My brother’s birthday is always a day of heavy emotions for my family. It’s hard to be faced head-on with what he would have been like at this age or that age and what our lives might have been like with him in it. He would have been turning 29, such a strange thing to think about since he is forever 16 years old in my mind.
I was recently reminded of a story involving my son, Sam, my brother, Ian (who passed away shortly before Sam was born), and a documentary about a whale when my sister randomly mentioned that she and her husband had watched the same documentary. It prompted me to tell her this story, which I was surprised that I hadn’t already shared with her. The next day, I went to find what I had written in my journal almost five years earlier, knowing it was a story I wanted to remember. I thought, in honor of Ian’s birthday, I might share a tidied-up version of that journal entry here.
“Woo-woo” story alert.
Sam was born a year and a half after Ian’s death, and yet I always felt a close connection between Ian’s death and Sam’s birth. Perhaps just a symbolic reminder of the death giving way to life, of endings and beginnings. From the start, I frequently talked about Ian to Sam, often mentioning what Ian liked or didn’t like, showing him pictures, and telling him how Ian always made us laugh. Sam felt a closeness with Ian despite never having met him. His favorite story — one he still frequently asks me to tell him, and that he likes to share with others — is the story about how and why he is, in fact, named after his uncle Ian.
When our mom was pregnant with Ian, my sisters and I told her she should name him Sam because it included the first letter in each of the names of his soon-to-be big sisters — Shirey. Angela. Miranda. Alas, we did not get to claim ownership over our little brother in that way and while I’m sure Ian was happy with the name he was given, throughout his childhood he also loved hearing his big sisters tell him the story of how he was almost named Sam.
When my son Sam was just about to turn eight, he discovered the nature documentaries on Netflix and wanted to watch one about a young orca whale who becomes separated from his pod. My husband and I agreed, and within a few minutes; all three of us were captivated by the story and wholeheartedly attached to this whale, Luna, and what would become of him. The story follows the attempts to remove Luna from the remote Vancouver Island bay, but he won’t leave and the times they do get him out of the bay, he returns. As usually happens with situations like these, some people love him and some fear him. The filmmaker grows particularly attached, becoming a sort of surrogate parent to this whale. He goes out in the bay every day to try to make sure that Luna is not hurt or that Luna does not accidentally hurt anyone. One day he leaves to attend a family event, and while he’s gone Luna is killed by a boat propeller.
The three of us were shocked that the story ended in Luna’s death. Up until that point, we thought maybe they would get Luna to leave the bay and rejoin his pod. Sam was devastated. He sobbed. He wouldn’t eat dinner and didn’t understand how this could happen. After an hour or so of trying to console him, we realized this was the first time he’d seen a “real” movie about death and it was just something he was going to have to process. We gave up on trying to console him and thought it best to get him in the shower and to bed.
Once in the shower, a stand-up stall with glass walls, he continued to sob with intermittent outbursts of “Why Luna, why, did you have to swim into the boat propeller?” I stood watching him in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, listening to him sob, feeling bad there was nothing I could do, and thinking to myself “this is going to be a long night” when he suddenly stopped crying.
He then turned to me with a smile on his face and said, “Mommy, I know where your brother Ian is." "Where?" I replied, trying to hide my confusion at the abrupt change in his demeanor and figuring the answer would be something as simple as “in heaven.” Continuing to smile he patted his chest with his hand and said, "right here." "How do you know that?" I asked him. Very matter-of-factly, he replied, "he told me just now."
At this point, I was a teensy bit freaked out but also relieved by the sudden shift in his emotional state. He continued showering, the sobs replaced with the hum of a happy tune. “What else did he say?" I had to ask. Sam happily replied, "He told me, ‘Be a good boy, Sammy. Make good choices. All the best!’" He continued smiling and humming as he washed and a minute later said, "Now I know where heaven is." "Where?" I asked. "Right here," he said as he patted his chest again, "and grandma Lois's mom is there too." I never knew my grandma’s mom so it seemed an interesting addition to the story, but a welcome one. He finished showering, got ready for bed, and went straight to sleep with a smile on his face. It wasn’t going to be such a long night after all.
I have no doubt that our loved ones live on in a very real way in our hearts, and the comfort of this is something I’ve carried with me through the recent deaths of other family members. I think I’ve learned a lot about grief in the years since Ian’s death, that it’s not something we ever really get over, it’s just something we learn how to live with — a new normal. What I’ve learned, mostly, is that loss and grief are an inescapable part of being human and that we must embrace our grief wholeheartedly instead of running away from it. Not an easy task, I know, and one I can only hope I don’t have to face too often, but one I also know I will surely face again if I am lucky enough to live a long life.
Happy Birthday, Ian — you idiot (inside joke). Life surely would have been more fun with you in it, but I remain grateful for the time we had with you. And while I miss you terribly, I rest comfortably in my memories of you and knowing you are still with us.
P.S. A reminder to myself and to anyone else who needs it. We’re so lucky to be able to so easily take pictures of our loved ones with our phones. Take lots of pictures and make sure you’re in the pictures too. I so wish I had more pictures of my brother and my grandma.
Some words on grief and loss that I’ve found over the years that have brought me comfort. I’d like to share them here in case they might do the same for someone else.
Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed (two excerpts)
“Grief is tremendous, but love is bigger. You are grieving because you loved truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of death. Allowing this into your consciousness will not keep you from your suffering, but it will help you survive the next day.”
“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days. You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up through the months. And then one day you find yourself alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and lean your head back and you realize you’re okay.”
The Thing Is by Ellen Bass
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!