A promise to my brother


Tim Hickey atop Mt. Washington

Most of the time these days, when I use the word brother, I refer to a fellow Mason.  Any time that I use this word, it’s a term of affection and respect.  Today I want to tell you about my sibling, Tim.

I finally kept a promise that I made to Tim ten years ago, at his funeral, and I have been thinking about him a fair bit lately.  Before I tell you about my promise and his death, I want to tell you about how fully Tim lived.  He went all-out, left nothing on the table, burned rather than rusted.

I have thought about this for a long time.  I wish that I could break this post into clean, discrete sections and write only about Tim, but I can’t.  I see that I can only tell you about him as I saw him, and that I can’t talk about him without talking about our connection.  This post will meander a bit.


How he lived

Tim was a wild man, strong in many ways and smart in many ways, and a natural adventurer.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail and many of the Adirondack High Peaks.  He also founded and owned a small landscaping business.  I think that he liked what he did and was good at it, but he worked to live instead of living to work.  Tim did hardscaping as well as landscaping and his year would start about Easter.  He would pull long, hard hours until the weather became too cold, around October.  In later years, he would stick around until Thanksgiving, but every year, he would travel in Central and South America, living on the money that he earned during the season.  There’s a story that I don’t recall well, something about him climbing the second-highest mountain in Chile, I think.

Tim and I were opposite sides of the same coin, and as such were that far apart.  I’ve also hiked in the Adirondack High Peaks, and my typical hike included a plan, handwritten on waterproof paper, with landmarks and distance markers pulled from a guide book that I left in the car to save the weight.  Tim’s typical hike was to look at a map once and then wander.  As he once told me, getting lost doesn’t matter if you’re in good shape and can move fast and have the stamina to backtrack.  He did.  Tim also taught me to forget the guidebook stuff about the minimum distance from your sleeping and cooking areas.  Instead, eat dinner early and put in a few more miles before you camp.  That was a good idea. 

Not all of his ideas were good, though:  instead of hanging a bear bag or using a bear-proof canister, gather a pile of rocks to chuck at any bear that tries to steal your food?  No.  He actually did throw rocks at a bear at least once.  I don’t think that it worked and I’m not sure how he survived.

Tim was smart, like gifted-level smart.  I know that our parents decided against putting him into gifted education but I don’t know if they ever told him about this.  We were about 4 ½ years and 5 grades apart and there were many things that I didn’t learn about him, like his being an all-star Little League pitcher, until his funeral.

He was also a homebrewer, like me.  My typical beer is a mild ale made from extract.  The only beer of his that I remember was called Toad Spit Stout, in green 22-ounce bottles stashed in the basement for years.  I could never find the guts to try it. 

In a family of fair-skinned Irish, Tim had typical coloring until the sun hit him, when he would become very dark.  That probably served him well as a landscaper, something that I can’t even imagine doing. 

We had the same parents but really different bodies and really different lives.  I hope that you watch the short video that I have linked here, about how no two children have the same parents.  To it, I would add that children teach their parents how to be parents.  I was the oldest so I caught all of their idealism.  By the time that Tim came along, I think that realism had crept in.  In any case, please watch the video.  It’s good and it would annoy Tim.


South Overlook, Hawk Mountain

Our connection

If you are expecting more psychology in this post, here it is.  Frank Farley (1986) posited the existence of a Type T (thrill-seeking) personality, with the subtypes of T-mental (seeking primarily cognitive stimulation); T-physical (primarily physical stimulation); or T-balanced.  When I think about Tim and me, I see him as T-physical and myself as T-mental.  If that sounds stuffy and clinical, he would agree, and if I had ever said it to him, he would probably yell at me and then start making fun of me, because that’s what brothers do.  Maybe throw something at me, too.

Another way to imagine us is to watch the movie Legends of the Fall (Edward Zwick, 1994).  Brad Pitt played Tim and Aidan Quinn played me.  By the way, Tim also would not have given a citation for the movie.  I’m tempted to cite it in APA format, but this is just a blog, and I will give you the citation for Farley (1986) at the bottom of this post.

For a little while, we talked about joining the Coast Guard together.  He wanted to be a rescue helicopter pilot and he would have been great at that.  At that time, I had just earned my master’s in counseling psychology and even with a 2 for 1 deal in the office, the Coastie recruiter said that they didn’t have counselors and just used Navy mental health services.  That was it for me but I don’t know why he didn’t go ahead.  We didn’t talk about it after that.


My promise

Timothy Finian Hickey died on July 23, 2012, at age 38 years, of chicken pox.  If you hear about chicken pox being dangerous in adults, it is.  Tim was in a hotel in Managua, Nicaragua, and he visited a government health clinic there.  Hotel security footage showed that he was in the computer room on the night before he died, then he went into his room and did not leave.  He had a son in a small fishing village in Nicaragua and had bought a sea kayak for the two of them.  He was in Managua to pick it up.

I hope that Tim died in his sleep, quietly and peacefully.  We used to bust on each other about who would live longer.  We should have realized that wild men don’t get to be old men and wouldn’t want to be.  Tim wouldn’t have been Tim with a gut and creaking knees.  Besides, he was mostly bald by age 26 and had better than perfect vision. 

I had long hoped that we would get to be friends and do the same general things in the same place or time.  I’m not sure what that would have required, but whatever it was, if it was even possible, it didn’t happen in time.  Our last conversation was a massive verbal brawl but there were some gifts in there and I’m still grateful for some of what he said.  Brothers are like that.  You’ll have a last conversation with everyone you know and they won’t all be majestic scenes from movies, with orchestral music rising in the background.  Actually, most of them won’t be.  Tim would have liked me saying that.  I couldn’t have the connection that I wanted, but I could take care of him and honor what I think that his wishes would have been, could take care of my younger brother one time.

When Tim died in Nicaragua, he was cremated, and some of his cremains went to his girlfriend.  I don’t know what she did with them, and she’s also gone.  Their son now lives with her extended family.  The rest of Tim’s cremains came to the United States, and most of them are buried in a Roman Catholic cemetery in our hometown.  That was mostly for our mother, so that she would have a place to visit, and it started the family funeral plot for him and my parents.  My sister and I are on our own.

The last place that Tim would have wanted to be buried was in a Roman Catholic cemetery in Pennsylvania.  It probably wouldn’t even have been the last place, as I don’t think that he would have considered it at all.  I asked my parents for a small portion of what was left of his ashes and promised to leave them on the Appalachian Trail.  I recall the applause when my father announced that at Tim’s wake.  That’s the promise that I made ten years ago.  I could do it and I owed it to my brother to put part of him where he wanted to be.


Visitor Center, Hawk Mountain

Appalachian Trail

I don’t know why it took ten years.  I’m not about making excuses but I’m also not going to chew myself up on a blog post.  I never felt Tim crawling up my back about getting this done and I’ve come to believe that things happen right when they should, even if the timing doesn’t seem to make sense.  It’s been within the past year that I learned that the Appalachian Trail comes through Port Clinton, right along Pennsylvania Route 61, just north of Hamburg, and I, like Tim, am a Cabela’s fan.  I go to the store in Hamburg a few times per year.  Whatever Tim’s favorite parts of the trail, he never told me, but there’s a little parking lot just south of Port Clinton, with a steep little path that connects to the AT.  I’m still not happy that it took ten years, but I’m sure that what I actually did was better than what I would have done a decade ago, so if there is a reason for the delay, that’s probably it.

On July 24, 2022, a bit more than ten years since Tim died and a bit less than ten years since I made that promise, I left about half a teaspoon of his ashes at the top of that little path.  I heard him for a second, when I decided not to climb down to the AT proper.  Yeah, yeah, but you didn’t get to my age.  I left him on the trail, which was also a recent decision.  My original plan was to leave him on the side of the trail, but within the last few months, I decided to put him on the trail, let his ashes get into the treads of another hiker’s boots and take him for a ride.  He would have liked that. 

From there, we went south, to Cabela’s, and on the way back north, we saw four AT hikers southbound from the Port Clinton trailhead toward Cabela’s.  I like to think that they picked up Tim and brought him along.  No matter where they left him, it would be a place that he liked, and if they missed him then someone else took him.  He belonged with AT through-hikers.  That was his tribe.

After Cabela’s, we drove to the top of Hawk Mountain, a nearby bird sanctuary on a migratory route.  The AT goes over the shoulder of this mountain.  As for hiking to that junction, well, I’m in no shape for “steep and rocky” these days.  I know that Tim hiked the section by Port Clinton.  I don’t know if he explored Hawk Mountain but it is a beautiful place and I scattered what I had left, maybe a tablespoon or so, at the South Overlook. 

In both cases, something amazing happened.  Cremains are distinctive, if you have seen them.  In both cases, what was left of Tim vanished within a few seconds, no trace of him.  That will happen to all of us someday.  At the South Overlook, a slight breeze carried him into the valley below, and for just a moment, I heard Tim again, felt a gulp of joy and a bit less weight on my back.  When I set Tim free, I also set myself free.

That distaste for being stuck that he had?  Not a problem.  If the four AT hikers somehow missed him, it’s OK, because there have been storms since that day.   As for the South Outlook, Tim was gone in a heartbeat.  I have included pictures of the places, but, to borrow a line from Legends of the Fall, his grave is unmarked but it doesn’t matter.  Tim isn’t there.

I hope to see him again one day.  Rest easy, brother.


Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton, PA


Farley, F. (1986). The big T in personality. Psychology Today, 44-52.