NOTE: This post talks about suicide. If that’s an issue for you, perhaps give it a miss.
I have been thinking about the conversation with Gini Dietrich that got posted yesterday for a while. It was a bit of a surprise for me, because I know Gini as one of the sunniest presences in my digital life. She rarely rants, she’s usually a source of laughter or insight.
So hearing her talk about some of the ups and downs of the adoption process, but more specifically about some of the difficulties of her youth gave me a very different perception of her. And it got me thinking about the turnstile moments in our family lives.
It seems to me as I look back on my family life that the moments I have are, sadly, negative. The one that stands above all others, not surprisingly, is the death of my brother. When I was 13, he was 19, and he killed himself. It would be impossible for that not to have a massive effect on a family, and it did on mine. I was the youngest of three boys, and my oldest brother was in a very different place at the time — he was 25, a member of the Armed Forces, married, two children of his own. I was a late baby, and my parents were in their mid-fifties. I have very strong memories of the days around his death. I can remember having a final conversation with my brother the morning before he died. It wasn’t a pleasant one. I can remember being awakened by music in the middle of the night; he had taken pills and put on Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” record, loud, and chaos resulted. I can remember my brother’s wife distracting me by teaching me to dance while my parents were at the hospital. It didn’t take. I remember the funeral, and the minister of the church telling my parents and me that my brother was in heaven now, and not believing her in the slightest.
That death changed a lot for me. I had always been a bit of an outsider, a bit of an observer; I was a year younger than most of the kids in my class, and susceptible to bullying and being on the low end of social ladders. In the years that followed, I unconsciously found a rhythm of being on the fringes of a bunch of circles, and I think that’s a tendency that has stuck. When I turned 50, my partner threw me a party, and there were friends, people I’d worked with, music people, podcasting people, social media people…
It also forged a personality where I felt I couldn’t be angry at people, or at least express that anger. Bad things would happen. And it was best for me to simply achieve a lot, to make up to my parents for the disaster of my brother’s death, to give them a kid for whom everything was very much okay. Even if it wasn’t. And that led to a tendency to ignore and deny the bad stuff in my life.
None of this is to say my parents were bad parents, or that there weren’t good times in the context of my family — whatever issues I had with my parents were long since resolved by the time they were approaching elderly status, and I was well into adulthood. And what issues I really had to work on were ones that were mine to work on, not someone else’s fault. But I can’t think of moments in the context of my parents, or my brothers, where I can say “that was the rocket boost that pushed me in this direction, the support, the Hallmark moment.”
And without my brother’s death, I honestly don’t know who I’d be. I suspect there are parts of me that would be similar, but I also believe that I would have been a very different person. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse; there’s no way to truly know that.
Perhaps we focus on the problematic moments in our family stories more than on the triumphant ones. Or maybe it’s just me. I’d like to know what you think. Leave a comment, or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: “Decision making”, a CC-licenced image by Flickr user Nerovivo.