Sunday, December 13, 2009
The Littlest Angel
There are events in life which occur with such resounding force that the shock waves are felt for decades. The ripple effect of these events can be felt by those who where never present or even born when the event occurred. December 14, 1970 is the date of one of those events in my life and that of my family.
Its the day my brother died.
He was 1 month, 26 days old.
Derek was born in mid-October during the brilliance and splendor of Autumn in New England. I remember going to visit my mother and Derek in the hospital the day after he was born. My aunt and I drove over to Saint Margaret's hospital in Dorchester braving a chilly fall rain. As we made our way to the maternity ward we stopped at the gift shop. I begged her to buy a little doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, for my new brother. After what probably seemed like hours of groveling to her, she relented. I can't recall presenting him with my gift, but it became a fixture in his crib, at our home.
A new baby adds spice to a home, sometimes mild and sweet and at other times hot, unbearably hot. My mother was born high strung. If she were in school today she would be diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, PTSD or one of the myriad of other afflictions, abbreviated with letters. The month following Derek's birth was a mish-mash of highs and lows. The tenor of the household mirrored my mother's mood.
I can remember her crying uncontrollably, while smoking at the kitchen table while Derek was lying on the couch, surrounded by pillows.
I can remember sitting with my mother on the front steps of our apartment in Hyde Park. It was a warm Fall day and the trees were shedding their leaves. She allowed me to hold my brother while she watched, tentatively. I remember the smell of crisp fallen leaves while I cradled his tiny head.
I remember my mother and I laughing uncontrollably while I "helped" her change his diaper. He peed all over the two of us.
I remember my father (who was usually no where to be found) and mother fighting loudly, while I rubbed my brothers head while he lay in his crib.
The night of December 13, 1970 was a typical night in my childhood home. My mother downstairs smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. My sisters playing in their room. My brother Mark and I jumping on our beds in our room. Mark and I took Derek out of his crib and put him on my bed. We jumped around him while he lay in the middle. He didn't cry, he just seemed content watching us. We assumed he enjoyed the gentle jostling.
The next few days were a blur.
Who knows what traumas we block out of our minds. If we knew then they wouldn't be blocked, but open for examination. Some memories are best hidden from our consciousness.
I don't remember much about the day my brother died. I recall sadness, grief. I recall standing across the street from my house with the snow lightly falling, telling a schoolmate from my kindergarten class about my brother. I recall my mother promising me that they would bury my gift, the baby-boy-blue doll with him, so he wouldn't be alone. My mother brought me a flower from his funeral. We pressed it in plastic, and put it in an encyclopedia. From then, through my high school years, I would come across it when looking up something beginning with an "S" or a "T" and think of him.
My mother was never the same. From mid-October to December 14th every year until the day she died was torturous. She blamed herself for his death. The morning he died she got him from his crib for his morning feeding. She tried to get him to latch on, but he just wouldn't take her breast. She tried again and noticed that he was cold, motionless. He was gone.
"Crib Death" we were always told. When my mother passed in 1999 we found Derek's death certificate amongst her belongings. Cause of death: acute cardiac failure, emaciation.
That explained the years of autumnal depression. The years of self loathing and self destruction. I, myself, thought I played a role in his passing. For decades I thought that maybe that night we were jumping on my bed that we hurt him, somehow. It was no ones fault. Our frolicking on the bed had nothing to do with it. My mother gave him everything she had, unfortunately she barely had enough to care for herself. The well had run dry.
Christmas time was always bittersweet. Ghosts of Christmas past were not friendly specters guiding my mother toward redemption, but haunting reminders of inadequacies and failure. Someway, somehow, my mother was able to emotionally detach immediately the day after the anniversary of Derek's death each year and get ready for Christmas. I don't know how she did it, but she was always able to pull off Christmas without her emotions getting in the way of our enjoyment of the holiday. As the years went by her grief became more and more transparent until it got to the point where she was paralyzed by her loss and unable to find any joy in the season
The year Derek died and for many years following, there was a Christmas special on TV titled "The Littlest Angel". It was the story about a boy (played by Johnny Whitaker, Jodie on "Family Affair") who dies and goes to Heaven, but is allowed to go back to earth to get his cherished treasure box, so he may give it as a gift to the Christ child on Christmas. Each Christmas I imagined that Derek was the "littlest angel" and gave his favorite toy, his doll dressed in baby-boy-blue, to baby Jesus.
In August of 1999, when I received the news of my mother's death my thoughts immediately turned to Derek.
I imagined him welcoming my mother into heaven.
I imagined her sense of relief when he forgave her for not having enough to give.
I was comforted by the thought of them being together again.