His birthday came and went, without so much as a mention, yet I am keenly aware of the day he was born.
Every year, as the date approaches on the calendar, there is a strong sense of something missing. I will try to move past it, over it, avoid it, but I am never able to ignore August 2nd. There will never be a Facebook notification to remind his friends and family to send well wishes. In fact, there is never even a mention that he existed. No memories shared, no one even spoke his name.
His presence is only known to a few, and he is seldom, if ever brought up in conversation.
As a young girl, there were no reminders placed around the home. Conversations were evaded. No keepsakes, and certainly no pictures. Maybe it was because the pain was too unbearable for a mother who had already lost so much, and it was easier to pretend he had never existed then to recognize he was truly gone.
I have an image of a young girl. Maybe eleven years old. She was tough. She was good at being cautious, choosing to wait and watch to see if the situation required her to shrink back, and remain unnoticed. It was safer that way.
Weathered by life and its cruelties already and untrusting of those around her, those sharp blue eyes knew how to scan a room in the blink of an eye, and feel it out.
Only if it felt safe would she let her guard down. Those moments were rare.
Yet this image is not of her with her armor built around her. This image is of her sobbing, wrapped around a woman sitting on a cheap kitchen chair, a rare occurrence even then. Mother and daughter entangled in limbs and blonde hair as that child held on, clinging frantically to the woman for comfort and the grief suddenly too much for that little body to continue to carry.
Her hair is swept back from her face into a ponytail, and her mother is stroking her back. An image of a woman holding a young child, maybe three or four would not seem awkward or even seem untoward. But this girl was too big to be sitting on her mother’s lap in such a fashion. Her body was too large for such a petite woman to be holding, but neither seemed willing to let go.
She had lied.
When asked about her brother by the new girl who just moved into the trailer park, she lied and said he was staying at his grandparents that summer. After all, the new child would certainly not be staying long in that desert hellhole. No one ever did. So the young girl with the tough façade and blonde hair pulled wildly back from her dirty face lied.
It came so easily.
It was so much easier to fall into make believe.
He was simply gone for the summer. But he would be back. She weaved all sorts of tales about his fun adventures for the summer and how she missed him, but he would be back in a couple of months.
That little tattletale ran off and started innocently talking about the girl in the trailer park; the wild one who rode fearlessly on her motorcycle, up and down the dirt paths and who seemed to be searching for something that was never there.
Oh, it was innocent enough, I am sure.
The little tattletale brat, with her short, ratty hair and missing teeth must have told her mother about a boy who was at his grandparents for the summer, but in fact, no longer existed.
When the mother sat on that rickety chair, asking why such a fearless young girl would lie…
I can remember his birthday, but I choose not to remember the date that he died. He was born August 2nd. He had a mop of messy brown hair, and sometimes when my son smiles up at me, I see pieces of that same boy looking up at me.
There are days when I don’t think about him. In fact, I did everything in my power to block any memory of him, choosing to use anger as a shield, and to ignore the date for as long as possible for many years around this time of the year. After all these years, the memory of him weaves in and out. There is still hurt and if I am honest, there is also still bitterness at the loss.
I am curious and want to know who he would have become. Would he have struggled and carried the hurt and the anger and the fear and let it engulf him, as so many others have? Would we have raised our babies by each other? Would he have continued to be my biggest protector and my biggest fan?
As my son approaches the same age as my brother before he died, I have an irrational fear of losing my son. They have so many similarities. Small for their age, reserved and guarded, choosing to watch and wait before jumping into a situation. They both share the same kind heart, and love for their mother, and strong dislike for school.
I can picture his gravestone. I am irritated at whoever decided he should have a motorcycle as a representation of his interests. That was certainly not what he was interested in.
He was 14 years old, with crooked teeth, and a small splatter of freckles across his nose. He wore his jean jacket as if it were an additional piece of skin. He loved the Beastie Boys and Weird Al Yankovic. He was learning to play the drums with any surface he could find. I would tell him to stop using my head as a drum and he would just laugh and walk away. Before he died, I was almost as tall as he was, which was beginning to bother him. It was often just the two of us, our mother, battling her own demons, was often gone.
The older we became, the bigger the messes we made. From cow tipping and chasing feral cats, to windmills and dissecting frogs on a broken-down farm in Kansas, to pick-pocketing drunks as they left the casinos in Nevada, to kinder memories of family gatherings in a small town in Wyoming, I let these memories take me away. Two siblings running wild through the fields, laughing, and sometimes fighting fiercely, but always relying on each other to get through another day.
An older woman kindly asked me if I had any siblings. The usual pit in my stomach clenched, and I can feel my guard come up. The visceral reaction is all to familiar. It has been over thirty years and my body still responds the same way. All the voices in my head begin whispering loudly…”Don’t talk about him…Don’t tell anyone…It is nobody’s business… If they ask about him, just say that he died…it was an accident.”
Instead, I replied quietly,
“I had a brother, once.”
This time, I am standing as she sits. Her brown hair is not ratty, and she glances up at me. Her eyes are curious. She wonders if we were close. I tell her that we were the closest.
She smiles at me and says,
“I am glad you had him in your life.”
I pause. I had never considered it in that light.
I had focused for so long on what I lost, I forgot to focus on what I had!
I have to accept the pain, if I am going to remember the boy.
I remember so many little things…
He pulled thorny stickers from my feet and scolded me for constantly running around without any shoes on. He got into fist fights because of my loud mouth. We would mop the floor in our socks, with too much soap so we could slide around, falling and giggling at our ingenuity. He broke my collar bone because we were jumping out of the top of a closet and trying to do flips onto a bed and I got in the way. We had rips in our tattered Catholic uniforms because we slid down the roof of the barn and constantly snagged our butts on the nails that stuck out, as we fell into a pile of dry hay. The nuns didn’t like us, and often made us eat lunch on the steps of the school outside. We were often ostracized, but together, we didn’t seem to mind much.
We both loved watching Wheel of Fortune and he would call every night to try to win the puzzle that those watching at home could try to solve. Once, when he got through, there was a voice on the other side of the line, exclaiming he had won! But neither of us knew our address, so the prize went to someone else. He would roll his eyes at me because I loved to read but was secretly proud of me when I did good in school, even though he struggled with learning. And I always gave him the last bite of whatever we were sharing.
I would comfort him, and he would comfort me.
We were all we had. And for a short time, it was all I needed. And I loved him fiercely. I imagine I always will.
Maybe that is what life is all about. Feeling the good and the bad. Being grateful for what you do have, instead of focused on what you do not. And love….
Life should always be about loving those around us, even with the risk of losing them.
And from now on, I will be grateful that I had the privilege of having had the best big brother EVER!
❤ Matthew Wild