Out of the blue, an old friend texted me this morning — a rare occurrence, after all these years. In it, a vibrant photo featured a father with his three happy boys, none yet a teenager. Then I saw it: the word, ‘obituary’.
After my brother, Jordan, died in 2004, I left one universe to enter another. The one I left understood death from the perspective of fear for the unknown, as well through the intellectual notion of sympathy. That’s because both fear and sympathy are the tools of outsiders. Then, that June 1st, I became an insider — one who has breathed Death’s stench, close up. Fear gave way to despair, while sympathy found its future outlet in the far more emotional world of empathy.
Loss, in all of its ugly complexity, was suddenly real.
Death had gone from something abstract — something ‘terrible’ and worthy of ‘thoughts and prayers’ that happened to others — to something not just very real, but personal; a new star by which to navigate a suddenly fragmented life. Our parents aged overnight, with one of them becoming listless, then as now, a decade and a half later. That same parent has become obsessed with my brother’s life, in death, having turned him from a beautiful yet very human being into a veritable God — an infallible and unreachable paragon of everything superlative. In his reimagining of his other son, I was relegated primarily to the position of recipient for his regular diatribes about my brother’s greatness. In a sense, my relationship with our father died that day, too. He no longer has room for much else, other than to rake himself over the coals continually, in the absence of accepting his son’s death for what it was: ugly, senseless, unforeseeable, and at the tender age of 38, an unavoidable tragedy to be accepted, after the fact, and made meaningful, somehow.
I guess he chose his path.
For me, personally, Jordan’s death meant the loss of my best friend, first and foremost, whose voice and counsel I’d never — ever — hear again. The new context of being an only child after having enjoyed a life with someone who “got me”, and me him, like no other, meant that our aging parents became my future charge, alone. I was now the sole would-be caregiver, in spite of the fact that my brother, the doctor, was the one with the constitution and temperament for these things. From tiny needs to massive ones, our parents now have but one place to go, as an outlet. The loss of sharing — future milestones and tragedies alike, dissected, discussed, lamented, extolled — was perhaps my most acute personal loss; as though I lost part of my own sense-making apparatus. Jordan was that for me, and I know I was, for him, too.
The impact goes on.
Now, whenever I hear about someone else’s loss — especially someone I know well — it is no longer abstract. I am no longer “sorry for their loss”. I am, however, “heartbroken,” in a very visceral way. That’s because it sends me back ‘there’, to ‘that place’, full of loss and anguish and confusion. That place full of, “how do I even begin to make sense of what cannot be made sensible?” Of, “how do I get up tomorrow, and continue doing things that seem meaningless now, next to what just happened?” Things like grocery shopping, or making money, or laughing…
Eventually, we place our numbness on the back burner, because that is the only way to move on. In that way, we honor the dead, by not amplifying the loss with our own actions.
Death Strikes Again
This morning, out of the blue, my old friend Marc reached out. I always liked him very much, but we hadn’t seen one another much since he left New York years ago, to follow his then-wife — a geneticist — when she landed a job opportunity, in Texas. I was surprised and delighted to see his name and face pop up on my phone. He sent a photograph, without words, of his three beautiful boys surrounding him — all of them smiling, ear to ear. Underneath it sat a link that read, “Alexandre XXXXXX Obituary, TX”.
[I’ve scrubbed his family name, for reasons of family privacy.]
My heart sank.
I knew Alexandre as ‘Pax’, which is how Marc referred to him. Pax, a month shy of his tenth birthday, died just over a week ago, on October 14, 2020.
I breathed in sharply. Marc had just become an insider, like my parents, only with 28 fewer years to enjoy his son. He now knew Death’s stench personally, like me. So while it was no later than 7am in Houston, I picked up the phone reflexively and spent the next hour trying to listen, and help Marc make sense of the senseless; a fruitless attempt to take on one scrap of what he was feeling. The best I could conjure — involuntarily — was the pain I felt for him, as a parent of young children. I cried quietly while we talked, because my own brother’s death, and the unconditional love I now know as a father, both allowed me to feel pain.
Marc is at the very first step of an ugly journey that foists logistics upon you before you’ve had a chance to process anything — to begin grieving, in whatever form our own nature allows us to. A funeral. Two more children to protect, love and help process a cataclysm, even though we may want to fall apart ourselves. The uncomfortable dance with an ex-wife and co-parent, and the numbing complexities that surround the context of Pax’s death — complexities it is not my place to discuss here, though my heart goes out to him doubly so in the knowledge of what they are. And Pax’s brothers: they, too, will be caught up in those complexities, in addition to their own.
Marc’s road is long and lonely. It has changed everything, in an instant.
Our prime focus, as adults — our professional goals, a life well lived — suddenly feel meaningless, even crass; distasteful. At the same time, that which required no consideration at all — being dad, picking Pax and his brothers up, talking about homework, or logistics, or girls — are suddenly, deafeningly agonizing in their finality — in their forever absence.
The loss of a child is every parent’s greatest nightmare. The specter of losing my daughter has consumed much of my own fear apparatus since my brother died, thereby turning two into one, for our parents. With a single daughter, before I met my current wife, and her — now our — two children, I was never far from the dreadful fear that if I lost her, as my parents had lost a son, I’d have no one. It made me yearn for more children, for the incomprehensible reason of “odds”. As a hedge.
How nonsensical is it to think of children as “odds”?!
Many in the developing world, I now know — with still-pitiful survival rates — have accepted that grim reality.
I have not lost a child, thankfully. If I did, I don’t know how I could recover. Marc now has to figure that out, on his own. Thankfully, he was blessed with two other boys who still need him — now, more than ever — and whom I’m sure love him, as they should. He is truly a beautiful man, inside and out. I hope those rays of sunshine keep him grounded, while the Earth is swallowing him up. They need one another now, to brace against what’s coming.
The return to sun is not guaranteed. But it is absolutely possible. Those who have lost can find new life. The forms are countless. Most of them do no dishonor to those they have lost. Many of them reveal renewed purpose, in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I honor my brother daily, not just in my thoughts but in the lessons he provided and left, even though it took a decade or more for me to finally understand some of them, and where I could not only act on them, but know who they came from. I know there are more to come.
Our lives are touched by those closest to us in not only profound, but permanent ways. They leave marks — marks for us to uncover, with time, and to internalize, then act upon, for ourselves and for others. Flames to keep us warm, and alive. Ideas and insights to help make sense of the messy process of being human, with its love and loss; its victories and defeats; its ecstasies and its agonies.
Pax will be missed, by no one more than the parents who brought him into the world, and nurtured him; and moreover, by the brothers who never truly knew life without him. My heart breaks for Marc, but I cannot lift his burden. I can only be there, and let him know this, regularly. It was already tough for him to be away from his native home, then his adopted one, in the North East: Cambridge, and New York. He followed a wife in good faith, then remained there as a father.
And now this.
This is the time, I recall vividly, when we need our friends and those who love us most. We need to talk; to process; to hear; to be heard; to sit quietly, in the company of safety — the safety to fall apart, if that’s what our cards hold for us; or to pretend, every now and then, that we are still whole, and can laugh.
It’s called grieving. And until it happens, adequately, per se, our sense-making will remain hindered. Sixteen years into mine, it’s not yet complete, even though I had an entire summer to grieve, when I holed myself up in a basement and wrote a memoir in honor of my brother’s and my relationship.
Whether or not the book was any good as a story, it was the perfect vehicle for my own catharsis; my ability to return to the world I left when he did.
The road ahead is long, Marc. Just know you are loved, much as Pax was; and that your friends and family — the ones who are still here — will do what we can to help return you to health, whatever that may look like, for you.
You are not alone, in this experience or in life.