Karen Galatz's brother Mal
Karen Galatz's brother Mal

Words of remembrance for a brother I barely knew

My brother died recently after 17 years of cancer. He didn’t want a religious service or memorial ceremony. He lived in a tiny town, a bit far away, a bit difficult to get to. I hadn’t seen him in three years. We weren’t close, and then we’d had a falling out. Still, he was my big brother and I loved him.

Truth is, he wasn’t close with anybody in the family but his wife. He escaped from all of us, as well as from most of the expectations and pressures of the world, decades ago. That was his right, of course, although we (my parents, my other, oldest brother and I) resented it.

Mal was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, just months after our mother died. It seemed to me he spent most of his time focused on battling the prostate cancer, then the metastatic cancer that killed him. But surely there was more to his life than that. Yet I don’t know much about his friendships or his daily activities in tiny, isolated Joseph, Oregon.

I did admire how Mal rarely complained. In that he was a true Galatz, staring down pain and fear. Still, he was so unlike the rest of us Galatzes in every other way, hating — instead of relishing — the hurly-burly of life we all opted for, choosing a mellow, hippie, alternative kind of life.

In his youth, Mal had wanted to be an actor, and had enjoyed some astonishing early success. He could sing, dance and act, and he was beautiful. He once played Og — a mischievous, fun-loving leprechaun who won’t stop growing — in “Finian’s Rainbow.” Throughout Mal’s life he sang “When I’m Not Near the Girl That I Love.” I always thought of my brother as Prince Og, handsome, and freckled, making everyone smile and laugh.

In his first professional audition, Mal landed the lead role in the national touring company of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Unfortunately, my father saw him preening in front of a mirror in a bathrobe and ascot. Worried that Mal looked effeminate, our father quickly declared, “Not my son,” and ended my brother’s acting career. He dragged my creative brother back into the real world, making him an electrician in the family business.

I wasn’t even born then, but hearing that story from my mother made me believe that moment was the beginning of Mal’s unhappiness and emotional withdrawal from the family.

From childhood on (there was an 18-year age difference between us), I accumulated my own list of grievances against Mal. And it was a long list of some very deep hurts.

But once he died, the grievances began falling away, and I started refocusing on my brother’s many strengths and talents.

An accomplished photographer with a keen eye for people’s subtle and fleeting emotions, Mal’s work was published in Life magazine. Among my own most cherished possessions are photos he took of New York City children on the subway and in Central Park. Those photos hang on prominent display in my home.

My brother was ridiculously funny and quick-witted. Together we would engage in rapid-fire repartee and spend hours planning the TV comedy show we would write together.

Yet three years ago, that banter came to an end. My brother and I had a falling out. My family faced a crisis. I called my once cool artistic brother for kind words. Instead of providing a good ear, he failed me. Perhaps his own illness and pain prevented him from rallying to my needs that day, but still, I needed my big brother and he didn’t help. It was a shocker. And pretty much a relationship-ender.

After that call, we rarely talked. To his credit, Mal tried to understand why I pulled away. I never explained, so deep was my anger.

On Mal’s last birthday, his 82nd, I called. No one answered, but I left a message and sang “Happy Birthday.” My sister-in-law said he heard it but didn’t feel well enough to call back. A few weeks later, Mal fell and was hospitalized. A few weeks after that, he died. I spoke to him near the end. We said we loved each other. Silently I said good-bye.

Mal was cremated and wanted his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean. That’s all he wanted.

But I wanted more. I wanted some sort of collective gathering and an organized time to mourn. I wanted to sit shiva, to tell stories and have people acknowledge that a family member had passed.

Most of all, I wanted to be surrounded by people who liked and loved Mal. I wanted to be reminded of his charm and humor, instead of sitting alone with my decades-old grievances unmediated by new, good stories.

But, in the end, it was up to me to offer my own tribute to my brother. And this is it.

For Malcolm Edward Galatz was the person who always told me I was clever and funny. He was the one who always encouraged me to write and tell stories. And after years in government and nonprofit organizations, that is what I am now doing — writing and telling stories, some serious, some funny, but always writing.

Thank you, Prince Og. Rest in peace. I love you. Without you, my world is smaller, lonelier and not quite right.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She lives in Berkeley and can be reached at karen@muddling.me.