Before I got the call, I had been thinking of my brother all day.

It was the day after my 22d birthday: Dec. 3, 1999. Sixteen years - it doesn't seem that long ago.

I was living in D.C., tending bar on Capitol Hill. John was home in Queens, fighting things he had been fighting for so long - the addictions that were taking him.

I had been thinking of the time we had just spent together over Thanksgiving. He was living in a recovery house, but had come home for the holiday.

He was 34, a talented guitarist and songwriter. He graduated from Fordham with a computer science degree and a job offer from the university. But music was life, and he turned the job down to pursue it. In high school, I would bring girls home to listen to him practice. In college, I would take trains to the city to see his gigs.

And for three nights over that Thanksgiving, I sat with him in an upstairs bedroom, listening to him play the guitar. I didn't want to be anywhere else. He was my oldest brother. I idolized him.

He had written new songs that needed lyrics. Maybe I could write some for him, he said. He was kind that way. I had never written lyrics, and if I had, I couldn't write ones like he could. But that's how he was - always encouraging me and my brothers and sisters in the things we loved.

He would mail me a tape of the songs, he said. In between his new songs, he taught me Beatles tunes. In between the Beatles tunes, we talked for hours.

He could no longer see in himself the things everyone else saw so easily: his talent and creativity, his good looks and unstudied coolness, his kindness, his killer smile and his laugh - God, I loved his laugh - and all the other things that made us all want to be so much like him. He said he didn't see a place for himself in the world anymore.

We talked until close to dawn.

The day it happened, I had gotten a birthday card from him in the mail. He called me "Hemingway" in it. He was kind that way.

He didn't send a tape of the songs with the card. And I remember thinking, "I need to get him to send it to me before he dies."

Before he dies. It was just a passing thought, but I thought it just the same. Then, instead of calling him, I sat down and practiced the Beatles tunes.

I got the call that night at work. His heart had given out. They found him lying against a fence near a bus stop. I remember being glad it wasn't suicide.

It's easier to lose yourself in regret than it is to accept that someone you love is gone. Easier to think of anything else. And for a long while, the belief that I could have done more to save my brother - the sadness that our family's love hadn't been enough - consumed my grief.

For a long while, my regret over that passing thought - ''before he dies" - and everything connected to it shaped me, whether I knew it or not. My shame over it. For a time, it nearly consumed me.

We remember the dead as they were. And we carry on the best of who they were so their souls live on. I carry on the best of my brother. At least, I try.

I hope it makes me a better person. More like him.

And I carry that regret still. Let it shape me still, though it no longer consumes me.

I carry it because I don't want to miss another opportunity to be there for someone I love when they need me the most. I don't want to miss another chance to say goodbye.

And I hope that somehow makes me a better person, too.

We carry the best of those we have lost.

We carry our memories.

We carry our regret.

We carry all of that.

And then we dream of them - their laugh, perhaps - and we wake up so sad to say goodbye.

And we go on.

mnewall@phillynews.com215-854-2759@MikeNewall