(This week's blog is written by my younger brother, Ricky Tippett.)
I feel sorry for boys without older brothers. You don’t know what you’ve missed.
My brother, Bert, is nine years older than I am and you can imagine the pedestal I placed him on early in life when I was five and he was 14. Because he was an avid reader and he knew so many things, I loved to sit and listen to him tell a good story. I remember when I was about eight years old (and he would have been in his last year or so of high school), we shared a bedroom and I would do my best to stay awake at night so when he would finally come to bed, I could beg him for a story.
My favorites were some kind of ghost story. As I listened to his story-spinning, I recall the darkness of the room, but still being able to see him in bed across the room. With eyes fixed on his shadow, I would hang on every word and always jump when the final story line was yelled, “And he got him!” After listening to “he was on the first step” over and over again, my monster would grow in my imagination, but with Bert in the room it was always a good ending…well, just because he was there and I felt safe. I was able to sleep a little better knowing he was just across the room.
It was my brother that taught me so many things that were absolutely essential in life. He taught me how to roll up my long-sleeves just right so I’d be teenager-cool even though I wasn’t even ten yet. It was Bert that taught me how to take a white tee-shirt and roll the cuffs up on the sleeve ever so neatly so my big muscles would show. I knew the girls in third grade would just woo and wow over me!
Bert knew other things, too. He knew how to dress up a family car and make it look like a “rebel-without-a-cause” car: take off the hubcaps and darken in the wheels with black paint. I still have a picture of me sitting on the hood of Dad’s four-door Chevy, shirt unbuttoned down to the middle of my stomach, sleeves rolled up, and both thumbs hung loosely in the sloping corners of the front pockets of my dungarees. Oh, yes, I was born to be wild. Ricky “Cool” Tippett; there’s a catchy name for you. I was convinced that if Bert said it, it was Bible. If Bert did it, he was in the know. Hey, no lie.
BEFORE BERT'S INFLUENCE
My innocent days
AFTER--Born to be Wild ala Bert
Later in my college years my older brother became my mentor. No longer kids, I would go to him with my problems. His easy manner made it easy to open up and talk to him. His whole body communicated, “Go ahead. I’m listening.” And I did. I talked about school problems. I talked about home problems, even though they were minor things looking back. Mainly, however, I talked about girlfriend problems. Not being one to impose his opinion on others, Bert would listen to me for a while and then just try to find the positive in it. Often he’d point out something significant about the Lord and I would leave his office with a little more hope than when I first walked in. He was my quiet encourager throughout my college years and I leaned on him greatly.
One of my more meaningful memories of my older brother before he married Dianne was when we were both in Gitmo Bay, Cuba. Bert was home from college for the summer and he got a job as a lifeguard at one of the nearby base pools. In those days, Bert took it upon himself to work with me, train me, in how to swim freestyle. He’d coach and I’d swim. He’d walk the length of the pool as I would turn my head to catch a breath I also would catch a quick view of him trying to help me get the technique right.
“Curve your fingers. Cup your hands. Pull with all your might – full strokes!” I listened and I learned. At the end of that summer I competed in a boys’ swimming contest.
I remember the whistle being blown and diving head-first into the pool of blue water. Immediately, I began swimming like my big brother had taught me. I got to the end of the pool, flipped and pushed off the concrete wall to swim back to the finish line. When I reached the end, I remember taking my first look around and there was no one near me. I remember being surprised at the distance by which I won and I especially remember Bert jumping up and down and bragging on his kid brother’s win. He was more excited than I was. I was a winner and so was Bert.
My big brother was there for me just before I got married, too. One evening as my wedding day drew near he offered to walk with me outside his apartment. As he began to see if I had any questions regarding the facts of life, I remember asking a few questions of him. At one point, Bert was trying to answer my question in a low voice and before either of us realized it, Brian, Bert’s son of only four-years-old, piped up and said in a playful tone, “Oh, come on, Uncle Ricky, you know what Daddy means!” Though Brian had no idea what was being said, he joined in where he could. I could see even then that Brian would be like his daddy—another encourager.
When Bert wrote Kathy and me that he had a doctor’s appointment and it didn’t sound so good, I remember being anxious. Word came back quickly while I was on a missions’ trip in Panama. Kathy caught up with Gwen and me at the motel early Saturday morning. “Ricky,” she said through sobs and tears, “Bert’s got cancer and it’s not looking good.” I sat on the bed as Gwen listened to a one-sided conversation between Kathy and me. I canceled my plans for that morning and got on the phone to Bert and we talked for a long time. It was my time to try to encourage him, but he was at it again, assuring me that he was fine and God was going to get the glory out of this.
Later when we began to email each other, I remember particularly Bert writing that at times he was scared. He trusted the Lord, yes. No problems there. But the finality of what he was being told hit all of us hard. I remember one of his emails he wrote about his future. If he was cured through treatments, thank the Lord. But if not, still thank the Lord. And then he wrote these words:
“Either way I win.”
I knew it was true. I knew it was sincere. But as I read the line, it was ominous looking. It had such finality to it. Heaven’s gain, our loss. But this was my big brother, the guy who handled everything so well. The man of God that walked with the Lord and we all had come to rely on his strength and faith in God.
When he closed his testimony message in chapel about having terminal cancer, Bert closed by telling the students that I had just found out that I, too, had cancer. And then he said, “Either way, we both win.” It felt good to be included in his ordeal; I liked it that he wasn’t alone in this. I could be there for him, like he’d been there for me so many times over the years.
Bert was no longer on the side lines cheering me on, but we were in the same pool and trying to keep the other one buoyed up in our individual races. “Come on. Pull hard—full strokes. You can do it. Take deep breaths.”
Bert’s cancer is in his bones. At this time mine is not. My pathology report came back after prostate surgery and there were no signs of cancer outside the prostate. The doctor believes the cancer was contained to the prostate. I remember getting this news while I was sick in bed three days after my surgery. I was hurting physically, but I remember crying tears of relief that the news was good. My future looked hopeful.
And immediately, I felt guilty.
I knew that my big brother was still struggling with a different prognosis. I knew his situation was just the opposite unless the Lord intervened with a miracle. I kept thinking that I’d somehow deserted him in his hour of need.
Before long I felt guilty for feeling guilty. I knew my guilt was not from any wrong-doing on my part; I knew it was self-induced guilt. Still, it wouldn’t go away.
On the last day in November Bert and Dianne stopped by my home in Raleigh on their way back home to Nashville. It was time to say goodbye as they needed to get on the road, and I was still feeling badly for Bert. We began to talk about the Lord, salvation, and His care of us. And I began to break down. Through sobs I admitted to Bert that I felt guilty for not being in the same boat with him. I felt like I unintentionally deserted him and left him all alone in his nightmare.
“Bert, I feel so guilty. I know that’s wrong, but I can’t help it.”
Bert looked at me with a puzzled look on his face. “What?” he exclaimed. And without hesitation he added, “Do you think I’d trade places with you for one minute?”
I couldn’t speak, but I remember feeling surprised by his words. He went on, “I’m closer to Heaven than you are.”
It was true and we all knew it was true. Bert was closer to seeing the Lord face-to-face. No longer just singing about Him, but actually seeing Him. Bert was already preparing his heart for the realities of Heaven. His statement had come out so fast, I knew he was completely sincere; this was not something he had rehearsed and prepared to say.
“Do you think I’d trade places with you for one minute?”
While I was still emotionally choked up and could not speak, I remember thinking, “I would trade places with you, though, Bert. I would take this from you if I could.”
I couldn’t say that aloud, but it was in my face and in the tears running down my cheeks. He knew at that moment I loved him with all the love a kid brother can love his older brother. We hugged and I just hung on to his big shoulders and cried for a few moments. It felt good to be hugged and held by your big brother, something that no one else could do for me at that moment in time.
In a few minutes Bert and Dianne were on their way home.
Bert is fixed on arriving at another Home soon. We all knew it. We all witnessed it. My doctor’s report came back negative and Bert’s report came back positive. Bert’s cancer is in most of his bones now. I believe that God knew what each of us was to go through at this particular time in our lives. Both of us are in His perfect will and, yes, either way we both win, but…
Even now, another question comes into my mind:
Why is it, then, that I feel like the loser and I feel that Bert is the winner?
Ricky & Bert
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I hope my brothers' stories have, and will continue to