Bill Torpy at Large: A brother gone, a hard hole to repair

The end was near for 56-year-old John Patrick Torpy (note the experimental headgear), but there was still so much to do. (Family photo)
The end was near for 56-year-old John Patrick Torpy (note the experimental headgear), but there was still so much to do. (Family photo)

It’s strange how death sinks in. My younger brother John’s this week was months coming but didn’t put the hooks in me until I walked into my mom’s basement.

There, for the past 40-some years, is a mini Western village, complete with a livery and a two-story saloon with swinging doors and stairs so kids can climb to the second floor.

John Patrick Torpy was perhaps 14 when he built it for his younger siblings and their friends. It’s an imaginative construction — especially for his age — and has become sort of a neighborhood curiosity and attraction, one that has wowed generations of kids, as well as their parents.

The other morning, I focused on the tidy construction, with two trim nails in the top of each second-story rail post. Always the perfectionist.

I remember watching him build it and telling him he was nuts, which he sort of was. Many geniuses have screws not turned in all the way.

And then it hit: The hands that so long ago carefully and even lovingly erected that structure will never do so again.

It was on his birthday last March when John learned he was going to die.

The father of five, loving husband, proud union carpenter, churchgoing Catholic, gearhead and stalwart volunteer was given another mantle: Cancer patient. He was diagnosed with a nasty, aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma. The doctors told him chances were he wouldn’t survive a year. He didn’t.

He died last week at age 56 after deciding to go on hospice care after trying everything — and I mean everything: brain surgery, radiation, chemo, more radiation, more chemo, and an experimental treatment called an Optune cap, which has a big battery and a bunch of wires attached to leads on the head. He was pumped up to get it; it gave him a shot.

It looked kind of ridiculous and he’d joke about it, like he did everything. Toward the end he called himself “Bluefin” because moving his helpless 210-pound body from the wheelchair to the couch was akin to dragging a tuna into a boat.

He even muttered a few hoarse, incongruous, yet well-timed one-liners from his death bed, which is vital in off-brand humor. It was another tool, one to deflect the grim reality he and his family endured.

A person shows his true colors when mortality looms in the next room, and he did well to stay somehow cheerful and uncomplaining despite the fate he’d been handed.

As to fate, I’ve come to believe we are largely pre-wired for our abilities and interests.

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For 19 years, John and I (he was 20 months younger) slept in the same bedroom, were exposed to largely the same stimuli, had the same family and talked with each other long into the night. But when it came to interests and abilities, as they say in my family, we were chalk and cheese.

As a kid I was a fanatic about sports, did well in school, forever got into fistfights to show my toughness, and cared deeply about how I fit in with my peers in our South Side Chicago neighborhood.

John, on the other hand, barely knew a hockey stick from a baseball bat, cared little about studying, was a pacifist and seemed oblivious to where he landed in the often cruel social pecking order.

It was clear early on he was his own man. He didn’t care how he appeared to others. Looking back, that took guts.

Bill Torpy loosening up John Patrick Torpy for his 1986 wedding. (Family photo)
Bill Torpy loosening up John Patrick Torpy for his 1986 wedding. (Family photo)

It was always apparent he had a keen vision about how things worked. At age 9 he told my uncle, a master craftsman, “You goofed.” He was referring to measuring the angles of wood. Turns out he was right, a story my 95-year-old uncle still tells.

John took apart a car’s engine and (mostly) put it back correctly before he could drive. He could rewire, re-plumb and re-roof a house by age 19.

John was also a budding artist — photography and music, although his stint on bass guitar was thankfully short. He went into sound mixing as a hobby and was offered a gig with the rock band Styx (friends of friends). But family guidance, and pressure, to go with the sure thing of a union card won out.

His skills are locally legendary. Many a remodeled kitchen, porch, family room, bathroom and basement in Chicago will be his legacy for decades.

He was perhaps the most talented craftsman I know, but in his heart he was a budding historian, architect, archaeologist and even paleontologist.

Years ago, he was hired to be a carpenter at the University of Chicago, a world-renowned institution, where he rubbed elbows each day with historians, architects, archaeologists, paleontologists and Nobel Prize winners. John could converse with a mummy, so many professors got to know him as he toiled in their offices. Friendships ensued and so did a vision of what could be. His son is now in a doctorate program in Michigan to become an archaeologist. And one of my sons attends The University of Chicago.

Torpy family Christmas card, and rallying cry. (Family photo)
Torpy family Christmas card, and rallying cry. (Family photo)

As John’s sickness progressed, there was an outpouring from those at his job, in his parish, and in the neighborhood at large. It was Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Streams of folks stopped by or called to let him know what he meant to them, how he had helped them, how he’d had an impact on the community and the world around him. As a competitive brother (he was not) I was jealous.

Upon his death, his daughter Sarah posted on Facebook, “There are 4 major life lessons my Dad has passed down to me.

1. Family first. Always.

2. Volunteer, be generous with your time and talents. Share your knowledge and skills.

3. Work hard. If you’re not going to do it the right way, don’t do it at all.

4. Whether you face good times or hard times, never lose your sense of humor.

Today, in honor of my Dad, go out of your way to do something kind for someone else.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.