28 Years, 28 Lessons: What I Learned from My Brother While He Was Here

My eldest brother, Marc (on the right) and Tommy and I hugging after their big brother speech at m...

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My eldest brother, Marc (on the right) and Tommy and I hugging after their big brother speech at my wedding in 2006.
Four years ago today, I woke up with my face smushed inside my elbow on my mother’s light oak kitchen table in Queens wondering if the previous ten hours had been a dream.  My head hurt and old tears stained my face.  There was a knock at the door.  I wiped the residues of my hour of sleep from the corners of my mouth and answered.  My aunt had bagels and my older brother was still gone. 

My brother, Tommy died on October 22, 2009. He lived 38 years, 4 months, 22 days and 3 ½ hours. I was born when he was 10 years old. Here is what I learned from the 28 years I witnessed his life.




  1.  Remain amused. No matter what you may go through… no matter how hard life tries to break you down or what someone else might say or do to make you stumble, put it in perspective and find the humor. Tommy could have patented his signature smirk. He was always in on the joke so he always won.
  2. Never let a freshman take yo’ spot. This lesson was also taught by Sidra from Love and Basketball. My brother was the baby for ten years before I was born. If I was going to out-cute him, out-smart him, or out-sweet him, I had to work for it. Always make them work for it.
  3. Gloat when necessary. Even when beating your seven-year-old kid sister in Street Fighter, gloat. Enjoy every win. You earned it. Just be prepared for the blow back. 
  4.  Never trust a big butt and a smile. Literally. This one is tucked away to use with my sons one day. Know the difference between the brain between your legs and the one in your head. Act accordingly.
  5.  Never beg someone to love you. Loving you and being loved by you is a privilege. I’ll never forget crying my eyes out after finding out an ex-boyfriend was cheating on me. I wondered if I should forgive him and take him back. Tommy looked me square in the eyes and said, “You’re my sister, don’t be desperate.” Ha. He was right. 
  6.  Get it. Even when no one else does. Especially when no one else does. Understanding the subtext is often more important than understanding what is actually being said.
  7.  Love is an action. Tommy never told me he loved me but he sat with me when I was afraid of the dark, brought me milk when I cried, and made all my battles his battles.
  8.  It’s always sunglass weather. Tommy’s shades were almost as signature as his smirk.
  9.  Listen more than you speak. I remember Tommy’s quiet observance more than I remember his words. When he spoke, (most times) it mattered.
  10.  PRINCE is EVERYTHING. If you don’t know, ask someone.
  11.  Always check on kids who are alone in a basement. I’ll just let you use your imagination on that one. 
  12.  Dowhatyoulike. If you’d rather sing to Frank Sinatra than dance to the latest hip hop single, do it. Put your own smile on your face. Ultimately, you hold the key to your happiness. No one else does.
  13.  Flirt shamelessly. There are far too many good-looking people in this world not to. Just remain mindful of boundaries.
  14.  Drive fast with the windows down and music playing. Ride a note and feel weightless… but don’t hit pedestrians.
  15.  Pose in the mirror. Because you are fucking sexy at every angle.
  16.  Don’t always pick up your phone. Most times, it can wait. Sometimes it is better to let your own voice be the only voice in your head.
  17.  Believe in the impossible. Because nothing is.
  18.  Show up. Always be there when it matters. Every time I needed my brother there, he was. From moving me into my first apartment, to wheeling me up to NICU after an emergency C-section to see my son after he was born, to driving to Virginia to pick me up when I just needed to get home. He always showed up, even when I didn’t ask. 
  19.  Protect your space. Not everyone is worthy of coming into your space. Your home is your sanctuary. Discriminate. 
  20.  Be a hero… within limits. Tommy was a Detective with the NYPD. He was a 9/11 first responder and saved countless lives during his 19 years as a police officer. He acted on instinct not impulse. 
  21.  Ask questions; doubt the answers. You’ve been lied to. Never stop wondering why.
  22.  Never stop believing in love. It’s what we are here for. 
  23.  Love your parents without condition. Their humanity is no less stainless than your own. Don’t be na├»ve but forgive their sins. They gave you life.
  24.  Childhood is precious. Protect yours, protect others.
  25.  Get lost in the sky. Be quiet and look up. You will feel large, small, significant, and insignificant all at the same time. It’s magic.
  26.  Guard your health. If you have reason to question your health, go see a doctor. 
  27. There is never enough time. Don’t hold grudges. Don’t put it off. Remain present and regret nothing. Make the journey count more than the destination.
  28. Everyone dies. So get to living.

Faye McCray is a native New Yorker and current resident of the Washington, DC metropolitan area where she resides with her husband and two young sons. She is an attorney and author. You can also find Faye's work on her self-titled blog , Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, Graveyard Shift Sisters, and Rachel in the OC. You can also find her short fiction collection on Amazon. Connect with Faye on Twitter @fayewrites.

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