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Jun042010

My brother: Andy Plank, 1969-2010

June 4, 2010

My brother Andy died of ALS May 29 at his home in North Liberty, Iowa, after fighting the disease nearly five years. He was 40 and left behind his wife, Susan, and their two sons, Zac, 10, and Brennan, 7. What follows are two things. First, my thoughts about writing a eulogy for Andy and second, the eulogy itself that I gave at his funeral service, June 2:

A eulogy is a personal, even selfish thing. It looks at the life of the deceased from an extremely subjective point of view. It does not consider that others may have different views—even opposite views—of the person who has died. When I sit at funerals and I hear someone’s teary remembrance, I often think, “No, I know that person. And that is not the person I know at all.” But then I have to realize that a person has many different guises, many different roles, many different personalities, depending on the wildly varying situations they find themselves in life.

Another problem with eulogies is that things are left out. Things have to be left out. As I was writing Andy’s eulogy, it was difficult to know where even to begin. I barely remember life without Andy. I was four when he was born. I remember Andy in utero. I remember him coming home from the hospital as a newborn. These really were my earliest memories of life. I can still taste the flavor, see the sights and hear the sounds of his first birthday, June 20, 1970. And playing and fighting. And having him read my early drafts of things I wrote. What a burden I was. And then, so much, so much more.

Steven Wright, the comedian has a joke: “I got myself a map of the United States. It’s actual size. It says one mile equals one mile.” Andy’s life is so big in my eyes, so difficult to condense down to a less-than-10-minute remembrance, that I feel I have Steven Wright’s actual size map of the United States. It is big. It is unwieldy. It is impractical in this situation to even try to sum it all up. I have to give you just the smallest speck of the pie.

Yet another problem with eulogies is that when a person dies, it is hard not to grant him sainthood status. In the days after Andy’s death, my mind is clouded, I know that. There will come a day when I will be reminded of some rotten thing he did to me as a kid. But today, I can’t think of it. Andy was a good man. That was a sentiment often expressed. At one point, as I cried, I said, “Dammit, I wish Andy wasn’t such a good man, then this all might be easier to take … ”

I wrote two eulogies. The first one I started and revised and then realized I couldn’t deliver it without breaking down, sobbing. It was too personal. It was about the bond of being brothers. My sobbing at the lectern was going to do no one any good. That this was going to be a sad occasion was a given. For me to add fuel to the raging fire and rub salt in the open wound was not going to help.

So I decided to tell the story of Andy’s ALS. Voices in my head—and from my family—made this seem not a great idea. They said we needed to remember Andy as he was before ALS in 2005. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important these last five years were. Plus, I knew many of his friends and many of the family’s friends had been reluctant to ask about the process of Andy’s decline. I felt it was important to give them a glimpse into this important chapter of Andy’s life and how he dealt with it.

I closed by playing the guitar and singing a song. Over the past five years, I hated to think of Andy’s death, even though I knew that barring some impossible miracle, it was going to happen. But I thought about what song I might do, what he might appreciate. I almost instantly chose “Yesterday,” by The Beatles. So I practiced it over the years. Did I ever play it for Andy? I don’t think so. I was uncomfortable playing around him after his diagnosis since I knew he loved playing so much—he introduced the guitar to me—and I hated to show off something I could do that he couldn’t do anymore. I regret not playing more for him because I think he would have liked it.

Though I chose “Yesterday,” I was uncertain I would do that. I toyed with a couple of different songs. Andy was a big fan of Elton John. I really didn’t know that until after I was invited to an Elton John concert this spring. Andy was jealous that I got to go. My sister, Jodie, was, too. Had I known, I would have sent both of them in my place. I like Elton well enough, but those who love him seem more deserving. Andy’s wife, Susan, and I talked about the song, “Daniel.” Suddenly, I couldn’t hear the lyrics without crying:

I can see Daniel waving goodbye

God, it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

Do you realize you could simply substitute “Andy” for “Daniel” and it would sound similar? I did. I worked on the song for a couple of days, but fortunately, Susan had other ideas for how the song could be used in the service.

My sister, Jodie, suggested the gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away” be used in the service. She and I sang it together at Andy’s kitchen table. I played and sang the lyrics as I read them. When I could not sing the line, “No more cold iron shackles on my feet,” without it tearfully reminding me of how ALS savaged Andy’s body, I scrapped that one, too. I stuck with “Yesterday.”

Andy put his guitar away five years ago, unable to play ever again. His wife and I found the guitar Sunday, the day after he died. I got it out and played it. I felt a little bad doing this. Again, here I was, the big brother stealing the little brother’s toy. But playing my own guitar is how I dealt with Andy’s prognosis over the past five years.

When I mentioned to the minister Sunday night that I might do a song for Andy, she suggested I play on Andy’s guitar. I hadn’t thought about that, but I was touched by the meaningfulness of it. Andy’s guitar was an instrument we actually shared as kids. Though it hadn’t been played for five years and hadn’t been restrung in longer than that, it still sounded pretty good. It always sounded good—especially when Andy played it.

One more thing to say: After the service was over, many people came up to me and said, “I don’t know how you did that. I don’t know how you got up in front of people and were able to speak and sing.” I simply said, “Thank you,” to those people. But the real answer is this: I needed to do this for myself. I’m glad that it appeared to be a selfless act of courage to pay tribute to my brother, but the dirty little secret is that it was entirely selfish. I loved my brother—no, I love him—and one of my stages of grief is to write and speak and perhaps, sing and play the guitar. If I had not done this, I would be even more bereft. I opened the eulogy with, “Good evening, thank you for coming,” but I might as well have said, “Thank you for allowing me this time of therapy.”

About 10 years ago, a member of my family was told by a doctor that he might have ALS. This drove my wife and I to research the topic and be horrified by what we learned—it is a terrible disease, robbing you entirely of your body, rendering your muscles useless until you can’t even breathe.

Thankfully, this family member did not have ALS and is still with us here today.

A few years later, one of my wife’s colleagues, Rob Borsellino, a columnist with The Des Moines Register, was diagnosed with ALS. He was known statewide—even nationwide, though I knew him only from his writing. Yet, when my wife Susan called to tell me of Rob's diagnosis, I was numb for the rest of the day. I mourned for someone I knew only by name because I knew how devastating this disease was.

So you can imagine when Mom called me the afternoon of September, 9, 2005, to say my baby brother had been diagnosed with ALS, I was staggered. I knew what he was in for. Or I imagined I did. I don’t think it’s exaggeration to say I didn’t know the half of it. Though I had prepared, I was still unprepared for what was to come.

If you could pick from a list of 100 diseases and were forced to rank them from most to least desirable, I imagine ALS, like the uncoordinated kid on the playground, would be chosen last. Shortly after he was diagnosed when he was still hoping for better news, Andy and I were contemplating other reasons for his symptoms. “Multiple sclerosis,” I suggested. And I apologize for this in advance because I wasn’t even thinking when I added: “Eh, multiple sclerosis. That still wouldn’t be any great shakes.” Andy said, “A tumor!” And he looked dreamy. “A brain tumor maybe? Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have a brain tumor?”

But at that point, Andy had been poked and prodded, thoroughly tested, injected, inspected and detected—and we knew he didn’t have a brain tumor. We knew he had ALS. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease. Motor neurone disease. Charcot’s disease. Like the devil, it has many names.

It’s a disease that seems aimed at robbing one of one’s dignity. First, slurring the speech in Andy’s case, and weakening his arms. The early signs of ALS in Andy robbed him of his ability to sing and play guitar, two of his biggest passions. As he continued to lose fine motor control in his hands, he was unable to lift his hands to feed himself. Then, slowly and gradually, he lost more muscle function as the disease continued to rob him. He walked slowly, then was in a wheelchair, then the act of eating became difficult and he required a feeding tube. And then, the muscles around his lungs began failing to the point where he couldn’t exhale sufficiently. I went with him to the doctor this past Friday to see what could be done to help him breathe better. Options were considered, plans were made, but before they could be put in place, the disease imposed upon Andy its final indignity.

And yet, the Andy I saw took these things in stride, often with a smile on his face. A smile. Despite all of the muscular atrophy, Andy still had the muscles to smile. ALS took away much of Andy’s muscle function—his ability even to speak—but it never took his smile. Was it because we laughed so much as kids? Was it because he had such a good time with friends? Was it because his family made him so happy? Yes, I hope so.

Despite the indignities, Andy was always as dignified as Fred Astaire in a tuxedo. I admire that. Yes, it is important that we remember him as he was before 2005—the crazy, funny little brother, the baseball fan, the guy with the great gang of supportive friends, the computer programmer, the loving husband, and the attentive, engaged father. But these past five years were part of the whole—an important, intrinsic part. Andy, the lessons you taught will remain with us. You instantly changed your life when ALS confronted you. You changed your diet to all organic food. You did everything you could do to fight. As late as this past Friday, you were consulting the doctors, still working to solve problems ALS dealt you—dealt us—to stay with us for as long as you possibly could.

The lessons you taught us these past five years, the memories you gave us your entire life, we will carry forward and pass on to our children and our children’s children.

 

In case you needed a reminder, Andy and I are brothers. 

And as brothers, we share many common interests, forced together as we were to share a room for about 15 years. When Andy started playing guitar, I learned a little, too. I think we fancied ourselves to be like John and Paul of The Beatles. Though in our case, as brothers, we were more like Don and Phil Everly—or maybe Tom and Dickie Smothers. 

Anyway, we kept playing the guitar over the years. When Andy was diagnosed with ALS and was no longer able to play guitar, I took refuge in the instrument. Practicing the guitar, sometimes for hours, would make me feel better. It really wasn’t an escape for me because it only reminded me of Andy and of his ALS. It was, in fact, a constant reminder of his troubles and our bond.

Growing up, Andy and I shared a clunky guitar, until Andy finally got a good one. I inherited his clunky old one. He played that nice guitar until ALS robbed him of the motor control of his hands. That guitar—Andy’s guitar—is right here and I’d like to play something for you. And for Andy.

(I played “Yesterday,” by Paul McCartney. I substituted one word in the lyrics. In the third verse, instead of, “Love was such an easy game to play,” I said, “Life was such an easy game to play.”)

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