A letter to … my brother, who died before I was born

You were a stranger but also my saviour, my teacher and my companion.

An illustration shows a girl crouching beside a lake, holding a flower in her hands and looking down into the water where she sees the reflection of her brother's face.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Dear Gerry,

My first memory of you was on an Easter Sunday after church. I am wearing my blue dress with the white lace collar, the one I wore in the picture when we visited Uncle George, which means I am six years old. There is a cold breeze when we exit our silver ‘61  Buick. All of us are there: Mom and Dad, Ron, who became the oldest after you died, and Gail, and then me, Stephen, and Michael, the three you never met. I do not hear any human voices, but cars whizz by on the busy road at the other end of the cemetery. A robin with a worm in its mouth sings from a nearby tree. I am on my knees in the wet grass. My hand reaches out to touch the cold gray stone, traces the first letter “G” carved into the rectangular block placed flat in the dirt. Then I move my hand to the right and dig my little fingers into the “E”. On I go until I have felt your full name with my hand. Gerald Hayden. The brother who died the year before I was born. In those days, I thought “dead” meant lost or ran away, but not gone forever. Were you there that day, hovering?

Were you there watching on those days when I was eight and nine, fishing with Dad on the choppy waters of Oneida Lake in Central New York State? I wonder if you ever fished there with Dad. The lake was so big, at times we were unable to see the homes and camps that nestled on the shores. I stared into the waves hoping to find you. I knew that you had drowned when you were nine, along with our 14-year-old uncle, Art. I did not know all the details. But I thought since you left this world by water, that you could be found in it, too. I did not want to hook you with a worm or a minnow; I did not want you to die again. I just waited to see you and maybe jump in after you. So, I fished. I loved those early Saturday mornings when Dad would wake us up before the sun rose. Sometimes, just he and I went, and sometimes, Michael came with us. I was always at the front of the boat. For hours we sat in silence, everyone in their own minds. Maybe they were thinking of you, too. Was Dad the same quick to anger man when you were alive or did your death bring that out in him? His temperament was like the skies above the lake. Calm and sunny one moment, then dark and frightening the next.

Because I believed Mom and Dad wanted me to be a boy, to be your replacement, I decided to love sports. I followed the Dallas Cowboys and the Boston Bruins. I loved the New York Yankees. In my early teens, I read every sports biography I could find. In those pages, I pulled strength from the hardships the athletes had endured in their lives. I looked for you wherever I could, including in Mom and Dad’s closet on the days when school was closed because of snow.  There were two cardboard boxes, too big for my lap. I had to kneel in the closet to look into them. One was filled with sympathy cards and the other with your clothes and artwork. I loved holding the red lacy valentine you made. In your handwriting, you wrote, “To Daddy.” I read the sorrowful words of condolences hoping to learn another snippet of you. I ran my fingers over the corduroy brown pants, held them to my nose, and breathed in your scent. Even now, I feel closer to you on snowy days. Even now, snow on my tongue tastes of grief. A votive in my heart was smothered the day when, aged 11 or 12, I went looking again and the boxes, the only references I had of you, were gone. I never found out what happened to them. Everything I ever could have known of you disappeared that day. Were you there with me as I cried in shock behind the closed closet door?

Were you there when, aged  10, I learned what “dead” meant? My friend Laurie Gates was visiting. We were looking at framed family pictures hanging on the living room wall. She pointed to the one of you as a baby and asked, “Who is that?” I was tongue-tied, not knowing how to answer. Mom, who was standing nearby, explained that it was Gerry, her first child and that he had died young. Laurie’s blue eyes grew big as she stared at me. But I was glued to the floor as if my feet were in cement. As if my entire body was concrete. Then Laurie, who was usually shy like me, started asking Mom questions. Mom stared at Gerry’s picture and spoke about him in a steady voice, just as she might if she was talking about me. I could not breathe, could not even hear what was being said. But I realised two things in that moment. I knew deep inside that you were never coming back and that I would never ever see you. You, a brother who I should have been playing games with, Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders, football and volleyball in the back yard. The finality of understanding what dead really meant left me immobile. But somewhere in my zombie-like state, I became aware that Laurie was getting answers about you from Mom. Betrayal rained down on my body. You had always been kept a secret, puzzle pieces in a box. Mom and Dad did not talk about you. I had asked a question about you once when I was five or six, some detail I wanted to know. But it met silence, a frown and the unspoken message to never bring up the subject of you again.

The secret of how you died and the absence of your life story led me into a pattern of silence. I knew not to pry. I knew not to ask for information or assistance or clarification, on any subject. I absorbed the message to deal with my problems myself and to find my own answers. I learned early on that I could only count on myself. As a result, I learned to blame myself for the trouble I got into. That meant that I was silent when, between the ages of 10 and 14, I was repeatedly molested by Uncle Bob. That meant that I thought I had caused Uncle Bob to touch me in the ways he did. And it caused me to freeze. Whenever he accosted me, I became zombie-like. Just like the day I learned you were never coming back. I was unable to move, unable to call Mom or Dad for help, and unable to confide in them after it occurred. I hope you were not there hovering over me then. I am still ashamed that I was not capable of running or kicking or shouting or telling.

I am not sure at what age I began to blame myself for your death. It is possible I may have inherited that guilt from the umbilical cord, from ingesting the milky grief that passed from Mom to me. In family pictures, I have never seen Mom as happy as she was in the photographs before you died. She never looked that happy or thrilled to be alive again. My self-blame may have arrived the weekend we stayed at Uncle Harold and Aunt Marion’s house when I was 10 or 11. The other kids must have been playing outside, but I was in the dark living room, the curtains still closed, though it was daytime, looking through a scrapbook I had noticed on a bookshelf. Inside it were clippings about the weddings of family members I did not know and the obituary notices of our great grandparents. It was chock full of articles, some of which had not yet been attached to its black pages. Among them was a secret – a news story about your death. In it was a picture of the diver who found your body holding the back of your neck the way a mama cat carries her kitten.

We did not have this clipping at our house. Believe me, in all my secret searching, I would have found it. The details shook me. That it was during Easter vacation when members of the family had gathered at Grandma Nelson’s house. That at around noon, four boys, you and Art and two other family members had gone to a stream a mile away from the house. That it was not the stream Mom had given you permission to play in. That where you went was much bigger and that a nearby farmer had dammed that stream to water his cows, and with the spring snowmelt, the waters were rushing that day. That a couple of hours later only two of the boys returned. That the women, Mom and our aunts, went searching for you both with blankets in their arms to warm you when they found you. That they called and called for you and Art, thinking you were hiding in the woods. And that after some time had passed, they went for help. Why, I wondered, was this clipping not framed on our living room wall? That same weekend, as I sat alone in the living room reading, I heard Mom and Aunt Marion talking in the kitchen. Were you there to hear me gasp when I heard Mom say that she would not have had more kids if you had not died? Somewhere between those two discoveries – the scrapbook and Mom’s revelation – my self-blame solidified. In my magical thinking, my way of trying to make sense of the world, I concluded that for me to be born, you had to die. From the moment I was born, I owed a debt I could never repay.

One day when I was 12, I stood in the shower before school and made a plan to kill myself. Uncle Bob had molested me again the previous weekend and I had vowed to never go back to his house. But in the end, I could not go through with it. It was you that stopped me. It was you that held my arms to my side while I came up with a plan of survival. It was you because I knew I could never cause Mom and Dad to endure the death of a second child. I had already experienced the impact of one death.

I was not an attendant at your funeral, but I imagined I was when, aged 14, I saw my first dead body. A boy in our school had been shot and killed in strange circumstances. I did not know him well, but for the two years before he died, I’d had a huge crush on him. He was the kind of kid who got into trouble a lot, but who I believed had a good heart. He was the best ice skater on the hockey team and I’d sit with my friend Ann Ho and watch him skate for hours from the bleachers. I lied to Mom and Dad about going to his wake. We didn’t speak about death in our family and I was afraid they wouldn’t let me. So I told them I was studying at my best friend’s house. At the funeral home in downtown Syracuse, my friend Jesse and I sat for a while in the waiting room before I felt ready to enter the funeral parlour. Inside, there were kids from our school, older boys crying. Chris’s mother, a tall blonde woman stood at the end of the open casket, her makeup smeared. As I kneeled in front of it, I shook and cried. He was handsome Chris O’Bryan, but he was also you, Gerry, who I wore around me like a shadow or a shawl. I hoped I would find you in the face of the dead boy in the coffin. How long was your coffin, I wondered? Was it white or was it mahogany like Chris O’Bryan’s? Who were your pallbearers?

During the years, we would all visit your grave. Gail and I once said we would pitch a tent and live there if we could. After one visit, when I was about 40, Mom and I sat talking in a coffee shop. I could not stop crying about all that had been lost the day you and Art died. Mom told to me to cry as much as I needed to but said that, by that point in her life, she had done all the crying she possibly could. I thought about the raisins that Ron told me Grandma had found in your pocket after your clothes were returned from the funeral home. I thought about the last school photo taken of you, how blonde your hair was around the edges. Mom said that it was a comfort that you and Art had drowned together. You had been so close in life that it made sense you were together in the afterworld as well.

Finally, I have to believe you were there the day our brother Stephen died in a motorcycle accident. He was living in Florida, not far from Mom, and I had flown in from Massachusetts the previous night. It was a week before Christmas. I was walking through Mom’s neighbourhood when a Florida State Trooper came to deliver the news. A few months earlier, during a summer visit to Florida, Mom, Stephen and I had spoken about you. I would have loved to have known you, I explained, because each of my five siblings has had a major impact on my life. I told Stephen that day that what I had learned from him was how to be patient and really listen to what someone was saying. Although he had never been diagnosed, my siblings and I believed Stephen, who was 47 when he died, was on the Autism spectrum. Knowing that he knew how he had impacted my life was a comfort to me in the early days after his death.

I hope you are here now, reading this letter as I write to you. You have been the biggest invisible presence in my life. I feel your energy near me when I am afraid, and I am reminded to breathe. I learned to release my self-blame one summer, in my late 40s, when I spent nearly three months alone in Paris. I walked the streets from the Bastille to the Eiffel Tower. I visited museums and churches. On the banks of the Seine, I sensed your spirit fill me with the courage to transform my life’s focus to my dreams instead of my dreads. It took being in a faraway land, all by myself, knowing that I could keep myself safe even though I barely spoke the language. It took me trusting myself to be brave, to not just venture alone through an unknown city but to also be able to walk through the dark tunnels of my own mind and heart, to feel the grief and let it go as I stood on those beautiful bridges. I went to Paris a couple of years after Dad died, not to forget my dead loved ones, but to allow you the proper place in my life. I could now accept you as guides and protectors, rather than ghosts I needed to appease. It was myself, I learned, I needed to satisfy. You have been my greatest teacher and companion, the boy I never met.

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help. 

In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Also, in the UK and Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.

Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Source: Al Jazeera