Pete Hamill was a great journalist, and an even better big brother

Pete Hamill and Denis Hamill on November 14, 2013 at Sardi's Restaurant.
(David Handschuh/New York Daily News)

Pete Hamill, the acclaimed author, died Wednesday, August 5, at age 85. His brother Denis delivered this eulogy on Saturday, August 8.

Pete Hamill is going to be fine.

My big brother Pete helped me with my grammar school book reports, my teenage hippie poetry, my first piece of published journalism, my first produced screenplay and most of my published novels.

Pete always made everything he touched better. He always urged us to “do the work of the Lord.”

So it makes perfect sense that Pete would help me one last time on his own eulogy.

Truth be told, this eulogy should have been written five years ago when he was comatose in NYU Medical Center in Manhattan, where all the doctors said he was not going to wake up after suffering two broken hips, a heart attack and a series of ministrokes.

But his wife, Fukiko, disagreed and told the doctors that Pete would wake up but that it took Pete longer because of his diabetes. The doctors whispered to me to make arrangements for a funeral.

Two days later, Pete awoke in ICU speaking Spanish to an orderly about the New York Mets as Sinatra sang on a tape deck.

Pete changed doctors and lived with Fukiko for the next couple of years in his Tribeca condo. But as the seasons passed Pete knew he was living on borrowed time. He joked about dealing with “old guy stuff,” and the nomad who’d lived in scores of homes all around the country and the world yearned to return to his beloved Brooklyn.

This storied New York storyteller wanted to return to where his own story began. He and Fukiko leased out their Manhattan condo and rented a brownstone duplex just off Flatbush Ave., 20 odd blocks from the pre-WWII tenement at 378 Seventh Ave. where our immigrant parents, Billy Hamill and Annie Devlin, had raised seven American kids — six boys and one girl — of which Pete was the eldest.

Pete was “coming home” to Brooklyn because ever the realist, he wanted to die here. He bought a plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, but he sure didn’t want to die anytime soon. He was writing a book that would be a companion piece to his best-selling “Downtown: My Manhattan.” This one was going to have the same lyrical, historical sweep about Pete Hamill’s Brooklyn.

But the diabetes kept nibbling away at Pete’s health, requiring him to travel three days a week to Methodist hospital for three-hour dialysis sessions, which robbed him of precious writing time.

By the time he got home he was exhausted.

On the middle days, when his blood was clean and his brain sharp, he would work slowly on the book. But he had trouble hitting his stride because Pete Hamill was a writer who actually loved the writing process, a master craftsman often giddy at his precision workbench. But as soon as he was on a roll it was time again for dialysis.

Diabetes does not allow for lockdown or quarantine or shelter in place. And so as COVID-19 blazed through New York City in March, April and May, as people hunkered down and stores closed and subways stalled and traffic vanished, Pete traveled through the barren streets of Brooklyn every other day for dialysis.

I was terrified he would get the bug and that it would kill him.

Even at 85, Pete was too tough for COVID. Pete survived dialysis in the time of coronavirus without a sniffle.

We spoke often, usually every Sunday for long chats. Last week Fukiko finally thought it was safe enough for me to visit Pete for lunch. I was excited. Pete was thrilled at the prospect of having one of his siblings at his table in the flesh. Fukiko shopped for her usual fresh fish and vegetables and fruit and yogurt for the big meal.

We had a ton of catching up to do and lots to discuss about Pete’s book in progress and TV series outline and movie treatment we had worked on together.

On Saturday afternoon, Fukiko called me. Distraught. On his way home from dialysis Pete took a fall coming into his brownstone door. He broke his right hip. Doctors said he could lie in a bed in agony for eight or 12 months to heal or have surgery and be up on his walker again in six weeks.

Pete chose to roll the dice, which was the right decision because the alternative was not a life at all, and probably an invitation to infections, atrophied muscles, and zero quality of life.

The surgery went well.

I spoke to Pete by phone from the recovery room. “I’m gonna be fine, Dank,” my big brother Pete said, using my nickname. “But let me talk to Fukiko, who has been waiting all day. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

He handed the phone back to Fukiko. In the morning Pete ate breakfast — always his favorite meal — and he did seem fine.

Then his blood pressure started to plunge. His kidneys and his beautiful old heart began to fail him. Fukiko — who knew him best — said Pete was declining. The doctors told her she should have his daughter Adrienne hurry from upstate to be by his side. His other daughter, Deidre, was quarantined in Arizona. COVID protocols said I could not see Pete until the next day.

In the dawn I felt an eerie chill when the phone rang. Fukiko was on the line saying that Pete had just died, and in that freeze-framed moment I closed my damp eyes and the chill had become a blizzard of snow in August.

Aug. 5, 2020.

I choked down an icy sob and rose and texted my sister Kathleen and brothers Brian and John.

Today Pete is back here in Brooklyn, in Holy Name church where he was an altar boy, back in the borough where he took his first newspaper job as a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Eagle before becoming one of the greatest newspapermen this city has ever produced.

And so when we leave here today, Pete’s hearse will whisper down Prospect Park West, passing Farrell’s bar where Pete often drank with our father in the early days and then we will circle down past 378 Seventh Ave. where we were raised by hardworking parents and a magnificent big brother Pete, who showed us all the way out of those humble beginnings was by daring to become what we dreamed we might be.

Then we will cart Pete straight over to the Green-Wood Cemetery where Pete will be laid beneath the Brooklyn earth a mile from our boyhood home in the old neighborhood.

We will shower his casket with red roses and our big brother Pete will keep his final word as he always, always did.

Don’t worry, Pete Hamill will be just fine, back home here in Brooklyn where his marvelous story started and now ends.

So long, my beautiful big brother, you go do the work of the Lord.

Denis Hamill is a writer and former columnist for the Daily News’ where this piece was published on August 8.

Return to the Pete Hamill tribute page.

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