I loved my brother with the typical myopic vision of a sister. Growing up, I occasionally wanted to trade him in for a different and much cooler version. He carried a briefcase, he was waaaay too smart, and when he dressed up, he wore a bow tie. He was not the popular kid in school. My own social status was somewhat in question, and I longed for a brother who could raise my social standing, and a briefcase-carrying brother did not.
But I also loved him, bound to him the way all families are. And as my older and wiser brother, he taught me about TS Eliot, and ee cummings, and introduced me to music I never would have found : Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Gordon Lightfoot. We drove each other crazy but we were also kind to each other. After our parents died my love for him turned part maternal, and I worried about him. Simple things for most people were very difficult for Bob, and I worried about his worry, and about how he ate, and if he had enough friends.
I was surprised when -- maybe a dozen years ago -- Bob told me he was going to take up gay square dancing. "That sounds, umm, great!" I enthused. But I honestly couldn't imagine it. My Norwegian family was incredibly uncoordinated, and I thought Bob might be most of all. We don't dance. One time when I joined friends to observe their line dancing, the misguided instructor tried to get me to join. Finally, in desperation, she took me outside to try to teach me how to clap. I'm that bad. So Bob taking up square dancing struck me as a recipe for disaster. But I held my tongue. I was glad he was getting out, and if he was rejected, well, unfortunately he had probably lived through that more than once in his life.
Much to my surprise, he didn't quit, and it seemed he wasn't rejected. As a matter of fact, he seemed to thrive. It wasn't long before he was mentioning square dancing events more frequently, dropping names of people he met through square dancing. Even going to square dancing conventions! I have to admit it remained amusing for me: the idea of my brother square dancing. (He did mention one event that involved square dancing without clothing, and while I can't recall if he participated or not, the image of a gaggle of square dancers, including my brother, doing the dosey-do buck naked, kept me smiling for a long time.) When I visited, he made sure my visit didn't coincide with a square dancing event he didn't want to miss. So I knew it was a big part of his life, but I didn't realize how significant it was until he died.
Somehow he and I were so unprepared for that event that I couldn't locate the contact info for the people in his life, but I found an Orange County square dancing club online, and sent out a tentative inquiry to Sherry and Steve and others.
What I received back was an outpouring of sympathy and kind words. Many of you emailed, some called, and all recounted that Bob was, yes, as I described him, slightly awkward but sweet, and that you would miss him. Several people mentioned that he went out of his way to make newcomers feel at home. All spoke of him with fondness, and with sadness at his passing. And some of you even went so far as to say he was a fine dancer. I found it comforting beyond words. I loved that he had a place he belonged. I loved that he had people he could call 'friend'. I liked to think that the physical activity of dancing let his busy mind rest and be at ease, at least for the duration of the dance.
His death was so sudden and final that it knocked me clean off my feet, but from talking to you I realized this: He found a place to belong, among you. You accepted him, and made him part of your family and community. You grew to care for him, and you danced with him, and appreciated his quirks, and enjoyed his kindnesses.
And I came also to realize that this was not just a reflection of my brother, but a reflection of the open and loving community you all have developed. While I barely know any of you except through some emails, I know this about you: You are fine and loving people, and my brother was lucky to have found you. Thank you all. — Ruth Askevold (Bob's sister)
- A letter written by Ruth Akevold and read at both his memorial dinner and his badge pinning.