One year ago today, I was on the way to Richmond – Midlothian to be exact. The repeat buzzes in my pocket meant someone was calling on the phone. (I routinely keep my phone ringer on vibrate – nearly everyone at Red Ventures does.)
The most likely person to call me – Karen – was in the car with me. So was my son, Garrett. My older son, Austin, knew I was on the road and would have called Karen instead. Heck, he’d probably have called her first anyway.
So I was a bit nervous anyway as I fumbled the phone out of my pocket. When I saw it was my sister, I knew it was bad news. I’d called her on Christmas Day and we’d chatted briefly. She doesn’t call me unless there’s bad news. I knew it was bad news. I answered anyway.
“Arthur, I have some bad news,” she sobbed. “Frankie’s dead.”
Frankie. That’s what we called him. But nearly everyone else called my big brother something else: Smiley.
I idolized him growing up. He was seven years older than me and everyone who knew him liked him. He was seven years older than me and better at every sport than I was (or would ever be).
I loved it when he’d let me play basketball with him – it wasn’t too often. He was a great shooter from the baseline and a scrappy rebounder. When I got to play with the older kids, I wasn’t really allowed to shoot – I had to play defense and pass. It was a role I would embrace with players my own age, too.
He played football as a junior in high school. He started, but he didn’t really like playing that much. He decided not to play his senior year, and I think it pissed the coach off mightily. Frankie didn’t care; he just smiled and went about his business.
But where he really was happiest was on the baseball field – that was true both growing up and later on. He was a good player – once again shining in a space I didn’t. He later became a good softball player – softball was really big for adults out in the country where I grew up. He could hit and field – but his arm was wild. My most vivid softball memories of him are of him running the bases – thumbs pointed out and that smile transforming into a grimace as he gave it everything he had. He always gave it everything he had.
Most of all, he was wildly popular. People liked him, and he liked them. He truly was happy most of the time. He taught me to golf (another sport I’d be bad at) and enjoy good music – I remember listening multiple times to the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album with him. He loved that album, though he hated Marrakesh Express. So I loved it and hated it, too. I also remember we’d listen to his Grand Funk Railroad eight-track whenever he gave me a ride in his car.
Frankie didn’t love school – he dropped out of Virginia Tech pretty early on. He’d pretty much only gone for the draft deferment anyway. He got a pretty bad draft number but failed his physical – because of low blood pressure – and that was that. He was safe from a stupid war.
A friend helped him get a lineman job with the local phone company and he stayed with it – as it changed ownership and leadership often over the years. His job would change frequently within the phone company over the years, but he liked it there. And they liked him.
He had a failed marriage – the collapse was really hard on him. But ultimately he found Tania, and they lived and loved well, giving my grandmother her first grandchild, Travis. And that gave him a new focus.
As Travis grew up, Frankie became a baseball coach. He was good at it – serious but not too serious, fun but not too fun. He cared about the kids – the others nearly as much as his own. And he kept coaching for a while after Travis got older.
He was just fun to be around.
Unfortunately, things changed. His health started falling apart. We didn’t know why, and he was pretty stubborn about going to the doctor. Turns out he developed diabetes, and he was terrible about taking care of himself. He kept going downhill. He fell a short distance off a telephone pole. He suffered a series of strokes. He got weaker and weaker. He was in pain often, probably more than we even suspected.
He didn’t talk much, or well, anymore. I wasn’t a good brother – I didn’t see or talk to him nearly as much as I should have.
Things got worse. Tania’s unexpected death depressed him even more. He was lost without his partner. He tolerated life but didn’t seem to enjoy it. His smile was gone.
At the funeral, though, that’s what everyone talked about. They loved his smile, as I did. And I thought, “What a terrific way to be remembered.”
The point is this: We can all turn the world on with a smile. We just don’t. I don’t know why we don’t, but I know we should. So allow yourself to give someone an unexpected smile, a small act of kindness.
I’m going to honor my brother today by once again trying to be like him. I’m going to smile.
“A smile is happiness you’ll find right under your nose.” – cartoonist Tom Wilson