Jewish Week asked me to write about siblings, and here is what I came up with:
THE BROTHERS AND SISTERS WE LEAVE BEHIND
It must be difficult for some people to identify the worst day of their lives, but for me it’s easy: the day of my brother Jerry’s funeral.
Jerry had been two years older than me. When we were kids, we fought like demons, in part because we were forced to share a bedroom. But he was also a genuinely difficult person. He seemed to thrive on conflict and to know just what to say to hurt other people. In that way, he took after our father.
Only when I reached adulthood did I fully understand how unhappy and insecure he had been as a kid. Throughout his childhood, he had been mercilessly teased by other boys and girls for being awkward and effeminate. And he always seemed to be having rancorous quarrels with Mom and Dad. Other parents might have successfully helped him accept himself, but ours didn’t seem capable of that.
When Jerry and I were in our twenties, he and I moved slowly toward an adult friendship. Unfortunately, by then, he had contracted HIV. In 1987, when he was 33, opportunistic infections started to undermine his health.
My most troubling visit with him was in December of 1988. At that time, I was working in Berkeley as a freelance journalist, and he was in private practice as a child psychologist in Manhattan. I decided to stay at a hotel near his Upper East Side apartment rather than at our parents’ house on Long Island. On our first day together, I discovered he hiccupped every thirty seconds or so. Doctors were unable to identify the cause, but they assured him it wasn’t dangerous. I began to suspect that they were wrong, however, when he couldn’t recall my having sent him a recent gift of a book on Spanish churches.
I should explain here that Jerry had converted from Judaism to Christianity in the late-1970s, having had an epiphany while listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. I did my best to show support for his conversion – support that our parents generally withheld – by buying him gifts that acknowledged his passion for Roman Catholic history and ritual. Happily, his newfound religiosity had made him a much kinder person.
Over our weekend together, I ascribed Jerry’s unusual forgetfulness and his hiccups to his near-constant state of anxiety over having AIDS.
After I returned home to Berkeley, I couldn’t get him on the phone. I called two of his New York friends for help. One of them phoned a few hours later to tell me he had discovered Jerry in his apartment, badly disoriented. My brother had apparently neglected to eat or drink for three days. In the hospital, tests confirmed toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by protozoa. It had caused lesions in his brain.
I flew back to New York right away. Because of his lesions, Jerry’s speech was nonsensical. As I sat down next to him on his hospital cot, he said, “I worried you’d never be able to find the poem.”
I didn’t know what that meant, and he became confused when he tried to explain.
Jerry was frighteningly gaunt and pale. I held his hand tight, as if to keep him in our world. After talking to him for a few minutes, I went out to the hall so that I could let myself sob without his seeing me.
Over the next two weeks, Jerry got most of his wits back, but he was left physically fragile and forgetful. And he refused to speak to our parents. Whether rightly or wrongly, he held them responsible for much of his unhappiness.
On his subsequent hospital stay, I managed to finagle our parents back into his life, however. On flying in to New York, I asked my father and mother to pick me up at Kennedy Airport and take me straight to Jerry; I knew that if they came with me, he would consent to see them, especially if I asked him as a favor to me.
From that point on, my parents and I – and several of his closest friends – did our best to save Jerry’s life. Over the next months, I spent at least a couple of hours a day on the phone with HIV researchers, physicians, our mother, Jerry’s friends and Jerry himself.
“I’d be orphaned if it weren’t for you,” my brother confessed to me one day, which says much more about his overwhelming sense of having been cheated out of a happy childhood than about my own efforts on his behalf, I believe.
Jewish dysfunctional families have become a cliché that’s always good for a few easy laughs on American television and in popular literature, and, in consequence, we tend to forget that families where parents and children undermine one another are rarely, if ever, amusing. When love becomes buried under ridicule and contempt, children suffer unbearably, and in ways that can sometimes never be repaired. Or in Jerry’s case, forgiven.
Toward the end of his life, in the spring of 1989, Jerry suffered from neuropathy in his extremities and vocal chords. Confined to a hospital room, he couldn’t feed or dress himself. He used his hands like flippers. And he could speak only in a hoarse whisper. So I fed him, dressed him, and wheeled him around his hospital ward.
I was back in Berkeley when my mother called to tell me that he had died. After our conversation, I sobbed. For Jerry. And also for myself, because I was thoroughly depleted. And I’d failed to save his life.
That trauma still affects me even today, of course. I often think about what Jerry would like if he’d lived. Would he still be living in New York? Would he like my novels?
Jerry died on May 6, 1989. His funeral was held a few days later at his church. I trembled for most of the morning leading up to it, and I couldn’t seem to get enough air. I tried to keep composed as I walked with my parents down the central aisle toward my brother’s casket, but I began to weep when I spotted an elderly neighbour of my parents who had been one of the few people who had been kind to Jerry when he was a kid.
Unfortunately, over the next weeks, I suffered a second trauma: many friends insisted on changing the subject whenever I spoke about my brother. One of them even took advantage of my fragility to holler at me for not paying enough attention to her. She never apologized and I never spoke to her again.
Also, family friends and relatives who did their best to console my parents never even called me.
So it was that I learned that a great many otherwise kind people are unwilling to discuss death. And that one or two individuals may even try to hurt you at your lowest moment.
It seems that we – the brothers and sisters left behind – are permitted to speak about our grief only rarely, and then only with very close friends. And we mustn’t expect even close relatives to understand the depth of our feelings.
In years since, I’ve spoken to others who’ve experienced the same sad loss of a brother or sister, and they’ve told me how they, too, came to expect little response to their grief. A great many people just can’t seem to understand the sense of injustice and helplessness we feel when we think of our dead siblings.
I am now living in a century that Jerry never got to see. And I am twenty years older than he ever was, though that seems absolutely impossible. After all, he was my older brother.
Causes Richard Zimler Supports
Save the Children, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)