I felt the tingle, actually the sting, of a -30 degree Fahrenheit day in Calgary during the 1960’s. The winters of my childhood always seemed brazenly cold. Yet on that early December evening my brother John was about to create something I had not experienced before: Christmas magic.
Earlier that day he arrived home with a huge surprise. “It’s time our house shines with the twinkle of Christmas”, he gleefully shared.
In all my previous eleven Christmases it was always the neighbours, never the Dolan’s, whose homes glistened with Christmas lights.
My big brother John changed all that. He, single-handedly, changed the course of how I experienced Christmas. He showed me the possibility of magic and to date it is one of my single greatest beliefs: life can be magical.
John lived between the immense accomplishments of his older brother Rick and the almost celebrity status of his younger brother Jim. Yet from my vantage point, as one of the younger five kids, John always felt the gentlest.
He loomed larger than life. His nickname growing up was “The Hulk”. That perhaps would attest to how it was that he drove through a living room wall, in his kiddy car, as a young child.
I always sensed an innocence about him. Yet his attraction to the allure of his brothers Rick’s and Jim’s lives felt quite unsettling.
John consistently reached out to me. He loved that I was a Cub Scout. There were times he would help me iron my uniform scarf and he always made sure the badges and stars I earned were properly sewn onto my cub sweater.
He always struck me as a wise man and a thoughtful teacher. I made up a story that he was going to be a Catholic priest.
He invited me, every Saturday, to join a church group of young boys he was teaching basketball to. I loved that “the coach” was my big brother. Yet he made sure I worked as hard as the others.
With a significant number of years between us it wasn’t long before the connection to him dwindled. Occasionally, the most I’d hear of him was his rustling about in the back bedroom as he made his way home after a late night.
Much of the confusion and chaos of my childhood typically reared its ugly head between the hours of 2am and 5am. This particular bit of chaos would prove to be no different. I awakened to the screaming voice of my brother John. Layered on top of that was Mom’s voice attempting to sooth her distraught son.
I had never heard John cry. In all my memory, up until that moment, John never raised his voice. I became terrified because the purveyor of magic, in my life, was in deep pain.
Between what seemed to be an inability to breathe he screamed, “He’ll kill me. It was an accident. I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry.” He pounded the thin walls of our tiny wartime house with his powerful fists.
John had borrowed our oldest brother’s car, for the first time, and under the influence of alcohol had careened it into a neighbour’s fence and light post.
I remember thinking how Mom seemed to be more concerned for the car than for her son’s feelings. All I wanted to do was hug him and tell him everything was going to be ok.
John’s energy seemed to change from that moment forward. I sensed losing him, but to what I didn’t know.
I watched helplessly as he bounced from job to job, girlfriend to girlfriend and eventually failed marriage after failed marriage.
Yet when it mattered most he was there. When Rick went through what doctors said might be a surgery that could take his life, John was there. He was there when Mom went into and came out of surgery for cancer. When I came out, he was the first to tell me how brave I was. When Dad was drawing his last breaths, he stood there with me.
I craved a deeper connection with him. I wanted conversation not chit chat. I wanted a deeper understanding, perhaps even answers to why the Dolan’s were, collectively, in such pain.
All he ever said to belay my curiosity and deep concern was, “I couldn’t begin to share the atrocities we endured growing up. It’s way too painful.” It was from that final comment that silence flowed between us for most of our time together.
I like to credit John for the generosity that flows from my heart. He taught me how to give by witnessing his ability to share.
Like our Dad, John suffered the challenges of a weak heart. He would be slowed down significantly, in life, because of heart problems. With one of his rounds of physical challenges he gently said to me, “To think that at one point in my life they called me The Hulk.” My heart ached.
On the heels of additional health issues I asked him if there were any places he’d wished he visited as a boy. Without hesitation he enthusiastically quipped, “Disneyland!”
Within a few weeks I had John and a women friend of his booked on what he’d later tell me was the vacation of his lifetime.
He said, “Tommy, I now know why they call it the Magic Kingdom.” My thought was, the magic had simply been re-gifted from my heart to his.
John took his last breath in 2017.
His parting words to me when I saw him last, as he put his warm hands on either side of my face and gave me a gentle kiss, were, “Tommy, I love you.”
His gentle energy lingered as he quietly walked away. I took a breath and lovingly whispered, “Thank you for being my big brother.”