I claim it was 1998, but it really all started in 1997. I was lucky. I'd been around for quite a few years by then, and still had an intact family. Two parents, still married to each other, a big brother, his wife and two sons, and a little brother and his wife. I was most fortunate to have a husband to whom I'd been happily married since 1972 and a beautiful teenaged daughter. As a family we were blessed.
brother's name was Frank Rogers. He was three years my senior and had
been my hero as long as I could remember. He had two webbed toes and
eventually grew to be six foot, fix inches. He saved me from death (or a
slight concussion) when I almost fell off the porch into a pile of
bricks our dad was saving for a patio he might (or might not) build. He
benignly blackmailed me for multiple decades for an indiscretion when I
was seven years old. He missed me so much when our family went on
vacation without him that, upon my return, he took me to downtown Dallas
to see a Troy Donahue movie -- and he didn't even like Troy Donahue.
He introduced me to the Kingston Trio, the Smothers Brothers, and Alan
Sherman. He made fun of me for a week when I cried while watching an
episode of "Wagon Train."
As adults we became scattered
as jobs took us to different parts of the country, but we seemed to
manage to all get together at least once a year, and quite often on
Thanksgiving. As the years progressed we started a Thanksgiving
tradition: tequila shots before dinner. Our parents didn't partake,
but the three siblings and our spouses certainly did (and even some of
the kids when we weren't watching closely enough). It was silly, but,
hey, it was tradition!
Then in 1997, Frank got sick.
He was in the hospital and I called him as I had been doing on a daily
basis since he'd been in there. But something was wrong. My big
brother was crying. And I could hear my sister-in-law sobbing in the
background. Never, in all those years, had I ever known my big brother
to cry. The doctor was in his room. The doctor just told him he had
terminal cancer. The doctor just told him he had a year to live. To my
knowledge, Frank never cried again. He yelled, got drunk, and laughed a
lot, but never cried.
The whole family was staggered
by this. We were blessed. Things like this didn't happen to us. Our
family members only died when they were in their eighties or nineties.
Not like this. He was only fifty-four. One child left in college.
Things like this didn't happen in our family. We were blessed.
learned that what Frank had was cancer of the common bile duct -- a
very rare cancer that no one was studying. He could try chemo and
radiation, but the results wouldn't amount to much, if anything at all.
He opted not to bother. He and Rosella, his wife, took leaves of
absence from their respective jobs and decided to spend the year he had
left doing whatever they wanted and, as he told me, he had no intention
"of suffering fools gladly."
In those last months of
1997, my sister-in-law and I conspired to save him. It was a real
reach, but one does what one can. There was a Mexican bodega my husband
and I frequented when we wanted ingredients we were unable to find in
the regular grocery store. But this bodega had more than mere spices
and strange fruits; it had talismans and cancer cures. Frank and
Rosella lived in Baltimore, and I lived in Austin, but I found a way to
send a talisman and cancer-curing tea to my sister-in-law. Both of us
knowing Frank would laugh at such an attempt, she hid the talisman deep
in his wallet (the lady at the bodega said he must always have it on him
for it to work - duh), and slipped the tea into Frank's morning
coffee. And then Rosella prayed and I kept my fingers crossed. One
does what one can.
That last Thanksgiving, 1997, before
our tequila shots, we had a meeting at my younger brother's house in
Dallas and decided we were going to take a vacation together --
something we hadn't done since we were kids. So we made plans. It was
to be eight days at a rental house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin
Islands, and I started saving for the trip we'd take in March. But in
February of 1998, I got a call from my agent in New York. I'd been
nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1997. After
telling my husband, who was in the room at the time, the first person I
called was Frank. He was elated, I was elated, everybody was elated.
And I wanted to win it for him.
In March of 1998 we
left for St. John. It was a wonderful eight days of conch fritters,
rum, and too much Jimmy Buffett on the CD player. We saw giant turtles,
beautiful white beaches, and pigs walking along the roads. We learned
to drive on the wrong side of the street and found that a pint of Ben
and Jerry's cost over eight dollars. And we discovered my daughter and
Frank's youngest son had "found" a bottle of champagne and had taken
that and a bottle of orange juice out to the pool late one night and
were making "mouth mimosas." And it was all over way too soon.
April I left for New York and the Edgar banquet. My friend Jan Grape
had also been nominated that year for Best Non-Fiction and we were able
to rent a small apartment on the east side and spent a wonderful week up
there. I had strict orders to call Frank the minute I won. He never
said anything about my not winning. Needless to say, I didn't win, and
it was the hardest phone call of my life. I called my husband first and
he was stoic about it, but then I had to call Frank. Somehow in my
mind I'd confused my winning that Edgar with my brother living. I'm
sure my winning would have worked as well as the talisman in his wallet and the
tea in his coffee; i.e., not at all.
In early October I
went to Bouchercon in Philadelphia, just a train ride from Baltimore.
Frank was once again a guest at Johns-Hopkins, and I took the train down
to see him. He was excited. He and his doctor had just seen Carl
Ripkin, Jr., in the halls of the oncology ward. The two of them, on
seeing Mr. Ripkin, Jr., going down the stairs, followed him, my brother
carrying his IV pole and clutching the back of his hospital gown.
Frank's doctor told me the son was there to see his father, Carl Ripkin,
Sr. I found the mental picture of my brother chasing the baseball star
down the stairs amusing and shared this later that evening, back in
Philadelphia, with my dinner companions. I forgot that one of them was a
reporter for the Baltimore Sun. The headline in the next day's paper?
Carl Ripkin, Sr., hospitalized in cancer ward at Johns-Hopkins. For a
short while, my family referred to me as "deep throat."
was only a few short weeks later that I got a call from Frank. "I need
to tell you something," he said. His voice was ragged. "Anything," I
said. "I'm sorry I blackmailed you," he said. "That's okay," I said.
"It's what brothers do." And he told me he loved me and I told him I
loved him. Two days later he died.
We buried my
brother's ashes on Halloween on a beautiful hill in the Maryland
countryside. My sister-in-law stuck one of Frank's favorite cigars in
the hole with his ashes, then we went to her home, got drunk, and all
smoked the rest of his cigars.
And our family was no
longer blessed. I lost both my parents in 2001 -- Dad in January, Mom
in April. Five years later my beloved husband, Don Cooper, had his
fourth heart attack and was unable to come back from that one. He was
To this day, my sister-in-law, my daughter
and nephews all call each other on Thanksgiving and give a tequila toast
to Frank. After a few years, we added Don's name to the toast.
I'll always remember the year 1998 as the best and the worst. An Edgar
nomination, a trip to St. John, a week in New York -- and the death of
my hero. My big brother.