Sixteen years ago today, May 2, 1989, was a Tuesday. I got up and went to school that morning, along with my three other school-age siblings; I was fourteen, in ninth grade, an everting adolescent just starting to worry about my weight, thinking about my first AP exam in a few weeks. My mother probably stayed in most of that day, occupied with our new two-month-old, Abraham, and the three other home-age children. My dad went to work, and then to a school board meeting that evening. My grandma was in town, too, visiting for a few weeks. That night, sometime after bed but before midnight, my barely-five-year-old brother Jacob died.
More than a year before that evening, Jacob had been diagnosed with astrocytoma, a rare spinal cord tumor that had spread to his brain by the time it was discovered. The blond, ruddy three-year-old became a bald, beaming four-year-old and then a dark-headed, ivory-faced five-year-old as his disease propelled us through the corridors of childhood cancer: diagnosis, aggressive chemotherapy, blessed reprieve, relapse, withdrawal of therapy, and then the pure, timeless capsule of weeks or days before death. Jacob had lapsed into coma at home some time earlier—I think it was just a few weeks, but my faulty memory leaves Jacob that way, upstairs on my parents’ bed, for months—and his breath that night fell into a distinctive meter, called Cheyne-Stoke, that thrums with the increments of death. My parents gathered me and my sister Gabrielle to the bedside, and, together with my grandma, we witnessed the end—not, as in the movies, in a moment, but in a series. The last tear, the last breath, the retreating pulse, a collecting compact heaviness in the body and then its long, slow cool.
That was the end of Jacob’s life, but it is nearly impossible for me to make a story of Jacob’s death—as I have done dozens of times, in conversation and writing, during these sixteen years—that ends there. So irresistible is the upward swing of the redemptive memoir, so kinetic its inverted narrative arc, that I cannot stop the inevitable denouement: “We’ve been so comforted by the knowledge the gospel brings,” or “The experience has brought us so close as a family,” or “We know he’s a valiant missionary in the spirit world.” These words are not untrue, but, in truth, I resent them—and I blame the exigencies of the form, or the tyranny of social convention—every time I let the phrases crowd through. Jacob died, and that, so far, is where the story of his death should end.
My reluctance to retrofit Jacob’s story with a shiny, upbeat ending may be nothing more than aesthetic snobbery: upbeat endings are cliche, and if as a sister I failed to rescue my brother from cancer, at least as a writer I can redeem his story from cliche. Then again, my resistance could be an unwholesome fruit of the sort of pride that, overrun by tragedy, refuses all comfort and grafts in bitterness. Or it could be an honest shrinking from pressure on a still-painful wound, though I think this is least likely: my parents and my sisters Gabrielle and Rachel, Jacob’s twin, still carry fragments of grief that will never work themselves free, but my other siblings and I have, I think, fully healed from our loss.
No, this is not about the remnant of a poorly-processed grief. In my view, my parents’ finest joint achivement is their successful reconfiguration of our family ecology around Jacob’s absence: Jacob is still a part of our lives, easily—though more infrequently—touched in conversation, present but not oppressive in our home, accessible through voluntary family rituals. No child ever enjoyed a healthier healing environment than I did after Jacob’s death. Nor is this about a bruising encounter with theodicy. It never occurred to me to ask why God had let this happen, or who was being punished: this was not the way we negotiated the problem as a family, and it is not the way I make moral sense of the world.
As best I can discern, my dislike of the providential conclusion is a kind of loyalty to a deeply-felt personal proposition that, in its emotional logic, is utterly incontrovertible: the world would be a better place if Jacob hadn’t died. The emotional traffic in counter-factual narratives is a treacherous one, of course, and probably unprofitable, too, but I can’t keep myself out of it. Would I have grown into a weaker or lesser person if my brother had lived? Jacob died at the end of my adolescence, and at that stage tragedy no longer alters character but merely reveals it: Jacob’s death may, for example, have abetted my indistinct personal memory—forgetting was an important topos of my grief—or fostered my ability to separate and handle discretely the various strands of my life, but it did not create these tendencies.
What about my mother? The loss of a child is a catastrophe of such magnitude that it will remodel an inner topography at any stage of life; did this loss make my mother stronger, teach her irreplaceable truths? I can never really know, of course, since a child is as incapable of fully knowing a parent as a parent is incapable of fully opening to her child. Certainly my mother has mourned and comforted during the past sixteen years with an authenticity that only a bereaved parent achieves, and she has channeled the fierce energy of her grief directly into Kingdom-building. But my mother was remarkable from her youth; Jacob’s death didn’t change that. And she has said that her grief has borne both a brittleness and an urgency that, taken together, have exacted an enormous personal cost over the years. This year it is the thought of my mother, not my brother, that brings me to tears. Indeed, I sometimes think that my impulse to supplement the story of Jacob’s death with the redemptive ending is, more than anything, a child’s effort to please her parent, as if my easing of the story could somehow mitigate her pain.
All this is beside the point, of course. Jacob is the protagonist in the story, and what matters, narratively, is his outcome: would Jacob have been better off escaping death? This question is the natural habitat of the counter-factual narrative, the stuff of “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I’m no Dickens or Capra. I don’t know. And after sixteen years, I’m unlikely to find out. But spirit, desire, blood and bone, even springtime rioting in its youth—all in concert call the boy back from the valley of the shadow of his death.
There are those reading this post whose grief is rawer than mine is now, and realer than mine ever was. Many of them have will have dealt with their pain more gracefully than I have mine, and they will probably be right to feel that my intransigence is presumptuous and self-indulgent. I ask your forgiveness; in the end, I must have my redemption, and I must have it from you.