It’s hard to believe that July 8th marks 13 years since our first son was born. As I try not to think about the Bar Mitzvah we aren’t planning, my mind turns to my handsome seven-year-old. On a hot summer day two years ago (after giving it a great deal of thought), we told him about the brother he’ll never have a chance to meet. The subsequent journey has evoked a wide range of feelings and emotions as he processes the information in his own way and time. Months of silence are interspersed with phases peppered with questions, unexpected situations and the occasional heart-wrenching outburst, sometimes making me wonder if sharing was, indeed, the right thing to do.
I am fascinated by the way he’s managed to incorporate this brother he never knew into his own personal narrative. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not an only child; if you ask him, chances are he’ll tell you – seemingly without putting too much thought into what he’s saying – that he had a brother, but his brother died. He’s told teachers when they’ve asked and told friends as well. He even went through a phase of drawing pictures of our family, pictures that included his brother. One such drawing showed a smiling little boy surrounded by a circle of hearts, while another showed the three of us around his brother, who had an additional circle around him – for protection. I keep the pictures in the top drawer of my nightstand, careful not to crush or crumple them by always keeping them on top – safe and out of sight.
There was a period of time when every friend who came to visit him was brought directly over to the photograph we keep on a shelf in the living room and “introduced” with the phrase, “this is my brother who died”, which is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a rather difficult concept for some young children to comprehend (and not always easy for me to watch, especially given the exchange that often ensued following the “introduction”). In the end, we put the photograph away for a while until he stopped feeling a need to continue the practice. There were a number of occasions, however, where I found myself having to unexpectedly stammer out an explanation to a parent coming to pick up a child when the child would say that they were “drawing pictures of The Kid’s brother”, or when my son would mention “having a brother who was dead”.
Sometimes, he has questions. He wants to know how much his brother weighed when he was born, and I tell him 700 grams – less than the bag of sugar we buy at the supermarket. He asks what was wrong, and I explain that he was born very early (at 26 weeks) and that he had very serious problems. When he asks what the problems were, I tell him using simple terms, trying not to give out more information than he’s asking for or needs to hear (that his brother couldn’t swallow because the tube that should have brought food to his tummy was broken). He knows that his brother was “very sick”, and that he just wasn’t big enough or strong enough. At his request, I’ve told him how old his brother was when he died (six-and-a-half months) and how old he would be today. I try not to register too much emotion when he asks his questions out of the blue – I want him to feel comfortable asking and I don’t want him to think there are secrets. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, but it’s usually not too difficult. And when it is, I take a deep breath, swallow and proceed to answer his questions as best I can.
Yet, other moments are heartbreaking. I’ve had instances when he was asking questions and would suddenly become silent before running down the hallway to his room, where I’d find him sitting quietly on his bed with a sad look on his face. On many occasions, he would lean into me, crying softly in my arms while telling me he missed his brother. I hold him close and try to comfort him, while trying very hard to keep from falling apart myself. Sometimes, he’s angry as well; I felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach and had my heart shattered one day when he cried and angrily told me through his sobs how he wished he’d been the one to die instead of his brother. With tears in my eyes, all I could do was take him in my arms, rest my head on his and let him know that I never wanted him to say that again, trying to keep the anger and horror out of my voice because I simply couldn’t bear to hear him say such things.
And then there were the funny moments, such as several weeks ago when, over dinner at the home of friends, one of the daughters turned to The Kid and asked, “what did you mean when you said your brother died because he was born too early? What, like before midnight?”, causing all four parents to choke with laughter and surprise (and more than a little shock from such an unexpected question). When I asked my son about it afterwards, he told me they’d asked him whether or not he had any siblings, so I guess he’d given his standard answer.
All of which makes me wonder about our decision to share such a heavy piece of family history, to burden him with decisions of his own regarding who to tell and how (he told his English teacher when she asked if he had any brothers or sisters, but when a classmate asked the same question, he said he didn’t have any siblings). On the one hand, I feel that despite him never actually having met his brother, he doesn’t feel like he’s an only child; I like to think that’s a good thing. That being said, I regret the pain that having this knowledge has, at times, inflicted on him – after all isn’t it my job as a parent to try to spare him? And while he will not find himself in a painful tailspin of memories and wildly unpredictable emotions and mood swings like I do when each milestone date begins to creep up, I think it is still an awfully big burden to place on the shoulders of such a little boy.
This entry was posted in Daily life, Family, Loss, Self-Reflection and tagged children, Family, Loss, Memories, Milestones by Liza Rosenberg