He had no idea how healing the service would be for me personally.
He did not know about my late brother Freddy, pictured here, holding me.
We have a precious opportunity this evening, to remember together, to grieve, and to celebrate life. In this gathering, some things we can never put into words are simply known and deeply held.
When I was a baby, my brother Freddy, then four years old, suddenly became ill.
Many of you can imagine what it was like for my parents. They were enjoying the euphoria of caring for a new baby; the excitement of introducing a boy to his new sister; and the celebration of love and mutual support between partners. Suddenly their joy was interrupted by unspeakable anxieties and a refocusing of family life around hospital routine.
The new routine did not last long, as Freddy passed just a few weeks later.
This was 1959. There was no Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, no specialized support groups — just heavy pressure for my parents to get on with life. And that’s what they tried to do.
They decided that the best way to cope would be to speak about Freddy as little as possible. So, for ten years, in my presence at least, they pretended Freddy had never existed.
But of course he had. My younger brother and I grew up in the heavy shadow of unspoken grief.
When I was 10 years old, and my younger brother was 9, a friend told me she dreamed we had another brother. A few weeks later, I found an odd piece of paper around the house with Freddy’s name on it. When I asked my mother about it, she said it was a mistake. Later, I found the paper carefully folded in a family keepsake drawer. I looked closely at our family photos and found some pictures of a little boy who did not look like my younger brother.
I confided in my younger brother, and we decided to confront our parents.
“Did we have a brother?”
They must have realized the question was coming.
“Of course you did,” they said, and they stroked our heads.
Seven years later, we had a tiny family memorial service, standing in a circle, holding hands and crying together.
During our teen years, many things gradually became clear.
We understood why our parents fought so often over trivialities. They were angry at themselves, each other, and the universe.
We also understood that, in saying goodbye to Freddy, our parents learned what it was it to love unconditionally. No details of what Freddy did or didn’t do mattered, only the preciousness of his unique existence.
Our parents came to believe that love is the most important value in life. By sharing love, even briefly, people can be fulfilled. Our parents shared that love with us. Through their quiet community service, they shared it with many people.
Fifty years later, my younger brother and I still have questions.
What would Freddy have been like as a teen or a young man?
How would we be different had we grown up with him?
We do not know what potentials in us he would have evoked. We do not know if we might have become better people than we are now. Along with Freddy, a part of ourselves is lost, too.
I will share with you my secret.
Sometimes I talk with Freddy.
Sometimes I just say, “Who are you, Freddy?”
Sometimes I imagine I have an older brother giving me advice. If there is a challenging family situation, I ask for his perspective.
My aunt said Freddy was musical. Sometimes I hear his music in my head. It’s acoustic music, with strings and flute, a little bit jazzy.
A year ago, I was deeply comforted by the words of psychologist Louise Kaplan. She reminded me that I am not the only one holding conversations with the dead. She writes:
Maybe you have lost your mother. And you have a sense that you might find her again. You chat with her each morning over coffee.
Maybe your late father used to complain about your messy habits. But you never listened, and his nagging became part of the background noise of your daily life. But now, months after his death, there you are, folding and refolding the laundry into neat little piles. You and he are reunited, together again in these little gestures of everyday life.
Perhaps you have lost a child. Each night you tuck in his teddy bear and whisper word for word his favorite bedtime story as though it were a prayer he just might hear. But, you think, no one must know about your secret dialogue with the dead.
That is why it is so beautiful to be together this evening. Here, the dialogue is not a secret. Each of us dialogues in our own way. Maybe our dialogue has no words. Details do not matter; in this gathering we can feel held.
As Raymond Carver says in his poem, “Late Fragment”:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Image: Freddy and me, c. 1959.
Sources: Louise J. Kaplan, No Voice is Ever Lost (Simon and Schuster, 1995); Raymond Carver, A New Path to the Waterfall (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994).
Thank you to Hal Siden, for inviting me to speak; Sarah Neiman for gifting me with the Kaplan book; the counselling staff of Canuck Place for their work.