Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thoughts on the passing of my big brother

I grew up as the middle child of five and over the years, I have come to realize how each of us grew up in a totally different version of the family. This has a lot of implications in any family, and mine is no different. The implications seem to be multiplied now that there has been a death in the family. Our oldest brother passed away a few days ago.

First our brother appeared to have mastered the role of the big brother-- he claimed to have ridden us around as infants in the basket of his bike; he taught me to play 'catch' across the broad avenue that our house faced; he was the slap-hands champion, and we foolishly thought we could beat him though we never did. Even before our mother died at a relatively young age, our brother, being a lot older than any of his younger sisters (11 years ahead of the oldest, 21 years ahead of the youngest), took on a not surprising parental role, on top of the big brother one he had seemed to relish. One-by-one, we took the train to visit him, his wife, and their children several hours away in Ohio. These visits served as the vacations our parents had never been able to afford, and we looked forward to them with zeal. He and his wife played even more of a parental role for us as time went on. We loved them dearly.

But, as in so many families (at least, according to my unofficial survey of friends), a rift developed--for good reason, we experienced a profound betrayal. Those on one side of the rift knew they were being true to their feelings, and those on the other, well, they knew about the betrayal. It doesn't matter, exactly, what it was, except that we were definitely betrayed by our brother (no one claimed it was vice-versa).

Fast-forward several years to our brother's diminishing health over the past year. We have moved from rancor and bitterness, silence to acceptance and, yes, to love, and everywhere in between, no two sisters in the same spot on that treacherous continuum. As we grapple with how to respond and how to remain true to our own feelings of the moment, I am reminded of a funeral I attended, which I will now relate.

It was the funeral of a friend's mother. My friend was one who, everyone could see, had been stuck in anger and bitterness for many years. She had taken responsibility for caring for her mother in the waning years, and she made daily hour-long trips to visit her mother in the nearest big city where she lived, with assistance, in the Jewish Home for the Aged. Her only sibling came into town for the funeral when their mother died. It was obvious that there was no lack of ill-will between brother and sister (both of whom were, I'd say, well into their 60s and had clearly not spoken for years). Near the end of the service, after the rabbi had finished with her formalities---the eulogy pieced together from memories shared by brother and sister, Hebrew prayers, perhaps a poem---and progressed to the point where anyone who wishes is invited to speak. I am pretty sure my friend opted out, but the brother stepped forward I will never forgot what happened next.

First, he expressed regret at how, having done his best, he wasn't sure it had been good enough for everyone in the family. But he wished to move on. You could not tell whether he had been angry with his now-deceased mother or with his sister, or both, or whether they had designated him persona non-grata. He said he had spent all the time he was going to spend on resentment, that it had already been too long, and, to speed the process, he had written notes of all these resentments that could embitter a person and that had worked their evil magic on him over the years. Somewhat to the surprise of all in attendance (friends of the sister; none of us had known their mother personally), he reached into his pocket and pulled out a sheaf of paper strips, each one about 2" x 6". Then, he read off the word or phrase written on each sheet as he tossed it into the grave, on top of the pine box, traditional at Jewish burials, which contained the body of his recently (by Jewish tradition, also, very recently) deceased mother. I can't say I recall the phrases, but I felt that, if we had polled the mourners in attendance, we could've put them together amongst ourselves without too much difficulty.

My silent hope was that this would actually work for the brother, that he could cast his resentments into the ground on top of the casket and move on. But now, thinking about my own brother, I seriously wonder about that.