This week my brother would be 34. This is the second birthday that I will have to celebrate without him.
He was born when I was 4, a month premature, a sick and fragile baby. His illness was mysterious and serious and in my earliest memories meant he was sometimes swept away by an ambulance when he was having trouble breathing. In fact, that is my earliest memory.
His life was marked by medical interventions, diagnoses and a general worry that he would never be OK. When he was young, he had speech problems, heart defects, respiratory issues and physical delays. When he was older, he discovered his Asperger’s, he had OCD and he was obese. When he was alive it was often easier to see all of those things than it was to see all that he did, even in the face of them. But he did many remarkable things, even if they don’t register on a typical scale of success and ambition. And that he had to do them under so much pressure and judgment from the world because he was different, makes his brief life that much more magical.
Marc was mine and I cared for him, in some ways, like a parent and not just a big sister. Together we were latchkey kids, survivors of our dysfunctional family, bookworms, writers, outsiders in the insular world we came from. Pretty much all of my life was defined by the dynamic of me looking out for him, defending him, being older and wiser and more experienced than him.
Marc died on Mother’s Day in 2016 and that all changed instantly. He was on the other side, suddenly ahead of me and now a keeper of life’s biggest secrets. I was left here without a little brother to worry about for the rest of my life. But what I had instead was a whopping, paralyzing, breathtaking pile of grief to dig out from.
Grief demands attention. It consumes you. It hijacks your thoughts, burrows into your body, steals your sleep, sneaks into your dreams and slows you down. It is a profoundly physical experience. My grief over losing Marc came at a moment when I was already so weak, because our father died just three weeks before him. My grief was compounded. And this all happened at a time when I needed to be so strong, because Darry was pregnant with twins, I had a toddler to take care of and our lives were on the verge of becoming impossibly demanding and full.
But grieving, like parenting, is relentless. And I am seeing now how the absence of space for both my grief and the rest of life has put an ugly strain on my physical and emotional health. It’s coming out sideways, like in an occasional, irrational fear that one of the girls is going to become terribly ill beyond recovery. Or in irritable moments where I am not upset with anyone in particular, except with everyone. And despairing moments when it feels like there will never be a day when I can just sit and let this unbelievable string of events wash over me until they make sense. My dad died, my brother died, we had twins. Life now bears no resemblance to my whole life before this all happened.
In the last two weeks, we celebrated Rowan and Mairead’s first birthday and Serafina’s third birthday. My three little libras, just like Marc was. The milestone felt monumental, like we had truly survived something, all of us together. When I try to recall what it was like through those early months with three children, there is just blank space. We were so fundamentally exhausted, so thoroughly depleted, there is no memory there. And I was still so deep in the fog of loss.
There is some light peaking in, now that we are all on our way out of the most intense year, there is definitely more sleep and, I hope, one day there will be more space. Our children toddle around the house, for brief moments, happily together, laying ground, I pray, for their own beautiful sibling relationships. There is enough space, at least, that I was able to force myself to sit and write this, to be quiet and think about the next milestone: getting through another one of my brother’s birthdays.
Marc loved Serafina so much. He loved gift giving so much, too, often planning out what he’d buy everyone for holidays and birthdays, months in advance. And he loved receiving presents, of course. He had two birthdays after Serafina was born and made a point of saying, for each one, she was the best gift he ever got. He couldn’t wait for what we all thought at the time when he died, was going to be just one more baby. He would have been completely delighted by two. I am so sad the girls won’t learn from him about kindness and patience and empathy, which he taught me so much about.
“I am trying to play with this, but these fucking babies are in my way!” Serafina said, like it was no big deal, while we were all sitting in the living room on Saturday morning.
When your not-yet-3-year-old drops an F bomb like a seasoned pro, you feel a complicated mix of pride and anxiety. You want to laugh, because it’s funny. You want to respond, but you aren’t sure what the right course is. And you scramble to mentally review all of the times you recently cursed in her presence.
“I can’t get this fucking thing open! I need some scissors!” she declared the next day, like a surly old sailor, while wrestling with the plastic packaging on a new toy.
When your toddler starts regularly inserting “fucking” into her sentences for emphasis, you swell with pride over her nuanced grasp of language, even as shame creeps up from your gut to form a lump in your throat. You shudder to think of all the other things you’ve said in her presence that she silently absorbed and will later, consciously or not, reflect back to you. And you agree with her, that packaging is fucking annoying.
So, Serafina’s been using the word fuck a bit. It started a couple weeks ago with a “fucking god!” when the babies were howling during baby witching hour. Darry and I were doing our circus act to keep everyone calm while also cooking and plating dinner. Serafina offered her “fucking god!” as commentary on the chaos.
She smirked while she said it, like she knew she was trying out something new and possibly dangerous. We didn’t offer any feedback and Darry and I agreed later it would be better to not respond if it happened again.
A few days later, it happened again. She yelled “fuck’s sake!” during another perfectly normal and hysterical moment. We ignored it again and she must have liked the way it felt coming out, because she just kept saying it, in a sing-song kind of way. “Fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake!”
Since then there have been a few more rounds of “fucking god” and “fuck’s sake” — impressively, always applied correctly to a situation. This feels like a sophisticated handle on slang to me. But each incident has, of course, given us pause and prompted us to review how frequently our own language is sprinkled with swear words.
Initially I got all the blame for this. I come from a loud, distinctly not-anglo family with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins screaming “shit” and “fuck” and everything else without reserve. Literally screaming, as part of normal conversation. Darry’s family has the pretense of more politeness.
Italian-Americans need these words and phrases to communicate the intensity of their experience every day, so I grew up hearing it all. I was also disciplined with an authoritarian hand and only repeated those words quietly, or when no adults were around. And now I struggle to shake off the verbal vestiges of where I am from. Phrases like “shut the fuck up” just pop into my head as normal speak, because I heard them so often in my young life.
I struggle with this one a lot. It is one of my working class badges. And it pains me to think I already transferred that directly to my kid. But when Serafina dropped the “fuck’s sake” — a Darryism. not mine — there was no denying we were both guilty.
Ahh, the guilt. And the shame. I am not so concerned about the “danger” of foul language. I have watched parents scold other adults when they swear in front of their children, I have seen them suppress and sensor their own vocabularies in ways that have felt arbitrary and artificial. I have seen them punish their kids harshly if they swear. Why scrub foul words but not necessarily foul sentiments?
I feel like we can safely and more effectively — even now, just days before her third birthday — start talking to Serafina about what it means to use words like this and how it might impact other people to hear them coming from her, or us. I also feel like we can just be more conscious because thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become character.
But this is easier said then done. We operate with frayed nerves, minimal sleep and an extremely high and persistent set of demands at all times. There will be “fucks.” I am more worried about other, more potent and less visible ways I am modeling to my children, my little sponges. I long for more time, patience and space to be careful. I don’t know how or if it will ever come.
Last night, I demonstrated a moment of restraint with technology while setting up the iPad for Serafina’s daily Daniel Tiger episode. The wifi was out and the PBS app wasn’t loading. I didn’t have to curse about it. I just had to focus on getting through the moment.
Serafina watched me hold my breath and try to resolve the issue, so I could race off to finish dinner prep. “Fucking god, mama!” she said. “Fucking god.”
Sometimes I look with longing at the single-child families. The time those parents have to share with their children and be intentional about life. How they can all sit together quietly, while teaching their kids to count to 100, identify trees, recite the names of all the planets and how to read and speak two languages, just for fun. All before their 3rd birthday.
I have felt the sting when I hear another preschooler can write their name, or another baby is potty training at 8 months and I have wondered if we are failing to help our own kids along. But, maybe as a way of assuaging my guilt, I have also felt confused by the preoccupation with milestones and put off by the whiff of competitiveness it suggests to me.
When Serafina was 9 months old, another mom with a new baby asked me, “What is she doing these days? What is she into?” I think the answer to the question was supposed to be a list of her latest achievements, followed by a list of enriching activities that brought her joy. The best I could offer was something like, “She’s only waking up three times a night to nurse usually. And she really likes these silicone measuring bowls we have in our kitchen.”
I’m confident our children *will* learn to count to 100 and one day they will read and hopefully even study another language. Does it make a difference if that happens ahead of the typical schedule for these things? Maybe? Maybe not.
I don’t know if it’s true, but all of this also has smelled distinctly American to me, and distinctly privileged American to me. What are the end goals of this early striving? Better test scores? “Smarter” kids. Does it matter when you’re 40 how old you were when you could write every letter in the alphabet? (Which makes me wonder about another question — what does matter when you’re 40? I will find out soon enough.)
I had a wonderful moment of validation a few weeks back when I read this, which called out our American tendency to push hard for early communication, literacy and academic victory and put it in contrast to the milestones that are at the top of the list in other parts of the world. Milestones elsewhere looked less “measurable” — a sense of independence, caring for others, especially younger siblings, social responsibility.
We might be short on time to bake muffins for our new neighbors (a thing I would like to do with Serafina since some new people have moved in), but on our nightly walk last week, we did welcome them warmly and introduce ourselves. It was an act of kindness and generosity that we received from others when we moved to our street two years ago and our friendly, regular chat with neighbors has struck me since then as a fundamental lesson that will be present in our kids’ young lives. I have no idea if this is a thing that will stand out or make an impression on them, but if I had the time to teach Serafina how to count to 100 right, it would be just as much of a guess on the impact of that.
In my own young life, there was very little emphasis on milestones. My own under-educated, working and working class parents operated on the opposite end of the striving spectrum and pushed us to do basically nothing. The upshot was that my brothers and I were free to pursue what we naturally stumbled on as interesting — and that resulted, in my case and my younger brother’s case, in a love for books and early literacy; in my older brother’s case, an ability to pickup basically any trade.
What was noticeably absent for us was a deeper sense of confidence and support to explore more, or any of the funding and parental support (in the way of rides, encouragement) to go beyond that initial discovery if we did. What was emphasized instead was family: we were devoted to our time with grandparents, cousins. We were taught loyalty, to care for them and help them and to rely on them to return that care and help when we needed it. It was my job from as early as I can remember to help in the daily care of my younger brother. I think there is something to that.
But here we are, Darry and I, living the life of socio-economic straddlers — not quite inhabiting the working class space and mindset that kept me in an insular world as young person, also not quite having the wealth and opportunity to feel free as a bird as an adult.
Darry and I are conscious of that straddling, but most especially of what was absent from our own childhood. We want to make sure we are nurturing and present in a way that will help our girls feel safe and invited to pursue what they like. But we can already see the glimmers of the disadvantage they will have next to their peers because we are working people with limited time, money and energy. I hope our priorities of love and happiness for us and our family will be enough to even out any of those gaps.
Tomorrow is September. I have been thinking a lot about this time last year. It was a hard time then. And, in many ways, much harder than it is now.
Darry was enormous, exhausted and uncomfortable. And although she was in excellent health, it was clear that she needed to slow down at work if she wanted to stay that way and get to full term (38 weeks for twins). So she spent the last few weeks of her pregnancy at home, mostly parked in the single air conditioned room of our house, during one of the hottest summers ever, emerging only to eat and drink and go to the bathroom.
I was sick with worry — every time she made a sound I would ask in a panicked voice if she was in labor. There is so much fear imposed on a twin pregnancy, almost like an illicit promise you will have sickly, premature babies who need to spend some time in the NICU. I worried for the little creatures in her belly. I worried about Darry’s health and recovery from the Caesarean we had scheduled, because one baby was breech and not budging. And I worried most of all about my ability to continue taking care of Serafina, the house, our lives, Darry, the babies who would be here so soon, while working full time and trying to push through the fog of a enormous grief.
In the month before we found out we were having twins, my father died from pancreatic cancer, punctuating a brief and sad illness. And then my younger brother died from a blood clot, in a sudden, unexpected and tragic way. I was beaten to a pulp by my father’s death, run over by a train by my brother’s death and shocked into a sort of delirium from the ultrasound where we learned, halfway through Darry’s pregnancy, that her body had made two babies, all on its own.
I feel sometimes like the experience of having twins is not mine to talk about. I do not know the surprise, the awe, the stress or the burden of having a body responsible for making two more lives, nurturing their growth and health and ushering them safely to this side of the womb. I do not know the work of having two tiny mouths attached to my breasts (often at the same time!), wholly dependent on me to feed them, literally keep them alive and help them grow in that intense first year. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up multiple times in the night, quietly pick up one fussing baby, nurse her back to slumber and then pick up her sister to do it all over again, again and again and again. These are the things, plus so many more things, that Darry has done all by herself with the most unbelievable display of patience, endurance, strength and love. Mothers of multiples are truly superheroes.
When we saw those two heads on the screen for the first time, Darry howled and pleaded with the universe. She wondered how could she possibly do this? She became hysterical. And in the next few weeks, she spiraled into a kind of grief — over the loss of the childbirth experience she thought she would have, over the loss of the whole mothering experience she thought she might have. Grief is such a lonely, individual experience. I could see she was deep in it, because I was in my own.
I spent that whole spring howling and pleading with the universe. During father’s dying and death, I was dragged through painful, dark spaces of our complicated relationship because he was Christian and I am queer. In his final weeks, his wife refused to allow me, Darry and Serafina to visit them as a family; my father’s wish to see his granddaughter one last time was blocked by hate. If visiting without Darry was the only way I could visit, I chose not to; that choice destroyed my relationships with the rest of my father’s family. I was pummeled and the only person who understood and defended me was my baby brother.
Three weeks after our father’s death, my brother started acting strange. Strange enough that my mother took him to the ER; several hours later a giant mass was discovered on his brain. Before we could get a diagnosis, Marc died of a pulmonary embolism on his third day in the hospital. He was so dear to me, he was my responsibility his whole life long. Then so swiftly, so mercilessly, I was dropped into a solitude ten thousand fathoms deep. The ground was gone.
The experience of having twins may not be mine, but the experience of being a parent to what spontaneously felt like a very large family is mine. And the experience of having to meet this challenge in such a difficult, unstable time is mine. I have walked out of the deepest hurt of grief, I have processed so much of it, but the secondary complications, like fatigue, mood swings, sadness and isolation, are all still there.
My grief has been the greatest pain I’ve ever known. Parenting through this pain is, I pray, the hardest work I will ever do. I have wondered so many times how I can do this, even as I am doing it.
I know this, though: the day we learned we were having twins, I felt like the universe was showing me something holy. I lost two souls and two souls found us.
At the end of this month, the twins will be 1. They arrived as we planned, big, healthy and perfect: 7.5 pounds each. Darry’s recovery was easier than any doctor or nurse could have predicted. Within days, she was walking around, pain-free, like nothing had ever happened. The babies have nursed from their first day like experts. They have been easy, happy infants. They have brought an enormous love to our lives, even on the most difficult days, that we never expected we would have. They have been the light that has filled my twice-broken heart.