My brother Marc and I were born exactly four years and 51 weeks apart. It was just my birthday, and on February 19th, it would be his. As a child, I don’t remember Marc ever having a birthday party. There are no photos of a party, although to be clear, there are hardly any photos of him doing anything at all.
- He was perfect
- I adored him
- He was a literal genius: perfect academics, jaw-dropping test scores, a mind so intimidating that he won all arguments, with adults of any age
- I survived a bad fire
- We were neglected
- He killed himself when he was 19.
In lieu of a birthday party, our mother would cook Marc’s favorite meal, spaghetti with homemade meat sauce. Our mother, although not a fabulous mother, was a fabulous cook. Her meat sauce was thick with browned hamburger, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, heaped on white spaghetti, straight from the box. Marc would eat three huge platefuls. At the end of dinner, he would lie engorged on the dining room floor, his long brown hair spread all around, his hands on his stomach, moaning in satisfied pain.
I don’t remember birthday presents. There were presents to be sure, but I don’t remember them and there weren’t many. For my birthday one year, Marc gave me a stuffed bunny. With astonishing creativity, I named it “Bunny.” Bunny was soft as feathers, and he fit in the palms of my hands. His fur was light gray, mottled a bit with darker gray and white. He had fetching long gray ears which were white on the inside, a rounded stump of a tail, and delicate whiskers. A gift from my precious Marc, Bunny instantly became my favorite stuffed animal.
I lost Bunny the next summer on a family cross-country trip. I left him sitting on a rock in a campground, distracted by my packing duties. By the time I remembered about Bunny, my parents said we had driven too far and couldn’t turn around. I was devastated.
For Marc’s birthdays, I bought him pieces for his prized drum set. One year it was a second cymbal. Another year it was a high-hat. Another year it was a new tom-tom. These gifts required me to walk to the music store in the next town and lay out considerable cash. I paid for them with “my money,” the money from the settlement from my burn accident.
I don’t know what to say about the fact that I can’t remember any presents my parents gave their son, but I know I took money out of my burn fund to buy him the best presents I could, year after year. I loved my brother so much.
I have done a lot of interviews since my book Flashback Girl came out. I talk about my parents, in particular my mother. She failed us a lot. Our dad did too, although he tried harder and I think that counts. When the whole story gets laid out, the abandonment, the neglect, casual and profound, the deaths, I am repeatedly asked the same question: “How did you turn out so well, given your parents?”
And I say, “But I did have one wonderful parent, and that was my brother Marc.”
Marc taught me how to love. He listened. He pushed me to be honest. He taught me that I did not have to be gifted to be worthy. This was a crucial lesson in a family run by gifted narcissistic parents.
My brother killed himself 44 years ago. He is gone. He is also. . . not gone. I think I hear from Marc at night. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I imagine that he is with me, and that my pillow is on his lap. This is how we used to ride in the car together, me lying down, with my pillow on his lap. So, I envision this scene, and I talk to him.
I think he answers. I have had many answers from him in the dark of the night, most of which just could not have come from my not-genius brain. Often, the answers come in images.
The last time I heard from him, I asked (in my head I asked) what it was like, following me through life, him being dead and all. The answer came as an image, an image of a dark massive whale swimming alongside me. I’m in a boat, the whale is nearby. You can’t see or hear the whale, but he’s there, warm-blooded in the cold ocean. Now and then you can spot his breath, a tiny spout of air. You might even catch his gray fin if you look closely. That’s how you know the whale is there. Otherwise, you just have to trust it. There are whales, even when you don’t see them.
So, Marc indicated that he is like a whale, swimming near me. I can’t see him, I can’t hear him, but he is there.
I have one more image to share. It is not a photo of us. I don’t have any photos of Marc and me, as we got older. My parents didn’t own a camera, and apparently didn’t feel the need to take photos of their two children. I have some old school pictures, and some baby photos, and that’s it. (Which is devastating, to be honest.)
What I do have are these clay figures that Marc and I both constructed in art class. These clay figures embody everything about us, about him and me.
Marc forged his figure when he was 9 years old. It is a finely detailed, two-toned clay figure of his four-year-old hospitalized sister, sitting in a “go cart” (like a wheelchair, but with extended legs). Our father stands behind, pushing me. The figure is haunting, a nine-year-old depiction of the trauma that had shattered his family. He made it for art class and undoubtedly earned an A. His figure is delicate and broken. I must hold it carefully or it will break further.
I also made a clay figure for an elementary school project. It is a "duck ashtray." The duck is kind of orange. You only know it’s a duck because I am telling you: it’s a duck. The only clue to it being a duck is its weirdly rounded beak. The tail of the duck is somehow also an ashtray. It doesn’t look like a tail, nor does it look like an ashtray. Also, whoever heard of a duck ashtray? The figure is ugly but sturdy. It never broke. It is as solid as ever, 50 years later. Cheerfully solid.
That is me and that is Marc. Solid or delicate. Cheerful or tragic. Primitive or exquisite. Like his figure, Marc broke. But I still have his clay statue. And apparently, if I can believe it, I have a whale who loves me a lot.
Happy birthday, Marc. Thank you for being my best parent. I feel you. I can see your air bubbles now and then. I will look for the flash of your gray fin. I will trust that you are there, swimming alongside me, right there.
That is where this blog ended, one hour ago. Pleased with it, I sent the link to a few of my brother's friends. I am in touch with some of them, all these decades later.
Rather quickly, I received a response from one of them. Henry attended high school with Marc, was a fellow drummer in the marching band, as well as a fellow genius. He has been reading about the Cree Indians, and informed me that the Cree word for "whale" is almost the same word as the Cree word for "God." Then Henry wrote: "The Cree look at the whale as a superior spirit, an elder brother on the journey alongside us."
My jaw literally dropped. That's my whale. He knows everything.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.