Tuesday, October 15, 2013


I recently met a college roommate of my wife.  We spent a delightful two days with her and her husband in Ashland, Oregon, the city of Shakespeare.  They adopted two children, one a boy of eight, the age I was when adopted with my three siblings from a county children’s home in southern Ohio.  Their son died at age 29 of lymphoma, leaving a wife and child. When my wife asked how her college friend was coping with his death ten years later, she said, “It seems like yesterday and it seems like forever.”  If anyone still doubts the depth of love in adoptive relationships, I share my adoptive family’s reaction to the death of my brother Mark in this sequel to Children of the Manse. 


I have to admit I resented Dad’s parading his own grief, which no doubt was genuine, while Mom and I and Janey and Michael mourned Mark in silence.  Even when faced with death Dad could not resist working to be the center of everyone’s attention.  He rose to Shakespearean heights in the eternal curse he pronounced on Tuesday, the week day of Mark’s death.  He planned Mark’s funeral without consulting Mark’s brothers and sister.  At that point I wasn’t sure I wanted Mark to be cremated. It seemed too sudden, too much of a shock to reduce him to a box of ashes so quickly.  It was done before we could ask for a few days delay.  
Two weeks after Mark’s death Dad was well into a sermon when his mind went blank.  He stood silently in the pulpit while the congregation waited, wondering.  After a few minutes he said, “I don’t feel well.  Let’s sing the final hymn.”  Mother noticed that the next day he walked with a stiff arm and dragged his right leg.  He had had his first stroke.      

                                        MOTHER’S REACTION

Mother grieved in silence as we did, trying to console Mark’s wife, Joan, and being helpful to all.   Shortly after the funeral she and Dad went with another couple to a restaurant near the University of Michigan campus.  Students near Mark’s age at the other tables were laughing and having a good time as students normally do.  Atypically and irrationally, Mother said out of their hearing, “How can you be so insensitive, so inconsiderate?  Don’t you know that my son Mark has just died?”  A few weeks later Joan found Mom at her desk staring blankly into space.   She asked, “Where am I?  What am I doing here?”    She was suffering transient global amnesia, a reaction to the shock of Mark’s death.             

                                        JANEY’S REACTION

“After Gus (her husband) walked into our bedroom and told me Mark was dead, I went into denial.  All the way back on the flight from Missouri to Ann Arbor I looked out at the clouds, crying and asking, “Mark, where are you?  Where are you?” I was not yet able to accept that what Gus had told me was true.  When the plane landed at Willow Run I saw the four of you waiting together, Mom, Dad, Michael, and you, and then I knew it was true.  Mark was dead.” 
“After Mark died I cried every night for over a year.  It was physical.  I felt my heart had been ripped out.  I dreamed of Mark every night. I could not let him go.  I hated God.  Then God disappeared.  I could no longer believe in the God I had grown up with.  I feared others close to me would die.  When would the next blow come?” I asked.  I became determined never to love anyone so much again.  Gus tired of my crying.   Mark’s death put pressure on our marriage and contributed to the divorce two years later.”     
I remarried eventually, this time a man I was not in love with but who was economically secure.  He was a brilliant young lawyer, the son of a federal judge.  I made it clear I did not love him before we married but he wanted to marry me anyway.   
A few years after Mark’s death Julie (her daughter) and I moved into the basement apartment where Joanie and Mark had lived.  Julie was three years old.  One morning she told me a man had come into the apartment the night before.  He had, she said, sat there, pointing to a cedar chest near the entrance to the apartment.  I asked her to describe the man.  She described Mark.   She had never seen Mark alive.   

                                        MICHAEL’S REACTION
Michael was in army intelligence, stationed in Burlington, Vermont, when Mark died.    
“When Mother called me to say that Mark had died I went immediately into shock.  I was overwhelmed.  My reaction was raw and physical.  I did not sleep at all that first night.  I was simply unable to digest what Mother had told me, that Mark was dead.”  
“I immediately applied for and was granted 10 days of emergency leave.  I remember the day I flew out of Burlington was the first warm day of spring. The sun was bright, which annoyed me.  I more or less got through the next few days by rote.  I don’t remember much from that period.”
When Michael returned to Burlington he coped with his grief through extreme physical activity.
“I did calisthenics at every opportunity during the day and long runs of up to 10 miles at night.  I had developed a bad smoking habit and became determined to quit.  I focused intently on my work, which involved a lot of driving alone around upper New England.”.
“I began taking risks and I did not hold back.   I began looking for a motorcycle, the biggest and most powerful I could afford.  I had never been on a motorcycle before.  When I finally found the right one, the man who sold it to me said, “I don’t know that I want to be responsible for selling you this motorcycle.”  I rode thousands of miles at high speeds over many hours without a helmet, eating up the time to forget. 
“I met and spent time with the Tuppen family that had recently come down from Canada.  The father, Jack, liked to walk through the house reciting Shakespeare.  Through the Tuppens I met Ivonne, a British nurse, and began dating her.  We rode my motorcycle together.  She had also lost a brother, in her case to a motorcycle accident, and that gave us an additional bond.  It was crazy. The worst was there was nothing I could do to bring Mark back.  I could do nothing to change the fact of Mark’s death. I felt utterly helpless.” 
The undiagnosed panic attacks Michael had suffered from childhood became more severe.  When they came Ivonne, a nurse, rushed him off to the emergency unit in the local hospital, thinking he was suffering a heart attack.  Michael rarely drank alcohol before Mark’s death.  He did not frequent bars with army buddies.  But he found that alcohol eased the panic attacks and his grief and he began drinking.   

                                        LEWIS’ REACTION

Mother’s phone call announcing Mark’s death was so shocking I remember well the details today.  I will never forget her words:

"I hate to do this to you, Lewis, but your brother Mark is dead."

From deep within me I cried out loud, “No!  No, Mother!” My mind whirled out of control.  I was disoriented. I could hardly speak.

          After Mother’s call I began the six hour drive around Chicago to Gary, Indiana and on through Kalamazoo and Battle Creek to Ann Arbor.  It was a cold clear night. I drove, often in tears, feeling that something had been physically torn right out of my heart.  What I remember most during that long ride besides crying wildly was looking up at the starry sky and shouting, “Mark!  Mark!  Where are you?!!!  Where are you?!!! Where have you gone?”   
          I thought of nothing but Mark on that long drive.  I reviewed many scenes in our lives together as I drove through the moonlit night.  The challenges we had overcome. I found I could bring his presence back in my mind but I could not, as I wanted, fix the images of him to gaze upon.   I tried to remember every detail of the time I had last seen him so I could carry that memory within me forever.  He was sitting in the kitchen of the apartment he had built.  He was sitting with his back to the wall in a chair at the kitchen table.  He was drinking coffee.  He wore a red Pendleton plaid shirt unbuttoned over a white T-shirt.  
          The memories flow backed as I drove on and other images flashed before me.  Of Mark in our Los Alamos green and gold high school football uniforms.  Of his wedding pictures with Joan.  
The other memory that does not fade at all after so many years is returning to our home in Ann Arbor after a long walk alone.  I could hear his wife in the basement, mourning.  She was moaning and only stopped to cry, "Oh, Mark, Oh, Mark, Oh, Mark."  Her words shattered me.  It was the saddest voice I had ever heard.  I will never forget the crying of his young widow.  Later Joan said to Janey, “I so wanted to have his child! Oh, why couldn’t I have had his child!”                    
          For months I shut out the world. I seemed to be abandoned again as I was as a five-year-old abandoned to an orphanage.  But this time my abandoner was God.  I was angry with God.  I felt God had betrayed me.    
The day after the funeral the March weather in Ann Arbor warmed a little and spring began to appear.  Easter was still a week or so away.   I heard birds, including some early arriving migrants singing their morning chorus.  They were the signs of continuing life that I heard but rejected.  I was with my brother in death. I could not understand how everything went on as usual, just as if nothing had happened.  Self-indulgently I wanted to cry out, “Don’t you realize that everything has changed, that nothing can be the same again?  Mark is dead!”   Why didn’t the world end?  How could they smile?  Who is next?  Who else will I lose?  When?  Tomorrow?  Next month?  Next year? 
Death was not a matter of being adopted by new parents or of surviving serious illnesses. I could not do anything about death.  Death was the universe’s big NO to whatever hopes and dreams I had. No cry of our hearts, no moaning of our souls, no amount of effort or willing or praying or pleading can change the fact of death.    
At first I tried to believe that I could continue with my cheaply purchased faith in God.  But when I admitted that that faith would no longer do, I faced years of painful soul-searching reflection.  I went into my inner desert alone and for a long time to re-think my life before the wound began to heal and any relationship to God began to be possible, and when years later it was, it was not at all as before.  I no longer was an innocent believing I had any right to be protected from the worst in life. 

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