Our Brothers Michael

By staff March 1, 2006

My brother Michael, the oldest of the seven children in our family, died of cancer when he was 14. He had leukemia; today, doctors can save most children who develop the disease, but back in the '50s it was nearly always fatal. Medical facilities were limited in Fort Myers, where we lived; and my parents took him to hospitals in Chicago and Miami, searching for treatments.

I was 11, and I remember resenting the babysitters they left us with and wanting my mother to come home. It never occurred to me-to any of us children-that Michael might die. Brilliant and kind-hearted, he was also an irrepressible prankster with a manic sense of humor and a genius for dreaming up complicated adventures. Cheery, loving Alan, two years younger, followed him like the sun; I used to go to sleep to the sound of their whispers and giggles in the next room.

Michael died in the hospital in Miami. My parents were with him; we children found out when a telegram of condolence arrived at the house. With my usual instinct for denial, I insisted it was a mistake, but Alan placed a long-distance call to the hospital-no easy undertaking for a 12-year-old in those days-and was passed through a series of doctors and nurses until finally someone was brave enough to tell him the truth. I remember being shocked-even embarrassed-by his naked anguish; only slowly did I come to understand what had happened and how it would weigh our family down for years, pressing color and joy out of so much of our existence.

A young person's death exacts a terrible toll on any family, and that includes a well-known Florida family-the McGillicuddys.

Descendants of baseball legend Connie "Mack" McGillicuddy, the family today includes such prominent members as former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack and Sarasota businessman and philanthropist Dennis McGillicuddy.

But when I was growing up, those two were just the big brothers in the family that lived behind us-a family that, like ours, included seven children, and that like ours would lose one son-also named Michael-to cancer.

Michael McGillicuddy was the fourth child, just a few years younger than Connie and Dennis. "Everybody loved Michael," says Dennis. He could be serious, with a rare gift for listening, but he also had "a light touch with a great sense of humor." He was musical and could play any song on the piano after hearing it. The three were close in the way that only brothers can be, growing up in what was then a lazy little Florida town, riding their bikes, playing ball and spending long summer days out on the water; they all went to the University of Florida and joined the same fraternity.

But it was after graduation, when they married and had children, that they truly became "each other's best friends," says Dennis. He and Michael, who was in the construction business, lived in Sarasota, and Connie was a banker in Fort Myers. They loved to get together for weekends full of fun and nonstop conversation, often culminating in Michael sitting down at the piano after dinner while everyone, from the grown-ups to the littlest cousin, gathered around to sing.

In those days, says Dennis, "We'd never heard of melanoma." When Michael noticed that a mole on his scalp sometimes bled when he combed his hair, he thought nothing of it. By the time he did see a doctor, he was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his lymph nodes and told he had six months to live. He was 21.

But he survived until 35, battling five recurrences. Four episodes were treated successfully through surgery; the last, a tumor in his shoulder, resisted all treatment, including experimental therapy in Atlanta.

"It was a very painful death," says Dennis. As they watched Michael suffer, "our first reaction was to draw up the wagons and go into seclusion." But a close friend confronted them, saying, "Michael is our dear friend, and we ought to be able to see him and participate in this process, however it might end." As a result, a number of friends came up to Atlanta in the weeks before his death, in April of 1979; and that, says Dennis, "literally changed the experience of dying." They helped in so many ways, taking their turns by Michael's bedside, running errands and comforting the McGillicuddys and each other. They soon realized they were sharing a profound experience-in some ways the ultimate human experience. "It's going to happen to everyone," emphasizes Dennis. "And no matter how sad and awful it was, there was such an element of grace and deep connection. It was so painful-and so enriching."

But that's not the end of the story. About 10 years ago an exam revealed a stage-one melanoma on Connie's hip. It was removed; he's had one recurrence but today is cancer-free. And in May 2004 Dennis's doctor discovered a melanoma on his left shoulder blade. His, too, was a stage one, and successfully treated.

After he retired from the Senate two years ago, Connie became chairman of the board of Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center, which is now working to become the nation's premier facility for research and treatment of the disease that has pursued the McGillicuddy family. As you'll read in "Searching for a Cure" in this issue, they're already making strides towards that goal. And last year Dennis and his wife, Graci, gave $1 million to Moffitt to endow a chair in melanoma research in Michael's name.

When someone dies young, you mourn for that once-in-the-world person, that assemblage of traits, talents, experience and dreams that never fully flowered and will never again occur. And one of the hardest things for those of us who knew them so vividly is to realize that their memory will die when we do.

Last summer at a family gathering, we were telling stories about my brother Michael, laughing uncontrollably about things he'd done more than 40 years ago. On the way home my daughter, Kate, who had listened raptly, sitting by the side of her beloved 14-year-old cousin Shane, became tearful. "It's like if Shane died right now," she said. "And years from now nobody even knew he existed."

For the McGillicuddy family, supporting the work at Moffitt is a way of ensuring that their Michael will live on, bringing hope-and perhaps even the gift of life-to generations still unborn.

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