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Loss of brother hurts even 35 years later

I felt it today -- the almost imperceptible awareness of daylight hanging on just a few seconds longer than yesterday. In February, the waning days of winter become ever so slightly longer as the calendar pages slowly flip toward spring.

As much as I welcome spring and the promise of summer, I struggle my way through February, my least favorite month. For me, the second month of the year is a harbinger of memories of the biggest loss of my life and that of my family.

It was on a cold day in February, when cobalt snow clouds studded the hard winter sky, that my 14-year-old brother died in an unexpected and cruel way.

On Feb. 21, 1974, Gary and a handful of his friends gathered in an old chicken coop that had been transformed into a clubhouse behind our Middleport home. They filled a brown paper lunch bag with non-stick cooking spray, then inhaled the contents, a vile concoction of aerosol propellants and oil.

They had heard it was an easily accessible, cheap way to get a "buzz." What they didn't count on was my brother falling to the floor unable to breathe, choking on the substance meant to coat frying pans, not the lungs of young boys.

Gary was rushed to Medina Memorial Hospital, where the emergency department staff attempted to resuscitate him for nearly an hour, to no avail. The alveoli in his lungs were clogged with grease from the cooking spray and he was unable to breathe. In the search for a novel thrill, my brother was robbed of his young life and all the promise it held.

I was 17 and was left the only child at home. My two older sisters had already moved away, and Gary and I had become more than siblings; we were friends. His loss threatened to swallow me whole.

I had never experienced the death of someone I loved so dearly, and I alternated between deep despair and a curiously unreasonable anger at Gary for abandoning me. I didn't know that I would carry the burden of his loss through my life.

After I graduated from high school later that year, I married. Over the next several years I became the mother of four sons. With the birth of each boy I always wondered how much of Gary would show up in this new creation. What physical and personality traits carried on strands of familial DNA would manifest themselves in my sons? Would my children have Gary's sense of humor, his engaging grin or freckled nose? Or perhaps the shock of blond/brown cowlick that stubbornly refused to lie flat?

As my sons grew I studied their faces and mannerisms, seeking some small vestige of a life long ago lost. When I looked hard enough, they were there -- my oldest son Matt's quick grin and good-natured affability, Brandon's sharp intelligence, Justin's vivid imagination and boundless energy, Jordan's sweet naivete.

My mother, sisters and I have been sustained by memories of the bright, inquisitive and loving youngster Gary was. It has always been my fervent hope that his death was not in vain, and that perhaps his passing saved other young lives. But even as I try to believe that his fate was destined, I still desperately wish we could get him back again.

I'll always wonder what kind of adult Gary may have been. As each February bitterly arrives and departs, I'll forever ponder what the world might have been like if only he had lived to leave his mark.

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