Saturday, December 7, 2013

Honoring the Past while Embracing Change during the Holidays

For the past four years, the holidays have been a difficult time for me, and for my family.  At the family dinner table, as blessed as we feel when we look at all those who are there to celebrate with us, we cannot help but remember the one who's missing.

My brother was studying for his master's degree in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, and when we called to wish him a happy 24th birthday, he didn't answer the phone.  This made my mother nervous, so the next day she asked the CA police to conduct a "well-visit," where they found his body lying on the bedroom floor of his apartment.  It turns out that two days earlier, he'd gone to his graduate school, handed in his master's thesis, gone home, and hanged himself with his belt.  Needless to say, we were absolutely devastated.  My father had only just gone to CA to help George move from Berkeley to Sunnyvale, so that he could start looking for a job in Silicon Valley.  He'd even gotten his learner's permit two days earlier.  What's truly difficult for me to come to terms with is the fact that I knew something was bothering him, and I knew what it was, but whenever I tried to talk to him about it, he would downplay the situation.  My brother was the type where, if you pushed too hard, he would just shut down, and wouldn't talk to you about anything, so in order to keep him from pulling way, I just dropped it.  And I was on the opposite end of the country, so it wasn't even like I could just rent a couple of movies and go over there to hang out for a while. 

It's tough to realize that, even though "officially" he reached his 24th birthday, according to his date of death, in actuality he never did.  And of course, it's hard for me to be the only child left in a two-child family.  Sometimes it's easy, since he moved so far away, to pretend that everything's "normal," that he's still out there, working and studying, and that this is all a big mistake, which makes it hurt all the more when I remind myself of the truth.  Even though I know that there was nothing I could have done differently, I still am plagued by guilt.  I'm also still overcome by anger at times;  my brother was born two months prematurely, and overcame such obstacles as an infant, to be a good-looking, kind, brilliant, and talented individual.  Even though I know how overcome he must have been by despair, and how hopeless he must have felt, it's hard to reconcile how he could have fought so hard and worked so much, only to let it all go at the end.

In some ways, though, things are much better now.  In the two years after losing my brother, I bought a house, got married, rescued an American bulldog from the ACC, and gave birth to a son.  All of these things have given hope to me, and hope to my parents.  At the same time, it's hard to reach these milestones and to know, particularly with the marriage and the birth of my son, that my brother should have been there to celebrate those things with us, and never will be.  My husband is very like him, and they would truly have enjoyed each other's company, and George will give meet his nephew, who will only learn about him from stories.  But my son has looked like him from birth, so at times, I watch him, and think that a part of my brother still lives on, and this gives me comfort.

Since my brother's suicide, the childhood holiday traditions that were always so comforting to me while growing up have run hollow in their incompleteness.  But with my husband and son, my family can begin to create new traditions, and I have begun to find joy in the holidays again, by seeing them through my son's eyes.


  1. Your brother is watching you, Fran and GEM from above. GEM does look like him and in many ways that beautiful blonde hair reminds me of angels so I like to think your brother is his guardian angel. The holidays are always difficult when you know someone is missing. We are here for you and your family whenever you need to talk or laugh. Love you Alyson! Lots of hugs sent your way!

  2. Despena's thoughts are articulated beautifully, and I second them. I'm going to post a piece here that someone sent me after my dad died in Aug. 2011, which was when I found the family tree your mom had written out some time before, and we adults connected as the cousins we should have always been.
    Here's the text:
    You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

    And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

    And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

    And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

    -Aaron Freeman

    Hugs to you, Alyson,