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.