Today is the anniversary of my brother’s death. Forty-three years and I still hear the ache in my mother’s voice. I want to ask for more details, but not on the phone. I know they turned off machines. I know that the aneurism that had struck him down days before continued to bleed. But I was not there. I was 1,700 miles away in my first week of college.
He was a remarkable young man, though it’s hard to call him a young man, for he will always be my older brother. Older, stronger, wiser. He first explained to me the concept of infinity. Well, he impatiently tossed off an explanation that left me stunned, sitting on the side of his bed trying to get my young mind around unending numbers and an endless universe. I remember the feel of the bedspread. And the deer antlers on the wall.
He was four and half years older. I was that constant reminder of childishness that he sought to escape as he made his way through adolescence. He always wanted me to “grow-up.” But he was also the protective big brother, trying to teach me to box, for example, though I’m not entirely sure if it was for my future well-being or an excuse to hit me without consequences.
He read to me when I was sick for a week in second grade.
He gave me my first shave though, again, I don’t know if the aftershave lotion was a kindness or a torture.
In the complex dynamics of our two step-families, he was my family of origin, my enduring connection. It took me a long time to realize how alone in the world I felt after his death.
I spent a long time trying to fill his shoes, as if I could keep him alive somehow.
Watching parents grieve is a terrible experience for children; you are powerless to help them. Their grief carries them away from you. I can remember my mother sitting on the couch, looking at pictures, weeping. I found myself angry. It was too hard seeing her in pain. It’s hard to compete for attention with a missing child.
So we stumble on. And there is no big brother to turn to with all those questions that are part of growing up. Only memories. Memories of him in his Boy Scout uniform. Memories of him mockingly measuring my inseam for the tux I would wear at his wedding. Memories of watching him sail off to Hawaii on a steamer with his best friend. Memories of him on a Swiss hillside with a large round loaf of bread in one hand, a bottle of wine in the other, and an incredible open-armed joy. Memories of him advising me to confess that I had fallen off the fence and broken the newly planted tree: it would be better now than if they found out later. Memories of him checking the handbrake of his Volkswagen beetle every few minutes as we drove it visit his fiancé’s family at their lake cabin in Minnesota. They would be married that senior year and this would be their car. They would be married less than two years.
We stumble on. We form new and deep attachments. We find our way. There is joy again. But there are some holes that always remain unfilled.