My brother died of a brain tumor fourteen years ago, when he was fifteen and I was eighteen. This was a devastating loss for my family, and the fact that he has now been gone almost as long as he was alive doesn’t lessen the pain for us. Life has continued and much has changed for us – most notably, that I have grown up, moved away, gotten married, joined the work force, and now become a parent.
In my brother’s last days, he was put on Hospice care and stayed at home. We all knew he was dying and that treatment options were exhausted beyond palliative measures. These were painful days; saying goodbye to each other would be hard enough if weren’t for the trying efforts required by my parents to care for their dying son. A lift was required to get him to and from his bed and the bathroom, and it wasn’t long before my brother was quite ready to die, if only to be free from the burdens of advanced care. “In heaven,” he mused one day, “I won’t have to go to the bathroom.”
During his goodbyes to me, his brother, he made one particular plea over and over again: “Do not let your children forget about me.” As the smartass older brother, I regularly reminded him that they couldn’t technically forget about him since they didn’t exist and didn’t know of him to forget. But he persisted, making it clear that it was very important to him that my children, if and when they became a part of this world, would know about their uncle. I promised him this.
My spouse and I decided early in our pregnancy that we wanted to name our child after him. I really cannot think of a more tangible way of honoring my brother’s memory and ensuring that our little girl will one day know about her daddy’s brother who died fourteen years before she was born. I will tell her about her uncle one day when she is old enough to understand, and I will take her to my brother’s grave one day so she can see where her name came from.
There are moments when my little girl smiles when I can see my brother in her. Tears are coming to my eyes as I write this, because I don’t think I’ve said this out loud to anyone just yet. Mostly, my baby looks like me, or at least, the way I looked when I was a baby. (Every day I pray that she will resemble her mother more as she grows up.) But there are moments when I see my brother reflected in her visage. Mostly when she smiles. She has this lopsided grin that absolutely tickles me where her eyes will crease at the edges but her mouth only moves slightly to one side. It looks like my brother’s smile, or at least as I remember it.
My little girl also talks a lot. Clearly, her language skills still need some work at the moment, but there’s no question she’s a talker. As my brother was. The story between me and my parents is that you would be hard pressed to find a baby picture of my brother where his mouth is closed. I was pretty young when he was a baby and don’t remember much about that, but I know that as a child and teenager he talked a lot. Who knows how my little girl will turn out, but she’s certainly on the right track to being a talker like my brother.
I’ve also noticed how strange it is to hear my brother’s name in conversation. Not that I never say his name, because my parents and I still regularly talk about him. But to hear it and speak it over and over every day is a strange new experience for me. It’s a feminine rendering of his name, but when spoken quickly in everyday conversation, it can sound just like his name. And my ears will notice at certain moments that it sounds like I’m talking about my brother, even if we’re just talking about picking up our girl from daycare or changing her diapers. It’s as if my brother’s name has now once again rejoined my vernacular after a long, sad absence.
I suppose I’m ruminating on this after All Saints’ Day, which comes two weeks after my brother’s birthday. This is a time of year where my continuing grief grows more intense and close to the bone, far more than the end-of-year holidays or even the summer anniversary of his death. I’m also aware of how much more raw this grief feels this year because of my new parenthood. I think maybe for the first time ever I really understand the depth of sorrow my parents felt in my brother’s death.
I should be fresh on All Saints’ celebrations, given the fine sermon I heard at church this past Sunday as well as the memorial service I helped lead yesterday at the nursing home where I work. So much of the emphasis is on remembering the people who have “gone before us,” those “ancestors” who have shaped us and helped make us who we are. Were I able to tell my brother about the positive impact he has left on my life, I’m sure he would be pleased. But it was important to him in his last days that his legacy be left not only with me but with my children. So not only do I owe him (and myself) the task of claiming his impact on my life, but also its impact on my beautiful little girl. Who knows how receptive she’ll be to any of that. After all, she’ll never meet him, and in fact, her mother has never met him, either. She may not ever have the emotional connection to the idea of my brother that he would have wished. But I think about it when she smiles that heart-melting grin. I think about it when she squeals and jabbers. And I’m thankful for how the legacy of my close family will shape this wonderful little girl with such a special, lovely name.