My Brother Tony

In 1963 my parents brought Gary Neil Lawrence home to live with us. He was to be the last in a long line of foster children who had come through our small three-bedroom home. I was 13.

A year after he arrived my parents adopted him on April 1st. It was always a great joke for my father to tease him about it being an April Fool’s joke. I never thought it was funny.

Gary chose to change his name to Anthony Paul Bonenberger. His first name was taken from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church where we lived in Mendocino and Paul was from the man who was responsible for instigating the adoption.

Gary came to us at five weighing 35 pounds with a conclave chest and an appetite which emulated someone who had been subjected to starvation. He couldn’t even a finish a half a sandwich. He arrived with the clothes on his back and a small paper bag with one change of underwear.

He was the most amazing child. He was always smiling, imitating Donald Duck and offering to help where ever he could. He would brush my hair, polish our brother Peter’s shoes for church, or stand on a wooden box and dry the dinner dishes as I washed them.

It was his job to bring in the groceries from the garage when our mother went grocery shopping once a month in Fort Bragg. The trunk would be full and she would buy things like a 25 pound bag of puffed rice cereal. One day when he was making his third or fourth trip back to the garage I told him to stop and tie his shoes. Of course he ignored me and as he was dragging the puffed rice over his back he tripped on his shoe laces.

I heard him calling for help and when I looked out the window I saw his two small hands and two small feet flailing from underneath this huge sack of cereal while he cried out in muffled plea, “help, help!”

Believe me, it was so hard not to laugh, but I picked him up and dusted him off and tied his shoes for him.

When he was 15 I came home from Chico for a weekend visit and after witnessing my mother’s treatment of Tony I went out to my father and told him I was taking Tony with me. He asked if it was for the week and I said no, I wasn’t going to let him stay in the house with her another day.

Tony, of course tested my patience, being a 15 year old. The first weekend I left town was right after we found an old 54 Ford truck. It needed tail lights and a lot of work, but Tony was very talented mechanically.

I had barely checked into my room in Monterey when I got a call from the Chico Police. They stopped Tony because the tail lights were out on the truck. Fortunately I knew the officer and told him I’d pick up Tony on Sunday when I got back.

You can imagine how angry he was when I picked him up. It was great that it happened so early on in our three years together. When we got back home I reminded him of the rules we had talked about. From that point on he never stepped over the line.

By the next summer I realized how little there was for 16 year old boys to do. We talked about the challenge one day after I tripped over his friend Monty as well as a few other friends who were stretched out on the floor. I was managing a rock and roll band who decided to change their name. We came up with an idea to have a “Name the Band” contest and have a dance to announce the new name.

With the funds we generated from the dance, we started an organization called “Youth Enterprises”. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Jesse James, both ministers, a priest, high school teacher, attorney, a CPA and a baseball coach were on our board of directors.

One of the first projects the kids decided to do was to clean up Chapman town. We got Keller Williams to donate paint and they painted fences, cleaned yards and the gully that ran through the neighborhood.

We found a bar that had lost their liquor license and converted it to an under 21 club. Each person who attended had to work an hour serving sodas or tending the door. It became a place for kids who had music talent to play in groups.

The organization kept going strong until I left Chico in 1977, but it would turn out to be a great influence on me the rest of my life.

While Tony and I were together those three years he told me stories about his life before coming to live with us. When he was four, he was forced to live in dog house in the back yard of one foster family. Just before coming to stay with us he was in a home where there were 11 children. He was the youngest and they all slept in one room which was covered wall to wall with mattresses.

The oldest of the boys was 15, he molested the next youngest who molested the next youngest until the molestation came down to this little five year old. I will never know if the home was closed down or what happened to those other unfortunate children, but as much as it broke my heart, I knew it had wounded Tony in a way that never would heal.

Tony went into the Army in the summer of ’77 and I moved to Hawaii. When he got out, he drifted from one thing to another until one day when he left to go to the store to get a pack of cigarettes, he just kept on going.

Three years later I got a phone call from someone in New York who said Tony wanted me to know he was alright. After a few weeks, I finally got to talk with him and arranged to go see him in New York.

Over the three years, he had worked on oil rigs in Brownsville. Texas; worked heavy equipment in the hills of Tennessee; spent a life of leisure dating the daughter of a wealthy CEO in Washington, DC; modeled for Pierre Cardin in New York and was even on the cover of Gentlemen’s Quarterly.

When I caught up with him, he was dating Barbie Benton, one of Hugh Heffner’s future models. He had blossomed into an amazing talented and entertaining young man.

Eventually he came back to California and lived in San Francisco. Very soon after the move he met Sandy who would become his wife. They moved to Arizona so she could be nearer her family and eventually after their divorce, Tony ended up back in Texas, Dallas this time, where most of our family had migrated to over the years.

In December 1998 I got a call from Tony to tell me they found he had colon cancer. They had removed 27 sections of his colon and gave him 6 months to live.

I asked him to come back to the Bay Area and let me work with him. I had  already survived 9 years of major health catastrophes even though the doctors kept pronouncing death sentences on me.

Thankfully he showed up, three days after Christmas. When he got off the plane in Oakland I barely recognized my 6’1″ tall brother who then only weighed 135 pounds. It broke my heart to see how ill he was. He was weak to say the least and yet still ready with his great big smile just for me.

We got him to the Oncologist in Concord and after a battery of test, we went in to hear their plan of action. When I looked up on the cabinet where his medical file was hanging I felt as though I had been slugged in the stomach.

In 3″ high red letters on the outside of the medical jacket appeared “HIV”.

I looked at Tony; he shrugged with a helpless look on his face. Without a word and without knowing how I moved the six feet to where he was sitting, I reached out and hugged and rocked him with silent tears streaming down my face.

It turned out the HMO hospital in Dallas had managed to give him tainted blood while he was there. The Oncologist explained even under the best of circumstances the advanced stage of the colon cancer would be impossible to cure. Again, they predicted a six month life expectancy.

The treatment was grueling to say the least. Over radiation, burnt the skin from his waist to the back of his knees, the chemo made him so ill he couldn’t keep any type of food down during the first month and his clothes literally stuck to his skin. He often had to take a shower to pry them off of his battered body.

I unplugged the cable TV and would only rent slap stick comedies like “Dumb and Dumber” or anything Jim Carrie or Jerry Lewis was in. Tony knew Jerry’s dialogues by heart by the time he was 16. I taught him to meditate, or at least how to quiet his mind and how to listen to his body to know what he should eat. I didn’t care if it was a Twinkie, steak or a case of Coors. Whatever he thought he wanted was fine by me.

I wouldn’t allow him to deal with the insurance company which cancelled his insurance twice because he wasn’t working.

After four re-starts of chemo (they somehow couldn’t get it right), the doctor called one day and announced they were scheduling another MRI. Two days after the MRI, the same doctor called and said they needed to do a second MRI.

Tony looked at me and simply said “It’s gone.”

He was the only one out of six who were going through colon cancer, all younger than Tony’s 39 years, who survived.

During the HIV/AIDS group counseling sessions, Tony met Jeanne. A year later, they were married. Tony had never seemed happier than during those next five years. He talked himself into a construction job and learned the trade well. When Jeanne’s parents moved south, Tony was concerned about his health situation and moved her and her children Chris and Mellissa to Visalia so they would all be close to her parents.

Sure enough, in 2000, the cancer came back with all the stress Tony was under and this time with a vengeance. He had cancer everywhere through out his body except his brain.

By this time I had discovered the RIFE machine, invented by Doctor Royal Rife in 1935. I managed to get a hold of one of the original machines and showed Tony how to use it.

I had a dear friend who is a Shaman do distance healing work on Tony every Friday from July 4th until Labor day weekend when Tony called to tell me the cancer was localized in his pancreas. I asked my friend to focus on Tony’s pancreas like a laser beam and every Friday through the end of November, that’s what he did.

Thanksgiving week Tony called and asked if he could come and stay with me, he had a job interview in the Bay Area the next Monday. The cancer was completely gone, with no trace.

Eventually he managed to land a job in Visalia where he was able to build his own house, from the foundation up. He was so proud of his home. Every inch of the house was constructed by his loving hands.

Then the spring of 2006 Tony was scouting the construction site where he was the acting foreman and noticed someone had left an expensive door on the ground outside the house it should have been installed in. By himself, he lifted the door on the back of his truck which was at an uphill slant. The door began to slide off the truck bed and he turned quickly to push it back but in the process, he ruptured his groin.

He went to a doctor for out patient treatment, but unfortunately the doctor managed to infect him with a staff infection. The HIV which had been dormant for years was to become full blown AIDS.

Instinctively I decided to drive to Visalia one weekend in August. When I drove up Tony was just getting out of his truck. I tried to shield my reaction from him, but I’m sure he saw the look of shock on my face. I had never seen anyone look as gaunt as he appeared. He was back down to 135 when his normal weight was 190.

Tony was once again single, so I took to driving to Visalia each weekend, shopping for groceries, cooking dinners he could defrost during the week, cleaning his house and hanging out so he’d have someone to talk with.

I asked him to move back to the Bay Area, but he was extremely reluctant to let go of his lovely home. But by April he relented and moved back nearer to me. We managed to get him admitted to the VA hospital in Palo Alto after about a month of pleading for more than out patient care at the Livermore VA hospital.

His heart had enlarged and was touching his collar bone, extended down to his waist and crushing his right lung. His reaction when we first saw the x-ray was “See I told you I had a big heart!”

He had edema, kidney and liver failure as well as pulmonary hypertension. He had an entire team of eight doctors from Stanford who would bring in their students to witness what a miracle he was to still be alive.

By the middle of the summer (then 2007) Tony had stoically acquiesced to the nature of his health situation.

Never once did he complain. Never once did his amazing sense of humor fail him nor me. Never once did I witness anything other than the bravery he faced his entire life with. He transcended January 28, 2008 in his sleep, of congenitive heart disease. His service was a simple affair, 30 people gathered in Visalia at a park. We shared food and our own stories and then each of us released a white heart helium balloon with our own special wishes for his flight to his next journey be with more ease than his life on this earth gave him.

We had talked many times about all the children who are born into this world to parents who don’t know how to protect or love them. I made my brother a promise to create a legacy for him.

UBU is that legacy. It is to serve those who have yet to find that safe place on earth where they know they are cared for, unconditionally.

1 thought on “My Brother Tony”

  1. Sharyn, what a beautiful story, beautiful relationships and beautiful man. So moving and touching. I don’t know what else to say but thank you for the inspiration and what you are doing in Tony’s legacy.

Leave a Comment