40 years ago February 8th, my brother Daniel died. I was 11 1/2 at the time. He was 18. It was a car wreck. He crashed his souped-up mini-van into a tree, lingered a week, then died.
The morning of his death, I walked downstairs to see our neighbor, Mrs. Murphy doing the dishes. I turned the corner from the stairs, took the short-cut through the formal dining room to get to the kitchen and saw her back at the sink. That was my first clue something was terribly wrong. She’d never done that before. Lovely lady, to be sure, but she’d never done our dishes for us.
My mother brought me into the formal living room, sat me down on a dusty rose velvet love seat and told me. I don’t remember her exact words but I’m fairly certain they were simply declarative: “Your brother died overnight.” God help me, I was relieved. We didn’t get along. Forty years later I can say that and not feel like a soulless ghoul… almost. I still feel sort of soulless saying it, but it’s what I felt. I can’t lie about it. I can’t change it. It was what it was and is what it is.
I do remember what I said exactly, however: “What will we do with his clothes?” Now having had a diagnosis of Asperger’s, this response makes sense. I was being very practical about it. I had a question so I asked it. The proper emotion could wait until I could properly process it. I’ve always thought it was sort of funny, in a grim way. I remember asking my mother years ago if she remembered that I had said that. I was shocked she hadn’t. Now I realize that nothing about that time should shock me. The poor woman had just lost her son. Anything she feels or remembers or doesn’t feel or remember is “normal.”
Right after Mom died two years ago this month, Dad and I were talking. He said (roughly quoting here) “She never recovered from that. Never got her spark back.” He was right. She never did. I’m “glad” she’s with him now. It’s got to be a great comfort to her.
Something else happened at that time. I lost my faith. Or, the teachings of the church lost me. That’s actually a better way to describe it, because I do believe in a Supreme Being, deeply. I’m just homeless. A spiritual wanderer. No church. Why? Because Mom (and every other well-meaning Catholic around me) said and kept saying this:
“God wanted him.”
Really? I’m 11 1/2 years old and I’m looking around at everyone crying and Mrs. Murphy doing the dishes and I’m supposed to worship THAT?
Something else happened that I remember like it was yesterday: the coldness of his corpse. To this day I cannot go to a wake without being spooked. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have gone to the wake. My poor parents couldn’t have known how “literal” my brain was, how painful all the incoming sensations would be to me. They made the right decision, but it echoes. The coldest thing I ever felt was Daniel’s hand in that casket. It was a unique cold, unlike anything else I have ever felt before or since and I don’t ever want to feel it again. That wasn’t my brother. His spirit had flown.
His spirit had flown as surely as my mother’s did two years ago this month. She looked over my left shoulder as she died. Her eyes had been closed, but she opened them for a few seconds, as if to respond, as if to say “I see you (or it). I’m coming. I’m glad to come. I’m scared but I’m not scared…” It seemed like that to me. Who knows if it was.
I do know they are at rest in each other’s company now. And that’s enough.