Remembering Dean

This column is often written in a form called the personal essay. “Personal essays relate the author’s intimate thoughts and experiences to universal truths,” is one definition. “Universal” seems a bit much for mine. Maybe “township truths.”

Sometimes personal means my thoughts on picking rocks or watching baseball. This one is deeper personal.

Fifty years ago, on May 24, my brother Dean died. That day wasn’t any different than any of the other 18,000 since he’s been gone. Anniversaries make things sharper in focus.

I have referenced Dean’s passing before and some unfinished processing by this writer. Each of us has losses and even traumatic events in our lives. “Processing” those is never really finished. They reappear at random and unexpected times. We can suddenly be back in that moment.

I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about the 50th Anniversary of My Home run. That happened in April of my senior year. It was fun looking back. I was talking with nephew Jay on my phone about that. Jay’s a few years younger, and he recalled that was the spring Dean died.

I knew that but hadn’t linked them in my head right then. I was sitting in a tractor cab parked in our shop. After we hung up, I found tears coming to my eyes. “Oh my God, that’s right. Dean was dying then.”

May 24 was a Friday in 1974, as it was this year. On that day 50 years ago, I didn’t go to our teams’ baseball game. There was a wake at the O’Hare Funeral Home and a funeral at St. Mary’s. There were lots of people coming and going. We still had milking and chores to do. A week later, I graduated. More people were around. The time is a giant jumbled ball of dissociated and mostly bad memories.

I’ll back up and tell about Dean in a much too brief manner. Dean was born 16 months after me. A healthy baby, we were destined to be playmates, bound together as brothers on the farm. We would be, but the story took a turn. When Dean was 2, my older sister noticed something not right with his eyes.

My mother spent time with doctors in New Ulm, Minneapolis, and New York, desperately trying to save Dean’s sight. In the end, something called retina blastoma took that. In the spring of 1959, Dean became blind. I was 3; he was 2. As children will, we didn’t dwell on what we didn’t have. We found ways to play with four hands, four legs, and two eyes.

Dean was a gifted boy. He learned to read at the Faribault Braille School. He went there from first through ninth grade, my mom gamely driving him there on Sundays and bringing him home every Friday. I rode along, continuing our play in the back seat. Those are memories that are timeless and distant.

The plan was that Dean would come to St. Mary’s his sophomore year, my junior year. Thanks to some wonderfully helpful staff and classmates, he was succeeding. Also, great credit to our mom who filled in whatever extra reading and help Dean needed. My mom was a force, committed to her son in a way only a parent could know.

When Dean began to get headaches around Christmas, it hardly seemed serious. But taking aspirin gave way to seeing a doctor which led to tests and finally a diagnosis of the brain tumor which would kill him. A number of treatments were tried, not unlike the attempts to save his sight. Again, those failed.

I thought about why I’m writing this. “Keeping his memory alive” came to mind. I’m not sure of the efficacy of that. There are a shrinking number of people who saw him play piano or heard his infectious laugh. I know from conversations, Dean moved people in his last days with his courage and the gracious way he dealt with dying.

I can write about those things, but it doesn’t bring it back. In the end, I can’t keep his memory alive, as noble as my intent might be.

It was a life cut short. All of us have people in our lives who left too soon.

Then, what is too short?

Who can say that?

Feet away from Dean’s burial marker is an older one. It says, “BABY, MICHAEL M. RADL, 1910-1910.” Michael had 16 less years than Dean.

Around Dean’s death, there was more sadness. On May 17, our cousin, 30-year-old Tom Krambeer, died in an automobile accident near Park Rapids. On May 21, 21-year-old Tom Hertling died in a boating accident on Sleepy Eye Lake. Both those young men certainly had plans that were violently taken from them.

I remember hearing then that, “Deaths come in threes.” Of course, they don’t. But it is one of those ways we try to make sense of the senseless.

In Sleepy Eye, the horrible tragic death of four young men in a car accident in March 2014 is still much in mind. Talk about lives cut short. I wrote this then:

“There is a temptation to say their lives were ‘incomplete’ or ‘unfinished.’ That is unfair to their memory. We wanted them to have more time, to go out to the world, to have longer stories. But our lives are like books and there are many types of books. ‘Les Miserables’ is 1,500 pages. “The Old Man and the Sea” is ninety pages. Each is full, complete, and valuable. Each is to be treasured.”

Ten years later, I still feel terribly sad that those boys died.

And I wonder again what would they have made of their lives?

And Dean?

Would he have gone into music with his gifts?

Teaching, law school, were things he talked about. All those are empty holes now.

The processing I mentioned includes regrets that I became disengaged at the end of Dean’s life. I talked about that to friend Judy Surprenant, long time school counselor. Judy said that 18 is an exactly bad age to experience that. There is so much swirling around us as we move from teen to adult, it can be difficult to be in the moment. I suppose that is my excuse, although regrets won’t recede.

Fifty years on, I’m no closer to understanding why my brother was taken. Dean did tell my mom that he felt he’d had a full life, and she shouldn’t be sad. Is that comforting? I don’t know.

“It’s God’s plan.” That’s another of those things we say to make sense of the senseless. So much is mystery to us mortals. I’m not sure about God’s plan. But, in the words of the old hymn, I do believe “We Shall Meet Again.” Godspeed Dean.

— Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye, where he lives with his wife, Pam.


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