A Father’s Day Gift to My Nephew: How can I keep my brother's memory alive when it's too painful to remember?

My beloved brother, Josh, whose shocking death just days after his son's first birthday left me wondering how can I keep my brother's memory alive when it's too painful to remember?

One of the cruelest tricks grief plays on me is this: The unspeakable pain left by the loss of my extraordinary younger brother renders me unable to talk about him. He's the only one who could help me heal the pain left by his death but he is not here. We're approaching four years since his shocking death and I am still so raw with grief I cannot speak his name.

But I have to say his name. I have to hear his lion's roar of a laugh in my head so I can bring him to life with stories and memories and crazy dances and his joyful, loud-loudness for his son. His son turned 1 just six days before his dad died. Now he is about to turn 5. This joyful, playful, dancey, loud-laughing little boy must get to know his father through those of us who knew and loved him. That's my job.

That's where the cruel trick of grief comes in. I want so very, very much to share the astonishing life and enormous heart of my brother to his son. But the remembering causes such sadness. Too bad. I've got to push through it and bring his memory and tremendous life force and energy to life. The remembering is a gift to them both, father and son. And to me, of course, or it will be when I can stand to feel through the pain to whatever there is on the other side. People tell me "it gets easier. Not better, just easier, to remember."

In the meantime, I want to share with you, and really, with my beloved brother's son, what I think I said at the memorial service we held. I hadn't planned to speak, didn't imagine I could. Had nothing written down. But when I saw more than 1,000 people lining up down the block to enter the sanctuary to honor his memory, when I saw all those busloads of the high school students whose lives he coaxed and coached and loved to success, I got up and I tried to tell our story, to bear witness to my life's witness, the keeper of my secrets, my hero, my best friend, my brother, Josh.

This is what I think I said, nearly two years ago, about my brother at his memorial service, where more than 1,000 tear-stained faces; high school students, college students, colleagues, old friends, family from far and wide, we all bore witness to my brother's extraordinary life. We all heard spoken-word poetry, original ballads, searingly funny stories, wrenching tributes. It was a loving blur. I'm trying to remember what I said because it's important what we say at the end. It's important what we remember, what becomes clear when it all falls away.

(I should say here that my brother's name was Joseph. His family called him "Josh" and his friends, students and colleagues knew him as "Joe." I should also say that more than 1,000 people came to his public memorial, lining up outside and down the street. Students, friends, neighbors, old classmates...everybody wanted to help say goodbye.)

"I may not be able to say anything. I may just stand up here and cry.
Let's just see what happens.
I didn't write anything down. All you writers out there know why - right - because if you write it down, it means it happened.

I'm still waiting to wake up.

You may have read in Mary Schmich's Chicago Tribune column about my brother that when my parents brought Josh home from the hospital, I said: 'Take it back.'

Indeed I did. At six, an only child, I had no use for it. The thing that wasn't in the Tribune was that my mother was on bed rest for her entire pregnancy with Josh. My parents kept telling me we were waiting for something great!

Every day I'd wait for the pony, or the something great! And then they came home with him. And I said, "Are you kidding me? Take it back."

And it was not good for a while. Then he got cute. Really cute. Curly hair. Wide smile. Squeezable. He was Squishable, which is how and why I came to call him "Squishers," and how and why my daughter called, calls him "Uncle Squish."

And then things got really bad. He had a terrible time. He hurt deeply and I was not there for him. I'm sorry about that. Sorrier than you'll ever know. I didn't know him that well then. I did not pay much attention to him then, when he needed me to. I am so full of regret and shame for that.

And then things got better. And then it was, indeed, something really great. By the time he stole the show as the Lion in The Wiz in high school, we were tight. I was still the big sister.

And then it shifted. He became a teacher. I'm a teacher. He became a parent. I'm a parent. And somehow he went from being my baby brother to being my best friend, like Mary Schmich wrote in her column about him in the Tribune, he was the keeper of my secrets, my life's witness. We talked endlessly about teaching, about how to talk about race in the completely different classrooms where we taught.

I need to make sure I tell all of his students out there how much he loved you, how much he loved teaching you. We talked for hours about what you meant to him. He so loved how you thought, how you fought, how you wrote. All of it. I know you all loved him and it was indeed a privilege for you to have been taught by him, but I promise you the privilege and honor was all his.

He knew everything about me. He was my liver. I'd go to him with my ugliest feelings, my meanest thoughts, just the most horrible, the most ungenerous, unhealthy, most bile-filled toxic stuff, and somehow, with the enormity of his compassion, insight, and grace; through the sheer force of his tremendous empathy, he'd hear me, yeah, I hear you. I understand how you got there...I'm not there...But I get you. I can see that....

And he'd heal me. All of my rage and ugliness would somehow, pass through the magical alchemy of who he was, and would be ground into sand by his compassion. His love and listening turned it all into something manageable, something I could live with, heal with. I will never understand how he did that. His ability to talk — which was tremendous — was only outdone by his ability to listen.

The only person who could get me through my brother's death, is my brother.

So in the hospital, during those horrible, horrible recent days, there seemed to be a lot of Buddhists around. During one of so many awful moments, I'm sitting there in that hospital room, and I'm in agony, and one of my friends, one of the Buddhists, keeps saying. He was a wave...he is a wave...we are all connected...And I heard that, somehow, through my blinding agony. So I'm like, he's a wave...I'm a wave....okay...I got this.

And Josh had told me to go into that Tibetan store on Dempster Street near our mom's house and support those guys, so I went in there and I'm crying and I'm telling the guy I'm totally Jewish..I mean...really, really Jewish. But some Buddhists are whispering things to me that feel right and does he have any books about that...And I say I'm in terrible, agonizing pain and grief and does he have anything for that, too. He hands me all of these books. I catch one title: The Jew in the Lotus.... I buy them all. I tell him about this beaded bracelet one of the Buddhists wore and I wondered if he had one of those. Prayer beads, he said. I got that too. And can't seem to take it off.

So I'm open to this, I'm thinking I can be a Jew-Bu. And I'm into it. I see a card I like, and it says:

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.

And I'm thinkin' hey, that's so great...how Buddhist of me. And I open it up and who said it? Albert Freakin' Einstein.

So the last thing I need to tell you literally happened. It is a fact. Now, unfortunately for me, my only witness is a Buddhist, and his interpretation may be something like, maybe it was always there...maybe it was never there... Buddhists make lousy eyewitnesses. But I'm telling you it happened.

It was on that last horrible night. I was in the hospital room, alone with Josh. And I said to him, look, I need you to talk to me. I need you to be loud and clear and tell me you've got my back, that you're still here, that you're with me. I'm so fogged up with grief and pain I can't hear and I can't see, so you better be really loud and you better make sure I get it, okay?

So one of my Buddhist friends picks me up from the hospital after that, and we're walking towards his car out front, and he has this odd look on his face. I say, what's wrong, thinking his car was stolen. He says: "So I parked behind this white SUV, and, well, I'm not sure what to say." Then I'm thinking, what, is there a "Nixon for President" bumper sticker? And we get to the car, and I look at the license plate on the back of the SUV, and I swear to God it says:


And I say, okay, I hear you. I hear you."


About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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