When You're Still Waiting to Heal From Your Sibling's Passing 25 Years Later
Over 30 years old and a faithful winter companion to me the last 10 years or so. Wool — far before SmartWool or other faddish brands appeared — gray, a bit tight around the middle of my foot and thick up to the middle of my shin. Ever so thin on the bottom that I felt a need to protect them, these ragged socks. Preservation? Why would I want to, you wonder?
Of course, they are part of the story, grasping onto my most important, tragic and heartbreaking paper clip. Adam. The brother who rarely wanders from my mind. Over the years, the pain has receded though it is still just as sharp. It doesn’t jolt my brain awake each day anymore as it did for years. However, the waves of sorrow are always lapping just below the surface, and every so often, hurricane-like grief churns up in my heart. Any perceived injustice blindly grasps the familiar sorrow, and I struggle not to repeat the miserable helplessness, reliving what the breaking of a heart feels like even so many years later.
It seems that constantly missing Adam arose from mourning his loss in my daily life, not always in a physical way but certainly a strong emotional bond that linked a brother and his little sister. Funny how the two of us seemed like the perfect number of children then, but when it came time for my own children, two was a number that terribly frightened me. I had known how wonderful it was to have a sibling and then was launched unwittingly into the unknown territory of what it was to be an only child. The falling from a cliff made every part of me run far away, my plight worn as a sign of shame that followed me to any new situation with well-meaning adults or a potential new friend. I could no longer bring up the brother who added to my own self-worth. Well, I could have but I didn’t dare in those early years as my grief was carefully dispersed on my terms.
If I could not save myself from this disaster, I certainly would ensure that none of my children would be left alone. Two would not be enough. I see through this coping mechanism born of my grief, but it has only been in the last five years. After all, Adam was who I wanted, not another brother or sister. Still, it is how I felt and so my husband, perhaps sensitive to this irrational grief, was open to three.
Yes, my grief ebbed and flowed and friends would notice that his name was mentioned every so often, though in the early years, no one dared to say it unless it followed my utterance first. The waterfall that had resulted when unknowing souls had broken this rule must have noted my palpable grief to others as the radar surrounding me stayed clear of further blots. And so with the forthcoming and considerate space, I controlled my grief switch. On or off. I got to decide and to this day, I can almost always stop a flow of tears, shut down my heart, and seem quite aloof where others may be feeling sorrow. My hardened heart had trouble mourning over the death of a grandparent, seemingly emotionless, my surface response telling of the damage done years before.
You see, I have to protect myself. My heart is fragile, and in order to survive and keep it beating, I am always careful. I have parents who need me, a husband I adore, four children who unlocked joy that I never expected again. Joy, while explosively tremendous, it is still not what it once was 27 years ago. I think all of us can point to the moment in our lives when we felt the first earthquake. My era of innocence ended on that day I got off an airplane and saw a mother wrapped in sorrow, her eyes filled with unspilled tears and I read the unspoken thoughts in her heart.
The two quietly spoken words “It’s back” roared in my ears. I spent that same night playing nurse to my older brother, lying in my parents’ bed. I tried to shrug off the words that I would replay even years later. They enveloped the cancer diagnosis. The four of us clung together, or really the three of us clung to him, obviously very sick, and we counted the hours until the pilgrimage would be made back to Duke the following morning. They were expecting us. It was the beginning of the end as I knew it. I didn’t really know though, at least not that he would never sleep one more night at home again, never return to a college apartment where his precious cousin waited and longed for his roommate and certainly not that his numbered days were now being counted down.
As the years went by, my sorrow continued to rule my existence though each day I felt a little more alive. The waves of grief for Adam lessened and instead attached to the events that took place for the first time without him. First, my high school graduation. The last graduation of five cousins and the first where we were not gathered together for the required group photo. The act of trying to produce evidence was too much to bear for the adults who had always been quick with cameras and oversized video machines. For years we all avoided picture-taking, framing photos, the visual reminders to encourage the grief we all struggled to control.
The “we” was my extended family unit, my aunt and uncle, three cousins, my grandparents, my parents and Adam and me. The 11 of us. Eleven. That number was always used whether for getting a table at Tony Roma’s or collecting the requisite number of life jackets for a trip to the Cape. The 11 of us on a 19-foot Mako that had once been a dinghy but now a family’s primary vessel for island escape or fishing along the shore.
The occasions continued as my three cousins graduated from college and then me, then graduate school, then engagement, my own wedding, birth of a first son followed by his brother, Adam Russell Harrold Wood. A second little boy whose name has been decided over 15 years before his birth. Was there ever any doubt? I still feel physically ill with the knowledge that my children don’t get to have or know an Uncle Adam, and just the fleeting thought, brings the familiar knot to my throat and the tears that have no end.
And so, the theme of grief has continued, grasping for air, the black hole trying to swallow up moments of happiness and joy. The joy always stained with a bit of sorrow, heartache, and intense longing for the lanky older brother who was a reluctant hugger to the sister who could never get close enough, constantly invading his personal space. His love was genuine though, and he humored me with a playful headlock or ruffling my blond hair with his tan fingers — fingers that mirrored my own.
I sit now snuggled by a fire, writing as I listen to music playing in the background. “Heart’s On Fire” by Passenger and then onto Natalie Grant singing “Held,” a song that fell into my lap and like my brother, I can never seem to get enough. I indulge my grief this evening with an absent husband and our four children asleep, innocence intact. I am struck with the thought that maybe my heart will heal some day, even after 25 years, I still have hope.
I wiggle my toes in the worn, threadbare socks that my big brother wore with his old Bean boots, tight ski boots, or as slippers to pad around cold hardwood floors in our childhood home. These socks, the last of a few remaining items that have survived years of wear and tear, are a visible and tangible remnant of my darling brother who walked steady and strong. I feel their warmth and his grace that envelopes me. Perhaps joy?