Recently, I met someone new — a possible friend. As we engaged in small talk, she asked one of the questions that I fear most. The question itself is innocuous: How many brothers and sisters do you have? You see, I told you that the question is most ordinary, however, it gives me pause each time that someone asks me. For most of my life, the answer to the question, if it arose, was a simple one. I’d answer, “I have two sisters and one brother.” However, the question took on greater import years ago when my baby brother died. In my case, that event turned a seemingly straightforward question into a quandary. I mean, technically, I now only have two siblings, but in my heart, I still have three. Which answer was true? Upon the death of my brother, did I lose a sibling or could I truthfully say that I had three? Perhaps the answer is immediately clear for others confronted with the same circumstance, but not for me. I have to finally answer that question, more for myself than others.
I hadn’t given it much thought until after his death, when the first person asked me the question. I was so surprised and flummoxed that I immediately excused myself and scurried away. I literally could not answer the woman’s question and it saddened me. I mean, even though my brother’s death was tragic enough, after so many years, one would think that I’d arrived at an answer. Yet, that was not the case.
I was the eldest of four siblings and my brother was the baby. With two sisters already, I longed to have a brother. When my mother brought him home from the hospital, I would sneak into her room, just to look at him sleeping — my baby brother. I vowed to protect him and keep him safe. We were nine years apart in age, but for reasons that still defy me, we had more of a bond and connection than I had with my sisters. I became pregnant at a young age, right after graduating high school, and left home to begin my own family. Since my family didn’t have a car, my brother would take 2-3 buses to come visit me in our extremely tiny and cramped apartment. As my pregnancy and subsequent marriage (before I was even 18) wasn’t popular in my family, I was on my own. Among my immediate family, my brother was the only one who made the effort to visit me regularly. It was a very scary time in my life and his presence made a difficult time easier to handle. I loved him even more.
Over the years, he grew into an amazing young man and I was a very proud sister. When I moved from New Orleans to Houston, Texas, I missed being a part of his everyday life. Still, I reveled in the important events in his life, like his graduation from high school, leaving home for the first time to attend college and more. Because of family and work obligations, I was unable to join him in celebrating many events, but I was certainly there in spirit. I looked forward to our telephone conversations and as he grew older, it was clear that our thoughts and feelings were in sync.
It devastated me when doctors diagnosed him with non-hodgkins lymphoma at the tender age of 23. He’d only just graduated from college and had yet to begin his life. He had an aggressive form of the disease with a grapefruit-sized tumor in his chest that had grown in less than 30 days, so it was a serious condition. His doctors immediately began a rigorous protocol that involved chemotherapy and radiation. I was in my last grueling year of law school and a single mom with two school age kids, so I was unable to go with my mother to San Francisco to be with him. Of course, I kept in constant contact with my mother, but it was a poor substitute for being there with them.
Having no alternative, he moved back to New Orleans so that my Mom could help care for him. The chemo and radiation continued for some time and it was two years before doctors declared him cancer-free. He was never the same. Adding to the tragedy, the radiation damaged his heart to the extent that at his young age, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and the only option was a heart transplant.
One thing that I loved about my brother is that he researched everything, to make very well-informed decisions. He had a computer long before almost anyone that I knew did, and quickly learned his way around the internet. After thoroughly researching the area of heart transplant and learning the plethora of negative side effects that would last for the rest of his life, he opted to forego a heart transplant. I was afraid but respected his very thoughtful and courageous decision, because even though he was cancer-free, the serious complications with his heart resulted in frequent visits to the hospital.
It was a very difficult time for him, but I admired the way that he confronted the situation with a bravery and grace that I hoped to have were I in his shoes. By this time, the little brother’s wisdom surpassed his big sister’s and I was fine with it. After his condition somewhat stabilized, he made a decision that further amazed me. He decided to return to school to get a Masters in Communications. After all that he’d gone through, and although he was still sick, he choose to move on with his life. Once again, he researched and decided to move away from home to enter the Master’s program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he remained until his death in his last semester of study.
My brother was a courageous and gentle soul filled with compassion and a zest for life. He had a thirst for knowledge and adventure, and allowed nothing to hinder his dreams or his faith. He was everything that one could want in a brother and in my heart, he still lives and influences my life. More importantly, my love for him still grows, and he is and will always be my brother, wherever he may be. Nothing can severe our sibling bond, After all this time, suddenly, the answer seems so clear.
“And you will continue now, and forever, to redefine your relationship with your deceased loved one. Death doesn’t end the relationship, it simply forges a new type of relationship – one based not on physical presence but on memory, spirit, and love.” ~ Ashley Davis Bush, “Transcending Loss”
Finally, I have discovered the answer that lay in my heart. The next time that someone asks me “the” question, I will not hesitate to say, “I have three siblings — two sisters and one very special brother.” Of that, I no longer have any doubt.