I’ve been away. It’s been nearly two months since I took a punch to the gut, the likes of which I have never experienced.
I lost a brother in the COVID pandemic. He was younger, just 66. Unknown to his family or friends, he suffered from severe depression, which engulfed him during the isolation of the last year, taking him deeper and deeper into despair. He hit bottom on January 12, 2021, and ended his life alone in his home in Williston, N.D.
I have not hesitated for an instant when asked how he died, to respond, “COVID.” Because it is true.
All of us have suffered through the isolation forced on us by this horrible pandemic. We stayed away from our favorite restaurants and bars, canceled our vacations, gave up pleasant evenings and casual lunches with our friends, missed all the new movies, drove separate cars to meeting destinations and worked from home, or alone, in our offices with masks on.
But at the end of the day, we had someone to go home to, someone to cook for, or cook for us, to talk over the highlights or lowlights of the day at suppertime, someone to hug at bedtime, someone to share coffee with over the morning paper, someone to walk with on warm evenings, or take a drive with in the bright, snowy countryside on a sunny winter morning, to cheer us up.
My brother Jay had none of those things. The victim of a broken marriage and a broken heart, he looked on in envy as his six siblings and their spouses and children shared the often raucous joy of their families. He lived alone, far from the rest of us. And while we were able to invite him to holiday gatherings and summer golf and lake outings, the pandemic canceled all those enjoyable family times together, and he was left alone in a deepening downward spiral none of us recognized in time to save him.
Oh, how I wish I had been able to call him and say, “Hey, Jay, remember a couple of years ago when you came down and spent Thanksgiving weekend, and we went out to McKenzie Slough and shot a couple of pheasants on Thanksgiving morning while Lillian cooked dinner? Why don’t you come down, and we’ll do that again this year?”
But by then, we were conditioned by the pandemic not to even consider doing that. Damn, I wish I had made that call anyway.
He often spent Christmastime with my brother Blake, and his family in Sioux Falls, S.D., but this year they just talked on the phone. And he observed his 66th birthday two days later alone in his house in Williston. His Social Security birthday. His retirement birthday. Two weeks later, he was dead.
All of us have been touched, hurt, delayed, saddened, displaced and angered by this awful time we’ve been through. But we’ve survived it, so far. We’re still here. But not Jay. The Fuglie family will always remember this nightmarish winter when we lost our brother Jay. To COVID. Each time I hear those numbers on the radio, I automatically add one. I often shout it. “No! 1,449!”
From all appearances, everything was just fine in Jay’s life. He was a successful businessman with a good reputation for taking care of his customers. He was well-liked at the Western Community Credit Union, where he had his offices, and enjoyed his daily repartee with his co-workers. He mentored young people, shepherding them to advancement in the business world. He was quiet and well-behaved (unlike some of his siblings) and always well-dressed and well-groomed. He drove a nice car, lived in a comfortable townhouse just a short walk from his office, had healthy bank accounts, and through his community involvement had a wide circle of friends, many of them important citizens of Williston. He gave freely to charities, especially those serving the needy, often in cash so his goodwill could remain anonymous. He may have been the most humble man I knew.
That’s why his death was so unexpected. None of us knew of his life’s secrets, the curtain of depression he was hiding behind, unable to recover from the idea that somehow he had failed to arrive at his approaching retirement, for which he had carefully prepared, with a traveling companion he loved and who loved him. In the end, he could not face that alone.
One of my brothers summed it up this way: He was able to get up each morning and achieve his daily goal, but he couldn’t achieve his life’s goal.
And in his Norwegian stubbornness, he refused to ask for help. Until it was too late. In that troubled mind, the only solution was to end it.
When I think of Jay now, I think of the words of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
By Edward Arlington Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
It’s taken me a good bit of time to gather these thoughts and the courage to share them. Thank you for waiting. It has been a long winter, the longest of my life. I need to get back to writing. There is much to write about. And to read about. And to care about.