Slowly, like a priest performing a ritual, he held an unlit cigarette aloft and said to our brother Paul, "If I could only quit these." My 58-year old brother lit the cigarette while nimbly placing a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue to ease the painful angina he was learning to live with -- but not for long.
Herbie was found the next morning, curbside door open, reaching into the glove compartment where a fresh pack of cigarettes and a small bottle of nitro tablets awaited his need.
Now and then through the year I'll remember each of my five brothers, perhaps on birthdays, on the anniversaries of their deaths, in random thoughts, on finding a picture, a note ... but on Memorial Day I remember them all at once and all together.
In the slide show of memory, I see them always smiling, always smoking, whistling, singing, bounding up a flight of stairs, hopping into a car, swinging my little self to their shoulders so deftly the ash on their cigarettes never falls.
In this week of remembering, I see the veteran's cemetery where my brothers lie beneath the endless rows of crisp white crosses on the long green lawns. All of them survived the war after fighting hand-to-hand on all fronts. They considered it just plain dumb luck and referred sadly to the war dead as those who weren't lucky enough to survive.
The marines who fell around Jack on Iwo Jima, as well as those soldiers around Eddie in Germany, next to Herbie in the South Pacific and with Bill in every theater of the war, are those we remember of Memorial Day. Paul's fallen comrades were not trudging next to him but were shot out of the sky in what they called "a blaze of glory."
Those who didn't come home, we remember.
I was 10 when war broke out, old enough to remember goodbyes. Bill was at the ready in the Rainbow Division out of New York a year before Pearl Harbor. Jack, at 17, begged my mother to sign him into the Marine Corps; Paul wanted to fly; Eddie and Herbie -- married by then -- had to wait for the draft board to call their numbers.
I recall their coming home, and Jack's in particular. He opened up his big foot locker and there was nothing in it but Camel cigarettes. They were placed in individual packs bottom to top with the camels facing in the same direction, as if each pack were placed there with love.
And so began the real battle to survive in a war they would one day lose. There are survivors to this war, too, but I wouldn't call them lucky. I remember my personal heroes and see them again in the eyes of men of a certain age wearing oxygen in a stylish shoulder carrier, thin plastic hose attached delivering life directly to their nostrils. It's bigger than a pack of cigarettes but, just like the old days, they don't go anywhere without it.
The enemy of these heroes was not someone they recognized from newsreels, but one they see when the doctor says, "Let's put you in the hospital for a few days to run some tests." I saw the enemy when they were still his prisoners, trying to find someone to sneak them a cigarette, begging for one with nearly their last laboring breath.
The life of these heroes ceased to be about the battles they won, but about the one they lost, never knowing they were being seduced by an enemy with propagandists more alluring and glamorous than any Tokyo Rose or Axis Sally. The enemy's war posters featured their own icons, the beauty queens of Hollywood and the rugged cowboys of the American West.
If they claim they got through WWII, Korea, Vietnam, with "dumb luck," they can be just as terse about their losing battle against this foe. "Who knew?", the foot soldiers in this army -- men, women and Joe Camel's kids -- whether still smoking or having escaped the enemy -- will always say.
"Who knew?" In the last decade we've discovered exactly who knew, and the tobacco giants are at last being held accountable for slaying without mercy, without honor, our millions of heroes, brothers, husbands and sons.
In our family of nine, there was no history of heart disease; the previous generation lived into their 80's and 90's. Until my brothers, no death certificate ever read, "Cardiac arrest, smoking related."
Mourning our brothers, we sisters screamed "Take that! You big bully!" to the tobacco industry now having to pay up. But I can hear my brothers saying, "There, there, you're supposed to love your enemy." And I would shout back, "Even if it kills you?"
These brothers had double, triple, quadruple and finally quintuple bypasses, in ascending order of their age, the number determined more by scientific advances than their need at the time. They spent the rest of their lives after surgery trying to figure out how to steal back into the smokers' trenches without detection.
Memorial services for those heroes felled in foreign regions include words like "proud," and "honor," and "hero." Around the caskets of my brothers, mourners sigh, "I tried to tell him," or "He wouldn't listen, he thought cigarettes were his friends. Hmmmph, some friend." And, always, "So young, so much to live for; you'd think he'd know better." Those grieving know better than to suggest a character weakness in not being able to quit. The mettle of these men was tested a long time ago. Their characters were strong. At Calverton Cemetery, far out on Long Island, a recording plays "Taps," and young members of the Armed Forces fold the flag adorning the coffin, saying to the widow as the flag is handed to her: "... presented to you on behalf of a grateful nation."
And we are a grateful nation. We're the ones who are "just lucky, I guess," to have known, loved and been loved by men and women who fought and died bravely to protect what we have.
In a week like this, put aside for remembering, we can't help thinking of how they lived and how they died. A war widow or a gold-star mother might ask herself in a reflective moment, "What was it all for?"
My brothers, my heroes, fell to a home-front enemy masked as a friend, one they finally defended to their deaths. This week, I take my own long, dark moment to ask, "Was it all worth it?"
Only they could answer that.