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Brothers and Sisters

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Apr. 29th, 2010 | 01:25 am

My uncle died today.

He was my favorite uncle, when I was a young child.  He was also my father's last surviving sibling.

Dad's other brother, about a year and a half older than he, died last year.  His other brother, the one who died today, was younger than Dad by about the same amount my other uncle was older than Dad. 

There's much more, some of which may find its way into a future post; some of which won't.  Right now, I am impelled to a meditation on siblings.

Dad had the two, now both deceased.  Mom had four brothers, one of whom died at about eleven, another who died in his fifties, the other two being still alive; and two sisters, one of whom died in infancy, the other still being alive.  Like Dad, she was a middle child, one of the sisters and two of the brothers being older, the remaining siblings being younger.  I have a younger sister, and my wife a younger brother and two younger sisters.

All of us have parents, to state the obvious.  Some of us have children (I have a daughter; my sister has no children, nor did either of Dad's brothers).  Some of us (probably most of us, before the Second World War) have siblings.  I was almost seven when my sister was born, so I have a vague recollection of what being an only child is like.  My daughter is and almost certainly will remain an only child.  Thus, if she reads this years from now, it will be partly alien to her, something that does not fall within her experience.  This post will be to her like an explanation of "red" to the blind.  Nevertheless, it will perhaps give her some small window into something she will never experience firsthand. 

The vast majority of us will experience the loss of our parents.  This is natural--the older generations pass on, we survive, then pass on ourselves to be succeeded by our children.  We are saddened, but not surprised.  If we have successfully navigated life into adulthood, we have gained the tools to become independent, to live on our own terms, to love our parents but no longer to need them in the sense we did as children.  We know their death is inevitable, and will almost inevitably be before ours.  We must, willing or no, accept this.  Most of us do.

Before the last century, most people also experienced the death of children, too.  The high infant and child mortality rates made it likely that most families would have at least one, most probably more, children who did not live to adulthood.  Also tragic, but as natural for our forbears as the death of parents is to us.  Today, this is much rarer; but it still happens sometimes.

Brothers and sisters, though, are different, somehow.  Yes, most of us who have one or more will experience the death of one or more siblings.  This, too, is natural.  Nevertheless, there is somehow a subtle difference; or so it would seem to me. 

Parents, of course, bring us into the world; they are the first human beings we love; they are in some sense the primary relationship of our childhood.  Nevertheless, parenthood is a continual process of letting go, of estrangement of a good and necessary kind (if it happens right).  Every step the baby takes, every word she learns to read, every friend she stays over with, every higher mark on the door jamb; each of this is a further step towards adulthood and ultimate independence; which means independence from Mom and Dad.  Hardly have we held our newborn in our arms, it seems, than we have to start the long and painful, but necessary and natural, process of letting her go.  This is the glory and tragedy of parenthood.

Children, for the most part, outlive us now.  Even in the rare and tragic cases where the opposite is true, it is but the ultimate separation after the thousand smaller separations of growing up.

Grandparents are at a farther remove from us, generally, and their deaths, while sad, are not unexpected and are perhaps less keenly felt (though not for all of us).

Brothers and sisters, though.  They are a completely different case.  If our parents are the gods of our childhood, our siblings are our fellow mortals.  They are our first friends, first rivals, sometimes first enemies.  They are our comrades in arms, our partners in crime.  They know us like no other human beings ever will. 

Consider:  as we grow up, we must become individuals with our own lives, tastes, needs, hopes, dreams, fears, destinies.  The best parents in the world can never truly share in this, not fully--for this is the essence of adulthood, of individuation.  The same is true, in reverse, for our own children.  Our lovers and spouses know us in ways our kin never will; but even in the case of childhood sweethearts, they come along later in the game, when our lives are already in medias res.

Most of us have friends; and some of us may consider them to be like brothers or sisters.  The "like", there, though, is a stronger word than we like to think.  In my twenties, I made friends whom I considered to be like brothers.  I have, with some distress and regret, come to discover that even such friends can wound to the quick and become estranged, sometimes over ridiculous matters.  Even in the more optimistic case, they are "like" brothers, but not.  They were not there in the family, living, eating, sleeping, breathing under the same roof.  Even for those of us who meet such friends in our childhood, it's still not the same.  We may spend many or even most of our waking hours with our friends; they may stay over frequently; they may be a major focus of our lives.  

Still, they are not there for the long car trips; they do not observe the ugly parental arguments; they are not there for the joyful surprises; they do not share the unique phrases, the codes, the inside jokes, the unspoken communication that is the official language of the family.  They may be tourists to the country of our family; sometimes they may be resident aliens; but they are still aliens, nonetheless.

I have had periods of partial estrangement with my sister, as I have also with the aforementioned friends.  However, the differences are astonishing.  With a brother or sister, there is always the undercurrent that, no matter what, there will ultimately be a reconciliation, a patching up of wounds, a return to something like normalcy.  I have experienced tension with friends, "breakups" (some permanent), and reconciliation.  None of it is the same.  The tension seemed harder, the breakups at least comprehensible in a way they would not be for a sibling, and the reconciliations never quite seemed as much foreordained.  Worst of all, the normalcy never seemed as normal again with a friend as it did with a sister.

Even when there is no estrangement, of course, life's vicissitudes often dictate that we may go through long periods in which we do not see much of a friend or sibling, or communicate with them only through the occasional phone call, email, or letter.  Here the difference is most striking.  Yes, we reminisce with our friends, catch up, maybe get together and hang out.  Yet there's never quite the feeling of returning to one's home village after years away in a foreign land that unexpectedly springs up at times when we talk to a brother or sister. 

By the rivers of the Babylon that we all encounter at some point in our lives, we sit down and weep, hanging our harps on the willows.  In a sense even the best friend is a sympathetic Babylonian.  He may be a comrade, a sharer in our lives, he may comfort us, be there for us; and yet there is one level on which, when, trying to lift our spirits,  he talks to us and bids us sing, we must say, How shall we sing the songs of Zion in a strange land?  For all their imperfections, for all the tensions, for all the years, our sisters and brothers grew up with us in Zion, for when we are tiny and innocent, the family is our Zion, the shelter from the world, even if it is not always a good shelter.  Only with our brothers and sisters of blood can we sing the songs of Zion and know that however poor our singing and however lacking the songs, they are our songs.  We sing them and know they will be understood.

Of course no family is truly Zion; no family is Eden.  We grow up, we are exiled from Eden, and then we see that it never was Eden after all.  We go our separate ways.  Still, even in leaving a false Eden, even voluntarily,  there is something deep within us which ever after feels banished.  We visit our parents and there are the cherubim with the flaming sword.  We cannot return to Eden, but our siblings are our fellow travelers in the land off Nod; fellow wanderers, that is.  As long as they live, Eden is not completely relegated to memory.  There is always the inchoate feeling that maybe, just maybe, we can somehow find the way back again.  

When a sibling dies, therefore, it is a piece of Eden, of Zion, forever disintegrated; it is a digit lost from the combination of a lock we keep seeking; it is a page torn from the book of our lives.  Gone is one who knew us, in some ways, better than any other person ever will.  Gone is a comrade who spoke our language, marched under our banner, shared the same homeland.  Gone forever; who shall replace them?  The answer is no one, not fully.  

I have thought of this often.  Having only one sister, I have only one such comrade.  All my grandparents are long dead; my parents are elderly; the rest of my family is more remote.   Should my sister die before I do, the last fragment of my childhood, the only other person who shared it, the only other citizen of my native land, will be gone.  My uncle's death, however, brought this into sharp relief.  What my sister is to me, my uncle was to Dad, and is no more.  

Dad isn't one to show emotion much, and now is no exception.  Still, he is human, and I know he feels deeply, though he rarely shows it at all, least of all to his childen.  How must he feel?  What must it be like to be a nation of one?  What must it be like to be the last speaker of a soon-to-be-extinct tongue?  My mind reels.  

As I said, I am nearly seven years older than my sister.  She is in much better health than I am, in general; and even if I achieve my goal of significantly improving my health, women statistically outlive men, anyway.  Thus, in all likelihood, I will never experience the death of a sibling.  I will not be the sole survivor of my childhood.  She, most likely, will.  I do not envy her; I feel compassion for her, should that be the case.  If the opposite, by fate occurs, then it will be I who must live forever in Babylon, without even an echo of Zion.  

Dad is in Babylon now.  May it be gentle with him.  May all of us, when we finally leave Babylon, merit to return, finally and fully, to Zion, to meet with our comrades once more; and may our friends, spouses, and children join us, finally, as true natives. 

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