Monday, March 10, 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, and Memory

My little brother, Joshua,  died of Leukemia when he was 2 years old. I was 4 and a half. When I tell people about my brother dying, they always ask how old he was and how old I was. Then, they ask if I remember. They look into my eyes and I can tell that they want me to say that I don't really remember much about the painful ordeal.

  I remember a lot.

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Joey, Stephanie, Joshua, Sarah *Susan was not born at the time of this photo

I remember before he got sick, how we would always be close to one another. If he was on the floor, I was next to him. If he was on the couch, so was I.  He was the closest in age to me out of all my siblings and he was my playmate.
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I remember when he got sick. We ended up going to the hospital in Dallas and staying with some friends of the family. We also spent time at the Ronald McDonald house...if I remember correctly.

I remember when he died.
It was a few days after my older brother's 7th birthday. My parent's called us into a room at their friends' house. We stood in a circle as my dad told us that Joshua had died. I didn't cry. I didn't know what that meant....death. I did not know anyone who had died before. I'd never been to a funeral. My older sister was about 12 at the time and she knew exactly what death meant. She let out a wail so sorrowful, so filled with pain that it shook me to my core. Channels in my brain were activated and I could feel her pain vividly and terribly.  I experienced sympathy, maybe for the first time. I remember holding her hand and using my tiny thumb to trace circles on her skin. I was trying to somehow take some of the pain away from her. My heart was breaking for four year old heart.

I remember the funeral. It was December and the sky was grey. I couldn't find my church shoes. This was not unusual (losing my shoes) and my mom, like so many moms, would normally track them down after asking the standard questions like "did you look under your bed?" and "are you sure you looked under your bed." This morning, she just looked down at my feet only covered by tights and said "put your slippers on and get in the car."

Joshua's funeral was a closed casket funeral. That was for the best. My mom later told me that the cancer had raveged his body and he no longer looked like my brother. She did not want us to remember him that way...all swollen, skinny, and hairless.  "what is in the casket is not your brother"

After the funeral, I rode with my younger sister to my grandparent's house in Witchita Falls. The two of us were to stay with them for a while.  I don't know where my other siblings stayed. My grandmother asked me if I knew what it meant for Joshua to be dead. I told her I did not. She explained that I would never see him again....not in this life. She said I would one day see him in heaven....but that was as strange as a concept to me as death so it didn't really make me feel any better. I wanted my brother back so I could play with him. So I could hide behind the couch and eat cookie dough with him. So we could steal my older brother's kite and try to fly it only to break it and then hide it in the dumpster.
I wanted him back so my mom would no longer be so sad. So my older sister would not be in pain. So my younger sister could know him. So my brother could have a brother. So my father could do it all over again with a better result.

So we could hang our family pictures back on the wall.
So we could be a complete family, again.

For years after his death I felt Joshua around me. I felt him like a guardian angel and I felt the ghost of his death in many things. It's still there...the ghost of his death. His spirit is also there...I just have to ask for a visit...pull up a memory. I think about what he would be doing now. What kind of man would he be?

Over the years my family remained stamped with sadness, but we learned to laugh at the pain  because that meant survival. We could not give in completely. We came close, but we could not give in all the way.

We all developed a sense of empathy. No longer could we allow a single person to experience emotional pain in our presence without us trying to intervene. We had all been there and knew what it was like for people to be in a dark place. Once you know that place and that feeling, it is almost impossible to not stop and render aid in some form or fashion. For example, each and every one of us kids all of us stood up for others in the face of a bully. Some armed with words, others with fists, and others with a shotgun (am I right, Stephanie?)

Death is something we will all go through and, if we are lucky, we can prepare for our own deaths.
But I still don't know how you prepare for the death of a loved one.


Blogger Miss Bee said...

A beautiful post and tribute to a beautiful little boy.

I know his absence never goes away even though you've all learned to live without him.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tracy Fennell said...

Thanks for writing this.

12:09 AM  

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