Michael O’Brien: I lost my brother, but I remain his keeper

Memories of a cherished river trip, thankfully, still surface to this day.

(Vicki O'Brien) Kevin Peter O’Brien Jr. during a trip down the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.

Editor’s note This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or chat at 988Lifeline.org.

For the first several decades of our fraternity, I loved but was not close to my older brother, Kevin Peter O’Brien Jr. There were many reasons, but mainly it was a difference in age, perspective, interests, and the divergent ways we experienced and responded to our parents’ 1970 divorce.

Well aware of this congenial distance between the brothers, my three young children were surprised and delighted in the early 2000s, when I announced that their rarely seen Uncle Pete would join us on a family trip to Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park.

Pete was in a difficult place those days. He had retired from a short but heroic career as a police officer but did not know what to do next. A gentle soul, he still suffered from the fallout of a 1991 undercover operation gone bad. Pete was shot, had to shoot back to protect someone else, and ended the life of a suspect who was brandishing a gun.

Not fully coping with his post-traumatic stress, and neither receiving nor finding sufficient mental health support from his profession at the time, Pete also was estranged from his wife and only daughter, apparently unable any longer to relate to them as husband/father even though he clearly loved them both.

I invited him on our excursion, hoping some family time in the great outdoors might help. I also probably was trying to give some sort of affirmative answer to the question Cain asked God in the Book of Genesis: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Back then, I understood a “keeper” to be someone who manages or looks after something or someone else.

Grand adventures

The Grand Teton trip was wonderful. We shared a rustic two-bedroom log cabin at Colter Bay. My wife, Vicki, the kids, Pete, and I hiked along the Jenny Lake Trail and searched for elk, moose and other wildlife. We got breakfast at The Bunnery Bakery in downtown Jackson. For lunch, we sat in rotating bar stools, old-fashioned-diner-style, at the Jackson Lake Lodge Pioneer Grill, and laughed heartily when our daughter Erin put sugar on her hamburger instead of salt.

Pete was quiet much of the time but also engaged. That particular mood combination proved useful when we woke up one morning unable to find our middle daughter, Megan. Knowing we were a family of sleepwalkers, I scrambled about, frantic and fearful she had stumbled into the woods at midnight and been devoured by a bear. Pete remained calm and found her asleep, curled up in a ball, invisible under the covers, at the foot of her bed.

(Vicki O'Brien) Family gathers before embarking on a Snake River trip in Grand Teton National. Back row: Michael O'Brien, left, Kevin Peter O’Brien Jr. Front row: Megan, Danny and Erin O’Brien.

The highlight of our family vacation was a float trip down the Snake River through the middle of the national park. We donned life preservers and tumbled into a large rubber raft with a few other visitors and a guide. My young son, Danny, struggled with the tight, uncomfortable vest, and I had to adjust the fit and gently comfort him on the boat. Pete watched and told me, “You’re doing a good job with him.”

Most of the trip downriver was uneventful but, toward the end, we hit a couple of rapids and the air turned cold and the sky dark. For a few shocking moments on that July day, the heavens pelted us with dime-size hail. The storm passed as suddenly as it had arrived. Our shouts and yells of excitement revealed our perceived thrilling triumph over nature’s assault.

Just like that errant July storm, our delightful trip passed into memory much too quickly. Soon we all returned to our regular lives. Pete, who had left his mounting troubles, anxiety and bouts of depression behind for a few days while with us, found them waiting for him at home. During the next two decades, they relentlessly tormented Pete, tossing and turning him through very different kinds of squalls.

Storms of life

Pete faced them bravely, but the storms left their mark, and his often self-medicated reaction and some other bad choices exacted a toll, both on him and on those who loved him. In response, my two sisters and I again tried to be our brother’s keeper. We failed, over and over again. Amid the anguish of such failure, I found comfort from someone else who also knew about rivers and brothers.

Without mentioning Pete, I posted on Facebook these words from Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”:

“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true, we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them — we can love completely without complete understanding.”

To my utter surprise, my brother recognized and responded to the post with his own comment: “Hey, little brother, I like your quote of Norman Maclean. Kind of fits real life. All I need from you is your love and friendship. Easy on the lectures, I beat myself up plenty when I make mistakes. Let’s do lunch, and only talk about the weather or how well Notre Dame’s football team is going to do this year. Love ya, brother, Pete.”

We never had that conversation. Pete ended his life two years ago, on Jan. 31, 2021. I could not keep my brother from his demons any more than he could keep me from mine, but maybe that deficiency was never supposed to define our relationship. One day after Pete’s death, I remembered that the word “keeper” also has an alternative meaning: a person or thing that is valuable and to be cherished.

Perhaps that is why, in the shadow of these still-mournful days, my broken heart keeps returning to a brief moment in time when the river of my life converged with that of my brother, and from that sacred confluence we floated peacefully together beneath majestic mountains and trees evergreen.

Michael Patrick O’Brien is a writer and attorney living in Salt Lake City who often represents The Salt Lake Tribune in legal matters. His book “Monastery Mornings: My Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks,” about growing up with the monks at an old Trappist monastery in Huntsville, was published by Paraclete Press and chosen by the League of Utah Writers as the best nonfiction book of 2022.