September 28, 2017
I am a week late in posting this but life has been rough the past month as it has been for two years since my brother, our brother, son, father, nephew, cousin, friend, Robert Sean Hilligoss, passed away on September 22, 2015.
Just like older generations who can remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt passing, John Kennedy’s assassination, younger generations will always remember where they were when they heard about the tragedy of September 11, 2001 among other historical events of our times. Those dates and times are guide posts that mark the movement in time for ourselves, our nation and the world we inhabit. I’ll always remember the day my brother passed away, emblazoned in my memory with a single, quick phone call from my father, four words, “Sean didn’t make it.” Not knowing what he meant, having no idea of what had transpired over the last few hours, being 300 miles away, my mind couldn’t process the information in a coherent manner. Didn’t make what? His doctor’s appointment, a job interview? What are we talking about here?
Not that it matters, but I was sitting at a table at Starbucks in Belvidere, Illinois, working on my laptop after having spent the morning in Chicago for work and driving to watch Graham run in his 6th grade cross country meet. It was a beautiful, cloudless, warm day in northern Illinois. I had a thousand things on my mind at the moment. Trying to handle things for work, coordinate on the track meet, how was Graham going to do today, how is Rory feeling, thinking about my mom, home in Godfrey recovering from a broken hip, thinking about my dad taking care of her. Then four simple words: Sean didn’t make it. Four words that knocked me sideways, a timequake from which I haven’t recovered from, nor will I recover from on many profound levels. Watching your two parents struggle with losing a child has often been unbearable. Watching your brother struggle with losing a sibling has been heartbreaking. Hearing from his aunts and uncles and cousins and close friends and seeing the grief. Knowing his two young daughters lost their father and will grow older having little to no memory of him and not having their father has been beyond the pale.
My brother was a different man, a man who did things his way come hell or high water, and for which he paid an awfully high price. He struggled with juvenile diabetes from the age of 3. The doctor who diagnosed him at the time said, with Sean lying in the hospital bed feet away, he wouldn’t live past 25. How does a three year old hear those words and process them in a way that could make sense? He internalized those words and from then on out, set out to prove that doctor, his parents and friends, his boss, were wrong about him. He stuck out his chin to the world and wore a badge of courage that said, “Oh yeah, well just watch me you son of a bitch. I’ll show you.” Our mom told him not to get earrings, so he got 5. She said not to get a tattoo, so he got sleeves on both arms. She said not to get a motorcycle, so he got several. Just like Sinatra, he did things his way. Doing things your way is a long and lonely highway, but one on which he traveled gladly, sitting on his Harley, with a doo rag flapping in the wind, his glasses covering his eyes, the eyes with a glint in them, a glint of humor, a glint of pride, and wearing a smile, a smile to a joke only he knew the punchline.
In the weeks after, I stayed to help my parents and brother in whatever way I could, physically, emotionally, spiritually. We helped organize his house and affairs and at least try to handle the things he left behind the best way we could, to give him the respect he deserved in life, but often times did not receive. In a way, we tried to make sure his grave, as it were, was kept clean. I kept some of his things. Some practical, like his clothes, personal effects, concert ticket stubs, photo albums, his CD collection, the music he loved, the things he carried in his pockets. The things we carry. While sorting through his personal papers, I came across a few of the poems he wrote. He wrote more and I guess those are lost to the hands of time. But one hit me like a shot through the heart. Sean had a good friend of his, a fellow member of his motorcycle club who passed away a few years ago while riding on his motorcycle from Indiana back to Chicago after one of their gatherings. Sean was deeply saddened and bereft of a close friend, the loss weighed on him daily. He wrote this poem for his friend as his eulogy, but he could have written it for himself and those of us left behind. And in his own memory, is the poem for all of you to read and pause and think of Sean.
“Times shared never seem enough, whether they are the best or they are rough
Friends and family always within reach, to help to guide and to teach
First as children and again in later years, with words of wisdom for our hopes and our fears
To fill our minds with thoughts so tender, the words we’ve heard we should always remember
To those who believe that we sit and do not understand
It is those who I look forward to the day when again you’ll guide my hand” –Robert Sean “Piper” Hilligoss
The moments were not enough, the best and the rough my brother, but the words and moments we remember, like a guiding hand. Always.
Postscript, Tuesday’s Gone
Sean loved music, both recorded and live, seeing hundreds of concerts in his life, near and far. He had a very wide and deep range appreciation for music of every kind, stripe, shape and color. Blues, country, rock, southern rock, swing, old school rock and roll. Some of his favorite artists included Buddy Guy, Dale Watson, The Allman Brothers, Hank Williams III, BB King, Johnny Cash and Lynyrd Skynrd. He gravitated towards those who carried the kindred spirit of outlaws, those on the edge of the law and civil society. In the last few months, I had the privilege of going to see two artists in concert, with family and friends, he never saw but know he would have loved. Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, country, rock, blues based artists with great songs, lyrics and guitar playing out of this world. Sturgill Simpson burned down the Fox Theater in St.Louis shredding his Les Paul in pure, raw blues while a wild man did a stage long worm dance before getting bounced by security. Chris Stapleton played his song The Devil Named Music with an intro of Tuesday’s Gone. I recently ran across a version of Tuesday’s Gone, Sean’s ultimate favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song, sung by recently passed Gregg Allman. If you ever hear this song on the radio, you can stop and think of Sean standing at a concert, standing in the dark of a smokey theater, soaking in the music, surrounded by friends and family. “Train roll on….on down the line. I don’t know where I’m going, when this train ends, I’ll try again.”