Five years ago today my brother Keith died. That same year the radio station where I work did a programming stunt where they were collecting the public’s most memorable musical moments. This is what I submitted as my moment:
It was January 20, 2007. I was in a room on the oncology floor at HUP where my two younger sisters and I had spent nearly every minute of the past two weeks. We were vigilantly watching over our younger brother Keith, desperate to keep him from losing his five-month battle with stage-four lymphoma.
Over his 38 years, anyone who ever knew Keith discovered he had a passion for “his music.” It wasn’t just that he had a vast collection of songs and artists he favored. It was about how he interacted with his music. He assembled it in ways that were meaningful to him, creating and recording song compilations to chronicle his life events. He consulted it daily quoting from 70s pop lyrics as his way of commenting on what was going on around him. He depended on it finding strength in songs as he did in Olivia Newton John’s “Never Gonna Give In To It” which he knew she wrote battling her own illness.
The iPod next to Keith’s bed was his constant companion throughout his lengthy hospital stays. This week we kept it on nonstop to ensure that his music would be playing during those occasional periods, either night or day, when he was lucid. Bored with the current song, I took the iPod out of the docking station and began searching the menus. Keith was resting and my sisters were entertaining themselves with their “Lucy and Ethel-esqe” banter and occasional (but always off-key) outburst of song.
After glancing at the player in my hand, Kelly decidedly turned to Keith and asked, “Is there a favorite song you’ve always liked to sing to?” Keith replied by simply reaching for the iPod. Since Christmas, his voice had been constantly hoarse and he had to strain to keep it above a whisper. I placed the device in his hand. He deftly navigated the click wheel, maneuvering through the playlists guided only by a sliver of his left eye, the right one swollen shut from the latest infection. It wasn’t long before a look of satisfaction fell over him. He handed back the iPod gesturing to have me return it to its cradle. What would it be? Was it that Donna Summer tune he knew made Kelly cringe whenever she heard the breathy “oh, love to love you baby?” Something from Madonna? He owned everything but favored her less popular late ’90s period. Or maybe it was an Elvis tune, like the ones we could sing to for hours more than 30 years ago during our Saturday morning cleanings with mom.
As the opening line of ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” filled the room, I was startled by what I also heard. It was my brother. He was singing. His voice was clear. It was strong. And it was magic. Eyeing each other acknowledging the awe we each felt, Kelly, Kay and I instinctively joined him. Through the tears, we belted out the haunting fourth line “Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye.”
The Four Ks circa 1978
As close as we had been all our lives, for the next three and a half minutes we were united more tightly than ever in my brother’s swan song. With each note, we confronted what we feared most. Little time remained for us to be “The Four K’s”, a title that had banded us since childhood. The baby of our family who we fawned over since birth, the kid who amazed us with his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music, the young man who brought us sidesplitting laughter, and the grown brother who brought levity to every family crisis including his own illness, would leave us forever only two weeks later. Keith’s final gift to his sisters will forever remain my most cherished musical moment.
“No more carefree laughter
Silence ever after
Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes
Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye”
See the Memorial Book for Keith with photos and select lyrics.