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  • Writer's picturestephanieraffelock

Love, Death and Loss

When did I know that you were in my life? A faded memory of sitting on the front porch, placing crackers between my toes and sticking my little legs out, offering the treats with eager anticipation to our evening animal guests. A raccoon lumbered by and took a cracker, to my great delight. Was it you who taught me that? I can see all of us there – you, me, our sister, our parents – and the animals that came onto our porch. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico. So much sky. So much sweetness.

You laid on the floor next to me playing with small bottles that contained paint for your model planes. You showed me that they were really people and you made them talk, made them lay down and go to sleep in a box that had once held kitchen matches.

Our mother took me to meet you at the school bus stop. You picked me up and put me on your shoulders, carried me home, while I held on to you and surveyed the bigness of life. All was right in my three-year-old world.

Then one day, the air grew thick with heat and something was happening. Our mother dressed me up to say goodbye. I don’t remember the leaving part, but I do remember the bitter taste in my mouth, the sting in my eyes, because you weren’t there anymore. We left you. That was the end of our family and the beginning of another chapter, one that taught me what lonely was.

She took me and left you and my sister with our dad. It took me a long time to realize the depth of pain that I felt when we were broken a part, scattered like seeds in the wind. And longer still to realize how sick in the heart it must have been for you, to be at an age where you saw the crash and burn and could do nothing to put it back together.

In my new life, I got to see you here and there. When I was five. Again at seven. Eight years passed. I was fifteen years old the next time we met. By then, I was sullen and filled with self-loathing. My perception was that I was from something broken, and that I was broken. But I didn’t know how to articulate how much it hurt to lose you. I didn’t know the words to say that I hadn’t wanted to start all over without you and my sister. That feeling remained a knot sitting in my throat, too big to swallow. When you stopped being a part of my everyday childhood, my heart felt sad, then numb. It became encased in a kind of heavy concrete that kept people out. So I didn’t know how to talk to you when I was fifteen. I didn’t know how to recreate the love. You had gotten married. You had little children. You had a family and I was on the outside of it.

In all the time I spent in therapy, I never did get to the core of the matter, which was losing you and the rest of my family in one, broad sweeping motion. Or maybe therapy planted a seed that didn’t push up from all the darkness until later when I faced that loss and understood how much I missed growing up with you and knowing you.

We became friends as I got older. We shared some of life’s harder events – our love brought us together for the death of our father, our mother’s memorial, the death of your daughter and your wife. One afternoon, after your wife, Valerie, was gone, we sat in your back yard with only silence between us. There was nothing to say. We both knew loss so well. In the hours of no words, there was an intimacy, a bond born of the earliest days of knowing each other, a regret for what we had missed and could never get back. We sat together in the quiet of our child hearts until the sun went down and it got too cold to sit outside anymore.

When I got the call that you were gone, I questioned my right to grieve you so deeply. The old feeling of being on the outside of your life looking in, rose up in me. Family dynamics are complex. How we interpret them, even more complex. People are complicated. To me, it seems like everyone is trying to figure things out and we all think that the people just down the street are doing it right and we have somehow failed. In truth, we are all living some version of the journey of love and loss.

Dearest Tommy. Dear big brother, you did not fail me, nor I you. We did the best we could. I have missed you for most of my life. I didn’t think that it would be possible to miss you more than a lifetime of grieving, but I do. And my heart is breaking open, acknowledging a long ago love that never left either of us.

Rest in peace, and wait for me at the school bus stop. Walk me home. I’d like to believe that in some greater all-knowing, all-loving place, our energy will connect us again and we will be like dancing star dust, lighting up the sky, a pair of siblings for whom the light of love could not be extinguished.

You are in my heart.

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