I MISS MY BROTHER
Sometimes I wonder if the decision not to have a second child was because I didn’t want my son to have the potential of the extreme pain if he had a sibling who died. I never really have said this aloud. When I would be asked if Dave (Dave being former husband and father of Michael) and I were ever planning on having another child after Michael was born, I knew one child would be enough and would say so. Many times the person asking me the question would look almost outraged and would usually say something like, “Awww, that is so sad, Michael will never have a little baby brother or sister.” Sometimes when I was feeling particularly fresh and freshness was pretty common back then, I would respond with, “Well I had a sibling and he died,” I cringe at that reply, after all people are often only spewing their own belief systems and projecting their own realities on to other people not usually with mal intent.
Sibling loss is so sad even twenty-two years later. There are the immense changes that take place in the family dynamics. Then there are all of the unknown changes too, and there is a profound awareness of simply knowing that things would have been different if Michael were still alive. How could they not be?
My mother’s sisters, my aunts, Kiley and Peggy, were super close to each other like my brother and I. I imagine that sisters are even closer than a brother and a sister and as I am writing this I am realizing that losing a sibling is another thing that my aunt Kiley and I have in common. Essentially I am like Kiley’s younger sister as she is only fifteen years older than me. When Peggy died, Kiley experienced such traumatic pain. Unlike my brother’s diagnosis, there was no preparation for Peggy, she went into the hospital Memorial Day weekend and died two months later. I hadn’t been that close to Peggy in recent years, but we loved each other for sure and I always took great comfort that Kiley had Peggy to lean up to and on to.
When siblings die there is no doubt of a family shake up and ours was fractured severely. What and who was left in the wake, though was a much tighter bond of Kiley, me and my son, Michael. My mother went MIA and so did Peggy’s husband and daughter.
The odd thing about sibling loss is as painful as it is, I deeply understand that the pain will never compare to the loss of a child. Losing my brother meant that my parents lost their son and the loss was devastating on multiple levels. My parents had such a volatile divorce and my mother never really got over my father leaving her. Despite the denial of her anger at my father, she seemed pretty pissed at him for most of her life and losing my brother sealed the deal with her anger and her intense sadness.
The vestiges of unworked grief have left their trail in all of the relationships since. Grief must be worked through not around or it rears its ugly and sad head in the relationships left behind. I miss my brother because a sibling is the only person who knows the insides of our homes, our parents’ idiosyncrasies, their streaks of meanness and their streaks of goodness. No one knows this besides a sibling, not extended family members, not dearest friends, but siblings. When my brother died, so did our sharing of our memories of childhood, our histories with our parents, their marriage, their divorce, their remarriage. When my brother died, he took with him the connection we had that got me through the twisted and combative relationship with my mother.
I often had the sense with Ann that she was almost disappointed that it was Michael and not me that left this planet first. My mother had finally started to repair the relationship she had failed at with Michael earlier that caused him to live with my father. Michael had moved to North Carolina after high school to live with her while he went to college down there. He developed a really close relationship with Ann’s husband, Nik and as much as parents drive their kids crazy, Michael navigated around Ann’s world and seemed to be figuring it out. He had his share of girlfriends and Ann did her thing loving them in the first five minutes and then judging the hell out of them. I think Ann unconsciously felt that she finally had a chance to regain some parenting ability with at least one of her children. Any potential girlfriend was a threat to the ill informed theory that there is never enough love to go around.
I don’t know if I have written publicly about my mother’s tragic loss of my brother and me to my father. She lost custody of both of us to my father. This was in 1980. Kramer vs. Kramer time. Couples were just starting to get divorced and the notion that a mother could lose custody was odd. For me, who I lived with wasn’t really the issue. I was 15 and the courts at that time let me make the decision, but for my ten year old brother, this would involve the courts. I think my mother always thought that my father tried to get custody of both of us for financial reasons or to spite her. I never had that sense with him. David (my father) realized early on that he was dealing with someone who easily flew off the handle, after all he had been married to her for sixteen years. She was always raging about something. It’s funny, when I recall her, I can see her angry twisted face first.
It wasn’t all awful, she had a fabulous laugh and a great sense of humor. She also taught me incredible social skills, but our experience in the house was layered primarily with anger and rage and I never knew where to walk when I was in her presence. My father leaving her was a major blow to an already highly charged personality. Instead of taking a few breaths, staying calm and thinking about what would be best for their kids, Ann and Dave went into reactive mode and my brother and I were the remnants of the storm.
Michael suffered the most. He was only 8 or 9 when they separated. Our lovely house in Jamestown, RI was sold, we were moved to Brookline and started a new school the following September. Oddly we adjusted fairly quickly, but Ann was an emotional wreck. Her prospects must have been frightening. For the first time she realized that she was on her own with no obvious skill set and had to figure it out. I always admired this about her. She had a really comfy life financially with my father and when they got divorced alimony was temporary. She figured out how to survive and thrive on her own. This must have given her incredible satisfaction. Surely as sad as it was that my brother and I moved in with my father less than a year after the initial breakup, it was probably easier to figure out her career without the worry of caring for two kids as a single mother. The emotional scars from losing your children this way though were probably unforgiveable.
There is a view for me into this window of understanding, but at the same time, we should have all been in family therapy. She should have been in therapy. The blame game only allows the excuses so far; ultimately as a parent, your first responsibility is your children. Mistakes happen, I have made my fair share of them, but admitting them and learning from them is life. Ann never really seemed to do this, she ran and we ran from her.
My brother dying, then my father dying leaving us as the surviving two was almost ironic. I remember when my father was first diagnosed with cancer over seven years ago now. I said to him, “Dad, are you and Michael seriously going to leave me with Mom?” This is a cringe worthy comment I am almost ashamed to publicly display, but NINE WEEKS TODAY confirms my need for total transparency and pure unfiltered honesty.
I wish I could say that there was hope for a reparation with Ann. Surely all of my writing has likely not helped this cause as I am sure even if she were reading these heartfelt pieces, she would only read the things that appeared negative. As many of those elements that exist live between us, I have tried to sprinkle in the positive attributes along the way. There is always hope for forgiveness. What I have learned about forgiveness in my years of Al Anon meetings along the way is that forgiveness is not about getting another person to change. It is about releasing the pain so that it doesn’t destroy you. I work on this everyday. Like the sad loss of my brother, I am sure the unfortunate loss of my mother in my life will never completely go away. What I know for sure is that the very important relationship of mother and child is the foundation of how we move through our world. What I have learned from all of its rawness and difficulty is how to improve upon it. So the gift for me is the way I have learned how to parent, the way Dave and I travelled through our divorce in a calm and loving way as best as we could. This to me is the result of the work of FORGIVENESS. The work never ends for sure.
I began this piece calling it I MISS MY BROTHER. As my writing winds its way and finds its way to places I didn’t know I was going to, here it lands. It seems I miss my mother too.
Gotta love Alanon quotes