“How many siblings do you have?”
To most people, this enquiry is something of a commonplace “getting-to-know-you” question. But for me, answering it is always rather awkward, and I honestly don’t always know how to reply.
You see, my oldest brother, Terry, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996. He died three years later, on April 13th, the day before his twentieth birthday. I was four, almost five, at the time.
Those are the bare-bones facts. As it usually is, the reality is much more than that. Here are a few more specifics: for treatment, our family went to St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. Eventually, the brain tumor caused so much pressure on Terry’s eyes that he became blind. As a result, he attended and graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, LA. In the face of all these odds, he also completed a quarter at Louisiana Tech University, majoring in education, because he “just loved little kids so much!” He was (is?) my brother for the first four-and-a-half years of my life. Yet, for all practical purposes, the date of his death is the most important one. It is the reason I never know how to respond to the question, “So, how many brothers and sisters do you have?”
I have two older brothers. But no, one of them is dead. I had two older brothers. But no, one of them is living. I don’t even know what tense to use. It’s always hard to know how to phrase my reply.
Perhaps: “I had two older brothers, but the oldest, Terry, died of brain cancer in 1999.”
No good. I don’t want put an immediate downer on the conversation (“By the way, random acquaintance I’m making chit-chat with, I have a dead brother.”)
Or maybe: “I have one older brother.”
On the other hand, I don’t want to pretend like Terry didn’t (doesn’t?) exist.
For a while I tried using the cryptic reply, “I have two brothers, but only one living.” I decided I didn’t like saying that. If I am to mention that he died, I want to honor him with specifics.
I finally got up the courage to ask my middle brother, Adam, what he says to “the sibling inquiry.”
“Got up the courage” is the best descriptor I can think of. Adam and I are very close, but he is ten years older than me, meaning we have something of a different sibling dynamic than many; I will still be the kid sister when I am sixty. My parents didn’t raise us to be very touchy-feely anyway. We don’t really talk about Terry’s death that much, if at all. Mind you, we don’t scoot around his existence, but his death, I’ve come to realize, is something we as a family don’t necessarily refer to. But we all have our own little bent ways of dealing with it—It only recently occurred to me that my dad’s parents always refer to him as “Little Terry.”
So anyway, I asked my brother Adam how many siblings he says he has. He rambled a bit, but his final response was merely, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
I just don’t know how to bring Terry up. But inevitably it does come out, eventually, and, per manners, the response of the person I’ve told is something like: “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
The current silence-breaker I’m using right now, and that I’ve stuck with for a while, and that I think I actually like, is this: “Well, we’re Christians, and he was a Christian, so it’s all good.” That’s the truth. He’s in heaven.
Sometimes the acquaintance might uncomfortably ask some details about Terry’s illness and death, which I’ll answer matter-of-factly.
But there was one person’s response that quite honestly I still grow angry about when I think of it: the person asked how old I was when Terry died.
“Oh, so you don’t even really remember him.”
When I calmed down, later, I realized it’s an honest question. Mildly insensitive as I still think the comment was, and furious as it made me (I didn’t show it, thankfully) plenty of people don’t remember their two’s, three’s, or four’s. But I do. I have so many memories of my brother. He loved the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and used to sing it in an overly dramatic operatic voice. Whenever we watched Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, he would always growl along with Tigger as he pounced on Pooh, and then Terry would rewind the VHS and watch the scene over and over again. At night, Terry claimed that the shower “waltzed” him into “Monkey Man,” and he would come out of the bathroom chattering like a monkey and chase me around the house.
These aren’t things I’ve been told. I remember. But, strangely enough, I don’t really have any big memories from when I was six, seven, or eight. Oh, a few, but not nearly as vivid in comparison with my earliest years. And I think that’s God’s grace, that I remember Terry.
I also remember his death, and the aftermath. But, morbid as it might seem, I had a fantastic time at Terry’s funeral. There were so many other kids there, and there was so much food, and there were so many people there, and I was so proud that they were all there because they all knew and loved Terry.
Looking back, I’m honestly not sure how much I understood about the reality of death. At the funeral, I remember wondering why Mom was crying. I don’t think I understood what my Mom knew, that Terry was gone, and that we were never going to see him again in this life. But at the same time, I knew he was dead. I just didn’t see that as a bad thing. Mom had explained to me that since Terry was a Christian he was in heaven with Jesus, and that therefore we should give thanks.
As I child, I don’t remember missing Terry. And honestly, in some ways I still don’t, callous as that might seem. Since I was so young when he died, most of my life has been spent without him. So, it’s not the same as say, losing a brother who is only five years older than you. I don’t know if I’ll ever ask Adam about that. All this is to admit that I’m sure my own grief is very much a child’s grief.
I do grieve. I grieve for what might have been. I’m going to Texas A&M, the same school Terry was going to attend, before his diagnosis changed everything. I want to have been able to tell him I was accepted and for him to be as excited as Adam was. I want to play piano for Terry, and I want to pick out some guitar chords with him. I want to tell him about getting a job. I want to tell him about my hard-won A in symbolic logic. I want to read him my writing. I want to make him proud. I just want to hang out and talk with him.
Instead, Adam and I are left strumming Terry’s old guitar.
I don’t normally dwell on this much, honestly. Real life angst isn’t my style. But during the spring of my freshman year at A&M, it seemed like I was thinking about him every hour of every day. I don’t know what it was, but I just missed him.
I have read that sorrow is sometimes a physical pain, and it turned out to be true. For me it was just a slight ache, but an ache in my chest that felt like it was in my very soul. I don’t really know why I was so fixated on the fact that he was dead. It’s like I forgot my old mantra that used to work so well: “He’s in heaven with Jesus. That’s a good thing.”
But, thankfully, God so planned it that my campus minister preached a sermon that had to do with how messed up we as sinful humans are. Mixed in the message was something about grief…I don’t remember the details. But shortly after that, he and I were talking, and he asked how many siblings I had.
I told him. One of my brothers is dead.
Then he said: “So, you understood what I meant about brokenness.”
I nodded. “Yeah.” Because I did.
Whenever we as a family (my parents and my brother) sit at the dining room table, I have this nagging feeling that there ought to be a fifth place setting. But there’s no longer a reason to put it there, and hasn’t been one for almost fifteen years.
He asked more specifics. How old were you? Five. How many years older was he than you? Fifteen
Then he said something that I still think is the best response I’ve ever gotten from someone: “So, I’m thirty-five. He would have been about my age.”
Yes. Yes, he would have.
I liked this, this simple acknowledgement that Terry existed, that he was a real person with real connections, that he is gone, and that there is a grief and brokenness that cannot be tidied under the mat of polite conversation.
That was as far as our conversation got that day, but shortly afterward I attended a Freshman Bible study, and the same minister talked about a passage in Revelation. The part about how one day every tear will be wiped away.
Since then, I haven’t forgotten that Terry was in heaven with Jesus, that I will see him again, and be able to say, without reservation, that I have two brothers.