A letter to my brother Nate on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his birth:
I was born into a universe of which you were the center. My actual memories are few and fleeting. I remember that you couldn’t run because your heart was too weak. I remember that we used to race into Mom and Dad’s room in the morning, and if I yawned, you would pull my hair.
I remember my best friend Sarah complaining about how ridiculous it was that I let you win every race, even though you couldn’t run and I was a speed demon. Sarah told me recently that her main memory of that period was of all of my attention and energy being directed toward your physical and emotional well-being. I was 4 years old.
Mom and Dad frequently brought you to the hospital in Boston for appointments while I stayed home with a baby sitter. On one such occasion, I knew you would be returning home in the middle of the night. The next morning, I woke up and checked your room. When you weren’t there, I knew you had beaten me to our parents’ bed, and I yawned and yawned to get all the yawns out so you wouldn’t pull my hair. I ran in and jumped up on the bed, but you weren’t there. I remember asking where you were, then realizing before our parents spoke that you were gone.
I remember that you visited me late one night several years later, reassuring me that you were OK. That you were in a different dimension and always with me, watching over me.
More than two decades later, our family reached a point where we were ready to take your ashes out of the house. I had visited them daily as a child, but not since leaving home. Mom and Dad canoed out to the middle of the lake with me between them, holding you. Canoes are perfect for times when eye contact is not possible. I put the entire urn into the lake. It never occurred to me to try to open it. Now that I know our cousin Allan and Uncle Charlie were sprinkled into the lake last summer, after our cousins and aunt held their ashes in their bare hands, I wish I had done the same with you.
You have been with me a lot as your 50th birthday approached. Sometimes I am hit with sadness, and I wonder why you left me here alone. I wonder how much of me you took with you. Your short life helped form so much of who I became — always carrying a deep loneliness and sense of loss, always caring for others to the detriment of myself, always harboring a desperate fear of losing them. My nervous system has been stuck in overdrive.
And, more positively, I was always more aware than my peers that life is short, precious, and fragile. That fierce determination can get you through the hardest of times. And that you must hold on tight to your people.
As the working mother of two boys, I held on so tight that I wore myself out, to the point of landing in a cardiac unit in a hospital in Boston. Was I trying to find you there? The experience of serious illness softened the messages I drew from losing you. Fierce determination can get you through a lot, but there comes a time to step back and allow events to unfold. Holding on tight to your people is important. And letting them go, equally so. I still swing between the lessons, never quite getting it right.
I look forward to seeing you again someday in your other dimension, with your wispy blond hair and clear blue eyes. In the meantime, I know you are always watching over me — because you told me you would.Lucia Thompson lives in Wayland. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.