I grew up the youngest in a family of 12 kids – 8 girls and 4 boys. With 15 years between me and the oldest, I don’t remember a lot about all 12 of us being home at once. But I vividly remember life with the youngest 6, and I remember crazy, loud and often dysfunctional holidays.
The youngest 6 consists of me, my three sisters and two brothers. They are 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 years older than me, with Pete, or Petey, as we called him, being the oldest of us 6. We all walked to school together, and sometimes he would walk with us to the recreation center where we spent a lot of our time in the summer. He was the one who didn’t exactly play by the rules all the time and got into a bit of juvenile trouble. He and our dad had a very difficult relationship, so he ran away from home a lot. He was my big brother, and I loved him, so when he did run away, he would sneak into the backyard some nights to pick up clothes and a peanut butter or bologna sandwich that I would leave for him.
Right after high school he went into the Navy and served in Viet Nam. He used to write us about all his adventures in the Far East, and sometimes sent us little gifts. When it came time for him to re-up in the Navy for another few years, the government denied him because he had been caught buying weed.
Thankfully, in our parents’ senior years, he and our dad made amends. We called him the prodigal son as he became a favorite child, finally. Our parents welcomed him back into their lives with open arms, and he would visit them occasionally, cooking amazing food for them since he was a self-trained chef in the merchant marines. Peter being Peter, he would disappear for a while again and again, randomly reaching out after months or a couple of years. Any time we had a family reunion, he was usually the one sibling missing. One year we made a stuffed dummy and put his picture on it so we could get a picture of all 12 of us kids.
When 9/11 happened, I got a call from him from out at sea after not having heard from him for years. He had never even met Jeff, but heard about us in the news and wanted to let me know he had my back. He did so in a way that made sense to him. I laughed at his gesture and shook my head, thinking Pete is still Pete! But I appreciated hearing from him.
He loved his career in the Merchant Marines, except that it kept him from his wife and step-daughter for extended periods of time. He had his family at sea, though; loved cooking for them, and enjoyed the travel.
Two summers ago I was determined to get all 12 of us siblings together. I convinced him to join us for our family reunion in San Diego. It would be the first time in more than 25 years that we would all be together and the first time most of us had seen him in many years. He stayed with the kids and me, and of course, cooked for us and made sushi rolls, much to the kids' delight. It was the first time many of his nieces and nephews, including my kids, met him. It was strange, and ironic, that of all the Schmitt siblings, he looks the most like our father. When our mom (who, at 95, has dimentia) saw him for the first time after several years, she looked as though she was staring at the ghost of our dad.
This past summer we learned from his daughter Tori that he was sick. He had suffered a stroke and wasn’t expected to survive as his condition worsened. Miraculously, he recovered from the stroke, but tests revealed he had advanced stages of lung cancer, likely caused by exposure to agent orange and years of smoking, and remained quite ill. Some of us flew to California to see him, knowing it would probably be the last time.
Today Tori let us know that our brother is at the end of his life, and in the last few minutes, we found out he passed. None of us knew how we would react because of the way he was in and out of our lives. But family is family, and the bond is unbreakable. For 57 years we have been 12 siblings. Often times when I say I am the youngest of 12, people will ask if everyone is still living. I’ve always felt fortunate to say yes. Now facing the death of a brother is painful. But I’m grateful to have reconnected with him and to have met his daughter, who couldn't love him more if he were her biological dad. I’m grateful to her for being his family and loving him, even after her mother died of cancer years earlier. I’m grateful for the happy memories of our childhood. And I’m grateful to have had Petey as my big brother. We will always be the 12 Schmitt kids from Yuma.
May the angels guide you gently home in peace, big brother. I love you.