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July 11, 2015: Death of a Sibling

Yesterday, phone rang, midday. I answered it. It was my father who immediately said “I have some bad news.” I immediately knew what was up – it was no surprise to learn that my brother Matthew had died the night before. He was 55 years old.

Matthew had been ill for some time – a few months. He developed digestive problems and then came down with pneumonia. He was in intensive care for a while, and then he was sent to live in a nursing home. I think, although I do not know for sure, that he died in the nursing home.

Matthew was severely retarded. He spent the bad portion of his life in Newark State Hospital, then a good portion of his life in a group home. He’s survived by me, my sister Eleanor, and our parents, Robert and Sarah. This is all that will be written about him. There will be no memorial service, no burial service.

Matthew was the family ghost, sent to live at Newark State Hospital when he was two years old. There was seldom any talk about him, family-wise, no holiday visits, no care packages sent his way. I recall that my mother and I, in the mid-70s, did pay him a visit. A neighbor took us there because my mother couldn’t drive, and I was under age. Mother went into the big brick building alone because I was too scared to go inside with her. When she came out, she said that she thought he knew who she was. The next day, it was family business as usual.

Matthew’s care varied. Once in a while photos came our way. Sometimes he was well dressed, other times not. He had his front teeth removed because he was a biter. He also had surgery on his calves because he wasn’t walking right.

His life took a turn for the better when he was moved into a nearby group home He then had a room of his own and got a great deal of individual attention. El (my sister) and I routinely got cards in the mail in his name, with a scrawl on the inside that supposedly was his signature.

I visited Matthew twice, once while on a bicycle trip cross country, and then later when I went back east to visit friends. During this visit I came to terms with the situation, accepted it and the breakup of my family for what it was, which was just the way it was.

This may be why I am not now grieving; however, I am feeling a profound sense of sadness. This sadness derives from the fact that Matthew’s life was such that family was noticeably absent from it. Though retarded, he would have taken considerable joy in our ongoing presence. The culmination of years of family absence was that he died without any of our being there. Had we been present throughout his life, and had we been there when he died, he undoubtedly would have left this world feeling less alone. And in this sense, we failed him.

My family members’ reactions to his death are indeed puzzling. My father did well in insisting that Matthew be taken off life support – after he did this Matthew died eight minutes later. Now he’s working on getting Matthew’s ashes. I guess he’s going to spread them in NH, a place that Matthew never visited. I don’t understand, why this sudden burst of sentiment? How come he never once went to visit his son?

My sister’s reaction to her brother’s death is equally puzzling. She’s now grieving for a family she rightfully said fell apart right after Matthew’s departure. This I understand. What I don’t understand is why, in the past, when I attempted to talk with her about Matthew she acted indifferent. I then attributed this to the fact that Matthew and his concerns were of little consequence to her. Now she’s emoting.

My sister now has a difficult task ahead of her; that is, she is going to have to tell our mother, who is 86, that her son has just passed away. El told me last night that mother is losing her short term memory, so she doesn’t remember from day to day. So she will be forced to tell her the same thing again and again, each and every day. It will sort of be like the movie Groundhog Day – El will have to keep doing this task until she gets it right.

Bottom line – there is no way of righting past wrongs.

Next: 179. 7/12/15: Eulogy for a Chicken

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