Keeping a 40-year-old promise

“I want to buy that picture.”

That unsolicited statement was an unexpected beam of hope in what was one of my dreariest, most miserable days this summer.  One of my blog readers actually wanted to purchase my diamond-framed picture of Nipper’s Polar Panorama – the one that I exhibited at the “you didn’t win anything, Chuck” Altamont Fair.

I had framed that Nipper photograph in a diamond pattern – think a square at a 45-degree rotation – in the hopes that the unusual framing technique would get it noticed.  Well, it did get noticed.  And if someone was willing to purchase the artwork – if someone really liked my picture enough to spend money on it – then I had an idea.   A revelation, if you will.

Whatever monies I won from my photographic competitions this year, or whatever purchases anybody made of my stuff – whether it was for a print of Nipper, the Lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, the Star Trails, even the photos I took in 2009 and prior – all that money would go in a special fund.

And once that fund reached a certain financial ceiling, I would make a phone call to complete something that should have been done 40 years ago.

See, 40 years ago my baby brother Allen died; and whether it was because of grief or finances or internal family turmoil, my brother was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Agnes Cemetery.

It’s always bothered me.  I can visit the cemetery where he rests; but I can’t visit him in the cemetery because I don’t know precisely where he’s interred.  And even if I do find the approximate area, I don’t know if I’m visiting him or someone else.  There used to be a mnemonic to finding his grave – drive to Section 46, park near a monument that has the inscription, “The day you are born you live to die,” and walk inward.  That’s where Allen is buried.

So the decision was made this year.  Every framed picture that once hung in a photo competition would be available for purchase.  I let my friends on Facebook know that the pictures could be bought, and several friends contacted me regarding which ones they liked and which ones they wanted to buy.  I wouldn’t tell them why I was selling the pictures – until after the transaction was made.  I wanted them to purchase my work  based on its merits, and not out of any sort of obligation or charity.

Someone asked me if I should contact my family members and ask if they want to contribute to the fund.

For me, this is a personal project.  I was in grade school at the time (Clarksville Elementary, #2 on the list of twelve), and I think from that day on, I’ve never understood why God spared me from that car crash.  I should have been in that car with the rest of my siblings.  I should have been injured.  Maybe it’s survivor’s guilt.  Why Allen and not me?  Why him at all?  I know that the Lord works in mysterious ways, that’s what people say when the unexpected tragically happens, but what was to be gained by Him taking my baby brother away?

Or maybe it’s the nagging feeling that, if my brother were to remain in that tiny little white coffin somewhere on the St. Agnes Cemetery grounds, with his precise location only delineated by a tiny typewritten indicator on a weathered index card, tucked away in a file cabinet in the cemetery office… when comes the day my last family member passes away, that is the day he will be forever forgotten, as if he never existed.

I decided that if people wanted to buy the photos, I would only tell them after they purchased the picture – after the money had been exchanged – where the funds would go.

“Can I get a 16 by 20 print of Nipper’s Polar Panorama?”

Off to Ritz Camera I go, so that the picture can be printed.

“I’d love an 8 by 10 of the Lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, if you could, please.”

Another trip to Ritz.

And every dollar raised from those sales went into the envelope.

Any money I made from winning awards at the New York State Fair or the Vermont State Fair went into the can.  Even the money earned by winning the St. Agnes Cemetery photo contest went into the fund.

In fact, I didn’t mention this project to anyone on the Times Union staff.  And I didn’t solicit for purchases on this blog.  I didn’t want to be accused by anyone of using this blog as a personal beg-a-thon, no matter what the reason.

And also, as part of the healing process, I needed to reconcile something else.  Something that opened a wound between my family and me when I originally posted the story in February of 2010.  And if you’ve been following this whole story since that time, you need to read and understand these next few paragraphs.  Because this is important.

After the accident, my grandfather – who was driving at the time of the car crash – dealt internally and personally with the consequences of his action.  It took him years of struggle and personal effort, but to my knowledge he never drank another drop of alcohol since that moment.  He also made sure that my cousins were raised into adulthood with dignity and respect.  Many of them wrote to me after I made the original blog post and told me stories about how Charles Bragg made sure that they stayed on the straight and narrow, so that his tragedy could not be passed through the generations.

In fact, allow me to share some of them with you.  The original posts are on my previous blog post regarding the car accident, and are edited only for space – not for content – here.

“Our grandfather spent every possible minute by your brother’s bedside during those agonizing months before his death. Members of our family told me that it took nearly two years for our grandfather to control his alcoholism. But he did. Long before 12 step programs or other service he became a recovering alcoholic. As a person who has seen addiction up close, I know how difficult that is and how determined one needs to be to succeed. I have no memory of him ever having a drink … As for me, there was no greater influence in my young life than grandpa. I remember our grandfather as a strong, honest, caring man. I agree he had tragic flaws, but there is no one I respect more, even now looking through the lens of a middle aged father … Our grandfather was an alcoholic who is responsible for the tragic death of a young innocent boy. He was also a good man who did his very best to overcome his significant personal flaws. I think should finish the story.” – Brian Wood, cousin

“If it wasn’t for grandpa getting me to do exercises to help with my cerebral palsy – He took the time and patience to do all what he did.” – Diane Wood Pemberton, cousin

“I wish I had the chance to know Allen. I’m sure he was a special boy and it is unfortunate that his life was cut so short by such a tragic accident … The Grandfather I remember was, as Brian said, a strong and caring man. I remember him as a man who never drank but did as much as he could for his family. I was fairly young at the time of Grandpa’s death and the memories I have of him, I hold onto dearly. I remember him and Grandma taking me to, and picking me up from camp when no one else could. I remember too, the gifts that he made for all of us kids when we were young. A lot of love went into those gifts. The memory that certainly has had the biggest impact on my life is that of the words of encouragement I received from him to do as much for myself as I could. If there was an obstacle in my way, he pushed me to adapt to overcome it. I am who I am today because of those words of encouragement and his relentless energy … I was not alive at the time of the accident, I am still able to take away from it a major life lesson. Everyone makes mistakes; it is what we learn from those mistakes and do with that new knowledge that truly makes us who we are. Grandpa certainly took responsibility for and learned from his grave mistake. That to me made him not just a strong caring man, but a brave and wise one as well.” – Michelle Miller, cousin

“He was a good man who made a horrible mistake…one that he carried with him everyday after the accident.” – John Bailey, half-brother

With all that in place, let me say this right now.

Charles Bragg was not a monster.  He was not an evil man.  He had an addiction.  On February 20, 1970, that addiction took control of him.  From that day until he passed in 1987, he did whatever he could to atone for that horrible day. He worked with his grandchildren to try to keep them from making the same mistakes he did.  If anybody took from my original post that my grandfather was a horrible person because of this, I apologize. And if someone was to perform a Google search and find Charles Bragg’s name and it was to be associated with the February blog post; then let it also be associated with the blog post you are currently reading.

And the thing is, we all have addictions in one form or another.  Some of them we chose, some of them were fostered upon us through abuse or neglect or the worst of intentions.  Some of them can be cured with medication.  Some of them can be cured with counseling.  Some of them can be cured with the support of friends and clergy and therapists.  Some of them can be cured cold turkey.  Some of them may cure over time.  Some of them may never cure.

And we deal with grief in different ways.  Sometimes the grief lays dormant for ages and then it may take anything – a snowflake, a song lyric, a change in temperature or a visit to an old neighborhood – to trigger that sleeping grief and make it come back to life.

Which is why, once the final monetary total was achieved – on October 5, 2010 – I made the phone call.

It was a call that should have been made 40 years ago.

It was to St. Agnes Cemetery.

“This is what I want,” I told the person in charge of markers and tombstones.  “I want a simple bronze baby marker at the location where my brother is buried. ”

I gave the person my brother’s full name – Allen Michael Miller – and the year of birth and year of death.  Not the full date with month and day, but just the years of birth and passing.  Those who are curious about the exact dates can visit the front office of St. Agnes and look at the index card.

I had room on the marker for a few words, and realizing that whatever I put there would remain for all eternity, I chose, “Beloved Angel.”  Those two words symbolized how I felt that people would most like to remember Allen by.  That he was a beloved angel with a big smile.

The cemetery office sent me two different mock-ups of the baby marker.  Of the two, I chose the mock-up that showed an additional image of the Madonna and Child.  I’d like to think that my mother would have appreciated that.  It’s the one last gift I can give, and I regret never having done this while she was alive.

On Friday, October 8, I drove to St. Agnes Cemetery with the full payment and the signed contract.  The cemetery office promised that the marker would be installed before the winter.  On Monday, October 11, the cemetery office called.  The marker would be ordered that day.  A day later, I received an e-mail from Kelly Grimaldi, the director of operations at St. Agnes; she did not realize that all the first-place money I earned in the St. Agnes Cemetery photo contest went to the fund to pay for the baby marker.

On Wednesday, October 20, the cemetery called.  The proofs for the marker arrived, and they just wanted to double-check all the information one more time.

On November 9, I called the cemetery.  They told me the marker had arrived, and was scheduled for installation.  They would call me as soon as the marker was installed.  All I can do now is wait.

Wednesday, December 8, at about 2:45 p.m.  I received a cell phone call.

The baby marker for Allen Michael Miller has been installed.

I drove over to St. Agnes Cemetery as fast as I possibly could  The gates close at 4:00, and I didn’t want to wait another second.

Allen is buried in Section 46 of the cemetery grounds, just a stone’s throw away from the location where, six months ago, I took my award-winning photograph of the star trails.

Before, if anyone tried to find Allen’s grave, they had to go to Section 46 and park near a monument that bore the inscription, “The day you are born you live to die.”  Park the car, walk in partway through the markers and gravestones and monuments, and kneel down near an unmarked piece of ground.

I walked around Section 46.  Up and down the rows.  Looking for every sunken marker.

And then, under the shade of a pine tree, I found it.

I kept my promise.  Rest in peace, baby brother.

With that in mind, let me take this moment to thank everybody – family, friends, blog readers, fellow bloggers, etc – for all their prayers and support during this time in my life.  Had it not been for this blog, and my sharing with you my dreams, desires, successes and failures, I might never have had the courage or the drive to honor this emotional commitment.  There were times when I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, and someone would tell me, “I said a prayer for Allen today,” or, “I know someone who worked on the Nassau Rescue Squad back then, he may have information on what happened,” or even just a kind word when I felt like I could not take another step.  That means more than anybody will ever know, and I am humbled by your support.

And after 40 years, I hope that this marker has given peace to Allen Michael Miller and to my family.

I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to do this sooner.