Memories of Mortal Combat (Not the Video Game)

fallen king chess piece

I had a dream the night after Thanksgiving in which I was talking about my brother with my mom.

We were outside the church I went to growing up– the place where he was a Sunday school teacher and adult bible study leader. The place where his memorial service was held.

The sun was shining so brightly that it hurt my eyes. My mother said it was surprising that I wasn’t spending more time feeling sad about Tommy’s death, since it happened less than five months ago.

I told her that I knew Tommy would want me to be happy, so that was what I was trying to do. Then, I woke up.

I realized I had been trying not to think about him. It was too painful to remember him, now that he was gone.

But Thanksgiving had brought so many memories to the surface. I was in Boston with my wife’s family, and it reminded me of visiting them with Tommy, back when Jessica and I had only been dating for a short time.

I also remembered all the Thanksgivings Tommy and I have had together. We used to play epic games of chess, a game we rarely played together on any other day.

Tommy spent a lot more time playing chess than I did, but somehow I remained a slightly better player than he was.

He played too aggressively, and I played a little too defensively. I usually won, but he was always eager to challenge me again.

We also used to compete more physically, by fighting with each other in the pool.

We were both very weak from muscular dystrophy, but we were brothers, and we liked rough-housing. In the pool, we could almost walk. We circled each other with a shambling, crabwise gait, always searching for an opportunity to strike.

Tommy was stronger than I was, so he would raise his arms and send fists crashing down at me, aided by gravity.

I kept my hands flat and used my fingers to jab him in the ribs or stomach.

We fought hard, and definitely inflicted some pain on each other. I couldn’t raise my arms to block, so I dodged his punches– with varying degrees of success.

We must have looked kind of absurd. But to us, this was serious business. It was our attempt to be normal brothers who beat each other up a little bit. Dysfunctional as it may sound, a little bit of restrained violence was a way for us to express our love for each other.

There was a sort of tenderness to our battles; when one of us managed to make the other lose his balance, the other wouldn’t press his advantage.

When Tommy knocked me over in the pool, I would end up on my stomach, unable to get my head above the surface to breathe. Tommy would step away and give me space to roll onto my back and get myself upright. He watched carefully, ready to call for help if I was having trouble. When our roles were reversed, I did the same for him.

We called it “Mortal Combat,” but the game could more accurately have been called “Don’t Drown Your Brother.”

Fighting against each other was our practice for fighting as a team. Our ever-worsening muscle weakness was our common enemy.

Though we exercised, explored alternative medicine, and never allowed each other to give up, we came to accept that there was little we could do to slow our physical decline.

Instead, I pursued working and starting a family, while Tommy studied religion, sought a closer relationship with God, and taught children and adults to love learning as much as he did.

We complemented each other well, he an optimist and believer and I a skeptic. We shared so much of our lives together that I was never able to imagine losing him, even though I knew it was a possibility.

Now, the pain of his loss is all I have to remember him by. I will treasure it as a reminder of the time we had together.


  1. This is a beautiful reflection, Pete! Your last line reminds me of a story the priest told on a Thanksgiving Day. Several years ago the Yankees were giving out turkeys and people stood in line for up to nine hours. He said that one such lady was asked by a reporter what she was grateful for. She replied that she was “grateful for what she had and for what she didn’t have.” While I’ve been pondering the remark and have come to some of my own conclusions you have said the same by treasuring the pain of Tommy’s loss as a reminder of your time together. We did just that around our Thanksgiving table. Each of us mourning his loss with a positive memory and being grateful for each of us who was present and your mom and dad specifically expressed their gratitude for you. ?

  2. Dear Peter,
    Truly a lovely “Ode to My Brother”.Thank you for sharing.
    God is love, and love is eternal.
    This comforts me.
    So nice to be together today.
    Hope Helen feels better…and finds the favorite goggles.
    Much love to you, Jess and Helen

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