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It Seems Like Yesterday

Wednesday, July 20, 2011, 06:48 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Forty years ago today, my brother died. He was four months short of his sixth birthday; I had just turned seven. He had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia three years earlier. Today, ALL is one of the most curable forms of childhood cancer. Not so in 1971.

It isn’t supposed to be that way. Children aren’t supposed to die, but they do. They die of cancer or drown in flooded pits at construction sites or get hit by cars walking home from school. Sometimes they are killed deliberately, by strangers or even their parents. Life isn’t always fair or just.

My memories of my brother are few but vivid. I remember playing with him in our basement play room. I remember looking at him through the glass of our front door, which I couldn’t walk through because a kid at school had chicken pox and I had to stay with a neighbor until we were sure I hadn’t been infected. With an immune system decimated by chemotherapy, my brother would have died of chicken pox. I remember the funeral, where my father read a eulogy my mother had written. I remember playing in the front yard after the funeral and my friend from next door asked me if my brother had really died. I don’t think she believed it. It isn’t supposed to be that way.

What I don’t remember is throwing a book at him once, cutting his chin and sending him to the hospital because chemotherapy destroys platelets and he could have bled to death from a cut like that. Nor do I remember the details he apparently told me about his cancer treatment and how horrible it was. Some things are better forgotten.

Sometimes, I talk to him, not to the five-year-old boy he was then, but to the adult he would be, 45 years old now. I wonder what advice he’d give me or what advice he would ask of me. I think he would be amused that I named my son after him. Maybe he is.

Things would be much different if he had lived, though I can’t say how. Losing a brother and watching my parents endure the death of a son were formative experiences. Without them, I would be a very different person. It’s quite likely that I would never have met many of the people who have become very important to me.

It isn’t supposed to be that way. Or maybe it is. It may be unfair, but if there is some Grand Plan that we can’t begin to understand, maybe this is exactly how it was supposed to be. Maybe sadness and heartbreak and negotiating the forks in the road of life are what make us better people.

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