The Day the World Ended: Remembering My Brother Seven Years Later

doveI wrote this up a month after my older brother died, but because I was so bitter I could not leave it up. Here is a revised version, with all the bitterness left behind. I do not believe it is a coincidence that I felt compelled to revise and post this seven years later; I am always so buried and every year it gets worse, so why do I feel so compelled now? The number seven is considered the most sacred number to the Hebrews, and stands for completeness and spiritual perfection. It is one of the most significant numbers in the Bible. Nathan loved Israel and gave lectures about its history. After he died, I traced our ancestry back on our Portuguese side — and discovered it was Sephardic Jewish, something we never knew, but he would have loved.

May 24, 2009 was the day Nathan finally succumbed to leukemia. I felt like my world had ended. Nathan was a larger-than-life, one-of-a-kind; the epitome of what a fun, charismatic, witty older brother should be. He was always happy, alternating between intellectual pontifications and mischievous joking. He understood my sense of humor better than anyone, and the emails flew back and forth between us sometimes 10 times a day. He frequently took humorous breaking news articles and inserted our friends’ names into them, sending them out in official looking emails to mutual friends. Nathan and I remained close over the years, not having a significant other to confide in for most of our adult years.

When Nathan was in high school, he became interested in politics, which included poking fun at the political oddballs in society. He made fun of left-wing hippies by imitating them and saying “peace.” He dressed up as Fidel Castro for Halloween one year in high school, and even wore the costume to work at a grocery store. He continued this sense of humor right up until the end, when he would besiege me with emails saying little more than “peace.” He would end our phone conversations with “peace, out.”

Fidel Castro

Nathan was an immensely popular kid, and I idolized him growing up. In high school he told me not to talk to him at school unless I washed all the makeup off my face! He was editor of the student newspaper, The Knight Times, and he took that paper to a new level it had never known before, making up fake writers and fake interviews with “stoners” and other controversial figures around the school. In The Knight Times staff picture from the school annual, he’s wearing a hippy wig. He would draw “legendary” (as he’d describe them) pictures of hippies (will try to find and add).

Nathan attended college at the University of Washington, where I later went, majoring in Comparative History of Ideas. He did well, maintaining a 3.7 GPA, and spent his junior year abroad at Oxford University in England. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa, he was accepted into Harvard’s History Graduate School, where he spent several years getting his PhD in French intellectual history. An ex-girlfriend of his told us that Nathan was a standout even at Harvard, and another peer of his said that Nathan was always one of the most popular teachers (teaching assistants, lecturers, etc.), winning numerous teaching awards. But we never knew any of this until now, Nathan never bragged about himself. Due to Nathan’s intellectual prowess, in late 2001, I thought I would start a website and name it the presumptuous Intellectual Conservative. Humble as always, Nathan objected to the name!

But when Nathan was 22, his immune system became greatly weakened. In fifth grade, doctors noticed that his body wasn’t producing as many white blood cells as it should. It wasn’t clear at the time what it was, myelodysplasia, also known as preleukemia. Somehow the condition never worsened until he was 22. Although he had less strength growing up than his peers – he was forced to quit the high school football team as a freshman because of it – he always seemed alright.

He entered the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of the best hospitals in the country at the time for bone marrow transplants. The doctors told him that his chances of surviving a bone marrow transplant at that time, 1990, were only about 30 percent. Immediately prior to the transplant, the elders of our church prayed over Nathan. The day of the transplant, the doctors tested Nathan’s bone marrow one final time. To their surprise, the cancerous cells had mysteriously disappeared! We knew it was a miracle and God had healed Nathan. The doctor, no Christian, admitted he’d never seen anything like it, admitted it must be a divine miracle! He didn’t know how to remove the catheter from Nathan’s chest, a device he had designed; nothing like this had ever happened before, normally it was supposed to remain there until after the transplant, when it would dissolve. 

Over the years since then, Nathan had several more brief bouts of dangerously low white blood cell counts, returning him to the hospital for a few days at a time. During those times, I conducted some of my greatest pranks to humor him. Some of them will have to remain family secrets, because they made some of our friends really mad.

Nathan with his beautiful daughter Elisa, who I refer to as the “mini-me.” See how he taught her his famous peace sign.

We saw the toll it was taking on his health. With his weak immune system, he didn’t have much stamina. He suffered from numerous ailments all over his body due to his body’s inability to fight them off, such as warts covering his hands and facial acne, but he bore them all with a smile and never showed any sign of embarrassment.

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Our last normal Christmas together.

Nathan started writing reviews of books on the Vietnam War for Intellectual Conservative. We set up a special section on the site for his book reviews. Nathan’s favorite topic was the Vietnam War, and he became a favorite of Vietnam veterans all around the country. Nathan was a far better writer than I will ever be, writing at a level most of us barely understood. He was published in prestigious publications like Judaism. He would occasionally respond to the feedback we received at IC, which I loved, because he would hands-down intellectually surpass those attacking our viewpoints. He kept a journal at Caring Bridge all during his hospital stay, which was lighthearted and witty.

Intellectual Conservative turned into a family venture, with Dad posting sermons on the site, Mom writing book reviews, Andrew as co-editor handling our writers’ submissions, even Sarah writing an article (which immediately prompted a legal threat from a Canadian). We set up a section on the website called “IC Classics” to immortalize our sense of humor. At the top is the IC mascot, a funny looking lemur with red eyes because it is high on millipedes seeds. I think we got it from Nathan’s friend Jim, who was always sending him ridiculous looking pictures of weird animals. There is a snuggly looking picture of Al Sharpton, who Nathan found endlessly amusing. I’d post that picture of Sharpton next to our writers’ articles whenever I could justify it, until our writers started complaining. There is a really funny looking picture of a monkey, which I frequently post next to our writers’ articles about evolution and creationism. Nathan would email us those pictures over and over again.

There is an article by the ridiculously pretentious sounding Claude-Yves Villiers-de-L’isle-Adam III, a name Nathan made up. Posted next to the article is a picture of Howard Stern’s late sidekick Hank the Drunk Dwarf in a pink bunny suit, which Nathan instructed me to attach. Nathan made up a bio for the fake writer: “Claude-Eves Villiers-de-L’isle-Adam III is a chef with a maitre de philosophie from Vincennes-Saint Denis. A lifelong resident of Paris, he recently moved to Butte, Montana, where he participates in philanthropic activity including Médecins Sans Frontières.” (you’d never guess our family is of French heritage the way Nathan teased the French) And be sure to read the dry humor email exchange about L. Goldner’s website, a Marxist friend of Nathan’s. Nathan always got along with everyone, including those of diametrical political views because he respected their intelligence, and he never had any enemies.

Nathan left Harvard several years ago to take a full-time professorial position as an Assistant Professor in History at Troy University in Alabama. He tried in vain to get a position at a college near Boston in order to remain near his daughter, but faculty positions in his area of expertise (European history, no longer considered PC) are few and far between. He was quite popular at the Troy University gym, as a white professor who would play basketball with the mostly black students. He easily developed a great rating on the site Rate My Professor. The first review there of him is very positive, and the second one says, “He is one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met. I admire him and hope that I can emulate his excellence. He is an amazing man and should be remembered for his amazing intellect, great humor, and unflinching compassion for his students. I remember you every day Dr. Alexander.”

 

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Me and and Nathan’s daughter, the mini-me! Notice Elisa is wearing a shirt with lemurs, and mine is almost matching – it belonged to Nathan. What I really love about this photo is you can see we both got the same mouth from mom.

My brother tried to take on teaching a fourth class in order to keep up with his hefty student loan payments and expenses. Even fully healthy professors find taking on a fourth class exhausting. Nathan never did finish his book. He began losing blood in 2008, not only white blood cells but red blood cells. After multiple blood transfusions, he took leave from Troy and entered the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance hospital, near our parents. We spent Christmas with him in the hospital. My parents spent virtually every day with him at the hospital, and were there when he rededicated his life to the Lord.

The Sunday my parents unexpectedly told me my brother was in heaven, I lay in bed asking God for an answer. After a few hours of crying, I got up and walked outside. Amazingly, a dove had appeared on the light outside my door, where it had built a nest! I’d never seen a bird alight there before; with the bulb sticking up and the light often on, it’s not a surface that looks easy to build a nest upon. The dove looked very peaceful, not scared at all. As I lay in bed, I’d hear it cooing every 20 minutes or so. I didn’t hear any other birds, which was unusual because usually there are multiple noisy birds in the palm trees around my house every morning. The next couple of mornings before I left for his funeral in Seattle, I didn’t even bother to leave my noisemaker fan off, which I’d always left on to block out the sound of the birds at dawn. There was no sound those mornings, except the dove cooing every few minutes.

When I returned to Phoenix, two eggs hatched, and two little doves grew up and left the nest. Now, I hear them in the palm trees around my house cooing, and I’ve taken new photos of them on my back fence, sticking around. I know it is Nathan sending me a message from heaven; a dual message telling me to be at peace and comforting me by myself in Phoenix (I finally found someone and got married several years later), while also making fun of hippies. See you in heaven, Nathan you huge pete. Peace, out.

Click here for the IC memorial page for Nathan

Pete-Elisa

After Nathan underwent chemo, it also cleared up his face, which was prone to infections due to his body’s inability to make enough white blood cells. He looked so beautiful.

 

 

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The family Christmas card after Nathan died. (click here for larger image) During our last Christmas with him in the hospital, he wore a goofy wig since chemo had destroyed his hair, I wore a ridiculous Christmas outfit, and my sis wore an equally obnoxious wig.

Nathan’s wonderful students at Troy University started an academic journal in his name, The Alexandrian, and every issue features a photo of him on the back. There are memories from those who remember him included in the issues, even up until today.

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Alexandrian1

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