Right up front, I will tell you that this story is true. I should also warn you that it’s a little bitter-sweet.
When my brother Peter came into our lives my parents already had three girls. They longed for a son.
A couple of interesting points about this story: First, like all good men living in the area of the Adirondack Mountains, my father liked to hunt. Hunting season in those parts was a religion, sacred and holy; the woods, nature’s cathedral. The thing about my father was that he had never bagged a deer. He’d been hunting with plenty of other guys who had, but he’d never actually shot one on his own.
The second thing, is that shortly after the third girl was born, my father started growing a beard. It grew fast and bushy, and with a red hue that didn’t match the hair on his head at all. (Somewhere there’s a photograph of my dad at that time, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch, wearing an army style camouflage cap. He looked exactly like Fidel Castro.) My mother didn’t much like that beard. My father said he would shave when he got a son or a buck. Either one. Whichever came first.
The third point is that my mother is half Mohawk. She was born and spent the first decade or so of her life on the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve, which straddles the border of Canada and the US. We would often make the winding drive to visit aunts and uncles and cousins there. One day after a visit, on the return trip, the car held my parents, my sisters and myself, and a brand new brother, named Peter. He was 18 months old at the time.
The particulars of how it came to be that we brought him home are not important. What matters is that he was ours from that day on. I wasn’t very old then, but I do remember the car ride home — I remember Peter’s little face peaking over my mother’s shoulder, watching us and smiling. Oh, how I remember that smile.
Peter in an old photo taken when he was about 3. Even though the quality of the photo is poor, you can see how his face lit up with the sweet spirit of his smile.
My father did not get his buck that season (nor any season, ever). But he got his son, and true to his word, he shaved. Peter grew and thrived, we girls grew and thrived, and my mother went on to eventually have three more babies – all of them boys. And we were a rowdy raucous family of seven kids who were sometimes very close, and sometimes throwing things at one another.
Except for Peter. At least, the way I remember him, and I’m telling the story so you’ll have to take my word for it. If you happen to know or run into one of my siblings, they may tell the story differently. That’s the way families work.
Peter was a quieter kid than the rest of us, he was by nature more even-tempered. And always, he was quick to smile. He loved to hunt and fish, though he mostly used his hands for the latter – he was that patient and that quick. As a teenager he took up wrestling and was pretty good and quick at that. He was no push-over if really provoked. Somewhere in those teen years, people started calling him Puck.
He tried his hand at many things. He joined the Navy, hoping to travel, but that didn’t work out the way he planned. He got married and moved back to the Adirondack town where we grew up. He raised chickens for awhile, and for awhile he worked at the local paper mill. Eventually he and his wife moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where her family lived.
Today is an anniversary of sorts. Twenty-two years ago on a day like today, full of spring and glorious sunshine, I took my then two-year old son to the park, and later for the first ice cream cone of the season. The phone rang as I was leaving the house, but I paid it no mind. If it was important, whoever it was would call back. Turned out it was my sister, and call back she did.
Peter was thirty-four years old on the last night he went to sleep. A hemorrhagic tumor was the reason he didn’t wake up. Twenty-two years is a long time. Also, twenty-two years is no time at all. It’s one of life’s many conundrums.
I believe in stories with happy endings, or at least in which there is the possibility of something honest and good. In this story I once had a brother who possessed the kindest of hearts and a sweet smile. We called him Puck. He is with me still. And that is enough good for now.
Puck holding my son. Still the same smile.