The most time I ever spent with my brother David once we were grown and moved away from home was when he was dying. The things I learned about him over the course of those four weeks will be with me forever. I learned that he liked two Sleepy Time tea bags in one cup, heated in the microwave for a minute and forty seconds, with a spoonful of brown sugar. I learned that peanut butter toast was a comfort food he could eat morning, noon and night. And I learned that he could play Simon and Garfunkel for hours and hours and never tire of The Boxer or The Sounds of Silence.
Growing Up Canepa
With six kids born over fifteen years, my family was actually a series of smaller family units. The two oldest siblings, Michele and David, occupied the golden years. First girl, first boy, first Christmases, first everything. Dresses and bowties, my mother relaxed and sipping on a cocktail, a new car in the driveway every year.
The arrival of my brother Alex and then my arrival a few years later changed the picture slightly. Still the family clung to its image as the smartly dressed brood seen in holiday photos at my grandparent’s house in Quebec.
With the arrival of “the little ones”, Anthony and Angela, all bets were off. The Seventies eroded the dress code, not only of our family, but of the nation. My mother looked increasingly worn out and often wore pants, gasp. The older siblings left the house for college, the military and adventure. For David, Miami called.
Living the Dream
Long distance phone calls were expensive back in the day. David wrote actual letters home, updating the family on his career prospects and living situation. He found a quaint bungalow in Coral Gables and a job at a fine dining establishment. He was living his best life, perhaps too much. He was the heartbeat of the family and he was loved and sorely missed. By the time I was in college, I considered us to be peers and could not wait to visit him in Florida.
David was good at making time spent with him unforgettable. I remember bowling with him in Islamorada and watching the sunset from a rickety pier over the Keys. I remember going out on a charter boat deep sea fishing with him. The captain told us the key to catching a fish. “You jerk, he jerks. The bigger jerk wins.”
I remember soaking up the sun on the beach near the Fontainebleau Hotel while David and his best friend slipped away and charged their drinks at the bar to someone else’s room. I remember driving around Coconut Grove in his MG with the top down, blasting tunes. I remember touring the gardens of Vizcaya with him, reveling in their beauty, not yet realizing my brother for the Renaissance man he would become.
Once he was on his feet financially, David returned home every summer to Plattsburgh to see his family. I remember watching the fireworks competition with him in Montreal and helping him make a beautiful buffet for our parents’ surprise 35th wedding anniversary party, perhaps sowing the seeds for my own later passion for creating memorable food.
I remember the joy on his face when he visited me in the Hudson Valley with his beloved Libby, walking through the fields where you could cut your own flowers. I remember him playing with my daughter, Ava, in the backyard of the family house on North Catherine Street, kicking the ball across the grass, laughing and flashing his signature smile. I remember the last meal we shared together when he was still healthy. We had been out of touch for years but when we saw each other that night it was as if no time had passed.
On Death and Dying
David was diagnosed with brain cancer in October of 2020. He had brain surgery immediately to remove the bulk of the tumor. Two days after Thanksgiving his wife Libby died unexpectedly, leaving him alone in the house they had just bought for their retirement. A seizure on Christmas Day was the final blow, stealing whatever hope he had for treatment and possible recovery from the cancer.
David was cared for in his final days with complete, immeasurable love by his family and by compassionate caregivers. During those last few weeks, my attention was in large part unavailable for anything that did not concern him. But for some reason one night I was able to watch The Dig about a famous archeological find in England and the unlikely pair that unearthed it. At the end of the film, I understood why.
The female protagonist experienced a loss of hope at the prospect of her impending death. “We die and we decay,” she said. “We don’t live on.” The excavator who had helped her unearth a piece of ancient history said, “From the first human handprint on a cave wall we’re part of something continuous. So, we don’t really die.” I needed to hear those words. The continuum of our family lives on, and it is better for David having been part of it. He will be with us always.