A Death In the Family


My brother died recently, just 50 years old. I am saddened for his family – the three kids and the parents he left behind, yet I myself don’t feel a sense of real loss (though I do feel guilty about not feeling a sense of loss). The truth is, our connection was purely biological: We knew each other for only a brief period before we both implicitly surrendered: Adding a brother to a life in progress was just more trouble than it was worth.

When he arrived – two years after me - it was just a bad time to be born, at least in my family. My mother was 20, underemployed, facing her first divorce, raising a toddler. Essentially, the story goes, my grandparents forced the issue: Put the baby up for adoption. But it was my mother’s cross to bear, a heavy weight she carried throughout her life. As I grew older, she told me over and over that her biggest regret in life was not having more children. The adoption, followed by an unwanted tubal ligation a year later, put a bitter end to that possibility. She was 21.

I didn’t even know I had a brother until I was 16. By that time, Mom was on husband No. 3 and I had one foot out the door, counting the seconds until I could bolt for college. One night, mom grabbed a shoebox from high on a shelf in her bedroom closet, rifled though a mess of old photos, and handed me a laminated pic of a newborn. She knew a few things: his birthdate, the hospital in which he was born, and that he’d been raised by “a nice Jewish family.” Lucky kid, I thought then.

Now I knew, but all I could do was wonder. He could be anywhere. If life were made for TV, he would find me. That didn’t happen.

I didn’t actually meet my brother until 1995, the year after Mom died. The most obvious explanation is that I was attempting to fill the void created by the loss of my mother. I’m not sure about that. Her loss provoked grief that was paralyzing in a big picture, totality of the universe sort of way, rather than for the specific relationship we had, which, unfortunately, wasn’t very close. There was no daily missing ritual telephone gabfest. Mom wasn’t much for talking.

I met my brother’s parents first. I contacted them, and they sized me up. They were great. But my sibling? It was very, very difficult, despite our geographic commonality: He attended Van Nuys High School; I went to Monroe, just a few miles north in the Valley. Still, we gave it a shot. It felt awkward, but I was hopeful at first.

After about a year, we ventured on a boys adventure, as I took a giant leap into his comfort zone: a road trip and overnighter in San Bernardino, to see his beloved Van Halen. He was relaxed, in his element. I was miserable, unable to even spin it ironically. It was that weekend, I realized, that while we might be brothers, we’d never be friends. We simply didn’t share a lifetime of experiences to bond us together through the differences. So when we essentially stopped talking to each other after eight years, there were no empty spaces to fill.

Now he’s dead, and this is what’s on my mind: Why him? Why not me? I mean, our DNA didn’t do either of us any favors. Our biological father was an unpleasant man, a lazy narcissistic alcoholic, from whom I never felt any love. My mother’s life was filled with anxiety and addition, a woman afraid to step from life’s shadows, lest she be judged. My dad made it to 67; my mom 48. I’m almost 53.

So why am I the last one standing? I have to assume my brother grew up in a stable home with a loving family, without divorces and drugs – all the things I experienced in my childhood. But maybe that’s just it. Maybe the adversity I experienced as a child gave me context, a frame of reference and the skills to deal with difficult situations. If, as I imagine, my brother grew up in a drama-free suburban home, perhaps he never learned to cope.

I’d seen my mom passed out, beaten up, messed up, waking up with strangers, tossed out and walking out on men. Mom was into pills; her men were into all sorts of things. I made it my early life’s mission to get the hell out of Dodge at the earliest juncture. I had my own issues, from adolescence into my 30s: I drove drunk (“driving by Braille,” we called it then), puked on the hood of my car at 3 in the morning, began having sex at 15, snorted cocaine with my mother and her third husband one New Year’s Eve, smoked heroin after an all-night coke binge alongside famous Hollywood people.

So why not me?

I heard a few things about my brother over the years. Most notably, that he had been convicted for writing fraudulent insurance policies on which he collected commissions and served a few months in prison, which led to a divorce. At his funeral, I learned he was just days from moving home with his parents.

When his ex-wife texted me that he’d died, she said he’d been dealing with his “demons” for a while and now, perhaps, he finally had some peace. A chill ran through me. It was exactly the kind of death that runs in my family.

I could be completely wrong, but at his funeral, I sensed a huge disconnect when I heard his kids speak about their father. They spoke of him in terms that I perceived as shockingly superficial, as if they barely knew him. To me, it seemed that my brother died alone.

Why not me?

Admittedly, there are elements of my life that are admittedly darker than they’ve ever been. But I am not alone. I am surrounded by a family filled with love; what drives me, what keeps me pushing forward, pushing death away as best as I can, is the desire to be with them, to do for them, to enjoy my life with them. That love is all the motivation I need to keep on keeping on. Is this the answer to my question? I hope so.