Gratitude

Dear Gene

Dear Gene,

First things first, happy birthday! I know you are in heaven with Mommy and Daddy, but it is still the day you came into this world. I think of you every year on your birthday even though we haven’t seen each other since 1984 and haven’t spoken in over 10 years. It was your choice to exit my life and only now, after you are gone, do I think I understand why.

Mommy told me how angry I was when they brought you home. I was no longer the center of their world, and I didn’t talk to her for two days. At some point, things changed, and we became so close. I don’t know how or why. I remember the pictures of me holding you as a baby when you had casts on your tiny crooked legs. When you started talking, you had a speech impediment, and I was the only one that could understand you. Everyone would always ask, “What did he say”? But I knew.

As we got older, we only grew closer. Maybe it was because I protected you, or at least tried, from Mommy and Daddy when they drank, especially on the weekends. I used to get you dressed, and we would walk to synagogue – well, I would walk, and you would trot next to me since you were so much shorter. Sunday mornings, I would open my “restaurant” and cook breakfast while our parents slept off their antics from the night before. Of course, you had to pay and tip me for the service. I convinced you that a nickel was worth more than a dime because it was bigger.

As teenagers, you and I were very different socially, but we remained close. I was involved in everything, and you became interested in religion. In the midst of that, you had your first sexual experience. You came to me before speaking with anyone else. I loved the fact that you knew we could talk about anything. I wish those days never ended.

I went to Israel after high school, and you moved to Cleveland to study in Yeshiva (parochial school). Things were never the same. We were in Israel at the same time at one point, but you were in Jerusalem and I was in Tel Aviv. I couldn’t tell you my husband Danny was beating me up, but I think you somehow knew something wasn’t right. Being as close as we were at one point, we knew each other too well not to know when something was wrong.

A year after I came home, Daddy died suddenly of a heart attack. I remember calling your Rabbi in Jerusalem and letting him know so you could come home for the funeral. You insisted we do everything in a very strict religious way, and Mommy and I accommodated you. Two years later when Mommy was diagnosed with lung cancer, you couldn’t handle it. Over the next 16 months, you did everything to avoid emotions of any kind related to her illness and eventual death.

Your behavior was so different just five years after Daddy died when it was time to bury Mommy. You were barely present for the funeral and nowhere to be found during shiva (the seven-day grieving period after a funeral). It was as if you checked out in every possible way and never returned, emotionally or otherwise. So much happened after that, none of it pleasant. Of course, there are three sides to every story: mine, yours, and the truth. Bottom line is that the day I drove away from the house in 1985, I would never see you again.

I tried reaching out over the years but you had no interest in contact with me. For decades I cried and tried to understand the reason. Those two times I was able to get you on the phone, you made it clear you had no interest in pursuing a relationship with me. It made no sense. We only had each other. What did I do that was so horrible to make me undeserving of a relationship with you?

Fast forward to December 21, 2017. I received a call from the medical examiner in Cleveland, Ohio. You had passed away. Although you never really acknowledged my existence, I am grateful that you mentioned me in passing to your girlfriend. This definitely wasn’t the way I’d have chosen to meet her, but what a blessing she has become in my life. We both have been able to connect the dots of your life in many ways. It is a painful gift that has provided some answers we both needed.

You were so brilliant, yet for the last ten years chose to lead a loner’s life. You denied so much of the truth about our family, even denying pictures existed. There is only one explanation I can find for the life you chose to live. We didn’t have an easy childhood, to say the least. Daddy and Mommy left us so young; you were only 19 and 24, respectively. Their deaths left a huge gaping hole in both our lives. You avoided much-needed outside help to come to terms with everything we endured, and it eventually caught up with you. The pain was too great. You turned to things that would numb you and away from the person that reminded you of your anguish. But I understand now.

I’m not sure if I regret not reaching out to you when I tracked down your address a few months ago. Deep down, I don’t think you would have spoken with me. As much as it hurts to think about that terrible day in August 1985 when we saw each other for the last time, I understand. I know the choices you made could just as easily have been mine. I realize on another level how blessed I am to have a daily choice on how I am going to live my life. You never had that opportunity.

The greatest gift you ever gave me came after your death. That gift came in the form of a realization about my own future death and what it would say about the life I had led. Your passing has encouraged me to work even harder to find my purpose in life and then to find honor by pursuing that purpose. Your girlfriend respected the religion you no longer chose to practice and agreed to provide you with a proper Jewish funeral that I was unable to attend. Unfortunately, there were few people there that knew you. When I die, I want a proper Jewish burial, but not one attended mostly by strangers, there only to fulfill the proper religious requirements. I hope the people who attend will be people that knew me and cared for me, people that I socialized with and talked to on a regular basis. My prayer is that the Rabbi that eulogizes me knows who I was because we had a relationship.

You are finally at peace, my dear brother, at home with Mommy and Daddy. I want to believe that somewhere deep down you wanted to be in my life and just didn’t know how to pick up the phone nor what to say. I will go to my grave believing that if I truly needed you and called, you would be there for me. I need to believe this.

I have loved you, hated you, pitied you, and tried to understand you for far too long. It is time to say good-bye. Knowing what I believe to be the truth will give me the strength to honor your death in the only way I know how… not just surviving but thriving in every possible way.

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