Monday, May 7, 2012

Graduating With Honors

Here's a happy scene. Last weekend, my brother's daughter graduated from college; this photo captures the triumphant graduate with her parents and darling baby brother. Doesn't this shot perfectly capture the pride and relief and giddy happiness of such an important family milestone? 

Photo credit: Emily Weebroo

At the same time, for anyone who knows this family, the sight of these four smiling faces triggers an ache in our hearts. Because we want to see a fifth face in this photo - the face of the firstborn son and big brother. He should be proudly beaming out from the back row of the group, maybe cracking a joke under his breath or poking his sister in the ribs. Undoubtedly, he would be remembering his own college graduation, and reflecting on how much he had grown and changed in the years since then.

But David is gone from us. Five years ago, he died in a freak accident. He was a few months short of his twenty-first birthday.

A photo from when there were five. 

Any young person's death is a tragedy, and it's useless to attempt to compare or measure the sharp point of that grief. But David's passing was as abrupt, violent and mysterious as they come. In their small town, the accident was very public and the whole family faced unwanted attention and painful rumors.

Obviously, his parents have carried an almost unbearable load of grief, confusion and pain, and I respect their struggles. But this is not a story about the parents. This story is about David's brother and sister.

When David died, Emily was sixteen. Like most teenage brothers and sisters, they did their share of bickering and teasing. Like many first- and second-borns, they defined themselves almost in opposition to each other; David was the athletically gifted, all-American jokester. At school, he was a high-profile, "popular" kid known for his good-natured ability to always get a laugh. In contrast, Emily was driven by her passions for music, emotionally intense conversation, and deep bonding time with a few, very close friends. Although Emily and David both shared a keen intellect and academic success, I think that at this season of their lives, they felt more different than similar.

Any of us who have siblings and are older than twenty-five know that this stage is perfectly normal. Teen years are hard on siblings, but once everyone turns the corner into their twenties, things settle down and suddenly it's a lot easier to get along. Had David lived a few more years, I'm sure he and Emily would have moved through the drama and reached that level of sibling ceasefire. But he didn't. And Emily has had to make peace with the fact that their earthly relationship ended at such a difficult phase. That is not an easy thing to accept.

Bonding over Disney sleeping bags, a cozy chair, and from the looks of
Emily's face, some form of chocolate.
Nothing says brother-sister love like some coordinated cross-dressing.

Alex was born six years, almost to the day, after David. It figures that their birthdays are only a few days apart; from the moment he opened his eyes and drew a breath, Alex looked up to David and followed in his footsteps. They both had an obsession for any sport or game involving a ball; even when Alex was not more than a preschooler, he would follow David and the other neighborhood big boys around and attempt to join their basketball and baseball games. I don't know if it says more about David's heart for his little brother or Alex's amazing sporting skills, but more often than not, Alex would be invited to play.

Alex was fourteen when David died. I think he was old enough to see his brother's imperfections but still young enough to adore him anyway. I can't imagine what it feels like to lose your hero. That is not an easy thing to accept.

Alex was a baller from the start, just like his big bro. Also like David, he was a huge fan of
Spartan garb. Some things never change...go check out his shirt in the top photo.
David was a baller from the start too...looks like his dad can't put this
basketball hoop together fast enough for his satisfaction.
Alex scores a new football outfit; David looks on in either awe or envy. Maybe both.

Now let me be clear. I am not telling you these things so you will feel sorry for Emily and Alex. And I certainly don't feel sorry for them, myself. They don't need anyone's pity.

What I feel for my niece and nephew is admiration. In dealing with this unspeakable loss, they have done a most remarkable thing. They have continued to live their lives. Getting up every day, putting on one shoe and then the other, going to school, meeting obligations, having a social life, graduating from college - I acknowledge the enormous effort it must take, some days more than others, to simply keep walking through life.

I can see that they have handled their grief differently. True to form, Emily is a verbal processor who willingly talks through her pain, and offloads emotions into journals as well.  I have a feeling that Alex would much rather smash a tennis ball or slam a golf ball off a tee than bare his soul on this matter, but that's fine too. No matter what their strategy might be, I have great respect for their ability to cope with their loss. I'm sure that David is immensely proud of his brother and sister, and I am, too.

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Here's another story about how David's loss has impacted his extended family:


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