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On the Death of My Brother

My brother Panages (Pete) was eleven years older than me. By the time I was six, he left the village and our beautiful Greek island of Cephalonia for America. I knew he was my brother, but we did not have anything in common, not even memories of childhood. There were none. My older sisters used to tell me he was a trouble maker in high school. Once he drove a motorcycle into his class.

He left Greece on a merchant ship where he worked. Once in New York, he jumped ship and took the train to Chicago where my uncle George owned Sailors’ Drive-In, a small restaurant in Oaklawn, Illinois, a suburb right next to south Chicago.

In 1961, Pete sponsored me to come to the United States for college. It was at that point in my life, starting in 1961, that I realized I had a brother. He acted like a father, giving me a room in his apartment, paying me for working in the restaurant, teaching me how to drive a car, and helping me to enroll at the University of Illinois. In 1965, he drove me from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana main campus of the University of Illinois where I started my graduate studies in history.

I worked at Sailors’ Drive In and the successor but larger and up to date establishment, Valiant Restaurant, for a few summers. Above all, my restaurant work gave me an opportunity to know my brother better and appreciate him as a dear friend and indispensable member of my family, my beloved father-like brother.

Pete worked hard. He helped our family, including me and others. With barely a high school education, he managed a large family restaurant for several years. He spent his money wisely and never tried to show off.

In 1979, Pete, my first cousin Nicholas, and another partner sold Valiant Restaurant. Pete went to Florida where he lived until his death in September 9, 2020. The year 1979 was also significant for me. I started my career at the US Environmental Protection Agency, a turbulent experience that lasted until 2004.

After 1979, I saw Pete a few times in Florida and Greece. I kept calling him on the phone, always recalling the past and talking about our family, and denouncing some politicians like Trump. He found it incomprehensible that Republicans in Florida and the rest of the country could be sympathetic to the atrocious behavior of Trump, cold, indifferent, and inimical to the health and welfare of Americans and the fragility and integrity of the natural world.

I talked to my brother for the last time on August 17, 2020. He thanked me for my wishes for his health and wellbeing. He complained he could not see his children because of the coronavirus plague. But he was cheerful and in great spirits.

However, Pete died unexpectantly from a cardiac arrest. His eldest son, Andreas, called and said to me, his voice trembling, “Uncle, my father just passed away.” Both of us burst into tears. His beloved father and my beloved brother was no more. Where’s is his soul now? Looking at us or travelling towards Hades or the Elysian Fields?

I started cursing my vacillation about visiting him, always saying some time later, perhaps after the plague. Then my anger flared up over the enormous vulnerabilities of human existence. Now you live in happiness, then you are gone.

The Athenian tragic poet Aeschylos said it best in “Agamemnon.” It takes a shadow in good times and a mere wet sponge in times of trouble to do man in, blot his image out of existence (1350-1354).

My tears and pain clouded my memories and passions, my desire I should have spent more time with my brother, perhaps in the village of our birth, which we never really came to know or love. Just why did we have to leave Greece? Not because the country was poor. Certainly not.

Greece is civilization, the country where, for the first time ever, humans built a society of free people governing themselves, always ready to die for their freedom. This was also the country that invented science and civilization still fueling the West and the world.

So my brother and I left our village home, leaving my father alone, because of WWII and the barbaric atrocities of the occupying Germans, Bulgarians, and Italians. The toxic effects of the occupation sowed the country with the seeds of bloody civil war, which lasted from 1945 to 1949. A near decade of foreign occupation and civil war all but killed hope for normal life. The so-called communists assassinated two brothers of my father and beat him nearly to death.

Greeks are still the victims of outsiders who, like the Romans, fight their battles in Greece.

Pete loved Greece no less than I do. I remember him kneeling and crying in deep distress over the burial of my mother in the village in 1995. He kissed the land. I remained frozen in anguish, taking a last look at the disappearing face of my mother.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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