I was only six years old when it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was early one summer's morning. Daddy came into our bedroom without a sound and sat down at the edge of my bed. He didn't look like Daddy at all. He looked so small and scrunched up, like a crumpled piece of paper.
For a long time my two older sisters and I sat there in our pyjamas, nervously looking at each other and waiting in silence for him to speak.
Finally, in a strange strangled whisper, he told us that my brother, my sweet little Sam, had died last night in his sleep
The sounds of screaming filled the room. But I...I just froze. I didn't cry. I couldn't cry. No! A voice screamed inside my head. Sam! Sam! You wouldn't leave me! You wouldn't!
Above the cries I could hear Daddy telling us that Sam had gone to a better place where he wasn't sick anymore; he was happy there. But I refused to believe him. Sam was happy here with me! He loved me and I loved him. I knew it was all a horrible dream. I would wake up soon and run straight to Sam. I would see him lying in his bed and I would hold his hand and kiss his cheeks and love him forever.
Even though Sam was only four, almost two years younger than me, and even though he had a disease called Tay Sachs and couldn't speak or laugh or play, he was my very best friend in the whole world.
Every day while he lay in bed I would sit with him for hours, stroking his soft cheeks and singing him songs. Daddy said he was like my little dolly. But he was so much more than that -- he was my everything.
He was part of me and I was part of him. It couldn't be that Sam had left me all alone and I would never see him again.
It was hard for me to breathe. I was so scared that this terrible dream was not a dream after all.
But I could hear Daddy's voice saying over and over inside my head. "Sam's gone. Sam's gone." The words became louder and louder and my heart began to beat faster and faster and there was nowhere to hide and it was hard for me to breathe and I was so scared that this terrible dream was not a dream after all.
I looked up at Daddy. How I wished he would tell me that this was all some big mistake. But when he looked back at me I saw one small tear escape from the corner of his eye, like wax from a candle dripping slowly down his face, and I knew it was true. That cruel word "death" had come and taken my brother away.
I fell onto my bed and cried. I felt all the happiness and laughter inside of me sort of...fly away, and a black, ugly feeling crept in. It spread itself over every part of me, it sank into my bones and it crawled inside my heart. And I thought I would never be happy again.
"All for the best"?
After a short while lots of people that I had never seen before started coming into the house. One by one they came in with their heads held low. I wanted to speak to Mommy. To ask her what was going on. Who were all these strange guests? Why was everyone talking so quietly? It was all so confusing, so frightening. All I wanted was my Mommy to hold me, to look after me, to tell me what was happening, but now she was surrounded by strangers and seemed to be somewhere far, far away.
A large woman came over to me, grabbed me by the hand and made me sit next to her. "Poor little thing," she said, patting my leg. "You're brother was very sick," she told me, as if I didn't know. "Things will be much better now that your Mommy won't have to look after him anymore. It's all for the best. But your Mommy's very sad right now. Can you understand that?" she asked as if I were a little baby.
I stared back at her, unable to speak.
"Try not to bother her right now. Maybe you can go and find some toys to play with," she said patting my leg again before she got up and walked away.
I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs to that woman: Just because I'm a child doesn't mean I don't have any feelings of my own! Don't you dare tell me that this is for the best! This is the worst thing that could ever happen in the entire world! My brother may have been sick but I loved him with all of my heart!
Nobody noticed me, crushed into thousands of pieces in the corner. Then suddenly I was told that it was time for me to go to school.
But nobody heard me. Nobody noticed me, alone and crushed into thousands of pieces in the corner.
And then, all of a sudden, I was told that it was time for me to go to school. I was buckled up in the back of a neighbour's car and in silence we drove to school.
I stood outside the cold, green gates, watching the children play for some time before I finally forced myself to enter them. I wanted to run away, I was so scared, so sad, so lonely, but there was nowhere to run and no one to run to. I made my way inside, feeling lost and alone.
With every step I took, another little head turned in my direction; the staring, the pointing, the giggling, I saw it all and I made myself carry on. By the time I found my friends my face felt like it was on fire and my chest was beating so loudly it was as if someone was playing the drums on my heart.
At first nobody spoke to me, they only stared. But I was glad. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Then a girl from my class started walking towards me. Don't speak to me. Please don't say anything! I prayed.
But it seemed that my prayers weren't being answered that day. "The teacher told us that your brother died!" she announced for everyone to hear. "Is it true?"
No one said a word. They only stared at me as if I was some sort of alien and desperately waited to hear my answer. And right then I knew that I would never let any of them see me cry. And I never did.
In a short time the death of my brother became old news; my friends quickly moved on and soon forgot I ever had a brother.
But I did not forget.
I thought about Sam every day, I missed him so much. Many times, I would come home from school, run straight into my mommy's arms and burst into inconsolable tears. She would hold me close, stroke my hair and tell me that she loved me. She was always there for me. But still, the terrible pain inside of me never left me. My heart felt like one big bruise inside of me that ached and would never go away.
Without Sam I wasn't whole. A part of me was missing.
Night after night I pressed my face into my pillow so that nobody would hear me and I cried. I called out to God with all my might, again and again. I really thought if I begged hard enough He would bring Sam back to me.
And then I would whisper up to Sam, "I miss you. I love you. Do you miss me? I want you to come home. I'm all alone without you. Please come back."
And only once I was too tired to cry anymore would I finally fall asleep.
For seven long, lonely years I begged, I hoped, I waited. But He never did bring him back to me.
The years passed and eventually all I had left were some faded memories and a broken heart.
Imprisoned in a world of my own silence, my heart seemed to be barricaded behind locked doors.
After years imprisoned in a world of my own silence, my heart now seemed to be barricaded behind locked doors. My throat clogged up and my tongue stuck to my palate every time I tried to speak about my past.
High, invisible walls erected themselves around my aching heart, and though I had many friends, I was unable to express any of my deepest thoughts or feelings with them. I could not let anyone get truly close no matter how hard I tried.
Luscious gardens with beautiful roses encircled the wall, giving the illusion of a happy, cheerful girl, always smiling. But on the inside, I was crying.
It was not until I met my husband that I was finally able to become my true self. He saw the wall behind the roses, and brick by brick, he helped me to pull it down. And for the first time in my life I was able to open up. And after much persistent effort on his part, and much crying on my part, bit by bit I was at long last able to share a part of my soul with the other half of my soul. He listened, he cared, he cried, and he helped me to see that even though my brother was no longer here with me, he will always be a part of me.
He was always there
A year later I gave birth to our first child. It was a baby boy. He was the most beautiful boy, with his soft cheeks and blue eyes. We named him in the memory of my brother.
And now I look back on those years with increased wisdom. For so many years I cried to God. I put all my hope in Him. But then, as time passed and I grew older, I saw that God was never going to bring my brother back, so I stopped asking. I stopped speaking to God altogether. It seemed that He had abandoned me and so I abandoned Him in return.
It was my very calling out to God that kept me from falling apart.
It was 12 years later when I started to rebuild my connection with God. It was then that I realised that the foundations of my relationship with Him were in fact formed during those painful years. The whole time I had felt so alone in the world, but I was wrong. God was always with me. He was my hope. My life line. It was my very calling out to Him that kept me from falling apart. Because now I see that He was always there, holding me in His loving arms and kissing away my endless tears as I cried myself to sleep.
Though I may never know why this had to happen it does not mean I have to turn my back on God. I may not understand His ways but there is one thing I do know; God loves me, He loves my brother, He loves us all.
It only seemed like He deserted me when I give up on Him.
He didn't answer my prayers the way I wanted, but He never left my side. He never did abandon me. He stroked my cheeks, He held my hand and He caught my tears. He was my comfort. I poured my heart out to Him. I held onto Him and He held on to me. He never let go, and as long as I keep on holding on, He never will.
Written in the memory of my brother, Aryeh Leib
Though my sons were once literally attached to me and will be so figuratively always, the strongest bond in our house is between the two of them.
Technically they have been brothers for seven years, since that moment a 21-month-old Kostyn peered at the peaceful bundle wrapped in his Nana’s arms at the hospital and said, “En.” At first, though, they were merely two tiny boys occupying the same house and the same mother’s heart. Eventually they became playmates, then best friends.
But now, without a doubt, they are brothers. They have their own games, jokes, songs and habits. At least 70 percent of what they do in a given day only makes sense to the two of them. They make each other laugh, they make each other cry, they make each other crazy.
There is an ebb and flow to their roles that occurs with remarkable ease. Evan is the student when Kostyn is the teacher. Kostyn is Robin when Evan is Batman. When one is afraid, the other soothes. And when one isn’t afraid, the other scares the bejeezus out of him just because it’s fun.
To the outside world, it looks like they’re playing robots (or superheroes, or Angry Birds, or a noisy amalgamation of all three). But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Moment to moment, bike race to bath time, each boy is becoming who he was meant to be, thanks in part to his brother’s prodding, giggling and defending. Without realizing it, they are making each other stronger, healthier, smarter and happier than either of them would be alone. Love, devotion, friendship, empathy, compassion, competition, faith, forgiveness — so many basic elements of a life well-lived are being polished within each of them by a single entity: their brother.
It’s a big job, when you think about it, which they don’t. But I do. I think about it a lot, mostly because in the past year or two, more than any time before, I have realized what a significant, subtle and lasting impact my sisters have had on my life.
I am lucky and blessed for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is that I was given two angels to walk beside me on Earth. They are my sisters — one older, one younger. They love me with an unknown depth and an unspoken bond that no one can match.
They were there for the genesis of just about every personality quirk and insecurity I have. They know my weaknesses and how to exploit them, which they’d never do because they can actually stare my weaknesses in the eye and still believe I’m one of the strongest people they know.
My sisters occupied and experienced the same world as me, at the same eye level as me, and there is an incredible intimacy in that that you don’t appreciate — or know enough to cling to — until you reach adulthood.
We are not all that similar in a ton of ways that don’t really matter. In fact, we’re quite different. For example, neither of my sisters likes beer. They homeschool their kids; I don’t. We vary wildly on politics. We have different passions, different friends and different life stories. Our musical tastes overlap, but only slightly. Our preferences are pretty divergent in the kitchen, in our closets and in our home décor. Neither of them watches football.
My point is we are not carbon copies of one another, thank goodness, but we are similar in all the ways that do matter. When I win, they cheer. And when I lose, well, they’d say I’ve never lost at anything, even if I insisted and had proof.
When I admit my failures to them, they do not condemn me. They assure me, even when I don’t believe it, that I am better than the sum of my mistakes. They do not coddle me or make excuses for me, but they work fervently to understand me and to help me understand myself.
They know how to get under my skin, and they occasionally do, but only in doses small enough so that I might not forget that they know how to do it.
My sisters are my lifeline. And when I’m sinking, they sense it, and they pull me up. When I’m broken, they pick up the pieces and hold them gingerly, helping me glue them together into something better than I was before.
Not long ago, amid a tough year of personal struggles, I decided to get a tattoo. I needed a visual reminder that I am stronger than I think I am, that love surrounds me, and God’s grace lifts me far higher than I could ever reach alone. I didn’t tell my sisters beforehand, because I was worried they’d try to talk me out of it. I do not come from a family of tattoo aficionados. Nobody in my immediate family has a tattoo, and I wasn’t sure the reaction to mine would be positive.
The author’s tattoo (Courtesy of Robyn Passante).
But I did it — a permanent piece of symbolic art on the underside of my right forearm.
When I walked into my older sister’s house a week later, both sisters greeted me with harsh words. They’d seen a picture of the ink, and they indeed had a few things to say about it. Turns out they WERE mad that I’d gotten a tattoo — without them.
Why didn’t I tell them I wanted a tattoo, they wondered. “We never would have let you get that by yourself!” my little sister said, thrusting her bare forearm at me. “We would have marched in there with you and said, ‘We want the same thing.’”
“Solidarity!” my big sister echoed, sticking out her arm too.
Solidarity. I snuck away from the family chaos a few minutes later and cried quiet tears of relief. Not the relief of knowing they approved of the tattoo, but the relief of knowing these women are not just beside me, they are inside me. I became who I was meant to be in part because of their prodding, giggling and defending. They’re still doing it, thank God, and they have no intention of stopping. Without realizing it, they are making me stronger, healthier, smarter and happier than I would be alone.
Someday, my heart breaks to think it, at least one of my boys will suffer a loss, or be seriously ill, or just find himself adrift, unsteady. If he’s as smart as I know he will be, he will seek solace in his brother’s presence. And those grooves that they’ve made in each other’s psyches, in each other’s hearts, will fit together and soothe both of them. They will feel a peace, a safety, that they haven’t been able to find — or didn’t know they were looking for — elsewhere.
Perhaps they’ll get matching tattoos; perhaps not. Won’t matter. They are already marked, in a hundred ways inside and out, with a single word that embodies the best of each other and humanity.
Robyn Passante is a journalist and writer. Find more of her work at robynpassante.com. She tweets @robynpassante.
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