Something gut crushing happened yesterday. Ernie, my 61-year-old brother, died.
Ernie had happiness in life, but he also struggled. Illness wore him away, deploying one medical challenge after another. After the latest battle, his kidneys stopped working. His body became increasingly bloated. His energy level whispered away, little by little. His heart beat a slow requiem as his blood pressure steadily decreased. He could not get comfortable. He could not communicate. He teetered in and out of consciousness. His body was attacking him. When we at last released him from life support, pain, and fear, he smiled and found his own way out of this world.
My brother and I had a complicated relationship. We loved each other to the core of our hearts, but we also did not understand each other very well. My perceptions of him (I cannot yet say “memories”) are jagged and awkward. They are pieces of various jigsaw puzzles tangled in the same box together. They are ill-fitting and dissonant. It is hard to make sense of them.
Family dynamics are often fraught. I once read that, in healthy families, the alliances within the family should be generational. In other words, the parents should bond together as one team and the siblings should bond together as another team. This does not mean “us” against “them,” necessarily. At its best, family provides the opportunity for the teams to work together to nurture a mutually happy life. The point is that different relationships and different affinities are inevitably going to form. The balance of power is best preserved when those connections are generational.
Such was not the case in my family. To me, it always seemed that my parents and I were on one end of the spectrum, with my brother at the other. We were staid and safe. He was wild and reckless. We thought to the future and colored within the lines. He lived hard in the moment and didn’t even realize there were lines. He saw life differently from the three of us. He made choices the rest of us did not understand. I have always felt wistful and regretful about this state of affairs. I felt sad for my brother who was sort of on his own in the family. I felt guilty for not being able to find a way to bring him into the “happy family” fold. I do not know if it ever occurred to me that he might have been happy in the life he was living. He burst his way into life, leaving behind a safety net that consisted of my parents and myself. He had the freedom to live life on the wild side knowing that his protective (although somewhat judgmental) cocoon would be there when the wildness became unmanageable.
As time went on and my parents passed, my role became almost that of a caretaker. I became almost a surrogate parent for my brother. As we settled into these roles, acceptance of who each other was grew but understanding never quite did. I continuously wobbled between annoyance, anger, and hopefulness about his fate.
When I heard that Ernie died, my boyfriend asked me what I needed- what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to go to the beach. I wanted to feel sand on my feet. I wanted to taste salt in the air. I wanted to see tiny fish swifter past my ankles in the tide. I wanted to hear the waves slapping the beach. I wanted to smell the gritty brine.
The beach has a kind of magic for me. Being near the ocean has always felt like a hug to my senses. There is something about the whine of the waves and the hypnotic properties of the sea that covers me like a magic protective shield. I have been to many of the most popular beaches in the United States… Waikiki, Huntington, Daytona… and have not felt crowded at any of them. Yes, there might have been other people around but there was always sufficient personal space for everyone.
My favorite memories of the beach involve being alone with my thoughts and the ocean. When I was a little girl, my family used to camp at a state beach about an hour from our house. I liked it best when we went to the beach during the winter. In the early evenings, I would walk down the wooden staircase from the cliff where we camped to the beach below. I counted the steps. Depending on which campsite we occupied, I recall that there were 128 stairs. I have a clear picture in my head of myself wearing burgundy jeans and a grey turtleneck sweater.
When I reached the shore, I’d climb up a ladder to a lifeguard station that was abandoned for the season. In my lifeguard station sanctuary, it was quiet. Often, I’d not see another person the whole time I was there. I’d scrunch myself down to the edge of the platform with a book. I would think and read and watch the sun go down until it was too dark to see. I was literally above it all- not only above the beach but also above all the sadness, anxiety, disappointment, and self-denigration I kept bottled up within me.
These memories of the beach convinced me that I would find some sort of magic properties that would help me cope with my brother’s death. When we arrived at the parking lot for the beach, I jumped out of the car hopefully. As I trudged my way down to the water, my mood unraveled. Lethargy, exhaustion, and disappointment weighed on me. Even the portable chair over my right shoulder and a small beach bag over my left seemed too heavy a burden to carry. The brief walk from the car to the shore seemed almost beyond my capabilities. I panted as I walked. My ankles rolled over the cobbled, pitted pavement, causing sharp perpendicular pains to zip through the meniscus beneath my right knee. The sun glared so fiercely that I checked to make sure I was still wearing my sunglasses. But I soldiered on towards the magic I knew awaited me at the beach.
When I set up my chair and gazed at the horizon, I felt… nothing. I walked down to the water, but the waves did not feel refreshing. They felt cold and sharp. The skittering sand shifted with the tide, creating trenches that captured my feet. I knew those trenches would be oh so easy for me to trip into the next time a wave broke against my body. I tried to move my legs, but the undertow trapped them in the cement sand. As I stood there, all I felt was a rigid band of tightness surrounding my abdomen right below my ribs. There was no magic.
I finally freed my feet from the sand. I decided that moving might shift the band of tightness away from any of my crucial internal organs. I walked down the beach, thinking about nothing and everything. I kept waiting for the magic. It did not come.
I stopped and stared out into the sea, trying to feel something. The magic might not appear, but maybe I could at least find a place within me that would illuminate this strange nothingness. As I looked around, I noticed a group of 20 or 30 children playing on the beach. They reminded me of something.
One summer, when I was about nine or ten, Ernie and I attended Red Rider Day Camp for two months. The camp spent several days a week at the beach, creating a scene remarkably similar to what I was witnessing here in the present. I realized that summer was perhaps the only time in my life when I felt like my brother and I were teammates.
I was a shy child. I inclined towards observation rather than participation. I would often stand on the outskirts of childhood and watch. Other children did not understand my strangeness and disconnection. This strangeness and disconnection led to isolation. I was perfectly happy with a reasonable level of disconnection. However, it seemed the rest of the world- child and adult alike- were not quite so tolerant of my definition of “a reasonable level of disconnection.” Counselors pushed me to engage. I tried to comply. Children taunted me. I was brave. I pretended not to care. I did my best to enjoy the summer days at camp, but I would have rather been at home alone with a book.
My brother, on the other hand, was an extroverted child. He was funny and loud and friendly. He was most happy when flamboyantly connected with everyone in the same zip code. Even as an eight-year-old, he was an imposing character- both physically and socially. He relished day camp. The counselors could not direct or contain his energy. His personality often burst out unexpectedly when the pitch of his own performance became too high. His roughhousing and arguing and “boys will be boys” tricks sometimes devolved into potentially dangerous activities. He never meant harm when he roughhoused and joked, but not meaning harm does not prohibit harm from occurring.
This introversion of mine was one aspect of our divergent personalities that my brother “got” about me. I remember him patiently involving me in the day camp activities. I remember him drawing me gently into his crowd of joviality. I remember him protecting me from “over connection” when I needed to disengage a bit. When other children said cruel, thoughtless things, he was my fierce defender. We did face the world of the Red Rider Day Camp together. Together, we were more than the sum of our parts. We not only protected each other, but we also impacted other children. My natural quietness and nurturing drew me to children who were also struggling. Ernie’s extroversion, assertiveness, and confidence shielded us all from bullying. My fellow outcasts and I brought purpose to my brother’s energy, which kept him out of trouble. If Ernie was guiding me into the social fabric of day camp, he was much less likely to be capturing another child in an innocent headlock.
The camp selected my brother and me as the “campers of the month” at the end of our day camping term. They explained they selected us because of the kindness we displayed to each other and to the other children. That was pretty great.
As soon as this memory formed in my mind, I tasted the salt in the air. I smelled the cocoanut scent of sunblock mixed with the brininess of the sea. I heard the whirling, whining sound of the surf. I felt the ever-moving water slip between my toes. I saw the tiny fish playing tag in the shallow water. I giggled when I saw tiny birds perambulating down the shore with the pompous strides of Olympic speed walkers.
The rigid band around my abdomen shifted up my torso. Somewhere in the journey, it reconfigured itself into a sob. Somehow, the tangled jigsaw pieces in my mind sorted themselves out and formed a beautiful memory of the best of my brother.
The beach is magic, after all.
How have you and your siblings worked together in the past? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope today is a day at the beach for you!