When I was four, after my brother Josh’s death but before my sister was born, I had a dream that a giant dog was running around our San Diego house. I could see the dog’s fur outside the window as it raced by, and I could feel the ground shake with each of its steps. I knew it was up to me to warn people, to protect my family, but I couldn’t reach to close the windows and no one would listen to me. When I woke up, I told my mom about the dream. “I felt so old, Mommy,” I said. “I felt like I was five!”
After Josh died, my dad came home from cruise early. A black car with white military lettering on the door dropped him off in front of our house. I ran across the grass and jumped into his arms, pressed my nose into his warm khaki Navy uniform shirt, and breathed in his smell of jet fuel, cigarette smoke, and Coast soap.
Later, the three of us sat at the dining room table. We just sat there, the silence buzzing in our ears. I tried to express the impossible reality that we had been a family of four but now we were only three. Into the silence I said, “Sometimes it seems like I can still hear the baby crying.” Or at least that’s what I remember saying. I wasn’t even three yet, so it’s possible it came out differently.
My dad carried me into Josh’s room and showed me the empty crib. “See, no baby,” he said.
My dad had misunderstood me. I knew the baby wasn’t there anymore, I just didn’t understand how that could be. I didn’t try to correct my dad because I could tell that my question had hurt him, and I didn’t know how to say it another way anyway. So I kept quiet and felt the chasm of aloneness widen around me.
I first remember feeling the aloneness the night of Josh’s birth when my mom was away and I was frightened and my dad was asleep. I felt it the morning of Josh’s death, when I stood with my mom in our pajamas at the end of our driveway, watching our shadows stretch long on the pavement, waiting for the ambulance. I felt it in the months after when my mom would fall asleep on the couch; I would blow air into her nostrils to wake her up. She said it was because Josh had fallen asleep and not woken up and I was afraid that the same thing would happen to her, but I just remember feeling alone and wanting her to be with me.
Even then I was trying to figure out the nature of existence. How is it that a baby—my brother—could appear and then just no longer be there? Where did he come from and where did he go? I knew he was supposed to be there at the cemetery where I wore my crocheted sailor suit and wasn’t allowed to pick the flowers. But how was he not with us anymore?
I had sat on the sofa with a pillow under my plump little arm and held him in my lap, had pushed him in his walker and made him laugh, had lain next to him on the living room rug and hugged him, and now he was no longer there.
More than thirty years later, I’m still trying to figure out how it’s possible that someone who is so firmly there one moment can be so thoroughly gone the next. With my own babies, I could feel the possibility of their absence even as I felt their warm weight in my arms. I can still feel it, and they’re a ways from being babies anymore.
I used to write about Josh a lot, but until my blog post last month about the night he was born, I hadn’t written about him since a high school writing class more than twenty years ago. In the weeks since I wrote that blog post, I’ve been looking back and it seems like everything I write is about him, or at least about the confusion and aloneness that I’ve felt in the wake of his life.
It’s possible I would have been confused and alone even if Josh hadn’t died, that this is just my temperament. I was so young when he lived that I can’t remember if I was different before his death. Whatever the cause, my earliest memories are of being confused and alone, and I think that this confusion and aloneness birthed my writing life even before I could read and write. There were things that I had to try to figure out, but because they were things I couldn’t talk about to my parents—the only people who’d known Josh and the only people I felt might have the answers—I had to try to figure them out alone. I paid close attention to everything around me, trying to pick up clues to the answers to my questions about where we come from and where we go, why we’re here for such a short time and what possible meaning there can be in this cycle of birth and death, joy and sorrow.
For more than thirty years, I’ve asked these questions—and, when I was too afraid, avoided asking these questions—in fiction and in essay, in my dreams and in my middle-of-the-night panic attacks, in my irascibility and in my taciturn pouts. I’ve asked and I’ve asked, and I’ve not found any answers. I’m not even sure there are answers to be had to these questions, at least not satisfying ones, but if there are, I feel sure that I can write my way to them.
And so I write.
From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (found in Elizabeth Andrew’s Writing the Sacred Journey):
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Written for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections (March 24, 2014).