Have you ever prayed for someone to die?
I was a young adolescent when I began to pray regularly for my brother to die. It’s not something I’m proud of and I’d usually send up a petition for forgiveness at the same time, just for good measure. Life with my brother was a living hell, with regular threats lobbed my way along with his perpetual sneer and general, unpredictable rage. In the summer months, he and his buddies would venture up into the mountains to camp for a few days at a time and I’d pray he’d never return, entertaining fantasies of him taking a quick tumble off a high cliff to a quick and painless death. He always returned, though, along with more threats and the accompanying fear I’d learned to live with.
It was my brother’s birthday last week. He would have been sixty-one years old.
As a young girl, I prayed for my brother to like me. When we were very young, there were days where he’d let me join in on his Lego-building ventures or an occasional battle with his little green army men. Playing beside my older brother made me feel important, as if I had been let into an exclusive, grown-up club. It didn’t last long. His potent outbursts and conflicts with my parents began while he was still in elementary school and only intensified as he grew older.
I don’t remember the date of my brother’s death, but I always remember his birthday. I have his birthday written on the calendar pinned to my yellow kitchen wall. June 5th.
Once we became adults, I didn’t see him for years at a time. This was intentional. I worried about him finding out where I lived and coming to kill me and my family. Regular nightmares of this scenario peppered my sleep and I’d awaken with a jolt in a cold sweat, chest heaving in fear. As years passed, he started showing up at Thanksgiving or other family gatherings—even my wedding. He was pleasant but distant and my fear of him existed on a deep, cellular level. Whenever he left, my insides unclenched and I felt my breath drop from high up in my shallow chest back into my low belly.
Each June, I’d think of my brother on his birthday and imagine him spending it alone with his dog. I feared him and loved him and wanted nothing to do with him, but still felt pangs of sadness over the disconnected rubble of a life he had built. Undiagnosed mental illness, learning disabilities. I often wondered if he had regrets.
I was busy raising my two young kids when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis came after months of strange symptoms when he would often call me and ask for help in researching his ailments. He was my brother and I loved him as such, but he still scared the hell out of me. I helped as much as I could, always feeling the seize in my belly and the catch in my breath with each phone call.
My phone rang on a rainy evening just before New Years. My brother had been in hospice for a short time, my other siblings taking turns tending to him in his final days. Just one year prior, I had sat with my mother as she took her last breath and I didn’t think I possessed the fortitude to do the same for my brother.
The first thought in my head after hearing the news that he had died was, well, Tracie–your prayer was answered. I thought of all the hours I had spent praying that he would die so that I could live a life free of the terror his presence instilled in me. A wave of guilt washed up and over me, flooding my chest and throat, taking me under. Then, grief. Huge, sneaker waves of grief, pummeling me with sucker punches at my solar plexus, over and over and over again. I sat on my bed and sobbed.
I had been planning to see him the following day, but he went ahead and died before I was able to. I grieved over the opportunities lost, the loss of the brother that I might have had. The one I fantasized about having instead of the one who haunted my nightmares. I imagined me sitting at his bedside and hearing him whisper a deathbed apology. A plea for forgiveness and understanding. Taking responsibility.
When someone you love dies, your heart breaks. When someone with whom you have a conflicted, complex and unresolved relationship dies, the path of mourning is riddled with detours and potholes.
A close childhood friend of my brother’s hosted a memorial service for him a month after his death. My siblings and I piled into our cars and drove down, wondering who–if anyone–would be in attendance. The brother we knew was a bitter loner. We assumed it would be just us–his siblings–and a smattering of others.
The house where the service was held was packed with mourners. Most were strangers to me, but I recognized a few from our old neighborhood as they came up to give me a hug and called me by my name. I wondered if they knew about his years of threats and attacks. We filled paper plates with casseroles and salads and an informal remembrance of my brother began. One by one, his friends spoke glowingly of my brother’s kindness and love of animals. Of how he would drop everything to help a friend out. How he loved the outdoors and made a point to spend his birthdays in nature with his dog and perhaps a close friend or two or three. They used words like gentle and sensitive and loyal to describe him.
My siblings and I exchanged stunned glances with each other and said nothing.
The brother I knew had not existed outside the boundaries of our large, complicated family. I immediately felt silly for all the years I spent pitying him and the sad life I assumed he was living. I felt resentful that all these other people had known the brother I had forever dreamed of having. I felt cheated and duped and completely dumbfounded.
Family dynamics are fluid, tricky and tough to rise above.
I always felt like I was my father’s last chance for a do-over.
Twenty years separate me from my oldest sibling. An entire generation. It’s safe to say that I had a much different father than the rest of my six siblings. Same man, same name, but an entirely different dad.
By the time I came along, my father had transitioned from his first career in the clergy to his second wind as a college sociology professor. Office hours, more or less. He still played the organ and directed the church choir each Sunday, but life was a bit more predictable than when he was a minister. Because of that, I reaped the benefits. Extra time to play catch with me, summer evenings spent kicking a soccer ball around the back lawn, holding onto my bike seat until he wasn’t anymore and I caught my balance and pedaled off into the sunset on my own.
I loved my dad, but I was no daddy’s girl.
He wouldn’t hear of that. Both of my parents valued education and raised strong, independent women. But I always felt as though I was my father’s last hope.
Professional challenges. Hectic life with seven children and aging parents. Struggles with his youngest son. Conflicted relationships with a few of his other children. A marriage that was rarely easy. Dashed hopes and dreams.
My father developed psoriasis early in my life. Crimson, scaly skin covered most of his body, except for his face. We had four bathrooms in the house I grew up in and one was designated as his. My father’s bathroom was always covered in a light layer of dead skin flakes that perpetually sloughed off his angry body. I hated using that bathroom and having to navigate around the piles of flakes. It was as if he was a snake, shedding, continually. Every few years, he’d spend a week or two in the local hospital receiving “tar treatments”–an event he seemed to look forward to. Whether it was the prospect of being tended to by young, attractive nurses or the opportunity to rest, unbothered by the demands of a large family, my dad thoroughly enjoyed his respite covered in tar. He usually came home with improved skin that would last until the next flare-up.
As I got older, he took me to soccer games and watched Wimbledon with me. When my school had an open house, he came and talked to my instructors and returned home boasting of the glowing reports they had given me. She can do anything she puts her mind to! he exclaimed proudly, parroting back the words he had heard from my teachers. And when I finally got up the nerve to move away from home for the very first time, he helped me find my way around Portland and rent my first apartment. We ate pastrami sandwiches at Rose’s Deli on 23rd as he regaled me with stories of living in New York City as a young man starting out on his own.
I felt like my dad was proud of me. Like I was his shining star after so much strife.
My father loved the sound of his own voice–his chosen vocations as a pastor and professor not by chance–and was always game for a lively debate. Politics, religion, social justice. My dad could speak confidently on nearly any topic, but rarely spoke of his feelings. I don’t remember him ever telling me that he loved me, although I never doubted that he did.
I often wondered if his psoriasis was his body’s way of shedding all the pent-up emotions he was never able to express.
The day that my father died, I went back to the small apartment he and my mom shared at my sister’s home in Redmond. I found his hat–he always wore a hat–and pulled it to my nose. Stale cigarette smoke and the unmistakable scent of old, dead skin. My dad’s skin. Familiar, just like I remembered. I took the hat home with me that afternoon and zipped it up in a plastic bag. It sits on a shelf in my bedroom closet.
After he died, the church where he spent most of my childhood as the choir director held a memorial service. Strangers I had never seen before stood up to speak of my father–Pastor Jansen they called him. They told stories of playing games with him during summers at vacation bible school and Camp Lutherwood. How he helped them through their struggles with faith as a young person. How his stories and sense of humor in his sermons made the gospel come alive for them.
Later that afternoon, my siblings and I sat around my sister’s backyard and ate egg salad sandwiches. I couldn’t believe what some of those people said about Dad, one of my sisters commented. It was as if they were talking about someone else. That wasn’t the dad I knew. A tinge of sadness and envy played around the edges of her words. A lost opportunity to have the dad she imagined.
Family dynamics are fluid, tricky and tough to navigate and I never took for granted the do-over dad I was lucky enough to have.
Happy Father’s Day.
She said it as matter-of-factly as if she was commenting on the weather. No one in the family really thinks of you as a writer. The words stopped me in my tracks, but then I nodded as I digested what she just said and pretended like I understood and accepted her explanation.
Family dynamics are tricky. Insidious and sneaky.
I had been struggling with finding my voice in my writing again and was looking for affirmation from my family. Hinting for an “atta girl” or a word of encouragement. Her words stung at first, like the pinch of a thin needle into a vein, but then spread out through my bones as I sat with them. No one really thinks of you as a writer.
As the youngest of seven children, I have spent most of my life looking up to everyone. Deferring. Taking advice. Assuming that I couldn’t possibly know because I wasn’t old enough.
I think I’m old enough now.
A friend recently let out a loud chuckle and asked me, incredulous, who are you? when I described to her how I’ve always tended to automatically defer to my older siblings. She went on to tell me, everything I know you to be flies in the face of you being deferential and passive! You’re a grown-ass adult! Why do you allow yourself to be that way?
I had no answer for her other than family dynamics can be a motherfucker. If we’re lucky, we successfully build a life away from the constraints of what our families think we should be. That’s not to say our families can’t be closely-knit, wonderful and supportive and they often are. But if we’re not careful, the dynamics we grow up in can prove to be limiting. Those tender, formative years where we learn how to interact with others. Where we begin to define ourselves as we are in relationship with others. It’s heady stuff and easy to fall into our prescribed roles, even when we’re old enough to know better.
The smart one. The emotional one. The baby. The responsible one. The skinny one. The leader. The shy one. The difficult one.
I don’t know why my brother felt compelled and safe enough to create an completely alternative life with his friends rather than with us, his biological brothers and sisters. Maybe there was too much water under the bridge and he couldn’t find his way back. I can’t tell you why my father created memories of summer camp and kick ball with kids in his congregation more than the ones he went home to at night. I can tell you that family dynamics can be a slick and slippery slope.
No one really thinks of you as a writer, she said to me.
That’s okay, because I’m plenty old enough now to know that I am.