Am I allowed to talk about this?
I was a lazy and spoiled 10 year old. I could do things for myself but I would wait until my mom did them for me. Sometimes I had to whine. Sometimes I had to look forlorn and put upon and sometimes she just did them without my machinations.
I woke up unusually early on that morning in January 1971. It was a Sunday so the cartoon selection, especially at that time in the morning wasn’t spectacular. Three channels and PBS was my world and the tv needed a person to change the channels. A remote hadn’t even been heard of at that time.
It was odd that my dad wasn’t awake. He was usually up before anyone. I would wait until my mom got up so she could make me some chocolate milk and get my cereal. See spoiled and lazy reference above.
The house was eerily quiet on this morning. My sister Deb was away for her freshman year of college and my brother Tom was asleep at the other end of the house. My other brother, Mike was in the hospital for some kind of leg thing that got painful on Christmas day. He’d been there already a few weeks. I thought he was lucky that he didn’t have to go to school even though I knew he’d have a lot of work to make up.
It was just beginning to seem odd to me that neither of my parents was awake yet, when the front door opened. They weren't even home! I found out later they had been quickly called to the hospital a few hours before.
My mom walked in and sat down close to me on the couch. The speed and intensity of her arrival, despite my sleepiness, made me sit up and pay close attention. I saw my father walk quickly past me and down the long hallway to my brother’s wing of the house. Dad didn’t speak or look at me. His speed and the look on his face really got my attention.
My mom said, “Mike is gone. Your brother died.” With those words she hugged me hard. She was crying, which was a most unusual thing for my mother to do. Stoic was her middle name. Until this morning. She was holding me tight and even though I was only ten, it seemed to me she was holding on for dear life. This was a woman who was not just holding, but clinging to a life she created because of the created life she just lost. I didn’t cry. I was too stunned. I was confused. Those adjectives would continue to define me for a long time.
My apparent lack of any emotion caused my mother to say, “You can cry.” It was the only time she would ever say that to me. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t sure what I was to cry about. I didn’t understand what happened. I could not comprehend.
My dad and brother came from the back of the house. Tom was crying. Dad was crying. Mom was crying. I don’t remember what happened. But seared into my brain is the look on my brother Tom’s face. His brother, his friend, his arch nemesis, his cohort in evil deeds, his competition, his plumb line was dead. His face was the beginning of my ability to understand what just happened.
How much time passed? What happened next? What I remember is that it was a Sunday morning and we go to church every Sunday morning. Always. Each Sunday, my dad would sit in the car, getting mad about possibly being late (we never were) while we straggled out to the car, me, with my doily on my head, and my sister looking perfect and my mom looking proud that we were a family that went to church. The boys always appeared resigned to the ritual.
So, on this Sunday morning, it didn’t seem odd when Dad said, “Lets go to mass.” It seemed like a good idea. That’s what we always did, so that’s what we will do. In casual conversations with therapists I’ve known over the years, some paid, some just friends weighing in, I’ve heard the going to mass moment as “Insane” while another one declared it “Completely understandable.” Looking back, it was a family whose world was suddenly ripped apart and we were grasping for any life raft in the sea of grief we were thrown into the center of.
I got in the car. No doily. I had changed out of my pajamas and put on pants and a t shirt. That was enough on this chilly morning. Florida doesn’t get cold in a way that really defines cold. I still had not cried. I felt like an observer. The car took it’s familiar path to the church. Me, mom, dad and Tom. It was quiet except for my mom and dad weeping. Silent tears fell down Tom’s face. To this day, Tom’s tears are silent. When I look at him now, his deep emotions are there but at a place he keeps to himself.
As we passed the familiar open field where there was a frontage trail that I had logged hundreds, perhaps, thousands of miles on my bike. On the right side of the street there was a church that was not Catholic. It was oddly shaped, in an off center angular, too modern way. I don’t remember the denomination. If it’s not Catholic, it doesn’t matter. Or so we were taught. I asked Sister Bernadette, my second grade teacher, “What happens to the other people at that church when they die?” She replied, from under her big black and white habit, rosary beads swinging from around her hip, in a very matter of fact way, “They go to hell.” I remember being so happy that I was in a church that was going to heaven. When I saw those “other people” going into those “other churches” I felt sorry for them. They seemed oblivious to their fate. Their future was hell for sure. And they didn’t know it. “Phew” I would think as I wiped the back of my hand on my forehead, “That was a close one. Being born Catholic and all.”
It was at that moment in the car, I thought about my brother Mike not coming home ever again. It was that moment, in the semi silent car, driving by the bad church, on our way to the one and only church that God invented, that it began to materialize for me. Mike was not going to ever annoy, towel flick, whack me upside the head, tease me, or help me ever again. I realized I would never hear Mike laugh again. Not ever. It was over. He was not coming back. As we rounded the corner to the familiar church driveway, I began to cry.
That was 50 years ago. I was up this morning, having a cup of tea, thinking about that morning. I was remembering a sweet young boy who was on the cusp of becoming a man when he left us. I wonder about him and I struggle to remember moments that I can hang onto. My siblings were older and I think their memories are more intact. But I wonder what our lives would have been like if Mike hadn’t died? Who would he be today? Who would I be today? We would be different. I would be different. Maybe it made me more insightful, more compassionate. I hope so. I know it created a fear that still exists. At age ten, when your world is suddenly ripped from one end to the other and the loneliness sets in without ceasing, it’s a rough card life has dealt. I hope, and my prayer is, that I can be there for other children that have experienced a death in childhood.
Some sense must come from this. Some good can emerge. Love prevails. Forgiveness creates opportunities for compassion and it is possible to praise and love, no matter what. Life is a gift. Every day is a miracle to be savored. I will remember that, especially today as I drink my tea and pray.
If you think of it, say a prayer today for families that are going through what we went through.