“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” That question, so routine, is jarring for some of us. Too early in life, we lost a sister or brother.
I lost my brother Kevin 24 years ago. I have lived as many years without him as I did with him. And yet when someone asks me how many siblings I have, I still pause. Do I say I have one brother and stop there? Or, do I answer that I have one brother, but I had another one?
I generally make a quick judgment of my questioner. Is this someone who is an acquaintance or someone who may be in my life for years? And I assess my state of mind. Am I prepared to answer whatever questions may come next if I say I lost a brother? Most days, I definitely am. The questioner likely will wonder how my brother died – in a car accident after he fell asleep. And his age? 23. And were you close? Yes, as close as two siblings can get.
If the questioner suddenly gets quiet and says, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and asks nothing else, I will walk away feeling cheated of an opportunity I rarely get. Some of us – particularly if our loss happened several years ago – may relish the chance to talk about the people they’ve lost. As I wrote in a 1999 essay published in The Dallas Morning News, “Ask me about him. I won’t talk about his death. I’ll talk about his life.”
Why write this blog entry now? Author Jessica Handler triggered my memory of dealing with the question about siblings in her riveting, poignant memoir, Invisible Sisters, a book I just finished. Jessica, the eldest of three sisters, is the only surviving child in her family. One of her sisters died during childhood, while the other one lived into her 20s. Jessica writes about her difficulty of dealing with the question about siblings. In her case, she wrote about how she felt like a traitor if she did not mention her late sisters. Jessica reminded me of the mental dance many of us perform every time someone asks us about our family. Do we only mention the family still around or do we also describe the loved ones who remain forever in our hearts?