My brother is dying.
Some time back, he randomly mailed me a Detroit Tigers collectible car — one of those little Hot Wheels kind of toys. It was a typical out-of-the-blue surprise that my brother likes to send. I’ve gotten salt-and-pepper shakers, t-shirts, an umbrella, a keychain, and other items from him over the years. He thinks to send these things.
He isn’t really a Tigers fan. He wants them to do well for me and the other family members who root for them, but since he lives in Texas, he considers the Rangers his team now — if he has a professional baseball team. He’s actually a huge Notre Dame fan, which means, of course, mostly football. He has three copies of Rudy: one to watch (repeatedly), one as back-up in case the first is damaged, and a third that shall never be opened lying in plastic wrap until the coming apocalypse.
Just like he sends me Tigers gear, I buy him Notre Dame stuff: ornaments, shirts, signs — a blue and gold crazy wig. He has an enormous collection, and it’s getting a little tough finding things for him anymore. Ever since his cancer returned, he’s been flooded with gifts — especially Notre Dame souvenirs. There’s a treasured game ball from the 1971 Cotton Bowl when ND beat Texas 24-11, courtesy of a friend of a friend. Another alum arranged for my brother to meet one of his favorite guys from this year’s team, who presented him with a football signed by all the players. There has been an abundance of other presents too, and every Saturday this fall, his Facebook feed was filled with cheers and good wishes for the Irish. I went up to my room and cried like a baby when they fell out of contention. He almost certainly won’t live to see them win another national championship.
When he goes (which the doctors are doing their best to delay), his wife will be left with all of these Notre Dame tchotchkes, doodads and treasures. This stuff, which is all trash, really, someday, will survive him — if a little less nobly than the baseballs Babe Ruth signed have outlasted him or the clippings of my grandfather’s games, which fill a cherished family scrapbook forty years after his death, still age. Things become historical artifacts that prove our former existence and reveal our sporting passions.
We buy team memorabilia for each other because our fandoms bring us joy and we want to make each other happy. Collectibles are pretty sure hits as gifts. We love our teams and we enjoy the tokens of our rooting interests. It isn’t complicated; it’s really the simplest of equations. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a Tigers fan. The most obvious thing about my brother is he roots for ND. It involves no wizened insights or tender sensitivity to divine.
Neither are these mementos we give each other connected to any rich, complex inner life. They are tangible representations of our uncomplicated pleasures, and maybe it seems somewhat wrong that they should outlast us then. The deeper, harder, sweeter things that we carry in our hearts and the secrets of who we are go with us. The signed balls and bobbleheads remain, but no autographed photos or Notre Dame caps will aid me in living in a world without the person with whom I shared a crib. They are my brother’s joy but not my consolation.
His Twitter handle brands him a Notre Dame fan, and as much as it is part of his identity, it isn’t all that he is. It isn’t even the best that he is. Still, it is undeniably a central passion of his life. The mementos of his team devotion fill the rooms in his house, and too soon they will be all that remains of his fandom — and our efforts to bring him joy and to love him.