A lot of people’s minds in Duluth will be on a visit from the President today. Given the current political climate, I get that. Mine, however, will be elsewhere.
When I was eight years old, my parents had a second son. He was born on this day in 1998. He died three months after his birth. The cause of death was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—which is a fancy way of saying that all the power of modern medicine hadn’t the slightest clue what went wrong.
I’ve written posts to mark this day every year since I started this blog, and a careful reader will find veiled references to him scattered elsewhere, too. Still, I write this post with some reservation. It’s not a story I share often; I don’t like to be maudlin or dwell too much, nor do I enjoy woe-is-me tales or to seek over-emphasize my sufferings, which, on the whole, are few compared to most people on this earth. But my own story is impossible to understand without his story, and so much of me, from guarded opinions to fatalistic tendencies to a belief in brotherhood and community as my highest ideal, stems from him.
Eight years old is old enough to bear witness to everything that happens, but not really to process grief in a mature way. My coping methods were myriad, from distracting myself with baseball to a restless search for a deity that could make sense of things for me. They sometimes brought momentary peace, but never closure. It took me maybe fifteen years to get over certain triggers of bitterness such as questions over what it’s like to be an only child or even just answering the “do you have any siblings” question. Trauma steeled me, and because it forced me to confront terrible questions head-on, I can perhaps only be truly, intimately comfortable around those who also confront them, in one way or another. Commitment hasn’t come easily because I only commit myself to people or things that can live up to this ideal.
The outpouring of support that followed my brother’s death was overwhelming, and is no small reason why I became such a loyal Duluthian. (Hence my decision to quote this line on this day four years ago.) There are a few stray plaques and markers around Duluth that bear his name, or note donations made in his honor. If you’ve ever seen me in a suit, there’s half a chance I was wearing a lapel pin gifted to me by then-mayor Gary Doty at the funeral, or at least had it tucked away in a pocket, ready at hand. I went back to school the day he died because that was the place I felt most comfortable, and my loyalty to my various alma maters probably has some roots in the unwavering support I found that day.
I remember the events surrounding his death as if they were yesterday, but retain only a few details of his life: the delivery room in St. Luke’s, overlooking his crib with the tune of a musical cow toy tinkling away, meeting him and my mom at a state park up the Shore after my dad took me on my first backpacking trip that summer. And since, there have been vivid glimpses of what could have been, if only in my mind: a hazy summer day atop Blue Mound in Wisconsin, a moment of solitude in Zion, standing at the start line of the half marathon in Duluth. (My brother was born the day of the marathon, and in a spurt of serendipity, the last name of the winner of the race that day was the same as his first). The day that would have been his Duluth East graduation day, and the stray dream here and there. At this point, it all feels like dreams; some conscious, some less so.
My mother and I will spend the evening far from any political happenings in downtown Duluth. This is no retreat, though. A life in the world is built on these ties, in what it means to love people or a place or overcome those moments when all hope or reason seems gone from the world. Without them, we have little to build from, and nothing to pass on.
I close with an Octavio Paz poem, as his words have so often seemed fitting for this day.
“The Simple Life”
Call bread bread and that it appear
on the tablecloth each day;
give to the sweat what it wants and to the dream
and the brief heaven and hell
and the body each minute what they ask for;
smile like the sea smiles, the wind smiles,
without laughter sounding like broken glass;
drink and in drunkenness seize life,
dance the dance without losing a step,
touch the hand of a stranger
on a day of hardness and agony
and that that hand have the firmness
that that of a friend never had;
try solitude without the vinegar
that makes my mouth contort, nor repeat
my grimaces in the mirror, nor the silence
that bristles with teeth that grate:
these four walls – paper, plaster,
thin carpet and yellowing bulb?
are still not the promised hell;
may not that desire hurt me more,
frozen by fear, a cold wound
burned by lips unkissed:
clear water never pauses
and there is fruit that falls once ripe;
know to break the bread and share it,
the bread is a truth common to all of us,
the bread sustains us all,
through its leavening I am a man,
a neighbor among neighbors;
fight for the life of the living,
give life to the living, to life,
And bury the dead and forgotten
as the earth forgets them: in fruit …
and at the moment of my death may I reach
death like men and that to me come
forgiveness and the everlasting life of dust,
of fruits, and of dust.