After my brother Brett’s passing on April 8, 2021, I heard a lot of stories about his heroic acts as both a Marine and a Police Officer.
There were stories about late-night, high-speed drives home from Camp Lejeune. Fellow Marine John Mendelson told me that whenever Brett would order fast food at a drive-thru, he’d always order as Elvis Presley. I’m not an Elvis impersonator, but I’ll bet it sounded something like this:
“Hey mama, give me one of them hunka-hunka-burnin’ quarter pounders with cheese. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
There’s even one from a young officer in Dover who was inspired to emulate “this mystery cop from Motown who would jump out of trees and climb buildings like Superman to catch criminals.” One of the greatest compliments in this cop’s career was being called “Baby Brett” by a criminal.
So, I decided that my eulogy should read more like a superhero origin story. It’s all about Brett’s greatest superpower: his ability to turn darkness into light; to generate laughter in virtually any situation. To paraphrase one of his former colleagues, “I mean rolling on the floor, tears streaming down your face laughter.”
I’ll do my best to re-create some scenes from the Brett Smith cinematic universe.
Instant Laughter – Scene 1
In his late teens, Brett was picking up hundreds of dollars worth of Formica for our carpenter dad. Now to really appreciate this story, you have to fully picture Brett…circa 1985. He’s wearing his orange Houston Astro’s plastic baseball helmet turned backwards. His hair is dyed jet black to look like Elvis Presley. And Elvis’s “My Way” is blaring through his Sony Walkman headphones.
Suddenly, horns began to honk and Brett took a quick peek thru the rearview mirror. To his surprise, the truck bed was empty. To his horror, huge Formica sheets were now careening off cars and splintering across Route 46 like a debri-filled hurricane.
When Brett returned to the job site, still wearing the plastic helmet by the way, my father started to boil: “Hey Numb Nuts, where’s the Formica?” Without skipping a beat, Numb Nuts replied: “Dad, the question isn’t where IS the Formica. The question is where ISN’T the Formica!” After hearing the full details, my father, now out several hundred bucks, just laughed his ass off.
Instant Laughter – Scene 2
When I was in college and Brett was home on leave from the Marines, I told him that I was embarrassed to make a certain purchase for the first time. I asked him if he could go with me to Thrift Drugs Pharmacy and, you know, buy the box with me.
After picking up the box and approaching the cashier together, Brett realized a fatal flaw in my plan. He whispered, “Shane, if we go up to buy these together…that old lady’s gonna think we’re using them together.
So Brett darted to the nearby magazine rack as I nervously approached the cashier. Staring at me with knowing eyes, the old lady asked: “Will that be all son?” But before I could answer, Brett shouted out from a distance: “YEP! JUST THE RUBBERS!” I laughed right in the old lady’s face.
Instant Laughter – Scene 3
Several years ago, as my father rested peacefully in his final days on Earth, Brett asked me, “Hey Shane, what does hospice mean?”
I said “Brett, remember when we visited our friend’s mother just before she died of cancer? That was hospice.”
Brett responded confidently: “Ohhhhh yeahhhhh, that’s right! His mother had prostate cancer too.”
I asked, “Brett, you do know that only men have prostates, right?” He said, “Well, I know NOW!” Laughter in a hospital!
Darkness Into Light – Prelude
I didn’t pick that last story just to help you understand why Brett’s former police partner, Jared, had to help Brett write his police reports. I shared it because it’s a perfect example of Brett’s superpower in action. No matter the situation, even in death, he could turn darkness into light. I also watched him do the same thing with his children and the little league players he coached.
I truly believe that Brett’s light shined so bright for so many others that it was all burned out when he needed some light for himself.
I can share countless stories from fellow Marines, police officers, and actors who bragged about how tough, courageous, loyal, and talented Brett was. But what makes Brett stories so uniquely Brett, is that they’re also peppered with little moments where he turned darkness into light when you least expected it.
Darkness Into Light – Scene 1
I remember the time when Brett noticed that the physical symptoms of my medical condition were similar to those of his friend on the force. Brett said he couldn’t help me because his medical expertise was limited to whether or not wearing baseball hats and plastic helmets caused his receding hairline. The next day, however, I received a phone call from Brett’s colleague. It turned out we didn’t just have similar symptoms. We had the exact same medical condition. Thanks to Brett, the medical detective, his colleague is now my friend and he’s been checking up on me ever since.
Darkness Into Light – Scene 2
There was another time when I was complaining to Brett about my clients. I told him I was tired of being so nice because it made me feel like a pushover. And let’s face it, Brett knew I was a bit of a pushover growing up. One time he asked Santa Claus for 2 pairs of boxing gloves for Christmas. But he didn’t tell Santa that he might use them to kick my ass every day.
There was also the time he hacked off the top half of our bunk beds and threw the remains out the window before mom and dad got home. When I asked him why he did it, he told me we needed more wall space for a big surprise. The big surprise was a 6-foot tacky velvet Elvis poster. And for many days forward, I slept on shag carpet and Elvis never left the building.
Getting back to my client story: I told Brett that I was tired of always being the nice guy. Sensing an opportunity to make amends for the butchered bunk beds, Brett told me that the world needed more nice guys. He then went on to compare us to the Curtis brothers from The Outsiders. He was Darry (the tough-guy older brother played by Patrick Swayze) and I was Darry’s sensitive younger brother, Ponyboy (played by C. Thomas Howell). Several hours after the call ended, still buried in work, I received a screen shot of the Robert Frost poem featured in The Outsiders. It was followed by Brett’s simple, 3-word text: “Stay gold Ponyboy.”
Darkness Into Light – Scene 3
Or like the Christmas when our beloved mother’s heart shattered because her favorite antique porcelain candy cane sled broke. This news shattered Brett as well because 1) He adored his mom and knew how much pride she took in her Christmas mantle; and 2) Christmas turned tough-guy Brett into Buddy the Elf. And like Buddy the Elf searching for his dad, Brett searched high and low to find the identical antique porcelain candy cane sled for mom. And it’s been on mom’s Christmas mantle ever since.
There were so many other little ways in which Brett could wield his superpowers. He’d make you laugh at his own expense, he’d show you his vulnerability just to make you feel less vulnerable, or he’d expose that big Buddy the Elf heart laying just beneath his rugged exterior.
This past Easter Sunday, Brett and I took a long drive to nowhere in particular. He started to wax nostalgic about “better days” and how the past couple of years had been such a struggle. He wondered what it meant for his legacy. Could a couple of dark years really be enough to overshadow the 50 bright ones?
I don’t have to share my answer because you’ve all given him the same one in recent days. I truly believe that your visits, social media posts, phone calls, texts, tributes, and contributions have been heard loudly and proudly by Brett. Just as they’ve been so warmly received by Leigh, Noelle, Billy, Christian…and our entire family.
Even in death, my brother still possesses that same superpower I spoke of earlier. My sisters and I have experienced moments in the past few days where we found ourselves infused with our brother’s spirit, acting the part of Brett, while helping others laugh through the pain.
While writing a story about Brett’s remarkable life and legacy, a local reporter asked me, “Do you remember the last thing your brother said to you during your Easter Sunday drive?” I told him that I honestly didn’t know. Actually, I’d like to believe that Brett sang his final words to me. In his most perfect Elvis voice, he sang:
And now the end is near,
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case of which I’m certain.
I’ve lived a life that’s full,
I’ve traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.