There is something monumental about your first child. His arrival marks the change from child to parent and the beginning of a responsibility that demands more of ourselves than anything else we do in life. Great expectations are placed on this first child, especially when siblings join the ranks. He is to be a leader, an example, a guide, a caretaker, a fulfillment of dreams, a top student, a top athlete, the best at whatever his parents dreamed of for him. In the best of circumstances, he is a sign of commitment of two loving parents, given room and encouragement to flourish and grow.
I am the youngest of four children, an only daughter in a house full of boys. My oldest brother was a hero to me. I think he earned it just from his presence. When I was an infant and toddler, he and I shared a room. I don’t remember how much he tended to me, but I do remember the night I got sick in my bed and he was the one who called out to Mom to come take care of me. I think I was 3, which would have made him 12. It must have been pretty soon after that that my parents gave in and let him have a bedroom in the basement.
I have very few memories of my biggest brother, a fact that makes me sad, almost cheated. He had a great personality, a good balance of gregariousness and reservedness. He picked on me a little, but he knew when to tell my brothers to back off. When they started to get cruel, he got kind.
He was 9 when my family immigrated to the US, just about 7 weeks before I was born. He graduated high school as one of the youngest 18 year olds in his class, went to college for a year and then decided to spend a year overseas, back with the uncles, aunts and cousins we had left behind. From all accounts, at least the ones I heard, it was a wildly entertaining year. He fell in love with the daughter of my Dad’s best friend, raced motorcycles, enjoyed the beach, had his fair share of scrapes and misses.
While he could be a very responsible and thoughtful young man, he was likely wilder than my parents knew. I remember him coming home one evening when our parents were out; he was stumbling drunk (the drinking age was still 18 back then). His inebriation frightened me. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t like it. He wasn’t the brother I knew, and his falling down the back flight of stairs to our yard didn’t make me feel any better. He also liked to drive fast, though I don’t think he did it when I was in his car. His friends were much the same.
About five months after he returned from overseas, something terrible happened. I (10 years old and in 5th grade) arrived home from school to a driveway full of cars–very unusual. I opened the front door to find my parents and all the elders of our church consoling them. The ministers were there too. My mom pulled me aside and said, “I’ve got some bad news. We lost your brother this morning, he was killed in a car accident.” That day I was wearing a little pink heart necklace that he had given me for my birthday. I reached up to take it off and discovered the chain was broken, just like my heart.
In the days and years since his tragic death I have learned more about that day. He and a friend were out procuring a canister of nitrous oxide-laughing gas, just like the dentists used. The reason for this was that they were helping out another of their friends, Billy. Billy raced cars and nitrous oxide was used to boost the engine power to achieve higher speeds. My brother’s friend Mark was holding the canister in the front seat, next to my brother who was driving. Both young men were cut-ups who enjoyed a good laugh. Being young, and thinking themselves invincible, they thought it would be funny to take a “hit” of the nitro for laughs. I don’t know how much they inhaled, but they were closed inside a car on the last day of a cold January, and however much they got rendered both young men unconscious.
The car was moving at a high rate of speed and with the driver unconscious, it couldn’t steer itself when a sharp curve came in the road. The car continued on a straight path, and the front end wrapped around a the trunk of a great old oak tree. It was a 1973 (?) Dodge Challenger, bright green with black striping. It had lap belts, but not the tensioned shoulder belts or the airbags we now have. My brother wrapped around the steering wheel, crushing his chest and killing him instantly, five days before his 20th birthday. His friend, Mark, suffered a broken leg, cuts and bruises.
After identifying the body of their beloved first born, my parents wanted to go to the hospital to see the young man who was the last person to see my brother alive. I think it was the day after the accident. They arrived at the hospital, the police had taken a report and shared the details with my parents. When they asked to come in the room, Mark refused to see my parents. He had my brother’s coat and asked that it be given to them, but he couldn’t face the parents of his best friend. I think he felt responsible.
My parents knew that what happened wasn’t supposed to happen, that it was indeed the result of teen boy shenanigans, a deeply unfortunate accident. They could tell from Mark’s refusal that he felt felt so bad, so remorseful, so grieved at what had happened that he couldn’t bare the shame of facing the parents of his lost best friend. Likely, he was traumatized by the event and also feared that my parents might press charges against him in a wrongful death suit.
My parents were devastated with the loss of their oldest son. I imagine their grief was the deepest loss they had ever experienced. I am certain they held each other and cried for many a night. My brother’s remains were so badly torn that the remaining siblings were not allowed to see his body and say goodbye. He was cremated and placed in a simple, beautiful mahogany urn box which my Mom alone carried on her lap back to our mother country for burial in the family plot with my father’s parents. A memorial service was held in our church in the US.
I don’t think my parents ever got to speak to Mark in person, but I think they spoke to his parents. You see, almost as soon as my parents got the story from the police, they determined to forgive Mark. They had such deep compassion for this young man who had participated in a stupid act that led to his best friend’s death. They knew my brother well enough to know that Mark had not acted alone, and with my Dad being a college professor and a scoutmaster, he knew young men well enough to know that they do stupid things that sometimes turn out worse than they could have imagined. They wanted to tell Mark how sorry they were for what happened, because, after all, Mark was grieving too. They wanted to let him know that they didn’t hate him or blame him, but rather that they wanted him to find peace from a horrific event that would likely haunt him for a long time if he didn’t find that peace.
My parents chose to recognize the brokenness and show compassion by giving him their pledge of forgiveness, a blessing which acknowledges that what happened shouldn’t have happened but that the future is still open with hope. Through their example of losing their very life in a son, they taught me that compassion and forgiveness are gifts of healing that can never be found through court cases and time served.
In my forgiveness journey, I have struggled to find the path to forgiveness for those things that ought not have happened, or at least, could have happened differently. I lost a job and some relationships, but I gained fullness in my life and the hope for a different experience in my future. My parents forever lost a piece of themselves and a future that would never be realized. Through that lesson of 30+ years ago my parents are still teaching me what the meaning of forgiveness is. And for that I owe them a debt of gratitude.