I met Brett when we were both in fourth grade. He had a curly mop of hair, a crooked smile, and a mischievous personality. He liked to have fun and didn’t take much of anything too seriously. We became fast friends.
We remained close through grade school and junior high, then Brett went off to a private high school while I stayed behind in public school. Even so, we saw each other often, especially in the summer.
Brett went to three different colleges. He started at St. John’s College in Winfield, KS, where he got a baseball scholarship to play soccer. I don’t remember all of the particulars, but Brett was a really good soccer player and St. John’s wanted him to play for them. Unfortunately, they were out of soccer scholarships. Brett was also a decent baseball player, so the school gave him a baseball scholarship to play soccer for them. He was on the baseball team, but he was there to play soccer.
After two years at St. John’s, Brett moved back home and took classes at Waubonsee Community College. I didn’t see him much while he was in Kansas, but once he came back to Illinois, we saw each other much more. I was at Western Illinois University at the time along with several other friends, and I talked Brett into joining us there the following year. Five of us, including Brett, lived together in a house on the east side of Macomb. What a crazy year that was. We had a lot of fun.
After college, Brett moved to St. Louis where he got a job with an insurance company. He had been there a couple of years when I talked to him about my plans for the future. I was having trouble finding a job and decided I would join the Air Force if I didn’t find work by the end of the year. Brett encouraged me to apply for a job with his company, but I didn’t know anything about insurance. I resisted him for a while, but as the year wore on, I applied. I also set up a date to take the test to get into Air Force Officer Candidate School. The test was scheduled to take place on January 4. On December 30, I was hired by the insurance company. I’ve been there ever since, thanks in large part to Brett.
When Brett got married, his life changed again. The fun-loving, gregarious guy was replaced by a married homebody. He really took to marriage. My former partner in crime transformed into an adult. He was a different guy. Of course, we were still friends, but I was immature and single, while he became mature and married. The dynamic had changed.
Brett moved back to Illinois and settled into marriage. He and his wife bought a house, had a couple of kids, and generally moved on with life. We didn’t talk as often or see each other as much. But when we did, it was clear Brett had changed. He was more introverted with his thoughts, quieter. Even though we remained friends, it was hard to get too close to him. I think I knew this was happening at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s much easier to see now.
Several years later, Brett was divorced, and the experience broke him. He never recovered. Despite not easily sharing his feelings, I could tell he was hurting. When the pain became too much, he quit his job, moved away from his family, and left for California. I think the big draw to California was that it was far away from the pain he experienced in Illinois. Of course, it’s impossible to run away from pain, so Brett carried his with him to California.
He met a woman in San Francisco and they were together for a while, but the relationship didn’t last. Brett moved further north in California and bought a rundown cabin in the woods. I never saw the cabin, but I envisioned him living there like a recluse, alone with his dog and his thoughts.
It was at the cabin that Brett got seriously ill, beginning the final chapter in his life. He reached out to his family to let them know he was likely to die, but almost miraculously, doctors were able to save him. Unfortunately, the illness left him with badly damaged kidneys, and he was put on a kidney donor list.
Brett continued to work as much as he could, but his illness took its toll on him. He was often sick, and didn’t have anyone nearby to help him. He did the best he could, but life really became a grind for him. During this time, when I’d talk to him, Brett was rarely happy or hopeful. I don’t think he saw any brighter days ahead for himself.
A year or two ago, that changed. Brett moved back to Illinois where he could be closer to his daughter and grandkids. He established a relationship with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and for the first time in a long time, had hope that his health situation could improve. I had high hopes that the move to Illinois was going to be a new start for Brett.
And then he got sick again. For the next year, he was in and out of the hospital, and he was removed from the kidney donor list. He was just too sick to undergo a transplant.
I had the opportunity to see Brett about a year ago, at the start of the COVID pandemic, along with friends Keith Johnson and Paul Baudouin. Brett had just been released from the hospital the previous day and looked drawn and tired. I hugged him and he felt smaller, diminished, as if life had ground him away. Regardless, it was good to see him.
We ate and talked for a few hours. It didn’t dawn on us that the restaurant had closed and we were holding them up from locking the doors and going home. We said our goodbyes, thinking we would see each other again soon. Sadly, that will never happen. Brett died this past weekend. He was just 61-years old.
While I grieve his loss, I can’t help but remember all of the fun times we had together. The memories have been flowing the past 24 hours since I learned of Brett’s death. Let me share a few of them.
We were both good kids, but we could be troublemakers too. For instance, we liked to throw snowballs at passing cars. One winter day, the temperatures turned bitter cold, and we didn’t want to be outside. So, we filled several buckets with snow, brought the snow in the house, and threw snowballs out of Brett’s second-floor bedroom window at cars passing below on Fifth Ave, the busy street that ran in front of his house.
Another time, we were throwing rotten apples at cars, near our friend, Paul Bettcher’s house. The idea was to allow the car to pass, then step out of the bushes and launch a throw as the car drove away. This seemed like the safest way to do it. Brett had other ideas.
As a car approached, Brett stepped out of the bushes and rifled an apple directly at the front of the car. The apple splatted on the car’s windshield and the driver slammed on his brakes. Paul, Brett, and I took off through the bushes and sprinted down the street to Paul’s house, the driver in hot pursuit. We ran down Paul’s driveway, burst through his back door, and locked it behind us. The driver must have seen us, because he pulled in the drive, got out of his car, and began pounding on the door. We hid in the dark, along with Paul’s mom, who quickly became a co-conspirator. After several minutes, the driver gave up and left. Once the coast was clear, we headed back to the bushes and our rotten apples, making sure Brett better understood our strategy.
I spent a lot of time at Brett’s house when we were kids. His mom became like a second mom to me. But that doesn’t mean she was always happy with me. One time, Brett and his brother were wrestling in the house when they crashed into a table, knocking over and breaking a valued hurricane lamp. When their mom found out, they both blamed me, saying I broke it. The truth was, I wasn’t even there when it happened. Even so, for years, Faith, Brett’s mom, was upset with me for breaking her beloved lamp.
One of Brett’s favorite places in the world was at his family’s cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan. I joined the family there several times and completely understand why Brett loved it up there so much.
Near the cottage was a breakwater wall at the mouth of the canal leading from Lake Macatawa into Lake Michigan. We fished there a few different times. Brett was a fairly serious fisherman. I was not, so I screwed around while Brett actually tried to catch fish.
At one point, my lure got caught on something at the foot of the breakwater wall. I couldn’t get it unstuck, so I began climbing down the face of the wall. After a step or two, my feet went out from under me, I fell hard on my back, and slid down toward the water. My body froze, and I was sure I was going to drown. I hit the water and came to a dead stop. Somehow, I didn’t plunge into the lake.
As it turned out, there are big metal plates at the foot of the wall about six inches below the surface of the water. I had landed on one of those plates. I was relived I wasn’t going to drown, but having had the air knocked out of me, I laid there, unable to move. I looked up to Brett for help. He was staring down at me, unamused.
“Would you get up here?” he said.
Not wanting to irate him further, I stood up on the metal plate, dripping wet, and made my way up the side of the wall.
The year that Brett went to Waubonsee Community College, I went to WIU. It was Friday, and we had just started spring break. When I got home to my parent’s house, I was tired and just wanted to chill in front of the TV. But Brett called, excited. He said he met this girl in one of his classes and was going to go out with her that night. He also said he had gotten a date for me. I told him I was too tired, plus I didn’t have any money to go on a date. Brett said he would pay for both of us. Having Brett say he’d pay was akin to hearing the Pope say, “Don’t worry about those commandments. Go have a good time.” In other words, it never happened. I knew he must really want to see this girl. I agreed to go.
I met Brett and the two girls at a local bar. To my surprise, my date was actually very cute. She was the sister of the girl Brett was dating. After the bar, we went to get something to eat. As we waited for our food, we talked, and during the conversation, my date revealed that she was just 14-years old. I was 21. Earlier, I had scooted up close to her, but now I moved away. I said I was tired and thought it was time to head home.
Later, I confronted Brett about setting me up with a 14-year old, who I had been buying drinks for at the bar. He didn’t see the problem. It wasn’t my money, he reminded me. He had paid for the whole date. It seemed lost on him that he had set me up with a minor.
In his defense, I doubt Brett knew she was so young when he set her up with me. He just wanted to date her sister, and getting her a date was a prerequisite. And considering that she didn’t look fourteen or act fourteen (she was at least as comfortable in the bar as we were), I’m sure her age was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me.
There are so many other stories I could tell. We grew up together, lived together in college, Brett was best man at my wedding, and we were lifelong friends. I’ll miss him, and I pray that he truly is in a better place, free of the heartache, the health issues, and the daily grind that wore him down far too soon. Rest in peace, my friend.