It’s been ten days now since my kid brother died. Ten days to digest what has happened. Ten days to decide what to say about it here, in this blog.
I know that, because this post only reflects my thoughts as they stand today, it, too, will pass, just as my kid brother did. In some future year, if I come back and read what I’m now writing from that future perspective, these thoughts will likely seem outdated. I’ll look back and think how foolish I was, how I missed what was really important. I’ll be embarrassed at how short-sighted I was.
Be that as it may, I do have thoughts, and in my present grief, those thoughts seem worth sharing.
I was six when he was born. Old enough that I remember our mother sitting on a toilet, her water having broken, telling me she was about to have a baby. I was wrong, at that point, to conclude that babies come from bowel movements. But time passes. We learn new things. We gain new perspectives.
At his memorial service last Friday, I read excerpts from letters written when we were little – letters our mother had written to her own mother. Because she wrote a letter every few weeks, the collection of letters makes for a detailed chronology of our childhood. In many ways, my kid brother and I lived privileged lives, but in other ways, we had it pretty tough. There was a constant absence of parents, there was alcoholism, there was neglect, there were beatings, and he got his share of all of them.
Perhaps as a result, my brother was a problem child. When he was not yet two years old, Mom wrote to her mother that he was “the bane of [her] existence.” By the time he was five, she had written that he was a “little menace,” that he had wrecked our sister’s doll house, that he’d bitten other kids at school, that “we run when we see him coming,” and that the other kids in the carpool were scared to death of him. As years passed, new elements were added to her description of the problem child. He was accident prone. Stitches. Burns. Broken bones. He was in trouble at school. He cut classes. His grades were suffering. In high school, he was voted “most accident prone.”
Our mother’s letters were relatively complimentary of me. From a very young age, I was told it was my job to set an example for my brother. I tried my best to do so. Even as a youngster, I saw it as my role to help him see right from wrong. Later in life, I was his landlord twice. When he dropped out of college, I hired him for his first job. And when, in his forties, his life began to fall apart, I found myself still trying to straighten him out. If he had a hard time making good decisions, it was clearly my job to help him.
His death at age sixty-one wasn’t a total surprise. His bad choices played a big role – perhaps the biggest role – in his early departure. And because of that, the anger I felt was as much anger at him as it was for him. Why hadn’t he listened to me and all the others who were telling him to change his lifestyle, to start eating better, to get some exercise, to stop smoking, to stop drinking, to stop his life of physical abuse to himself, to stay on the right side of the law? For a while, anger at his shortcomings dominated all my feelings about what had happened.
Then, from the idea I could have done more to arrest his downward spiral, came guilt. Heck – if his fun-loving lifestyle was responsible for what had happened, how much had I contributed to it? How often had I laughed at the stories he told of his joy-rides and escapades? How often had I repeated those stories, with outer dismay but obvious inner admiration? How often had I smiled and looked the other way, merely shaking my head as he went back to the bar and bought another drink, or drew in another lungful of smoke?
In the ten days since my brother passed, there’s been an outpouring of affection for him such as I’ve never seen. Hundreds of people have mentioned how his fun-loving nature had given them joy again and again and again. At first, I shook my head in more disapproval, thinking they didn’t know him well enough. Couldn’t they see that the very joie-de-vivre they were applauding was what had killed him?
After a few days, I realized that my brother’s irrepressible pursuit of happiness had brought lots of happiness to others, myself included. I started to realize there was a good side to him. That if I were going to be angry at his self-destruction, I had also to celebrate the positive side of his personality, the side of my affable, happy-go-lucky, friendly bon vivant that had brought so much joy to so many.
Now, today, yet another realization. My kid brother’s personality grew from the same soup as mine, the same familial soup as all six of us who grew up as siblings together. Two of us had severe learning disabilities. They, too, always needed help from the rest of us. They, too, finally passed, after a lifetime of dependence. Two more – the two who (with me) remain in this world of the living – turned out to be philosophic sorts. Good people. Deeply religious. Like me, they have become serious, thoughtful people who see themselves as caretakers, responsible for the lives of others. And much as I applaud this aspect of their lives, I realized, this morning, that with my kid brother’s recent passing, I’d lost the one sibling who could be counted on to make me laugh. He was the guy with whom I’d shot pool, played Stratego, chess, Space Invaders and poker, gone camping, whitewater rafting and skinny-dipping, drank whiskey, conceived practical jokes, gone on vacations, exchanged stories, engaged in word-play – he was the guy I’d spoken with by telephone for an hour a day for the past ten months, laughing at his jokes and stories even as I cringed at his late-life struggles. And today, as I face the rest of my life without him, I realize what his loss means to me personally. For much as I love and respect my remaining siblings, my wife, and my children, they, like me, are responsible people. They, like me, are all usually serious people. As the anger and guilt of my grief turns, today, to a depression I hope will be short-lived, I realize that I’ve lost the longest running and most reliable source of laughter in my life – a laughter and joie de vivre I could always (until now) look forward to recurring, even in the worst of times. I’ve lost my main “laughter fix.”
In a sense, we had become co-dependent. Just as his joie de vivre had all but extinguished his sense of “responsibility,” my sense of responsibility had all but extinguished my joie de vivre. If he depended on me as a voice of reason, I depended on him for laughter. And, today, I’m terribly afraid of a future without that laughter. I feel like I’m the addicted one, and that I now face my own withdrawal.
It makes me wonder: Had my very responsibility – the side of me that became his employer, his landlord, the guy who lent him money, who bailed him out of foreclosure – facilitated his lack of it? And had his joking, his sprees, the joy-rides I could always count on him to supply when I needed my own escape from responsibility, had they facilitated the lack of laughter in my own life, when he wasn’t around to provide it?
I don’t know. And I apologize if I’ve gone on too long about my kid brother and me. But I think it raises a larger question.
If, early in life, we grow accustomed to seeing one aspect of a person or thing, does that make it harder for us, later in life, to see other sides of that same thing?
Most things on earth are a combination of good and bad. Rain spoils parades but feeds the grass. Sunshine makes for great picnics and cancerous skin. Fires destroy and so replenish the soil. Aren’t all things multi-faceted? If we see that the barn has two great big doors, does it become harder for us to remember the side that lacks them? If we view a nation, or a religion, or a political party or platform, from one perspective – in a good light, or a bad one– does it make it harder for us to see the other things that it does, or the other values it stands for?
When I was in school, I was president of a debating club. There were always two sides to the debate. We had to argue either for or against the proposition. When I practiced law, there were generally two sides, and once again, we had to argue for, or against, the proposition. Everything in life, it seems, leads us to be for certain things and against others. We go about arming ourselves with the evidence that our adopted side is right and the other side wrong. We come to believe that the side of every barn has two doors – or that it doesn’t. No team in the debate is assigned to argue that both sides of the barn are true, depending on your point of view.
For sixty one years, I viewed my kid brother as dependent on me and others for the sense of responsibility we knew he needed. It didn’t dawn on me, until today, how much I’ve depended on him for the laughter and fun I didn’t realize how much I needed.
Thank you, bro, for that important life lesson. I wish you the best, and I hope I learn as much from you tomorrow.