Reporting from Alaska: The kind of brother anyone would be lucky to have

By Dermot Cole
For The Cordova Times

The Sisters of St. Joseph, who called the shots at St. Isidore’s Elementary School, occasionally ordered us 60 years ago to sit near the edge of our chairs, so that our guardian angels had enough room to sit down beside us.

My identical twin brother and I followed instructions, scooting over and leaving a few inches for the alleged angels. I don’t know if they teach that kind of thing anymore, but the nuns said that each of us had a constant companion assigned by heaven to keep us out of trouble.

From a young age I had known all about having someone watch my every move. My brother Terrence, if not exactly an angel, was always my guardian. We moved in identical circles.

Growing up on a rundown farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, we found ourselves in the middle, between two older brothers and two younger sisters. I took some unjustified pride in telling people I was seven minutes older than he was.

Terrence and I rassled almost every day for some reason on the lawn or in our room and were rarely apart. Evenly matched combatants, we learned how to fight, forgive and forget. Our dad once got the bright idea that we needed to learn how to box and forced us to put on gloves Sundays after mass in a makeshift living-room ring, but we never wanted to hit each other.

Everyone treated each of us as half of a whole, but we wanted to be individuals. In the past year I’ve realized that being an individual has its drawbacks when half of you is missing.

I am reminded of Robert Burns and these words from Auld Lang Syne: “We two have run about the slopes, And picked the daisies fine; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.”

On the last birthday we shared, the 67th, Terrence gave me a card that originally said, “You’re the kind of brother that anyone would be lucky to have.”

He edited it by crossing off a couple of words and revising the text to read, “I’m the kind of brother that anyone would be lucky to have.” He signed his name below.

I was lucky. He was possessed with what one of his friends, author John Straley, called a “know-it-all sense of humor.” A lifetime of work as a writer, editor and history professor filled him with curiosity, his greatest attribute.

About a month ago, as we neared the one-year anniversary of his death, I received a notice from the bank about the renewal fee for his safe deposit box. We knew nothing about his safe deposit box and since we didn’t have a key, we had to get the box drilled in the presence of bank officers.

I wondered if the safe deposit box that he had forgotten to tell me about contained the long-missing Mickey Mantle rookie card that he allegedly once had or if it contained more external hard drives from his vast collection or other valuables.

The locksmith did his work in about 30 seconds and a bank official pulled the drawer out and handed it to me. “It seems pretty light,” I thought to myself. I carried it into the private room at the bank and opened it to see what my brother had left me.

There was a dollar bill inside with a blue Post-it note attached, signed by my brother’s friend Chuck Lemke. The note said, “Charles Lemke owes me $5,000,000” and instructed me to “Call 555-JOKE.”

I didn’t bother calling that number. I called Lemke, who says the IRS wants to speak with me.

Terrence had placed the $1 bill and the note in the box on Nov. 19, 2018, the day he rented the safe deposit box. That was more than a year after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He never put anything else in it, leaving it for me to discover.

I laughed out loud when I opened the box, as happy as if it contained a check for something less than $5 million. I am smiling now as I write this on Christmas Eve.

I am thinking about Terrence, my late brother Pat and my late brother Kevin, who died this fall from lung cancer.

My twin was a father of three children, or six children, depending upon how you look at it — Henry, Connor, Desmond, Aileen, Anne and Elizabeth. He regarded my three kids as his own and never failed to tell them what to do or what they were doing wrong. They paid as much attention to him as they did to me.

Shortly before Terrence’s death last December, my daughter Aileen said she had been “blessed with two dads who look exactly alike.”

A day before he died, she learned that she was pregnant. She never got the chance to tell him about the child he would have treated like his own grandson. He would have been proud of his namesake, Robbie Terrence Hammel, now 4 months old.

“It’s been a confusing journey trying to navigate our grief and joy. I have a feeling that Terrence would have liked reading to Robbie as much as my dad and mom do,” Aileen wrote on Facebook on the anniversary of his death. “For today, I’ll just spend some time thinking about how much we miss that guy.”

Reporting for Alaska is independent analysis and political commentary by Alaska reporter and author Dermot Cole. Cole wrote a daily column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner for 21 years and worked for the Alaska Dispatch News from 2013-2017. Support Cole’s independent column via PayPal or send checks to Dermot Cole, Box 10673, Fairbanks, AK 99710-0673.