I resurrect my brother after 75 years gone and oddly, I see him more clearly than ever before
today at 8:00 am
Seventy-five years ago, when I was fourteen, my older brother by four years died in an automobile accident. I mark the event with a candle on the altar where ceramic angels and pictures of favorite gurus and swamis stare back at me when I meditate in the mornings. And for the first time in many years I think about my brother and the family we shared and the parts they played in my teen-age, growing up chapters.
The memories are dim, but I am grateful for the faint outlines of the images that appear, however scant and vague. I relish them. For so many years they were lost to the shock of the grim night when the phone call from a nameless coroner changed my family forever and wiped my familial memory bank, blank.
For decades, no matter how earnestly I traversed my brain’s frontal lobes for memories of mom and dad and sister and brother, nothing coherent emerged. Researchers studying the sea slug Aplysia californica would detect more simple forms of memory! What I conjured up were only vague images, more spectral that real.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize that I never allowed myself to fully feel the pain and to grieve for my lost brother. I simply denied the impact of his death; I blotted it out, along with the past he embodied.
As a teen, my awareness was limited to my range of feelings at the time. If I felt good, life was good. If I felt sad, life sucked. I was duped by my ego; I perceived the world as a reflection of my own self-imagined victories or defeats. My brother’s death was an explicit reminder of life’s transience, and I didn’t even blink. I was aware of the event itself but as far as its affect, I pretended it didn’t happen.
At the time I experienced the external world by my preoccupation with satisfying physical drives and appetites. My goal was to expand the range of my ego, not shrink it. The more I felt in charge the better, and to the extent I succeeded that’s how I evaluated success and failure; getting my driver’s license and aiming a hundred sixty horses down the highway, that’s what set me free.
Seventy-five years ago I was a young boy rocketing through life fueled by the wrong propellants, judging everyone and everything by the impact on my brittle self-esteem, ignoring life’s fragility even as my brush with my brother’s death demonstrated its fleeting existence. I was attempting to find my way without a map or moral compass. Circumstance dumped me in the wilderness like a domesticated wolf let go in the middle of Yellowstone Park, survival skills quickly acquired or dead soon after. It was a world of secular and pitiless practicalities. If I couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. There was no inner light. There was just me.
Today, on my brother’s death day, how I view the early years of my life is vastly different. The memories still are scant, but the specters have taken form. I have filled in the blanks with sensory impressions that are heartfelt. I see my brother as a boy who struggled to find his center, buffeted by the shifts of our family’s circumstance. I can forgive his relative indifference to the kid brother as he grew into young manhood and became more interested in girlfriends than GI Joe action figures.
I see my mother fighting the depression that was so common among her generation of Jewish women, married young, in thrall to their husbands or scorned by the patriarchy should they dare protest. I’ve come to admire my father, a clever man, loyally fulfilling the role of family breadwinner no matter how it stifled his sense of joy and adventure. And not least, my beloved sister, forgotten in the chaos, struggling to be heard, ignored until validated by her acceptance into the freshman class of a prestigious member of the Seven Sisters… where, alas, like Icarus, naiveté and indiscretion took her flight too close to the sun.
Today, as I light a candle for my brother, the floodgates open to the forgotten cache of familial memories and the heartache and sadness suppressed for so many years. Eight-plus decades ago when my brother died, I was a lost boy.
Today, I can hear the celestial choir and the soulful hymn, “I once was lost but now am found.”