Four days away from five months old.
I feel like I’ve been holding my breath, waiting my daughter’s whole life for her to pass this marker — or maybe like I’ve been holding my breath for 32 years — ever since that February morning when I startled awake and started getting ready for school, before realizing it was Saturday.
My father had just gotten home from a work trip and was giving my mom a much-needed sleep. He was downstairs with my brother, and he came bolting upstairs to get my mom. She ran with him downstairs and I came out of my room wondering what was going on.
And then my dad staggered up the stairs, fell to his knees like he’d been shot, and made a noise I’d never heard before. A noise that split our world into the before and the after.
In some parts of the world, when you’re twelve you’re almost ready to marry and be a mother yourself. I was not from a society like that. When I was twelve, I was a child. I thought as a child. I had childish ways.
But when my brother died I put childish ways behind me. I stepped into the awful world of the adult. Except of course I didn’t. I couldn’t. That was one of the first lies I believed, and it took decades to disbelieve.
I remember the funeral, all those solemn people and us singing Amazing Grace like it meant something. Like we could be a good example of faith to all those solemn people in the midst of our tragedy. That was another lie I swallowed, more decades spent tracking down and eradicating that virus messing with my operating system.
In the past couple weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my brother. And you know what surprised me? He was with us for almost five months, but I only have a handful of memories of him. I have more memories associated with his death and the days following than I do of his life. Somehow his memory file holds nothing but sorrow.
Could I make him laugh? How can I not remember that? No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to access the happy memories.
Did he eat solid food? Did he burrow his head into my shoulder as my daughter does? I remember my mom couldn’t breastfeed for very long because of the pain. But how long? Did I ever feed him? I must have changed him more than once, but once is all I remember — the time he peed on my shirt in that long and glorious baby boy tradition.
My parents still remember my brother on his birthday. They usually go to lunch and then up to the cemetery to stand by the tree that has grown taller than I could have imagined on that cold day when we put him in the ground. The tree was so small then. My brother had been so small.
I remember the weight of his dead body. He was so heavy. In life, he’d never been that heavy. He was always moving, squirming, smiling.
I loved him. Oh, I loved him so deep that when he died the love blew apart my insides like I swallowed a grenade. What would my daughter do to me if she exploded? Would there be anything left of me?
My brother’s death blew me apart, and even now all these years later I’m still sifting through the rubble. What did he leave? What remains of me, of us? It’s like the ashes left after a fire when you walk around half-heartedly kicking at piles and once in awhile, you discover something of value, if slightly singed.
Except this is 32 years later and instead of ashes, there’s a whole new house, a bountiful garden, a full life. There is a beauty that grew out of pain, and peace, and many good, good things. My acquaintance with sorrow was forced, but I have also become acquainted with joy. So much joy.
But now I find myself wandering around helplessly, spade in hand, trying to dig up my brother. I’m an archeologist on an expedition, hoping that somewhere down there in the sediment, through the layers of pain and grief and healing and time, I can excavate the joy I know was there.
If you keep love in your hand, it can only blow off your hand — I learned that early on and practiced it for decades. I employed defensive love.
Always be on your guard. Always have your hands up. Never let people in deep because they will always leave a tab that needs paying when they make their exit.
As it turns out, that’s also a pretty costly way to live, but I didn’t learn that for a long time.
As a child, I ushered my brother into my heart with red carpets and a brass band, with no thought of consequence. As an adult, it takes deliberate effort to put people into my heart. My whole body trembled as I carefully placed my daughter there. And she sits there still, ticking like a time bomb.
She flails her limbs and squirms at every opportunity. Her smile splits her face in two when I catch her eye, or sometimes when she’s just staring into space. When she is calm and cuddling, face in my neck and little hands grasping my arms, I want to freeze time and weep in the same instant.
How can there be so much sorrow and so much joy in the same movements? The same squirm. The same smile. The same wiggling body. The same little clothes and trusting expression.
But I am not the same.
I am no longer a child. I have put childish ways behind me and disbelieved the lies and I now understand that love doesn’t have to be just defensive, it can be offensive as well.
Love can be a weapon and we can grab hold of it with both hands and plunge it straight into the heart of darkness that longs to overwhelm us.
She will wake in a few hours and squirm again and smile. She will live another day, and tomorrow she will be older than my brother ever was.
How many more days she has beyond that, only God knows. But I will take up my sword and love her vigorously, offensively. I will stand against the fear and I will spite the darkness.