Today, April 22nd, marks the 26th anniversary of my brother’s death.
He died in 1986 at the age of 8 from Leukemia. I was 10 at the time. He was my only sibling.
Strangely enough, he and I share a birthday – May 14th. He was born two years after me. I don’t know what the odds of that are, but they’ve gotta be small. And April 22nd, the day Jacob died, is also one my aunt’s birthdays. She was (and is) our closest aunt, dearly loved by Jacob (and me).
Ever since I started blogging in 2006, I’ve tried to write this post. There was the occasional draft, some scribbles in a notepad, and a lot of “writing in my head.” For some reason, I’ve decided to write it now, although I agonized over whether or not to publish it. And while I’m publishing this on the Internet for anyone to read (and presumably to remain archived for as long as the Internet exists), I’m really writing this for myself.
So if you’re not interested in a long, super-personal post about my life, don’t read on.
Jacob was diagnosed with cancer when he was 6. He suffered – off and on – for two years. There was the occasional bout of remission, but they never lasted long. Most of the time he was shuttling back and forth between Guelph (where we lived) and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. He spent a lot of time at that hospital. So did my parents. I visited Jacob there, but never stayed for long periods of time. I was still going to school, and I think my parents wanted to shield me from what was going on. So I stayed with family friends, often for weeks at a time, and tried to lead a “normal life.”
I miss my brother.
I often wonder what it would be like had he survived. In that fantasy world, we’re best friends, close enough in age to have shared many milestones together: turning 30, getting married, having kids. Who knows…
I often wonder what he’d be like. He and I were very different; I was always more serious, he was always sillier and more fun. He liked tuxedo costumes, I couldn’t care less what I wore (still sort of true.) He put a lot of effort into holidays and parties, I didn’t. Even when he was sick, he had a jovial personality and enjoyed himself as much as he could, although as you might expect, there were occasions when he was so sick and in so much pain (made worse by the chemotherapy) that even his bright personality could not shine through. I really don’t know what he would be like, but I have a feeling he’d be a fun guy to hang out with. And caring. Ridiculously caring.
My memory of my childhood is very spotty. My memory overall is bad, but it’s amazing how little I remember of my brother’s illness. Maybe I blocked it out to get through the situation, I really don’t know. But there are things I certainly do remember.
I remember we both enjoyed LEGO. We used to build Transformers and Thundercats out of LEGO, playing in our bedroom (which we shared with bunk beds) for hours.
I remember eating a lot of hospital food (don’t do that), including ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread. I’m pretty sure I ate as a coping mechanism.
I remember throwing things at each other from our bunk beds (I was on the top bunk, he was on the bottom bunk) and joking around while we were supposed to be sleeping.
I remember going on vacation to Cape Cod, near the end of his life. My parents already knew it was over, but I didn’t. We had a great time buying a ton of gear at an Army surplus store and playing G.I. Joe. Did he ever love G.I. Joe.
I remember the day he died, when family friends came to pick me up at school. I was called out of my classroom and I walked to the top of a set of stairs. Looking down the stairs I saw our family friends and knew instantly my brother had died. One of them said, “It’s time.” I went back into the class, collected my things and they took me home. It must have been a 20-30 minute car ride at least, but I have no clue what we talked about or said during that time. I also don’t remember the last time I saw Jacob alive. I wasn’t at home the night he died, my parents knew it was coming to an end, so I was staying with family friends.
The world is a shitty, brutal place. It’s absurd how much suffering there is in the world. And when people say “life is short,” are they ever right. Most people don’t really know what that means. Some certainly do.
It’s difficult to say how my brother’s death changed me. I don’t know what I would be like had it not happened. While I feel like I grew up more quickly than my peers (at the time), I also never outgrew a lot of “kid” stuff. I still love cartoons, comic books and toys. So do a lot of people, but for me, “capturing a bit of my childhood” is so much more than a touch of nostalgia. It’s a way of remembering my brother.
Reflecting on oneself is hard. I look back on my life and the experience with Jacob, and wonder why it didn’t propel me more in terms of career choice (although I always wanted to be a doctor, I couldn’t handle the years of school), or why I don’t donate more money to research and charity. I don’t know if my experience made me a better person. Somehow personal selfishness and laziness overruled my desire to help. That’s not to say that I think I’m a bad person, but I look at what some people do in the world -how they devote themselves to making a difference in huge ways- and I marvel at their desire and ability to do so.
People are incredibly resilient, more so than they realize. Few people are ever pushed to their absolute limit. My grandparents on my father’s side survived the Holocaust. They spent years in ghettos and concentration camps. Talk about pushing past one’s limits. People survive horrible, horrible tragedies and experiences every single day. And most persevere. You’ve gotta believe in the human spirit and will to live. They’re almost insurmountable. Having said that, I’m not an optimist when it comes to the human race. I’m not really a pessimist either. I’m … neutral. It’s not where I want to be, it’s just where I am. We (collectively) do some fantastic things, but we’re also so easily capable of evil that it’s impossible for me to believe we get it all right “in the end.” Life is just too complicated for that.
People are also insanely stubborn and irrational. We know right from wrong, and still go down the wrong path a lot. I know I should eat better than I do, but I don’t. I know I should exercise more and I don’t. Not that either would have helped Jacob, but I should know better. Sometimes I think it’s my way of saying “Fuck you” to the world (and death). “I’m going to do as I please, you won’t get me.” Of course something will get me someday. As long as it’s not cancer; you’ve already taken enough from me.
While stubborness and irrationality can be bad qualities, they’re also good. I don’t think I would have achieved much of anything in my life if I wasn’t stubborn and irrational. I would have just turned over and given up.
I haven’t mentioned my parents much here. I can’t begin to imagine what they went through (even though I was there), and the pain they felt burying their son. We all suffer loss in our lives -that’s part of life itself- but losing a child is unimaginable, even for me. It’s something I have to force myself not to think about, given that I have two boys of my own.
My parents and I have our differences, just like any family. But I love and respect them dearly for the people they are and what they’ve gone through in life. They gave me a happy, good childhood.
For my kids, I’m saddened by the fact that they’ll never get to know my brother. I think Jacob would have been an awesome uncle. And I’m scared. Every time one of my boys gets sick, I’m scared. I hide it, but on the inside I’m a mess. Jacob’s leukemia started with flu-like symptoms. That’s it. From “having a cold” to a “rare form of Leukemia” is a hell of a jump. But that’s often how it happens. Most parents don’t think the same way that I do (although parents are universally and constantly afraid for their kids), because a cold is 99.99% of the time just a cold.
My older son Sam looks quite a bit like Jacob. Family friends that knew my brother noticed it immediately, especially when Sam was younger. And Sam is a ridiculously caring kid too. He’s often thinking of others, protecting others (especially his younger brother Quinn), and trying to keep other people happy. If there’s a little Jacob in Sam that’s OK with me.
I think about Jacob a lot. Not on a daily basis, but he’s never too far from my thoughts. I think about him in good times (playing with my kids), and bad times. I think about him when I’m going to do something hard, and remember what he went through. I get a sense of strength from him that helps me a lot. More than I probably realize. It’s still hard though – twenty six years later – to think about him. Our time together was just too short, and the pain is still there.
My goal with this post was to share a part of me that’s never really been shared. I’m sharing with myself and for myself, and sharing for my brother and with him. For my kids too. I would never presume to preach to you – I don’t know what you’ve been through. The truth is, you can’t really know someone until you know everything they’ve been through. But I can tell you this: whatever it is, I bet you can get through it. It’s in our very core to fight (in a good way, and unfortunately in a bad way too) and survive. You can make it.
One thing Jacob taught me for sure, was to be happy.
It’s a cliche, but so genuinely important. Unfortunately, most of us never really get there. And while I admire the few people that can drop everything and do exactly as they please all the time, I’m just not wired that way. But I do seek happiness. Hell, I am happy. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job charting my own path (with the occasional hiccup along the way), always in an attempt to be and stay happy. If you can achieve even a little bit more happiness in your life -through anything- you owe it to yourself to at least try.
In Jacob’s short life he touched a lot of people. Even today, people still visit his grave, evidenced by the small stones or pebbles they leave on his headstone (which is a Jewish tradition.) One of his childhood friends still leaves small toys on the headstone; a tiny connection to the friendship they shared. Just before my brother died, he asked my mother to take care of his friends. To the end, Jacob was thinking about others he cared about.
He was an awesome kid. He was an awesome brother. And I love him.
If you’re still with me at this point, here are some photos of my brother and I. His personality shines through incredibly well (even though the photo quality is bad.)
I’ve turned comments off. But you can always reach me here: firstname.lastname@example.org.