high dose of morphine and it took him a little time to put his words together and perhaps to comprehend what I was saying.
There was a lot of silence and a lot of sincerity.
“You are family to me,” he said. “You’ve really been like a brother.”
I can’t remember how we said goodbye. I just remember it didn’t feel right, and after we hung up I kept thinking of more things I wanted to say.
During band practice I was missing notes on the bass. I couldn’t get into the country cover songs. Not today. George Strait’s “Write this Down” wasn’t doing anything for me, nor was “The Dance” or “Fishin’ in the Dark.”
I was too busy thinking about the songs Brett and I used to jam on. We’d have driveway ensembles on Friday nights, we’d play at Chris Myrvold’s. We were sophomores, juniors in high school. Brett always wanted to play “Sunshine of Your Love.” He played a Parker Nitefly. It was his pride and joy, in many ways. He’d dance with it as he played lead riffs, hitting all of Clapton’s notes.
I wouldn’t call it soulful, but it was incredibly intricate and precise, just like the music he’d write. All instrumental. He was a techy. Most of his favorite music was electronic.
I didn’t think there would be another conversation. There were three, the last being on the way to Intake.
No one thought he was going to be alive that week. Ask anybody: his sister, father, girlfriend, the doctors, the nurses.
Sue swears it was a miracle.
When Brett woke that next morning, he wasn’t the same.
He was calm, happy – and it wasn’t the morphine.
“I saw my mother,” he said. “She’s there, she’s waiting for me.”
He saw something. It didn’t feel like a dream. It wasn’t just some vision. He was there.
“Everything was correct,” he told me. “It just – it just makes sense.”
It was heaven.
Brett passed away two days later, on December 5, 2010.
Erica passed away August 31 the following year.
His last words to his father and Sue were “I’ll take care of Erica.”
Now they are together again, with their mother.
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