Mark Shields: A brother’s death leaves hole in heart
Tom Shields, my big brother, lived a long and good life. When he died earlier this month, he was widely — and deservedly — praised for generously giving millions to fund struggling inner-city Catholic schools and scholarships for hundreds of kids who hadn’t been so lucky in life’s lottery as he, our wonderful sister, Ann, and I were to be born to loving, intelligent, stable parents who gave their children self-confidence.
For more than a half-century, Tom was completely in love with his late wife, the former Mary Murphy, who always, even when their family’s finances were deep in the red and the bill collectors had turned surly, was absolutely certain that her Tom was smarter than anyone else and destined for great success. He was loved and mourned by his and Mary’s four daughters and three sons, their 21 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and at least 1,000 different people who came to tell us how Tom had personally given them time, encouragement, counsel and support.
It once was said about at least some of the Congregational missionaries who went to Hawaii and eventually prospered financially: They came to do good and did very, very well. My big brother, by all earthly indicia, did well, and by just about any standard, he also did an awful lot of good.
Let me be candid: Being his brother was not any uninterrupted day at the beach. He was the firstborn and always remained the apple of our mother’s eye. By actual count, there were in the family albums 3,418 developed photographs of Tom. Of my sister, Ann, there were only 106 photos. After exhaustive effort, we were able to find 14 pictures of me (which included at least one police surveillance tape). The numbers tell the story: 3,418 to 106 to 14. This, understandably, led to a running family joke that “Mom liked Tom best,” a charge that our mother could never persuasively refute. As a family, we laughed often about this alleged favoritism.
But Mary, my brother’s lifelong love and No. 1 booster, did not know what all this back-and-forth could be about, thinking that of course our mother, just as any other perceptive person would, liked Tom best.
For me, my brother’s death means that the person whom I’ve known and loved the longest in my life is gone. We shared bunk beds, a bedroom until he got married and a lot of secrets. I was the younger pest who idolized and shadowed my big brother and, yes, who, as a 7-year-old, rushed to tattle to our dad that I had, that very afternoon, seen Tom, then 13, smoking a cigarette. He and I became the closest of friends and rivals. We did disagree, from time to time, about politics, but we laughed together a lot more.
The death of your last sibling often means that there’s no one left who really knew you before you could tie your own shoes or ride a bicycle and when you were still full of childish hopes, fears and dreams. It means that never again will caller ID tell you he’s calling and you can share both the latest gossip and your fondest memories. With no one else will you have that emotional shorthand of remembrances about the uncle who got drunk at Thanksgiving or the neighborhood peeping Tom who went into the seminary. Your shared story is no more. It leaves a hole in your heart. Thank you, Tom, for the example and the love you always gave me. And for a million laughs.