Songs as windows into our own suffering

I have been listening to the Avett Brothers a lot more lately. One of my favorite songs from their album "The Carpenter" is Through My Prayers. It is a hauntingly beautiful song on it's own, but given my own history it becomes compelling, painful and convicting.

I had an older brother. John Michael was 8 years my senior and in a early childhood that was not very stable, he was a rock that I could always count on to be there. Larger than life, John was always there for me when I needed him to be.

As we both aged it would have been easy for us to drift apart, given the age difference, but that didn't happen. If anything we grew closer as we began to have shared experiences. When I was ten, John then eighteen, moved out to be on his own.

It was the first time I could remember that he wasn't in the room next to me. Always there if I needed to talk, laugh or argue. As I moved closer and closer to my teenage years, and John went about the business of being an adult, we drifted apart, in the way siblings do. I became focused on girls, parties and sports, in that order, and John became focused on girls, paying rent, and girls. In that order.

John was a big guy. I like to tell people that I am the runt of the family, only being 6'1", 280lbs. John Michael was 6'3" and right around 300lbs. As you can imagine from his size he dealt with hypertension (high blood pressure). While he was living with us he always took his meds and so there weren't really any problems. Once he moved out though, that changed. He was young. He thought he would live forever.

If only he could have been right. When I was thirteen, my brother, now 21 had a massive stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side for a week. I rode in the ambulance that took my brother to the hospital. Being there for him. Being strong. It was on of the most terrifying nights of my life. Fast forward a week and John was on the mend. The stroke had no lasting effects, and as a bonus he was diagnosed with Sleep Apnea, which is a deadly, silent killer.

The night before he was to come home, I opted for a killer party at a friends house instead of going with our mother to spend time with him. John was fine, and I would see him whenever I rejoined the living the next day, so no biggie. Said party was killer, and when I stumbled into the house at 3:00 am, I fell into my bed and slept soundly until my step-father shook me awake to tell me my brother was dead.

During John's stay in the hospital, due to be partially paralyzed for a week blood clots had formed in his legs. The morning of his discharge, he was sitting on the side of his bed, fully dressed. My mother was wiping of his face with a warm washcloth when one of those clots released, traveled to his heart and stopped it. He died. In front of my mothers eyes.

Both my mother and I were devastated as you can imagine, different reasons, same horror. When I hear the words of Through My Prayers today it is a poignant reminder of the foolishness of youth, the fleeting nature of life and the preciousness of family. Although we didn't exchange hearted words before he died, the last thing my brother received from me was indifference.

This line in the song resonates with me most strongly:

Feels like no one understands
And now my only chance
To talk to you is through my prayers.
I only wanted to tell you I cared

Since converting to Orthodox Christianity I have been given many gifts, many tools. One of the most dear to me is prayers for the dead. We are encouraged to pray to God for the souls of those who have departed this life, regardless of how or why. There is no promise, no expectation other than God loves all of us, He is sovereign, and through him all things are possible.

Because of these prayers I talk to my brother. By these prayers I tell him that I care, that I love him.

I have now lived close to twice as long as he did. Every day I live is another day farther way from those good times, those bad times. I take comfort in my children. Two sons, 8 years apart just like us. An older brother, my eldest, who already reminds me of John in the way he watches over his baby brother.

This eldest son carries his uncle with him, since he shares the same middle name. I watch as our story unfolds before me again. The players are different but the experience is the same. They will love each other, they will irritate each other. They will lean on each other. The only thing they won't do is take each other for granted.

I have seen where that can lead, and I have vowed to do everything I can to spare my children from that pain. Time will tell of course. Time will tell.