National Siblings Day and the Brother I Lost
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
In1995, a day was created to honor our siblings. National Siblings Day, according to its web site, was created by a woman in New York whose only brother and sister had passed away too early in their lives.
"Siblings," according to the fact sheet of the Siblings Day Foundation,"are a special gift, and bonding amongst them is a vital part of keeping our families, communities and nations strong. Brothers and sisters provide an anchor for one another, becoming some of our closest friends and most trusted advisors."
"When one loses a sibling, especially at an early age, this leaves a void that can never be replaced. We all too often take our siblings for granted. We do not appreciate them until they have moved geographically away from us or die."
When I was younger, I very much wanted to believe this. Even as the abuse and dysfunction in our family escalated, I envisioned that once the three (and soon the four) of us grew up and escaped, we would come together as adults. We would celebrate weddings, births, and be there for one another through thick and thin, happiness and sorrow, like "real" brothers and sisters, like The Brady Bunch. We would visit each other's homes, chat on the phone, hang out, join together for Christmas and Easter.
But the abuse, lies, narcissism and cruelty of my birth family have forever ripped away those happy moments.
Last week on Facebook, there they came again: smiling photos of brothers and sisters of friends from the old neighborhood, high school, college and after. Lovely photos of siblings at every age, arms entwined at birthdays and bat mitzvahs, shore trips and international travel. So simple, so joyful. Glimpses of lives tantalizingly normal. Snapshots of love.
I am the oldest sibling. At the beginning, there were three of us: I, Linda; B, two years younger; and K, five years younger. When I was a freshman in high school, E was born to my mother and her second husband. Her pregnancy was a surprise, since she was 35 and her second husband had told her he was sterile. Sitting in our screened porch one day, we all talked about names. I said that I liked "E.” if the baby was a boy. And - E it was. Amid the blur of the following years of abuse and mistreatment, because he was the baby and my stepfather's actual child, E was mostly spared from the years of the hitting and yelling and grabbing endured by us older kids. Except one time: when he was still a baby his father lifted him up by his head to show my mother "how strong the boy was." Shockingly, I'm certain that wasn't pure abuse as it was a startling sign of some kind of twisted Teutonic pride.
(To her credit, in that instance our mother did rescue her child).
Years later, after E’s father died alone in his apartment in a sad, dark whirlwind of schizophrenia and panic, hiding because "the police were out to get him," I would remind E that he had been the only good to ever come out of that marriage.
E, my baby brother, was for nearly 40 years one of the shiny best things in my life.
I remember cradling and kissing his downy head when he arrived home that early December day, forgetting my embarrassment in front of high school classmates that my mother was still procreating. My hopes soared that this tiny boy could make everything okay for us. I helped snuggle him warm in front of the roaring fireplace during the epic East Coast ice storm of 1973, when E was only a couple weeks old and we lost electricity for days. I played peek-a-boo on the couch under the blankets with him, and tucked him into his crib at night. We all took care of our new baby brother.
One of my most precious memories of E was of a snowy afternoon. He was a soft, gentle blond toddler in overalls. School was closed that day, and I was at home playing with him in my bedroom. He became sleepy, so we crawled under the covers in my bed . With the snow gently floating down outside the window, we both peacefully slept. Even now as a middle aged adult, I can still feel the blessed tranquility, that quiet peace as he lay next to me, and remember the magic of that day, placed forever in my heart. Later that evening I was probably once again taunted in the kitchen while making dinner or setting the table, or molested by E’s father. I was never able to do anything right. But that afternoon in my bed cuddling E was a temporary loving cocoon.
I left for college in 1977. Emotionally and physically battered by my stepfather, I couldn't wait to get out of that house. My stepfather, the evil, sick predator he was, had repeatedly tried to enter my bedroom those last few nights before my drive to Maryland, pleading with me to talk "sense" into my mother, to not let her kick him out of the house. She had finally gotten scared of his violence toward her. He knocked on my door continually into the wee hours, frantically calling my name. Did he actually think I would be on his side because of our forced intimacy?! I kept my door locked, the mirror on the back of it shattered from a couple days before, when I had slammed it violently in his face.
College presented me with challenges of its own. I was emotionally very fragile and had no confidence in myself, despite my friendly and poised exterior armor. Being bullied and mistreated at home had made me lonely and anxious. Despite being an excellent student in high school, I had never learned how to study effectively or budget my time. I would work incredibly long hours to get the top grades I did. Between being sexually and physically abused at home, I rarely had a solid block to study. There were always chores, to be re-done if they weren't acceptable. There was always the "come sit with me" command from my stepfather at night. I would set my alarm for 4 in the morning to finish assignments and prepare for tests. At college, there was so much more material to learn, and I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't know that help was available, or that I deserved any. I felt hopeless and stupid.
(Much later in my life I was diagnosed with ADHD, which was why I could never remember material from the lectures. And I was a perfectionist because good grades had been the only way to get any positive recognition and respect in my family. It was the reason why writing papers and doing assignments took such a long time for me).
But talking to little E on the dorm phone on weekends helped me get through. He called me "Lin-Lin." One rainy day before Christmas break, I rode my bike along the highway to the mall to buy him the Snoopy dog he wanted. I carefully wrapped it up on my bike rack so it didn't get wet.
Every time I drove home from college from then on, I brought E a present. He really looked forward to the gifts, and also my being back home.
Years went by. E and I remained extremely close.
Naturally he had his relationships with my other brother and sister, since they had been at home with him longer. And with our mother. I was never jealous of any of them. During the couple "safe" years before my mother remarried, I felt like we could perhaps again be a normal family.
When I lived in Baltimore and worked at the University of Maryland Hospital, E attended Orioles baseball camps as a boy, practicing his skills with the likes of a young Cal Ripken. He became a rabid Orioles fan. Crabs, the Orioles, Baseball and Baltimore were special loves we shared. E even spoke of attending college in Maryland to be closer to me.
I could not foresee the coming storms, or his betrayal. I couldn't even imagine that something like it could ever happen.
My relationship with my other brother, B, and with my sister, K, eventually became fraught. I really don't understand why. It could be that my being their older sister and that responsibility led them to resent me. After all, we had all been in the same rocky boat as children, flailing around in near poverty and uncertainty, jockeying for any scraps of maternal love. K was a bothersome little sister, with our age difference, but I tried to get closer to her as an adult. With her narcissistic and histrionic personality it was always a challenge . I tried but was often verbally accosted on the phone or by letter and text if I disagreed with her in the slightest. To K, disagreement was tantamount to criticism or an attack. In that respect, she was exactly like our mother.
My brother B began hating me in high school. Again, I tried to be there for him, but he continually treated me with disdain. That maltreatment continued unabated at his wedding in Wyoming to his second wife, when my husband and son and I arrived late at night at the dude ranch (the site of the ceremony) after a long flight with delays from the East. He barely greeted me. In our room later, we found to our dismay only two beds for three of us. I found out the next day that I was the only sibling not a part of the outdoor ceremony. In the wedding "getting to know you" program, handed out to all the guests, our son was listed by the wrong first name. I was hurt and humiliated. I don't even know why we were invited. He had also treated me shabbily in many ways at my own wedding 13 years earlier.
But E was always loving and caring towards me, like a sibling was supposed to be. At his own wedding shortly thereafter, I was thrilled to be a part of it all. I was SO happy for him! Happy beyond words that he had found his special someone. I partied and danced and celebrated. We had even arranged, my husband and I, to have the waiters present to E at the head table, with a flourish, a platter of grapes under a silver dome. He dissolved into laughter, because when I had first met my husband, E had thrown grapes at him. He didn't want anyone to come between him and his Lin-Lin.
In my life, the sun rose, the sun set, and my brother E loved me.
We lived only a few hours from E and his wife, so we visited each other often. Driving to their house, I would feel warm, content, and happy. I was visiting my brother, my family. The only part of my birth family who was really left to me at that point. I just loved being with E and J , watching sports and eating out the local pub. They had a son who was born prematurely and had health issues. I babysat him, researching all I could about autism. When E, who was a triathlete, was hit by a car while riding his bike one morning and suffered a broken shoulder, I rushed to his side to help him recover. I lay in bed with him, once again taking care of him another afternoon after so many years. I hugged him as began sobbing, hurting from his pain and sadness.
I was a loving big sister, always. I was one hundred percent there for E, without question. If he needed anything, I would give it to him. We cosigned a loan for him, then paid off the balance. I offered to help paint their house, trim their bushes, pay to fix their chimney. When he and his wife were having difficulty conceiving a second child, I seriously considered being their surrogate.
And before I became a mother myself I would have given my life for my little brother.
But something changed abruptly between us. To this day I literally do not know what happened. By writing and remembering I am delving into unfathomable sorrow and despair.
E and J’s marriage had begun to show cracks, not uncommon for a couple struggling to raise a child with special needs. One of the symptoms of their marital problems was that E engaged in repeated affairs. Following the second one, I was very angry with him for again cheating on J, and I made my thoughts known to her. Appropriate sadness and anger and "why are you jeopardizing your relationship, you asshole?" were what were communicated between J and me. Nothing outside of the realm of how a normal older sister would react to her little brother being a selfish jerk and cheating on his wife, whom I thought was a lovely woman.
For some reason, E became oddly fixated on what exactly I had told J. I had understandably been extremely upset: He did it again! Why?! I really don't remember what I said. I was comforting her on the phone and probably said he was selfish and a liar. Anyone who knows me, realizes I'm not easily rattled. I'm a calm problem-solver and, unlike my mother and sister, not overly emotiona lor irrational. I don't know why he was angrily pressing me to try and remember what I had said.
Afterward, there was tension in E’s and my relationship. But therapy was in place, and I was still invited to their home. I was hopeful they would work things out.
The only other thing I did which could explain E’s later actions towards me was an insensitive mistake I made. One for which I sincerely apologized.
I was standing outside with J. and some neighbors of theirs at a playground. We began talking about uncaring parents (or something similar). I had recently begun speaking out publicly about my own sexual abuse by my grandfather and my mother's second and third husbands. I confided in one of the moms there that my own mother had in fact enabled abuse against me and sadly now still did not believe it had happened. "Isn't that terrible?" I asked her.
When E and J told me my remarks had upset them (even though I had had numerous conversations with E about the abuse, and believed him to be my ally,) I apologized to them both for any embarrassment I had caused. As any normal sister would have done. I did not get emotional, or defensive (how my mother and other siblings totally would have behaved when asked to apologize) but I said I was very sorry. Foot-in-mouth moments from which most siblings easily recover.
In retrospect, E should have defended me in front of his neighbor and said how proud of me he was for having dealt with all the pain and suffering. But, at the time I didn't try and analyze the situation. I apologized like an adult, and that was that.
Or so I thought.
It was Spring 2010. Months had gone by without hearing from my brother. I chalked it up to his being busy at work and home.
My nephew on my husband's side was about to graduate from Wharton. E and J lived just across the river from Philadelphia in New Jersey. About a month before, I called and then texted E and asked if we could stay at their house the weekend of the graduation. If hosting us would be inconvenient, just let us know and we would get a hotel, I wrote.
A week went by, then two. No response. I texted again. I called E’s cell. Nothing. I imagined something was wrong; perhaps there had been an emergency with J’s parents, who were older. So I texted J, who rudely messaged back that she was at the zoo with their son. Not even answering my question about staying with them for the graduation. I was puzzled and hurt. What had happened?
I couldn't enjoy the graduation. At the reception inside, I mostly stared alone, sadly, out at New Jersey across the Delaware River.
I didn't hear from my brother for months afterward. When he finally did return my call later that summer, he was indifferent and hostile. I told him I was very lonely and I hated the town where we had just moved to in rural Western Pennsylvania. Both of my dogs had unexpectedly passed away. I needed to talk to him, ask about him and his family, and discuss how I was again becoming depressed about my abuse. And I was hurt and confused about why he no longer seemed to care about me.
The conversation with E was surreal. He lambasted me about blaming him for what his father had done to me - which was totally untrue! I NEVER had blamed him, always taking pains not to. I didn't even finish whatever else I wanted to say. Shocked, I simply ended the call, and wept.
What do you do when your brother all of a sudden hates you, and you don't know why?
For 9 years, I despaired. Losing E consumed my thoughts. I would scream and cry in the car while driving. A couple times, I even hit my head against the wall as I had done in the basement of our home while being abused as a teenager. How could E have suddenly, like a light switch, turned off his love for me, and then vanished from my life? I kept wracking my brain, trying to recall anything other than the aforementioned two events which could have triggered this action. I was always a good sister to him. I was a good person. I loved him more than anything. Was it my mother who convinced him to ghost me and thus make the family shunning of me complete?
I would soon find out.
Texts from E were still received sporadically. Most were bad. There was the one in which he told me I had schizoaffective disorder. I had to look that up. He had written it in response to my finally sending a letter to my other brother B, asking him for an apology for how horribly he had treated me at his dude ranch wedding. B immediately shared my letter with E.
For the record, I have depression but not schizoaffective disorder or anything like it. Did E think that working in the pharmaceutical industry made him a doctor? Could he be weirdly transferring to me his own diagnosis, since his father eventually did become a full-blown schizophrenic?
There was the other text when I turned 50, asking him sadly was he that uncaring that he forgot to wish me a happy birthday? He replied, "Why? Is it your birthday? How old are you again?" Just jaw-dropping in his passive-aggressiveness. I had never, ever forgotten his birthday. Ever.
Another text was when I sent him a photo of our son, soon to be graduating from college, beseeching him why, why had he also chosen to shut out my child, my son, who had worshiped him? And who had adored his young cousins? WHY?? I don't even recall E’s response. Something once again passive-aggressive.
I still texted E off and on through the passing years, still begging him for an explanation for his behavior, reminding him that I still loved him dearly and would be there for him if he ever needed me. He never responded.
I began to compose a letter to E in the notes app on my smartphone. It grew and grew. I wanted him to know what I was feeling, how he was partially destroying me, and how world events like the "me too" movement and Larry Nassar trial were opening up the world's consciousness to sexual abuse, and that perhaps he and J’s eyes should be more open (and forgiving), too. I pointed out to him about a recent Amtrak train crash, and how siblings were desperate to find their sisters and brothers in the wreckage, and why on earth wasn't he like them? How Dear Abby wrote in one of her columns that blood wasn't thicker than water when abuse was involved (to illustrate to E why I had told my mother in the late 1990s that I wanted answers if she had wanted to remain in my life). Wondering how his son reacted when his aunt and uncle and cousin no longer visited. What about Mickey, our dog, whom their son loved? What did you tell him? What would your children say to you when they were old enough to know how you treated your sister? How I felt like he had killed me. How I discovered on Facebook he and J had had a third child and no one had had the decency to tell me. That the middle name of that son was the name of one of my abusers.
I wanted to send it but never did. I kept waffling between sending the fuck you version vs the you are a jerk but I still love you version.
For my own sanity, I realized needed to let E go. He had made his choice. The sad thing was, if he had had an adult conversation with me, and said, "Lin, I need to cut ties with you and I need you to understand why," I would have done as he wished. For whatever reason. If he had only respected me enough. But our family never did things logically, or with respect. I had believed he and I were the outliers, the normal ones.
Apparently, I was wrong.
Once in awhile snippets of E’s life were gleaned when I would look up his Twitter or Linked In accounts. I would discover that he competed in triathlons. That he looked forward to donuts after races. (Donuts are a favorite snack of mine, too). That his three children were growing up. And that he had become very successful in his field of pharmaceutical supply chain and packaging management, and had recently founded a company.
I would then get incredibly sad and depressed, and curse at myself for ripping off the bandage.
More years passed. 2019 was the first one in which I actually forgot E’s birthday. He was gone from my life, and I was finally moving forward. Even swimming laps became easier: for years, I would swim back and forth along the ropes, staring down at the black lane marker at the bottom of the pool, and shed tears into my goggles for E. Now when I swam, I thought of other things. I even stopped fantasizing about seeing him in airports while traveling.
Funny thing about life, and about siblings: You think all of you kids will recover from any adversity or enemy and then be stronger and be together forever, like superheroes, but that doesn't always happen. You think when a sister or brother does love you as an adult, that love will continue. Not true. And when you ponder your ages and birth order as your last century on this earth ticks off its years, you assume that most likely one of the older siblings in one's family would predecease one of the younger ones.
I am sitting at my vanity table on a morning early last March, about to apply makeup. Something in my head prods me to google the name of my mother's current husband. I do, not knowing what to expect. He was in his late 80s. I scroll down on my phone's browser.
And I stop.
It reads, Obituary: E. B., 45 . With a photo of my brother.
E had passed away from melanoma nearly two weeks earlier. Nobody had told me. Nobody had told me ANYTHING!! I staggered to the side of my bed, and rocked, loudly wailing. My heart pounded out of my chest. I shook uncontrollably.
I didn't even know he was ill. Weak and still quaking , I read through the obituary, realizing with a another sickening feeling that the style of the writing was my mother's. E’s siblings were listed: B, K, and....not me. My mother's husband's children were even included as siblings. I was nowhere to be found.
I had been erased.
Frantically, I texted my sister: Why didn't you tell me E. died??!! She texted me back, Can I call you? No, I texted back. I can't talk. Meaning, I was in shock. I literally could not talk. My mouth couldn't form words. I was screaming. I was keening. I was feeling myself die inside. I thought I was having a heart attack.
She called my number. I silenced it. She then texted a long screed (why was I not surprised), saying I was rude to not want to talk to her right then. SHE was still grieving, she wrote, and I did not understand HER grief. She wrote that she had sat for days with E at the hospital, while he screamed in agony as tumors were breaking through his skin as he lay dying. As J, his children, and his fiancee sat and wept. With our mother. With her husband. With everyone except his Lin-Lin.
Did she realize that I would have been there, too, lovingly cradling him again in his pain, as the cancer wrenched him from the earth?? Did anyone realize that?? Did anyone care? It would have been my honor and privilege. He was my brother.
She told me she was going to tell me, but that she had needed to be ready emotionally and to have her boyfriend at her side when she called me, since I would certainly "attack her."
Yes, K. As if being utterly hurt and astounded by your and the rest of the family's selfishness for NOT TELLING ME MY LITTLE BROTHER WAS DEAD and my finding out ON THE INTERNET would not be worthy of an "attack" What the fuck.
She told me E’s wedding had been planned for May. That he had walked into the hospital with lymphedema in his arm, and never walked out. That he had not wanted me to know he was sick. And that I had not been "invited" to his funeral, she let slip.
Not invited to his funeral. As if everyone was worried I would be a funeral crasher.
Listen, if E had told me he was sick, but did not want to see me, or have me attend his funeral, I would of course have sadly and reluctantly honored his wishes. As always. As any normal sister would. As I would have.
My question at the time was, where were the adults in that room? Wasn't there anyone who could have cared enough to whisper to E and convince him, "Call your sister Linda. Just to say goodbye. Please call her. I will bring you the phone. She will suffer for the rest of her life over your death. It is a gift you can give to her now. Please."
To K: if you were EMOTIONALLY UNABLE to tell me E. was dead, you could have asked the funeral director to do it, or an oncology nurse, or J, or his fiancee. But that is indeed magical thinking about a sister and a family who was ultimately incapable of doing anything decent for me.
Twisting the knife even more, after I wrote a memorial entry on the funeral home's web page honoring E, my mother edited my words. She removed the sentences where I had written that I had not know E had died. That I was so sorry he had suffered. And the worst of all, that I had loved him.
Heaven forbid that anyone in our Jersey shore town think that she was anything but a wonderful mother and human being.
Prior to my mother's sadistic behavior, if she had contacted me, sick or dying, and wanted to see me, I would have gone to her, without question. Now I will not.
I will probably just discover her death online one day.
The dead aren't gone, my German friend told me upon learning of E’s passing. They are always here with us.
National Siblings Day 2020 was especially sad. Contrary to my friend's assurance, There hadn't been any signs of E in the year since his death. Not a one. I've even whispered to him, Where are you? Why were so cruel to me? Why did you die without me? I've waited for him in dreams. I've looked for cardinals in trees near me, searched for acorns dropping through my sunroof. Silence.
"When one loses a sibling, especially at an early age, this leaves a void that can never be replaced. We all too often take our siblings for granted. We do not appreciate them until they have moved geographically away from us or die."
I never took E for granted. But he sadly took me for granted. For a long time. And then he died.
I looked up E’s phone number recently in my messages, not expecting to find anything.
But one was there, the last words he ever sent to me. And they were surprisingly kind.
October 30, 2012. During Superstorm Sandy. 8:13 pm:
"E, I hope you and your family are safe after the storm. If you could let me know, I would appreciate it."
"We're safe, Lin. Hope you guys are safe as well."