“I remember him quite well. It has been over twenty years now. I was with your parents right after he passed away.”
My rabbi had a lot of information about my brother, Ben, whom I was not able to meet. “He was very sensitive and always had a smile on his face. You two have very similar personalities. I see a lot of him in you.”
Rabbi Azriel asked me why I had not talked to my parents about my older brother Ben.
“I’m not ready yet.” My voice was raspy, cracked.
With a bright smile you can see from across a room and dramatic soulful hand gestures he went on to say, “John, what is wrong with you? You’re mature enough to speak about this with your parents. Do it before the next time I see you.”
I knew the story. In the hospital, our mom sat next to him in bed, reading some of his favorite books, such as Curious George. This put a smile on his face and filled him with laughter. He was getting ready to go into his next procedure which he did not completely understand, afraid of and not ready for. He was assured by many that the procedure would go well, but it was not positive. Even though he was at a young age he knew that it needed to be done, even if he was unsure of the surgery and the effects it would have if not successful.
“We’re ready for you Ben” the nurse said right before bringing Ben back to the operating room.
“Okay,” he responded with a terrified look on his face. One of innocence, and of panic of what to expect.
Our mom gave him a smile and reassured him that it would go okay even though he still was not ready to do this. He went along with it. This time it is his heart. The second open heart surgery was at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor in the middle of the snowy winter. Tears ran down our mother’s face as he was rolled out of the room and into the operating room. Each tear represented a small amount of hope, that this would be the last surgery.
It wasn’t youth, but fear that kept me from asking more. At 17, I had no choice—if he was brave at the age of four, I could be now, too. Trembling and shaking, my questions came out in a torrent: “What did Ben and I have in common? What was his favorite thing to do? How are our personalities similar?” I hoped my questions would not result in tears or distress.
“John, we won’t be upset if you ask us questions about Ben, it actually makes me feel better to talk about him with you,” Dad said, while sipping his cup of coffee in our den.
After the third surgery Ben was not in great shape Dad tells me. “He was not looking good and he was very pale. We knew he did not have a lot of time left. We put it up to the ethics committee and they decided that it would be in our and Ben’s interest not to do anymore.”
Family members came to the hospital. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Eventually clergy came, including Rabbi Azriel.
“Everyone was there,” my grandfather told me, with tears running down the side of his face, forcing him to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes with his shirt, trying to keep from crying in front of me and my sister, which caused her to cry. “He went in and out for a few minutes. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to watch. Your parents were sitting right next to him the whole time.”
There are always tears whenever Ben’s life is discussed. Not all are tears of sadness, sometimes they are from laughter from what he said, or tears celebrating the fact that he was alive and able to impact the lives of those around him for 4 years
These stories have presented aspects of Ben’s life that I had not understood. Hearing stories from different people makes the life of someone who is lost more interesting. All relationships are different. This is noticeable when hearing stories from different people who knew my brother.
“Didn’t he have a tear running down the side of his face when he passed away?” my sister asks my parents, even though she already knows the answer to her own question. She has asked it many times before.
“Yes he did,” Mom said, close to tears. I’m always worried this is uncomfortable for her, but my mom always says it is alright.
Like a family who continues to tell stories over and over again at family reunions, it is annoying, but also comforting to hear some of these stories repeated, the way people still find joy in talking about old events.
I’ve always worried that when I talk to my parents about Ben it will bring their day down, but I have learned that it is just the opposite. It brings happiness to their life. Being able to speak about their son who had a congenital heart defect brings even more light to their eyes it gives them an outlet to speak about their child and tell their other children what their brother was like. There are many families who have experienced the loss of family members and they find it important to speak about them. Storytelling keeps them alive. It keeps them present.
The passing of a child can tear a family apart or bring a family closer together, as it has done with mine. I often ask myself if different families react differently to the passing of a child. I asked my parents why our family was not torn apart. They explained that they came to a fork in the road in which they could either be filled with anger – which they had been for multiple years – or they could be happy, and honor Ben in this way and their other children as well.
Ben’s life is a topic that we no longer shy away from and that I do not have to be afraid to talk about. It brings not only tears of sadness, but tears of joy. Ben will always be spoken of in our household. His name will always bring a ray of happiness. His life was considered a blessing to everyone in our family. Nobody has to feel “ready” to talk about Ben and his life anymore.
John Eirinberg is a Sophomore at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is majoring in Finance with a minor in English. He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska.