'My Brother Died Before I Was Born'

I was four when I learned that I had a brother who was killed before I was born. Joey had died when he was just four himself. My life was suddenly divided into before and after.

Before I knew about Joey, my family seemed like one of the lucky ones that had never faced tragedy. Afterwards, I suddenly understood the current of sorrow that silently permeated my home. At 4, I was old enough to have my reality shaken by the revelation, but too young to understand that his life, and his death, impacted me as deeply as my parents and my 8-month-old baby brother. Years later, I would learn that Joey was hit by a truck when my family lived in Egypt, the same month that John F. Kennedy was shot. My mom teared up as she told me that it was utterly bizarre and touching to have strangers on the streets of Cairo presume she was from the U.S. and tell her they were sorry for her loss; meaning the loss of the president.

My mother was furious that my dad had told me about this family trauma at such a young age. I know her goal was to protect me, but it came out as anger, as if I'd done something wrong. So I learned not to speak of Joey and instead to look for clues of his existence, for a life that had been.

After my parents divorced when I was 13, without comment my Dad hung pictures of Joey next to mine on the wall. Dad must have had them tucked away in his drawers for 17 years. Without an explanation I knew it was Joey. He and I share similar eyes, so perhaps I saw myself in him. I found his baby book when I was 15, nestled in the area where we kept our encyclopedias. My heart beat hard as I read about the milestones from his first years, every blank line filled with words to the end. My own baby book, with many empty pages, proved I really was a second child.

Joey's life and death was a family secret everyone knew about, but none of us spoke of. Would I have been so erased if I had died? I learned from my parents that death was so unbearable it could not be faced. Loss was always just below our fragile family foundation making it challenging to know where it was and wasn't safe to tread.

Then, when I was twenty-one I was at a gathering at church to learn about pastoral care. The topic was death. I walked into the doors with trepidation, but wanted to be there. One woman in her fifties shared that she'd had a near death experience that left her entirely unafraid of dying. She spoke with such conviction that I believed her, but I was stunned. It seemed nearly impossible to go from my clutched fear of death to her calm acceptance. I had some growing to do.

I set out to face death more consciously, hoping to become someone who could think, talk and feel about the ultimate truth that shadows us all: someday I will take my last breath and say good-bye to all that is on this Earth.

I added a death contemplation to my morning spiritual practice: sun salutations each with a specific focus. The first is for gratitude, the second for sending love and care to others, the third I ask to find my purpose and meaning—and during the fourth I remember that I will die on some unknown moment that could be this day, or in many years.

My first experience with death was that of my father-in-law in 1991. My wife and I rushed across the county, barely making it to the hospital for his last breath. I was just 26 years old, nervous and uncertain of what to do. I watched myself and those around me, noticing the rituals and the truth telling that come with death.

My second was my mother's death when I was 31. I listened to her death rattle for hours, trusting that the hospice nurses were right and that it was only painful to hear, not to experience. I learned that I was grateful she died from cancer which at least gave us the gift of being able to say good-bye and I love you.

My third was the death of my father. I sang "Go Now in Peace" with my hand over his heart, pouring love and release into his last few beats. My wife brought my children soon after, so they could learn that death can be faced straight on with sorrow and without fear.

Those three deaths, and griefs, prepared me well for the two more we faced in 2021. In January, our neighbor and friend died in our living room. Cancer in the midst of COVID meant the unthinkable: she would be isolated from her children and everyone she loved if she went to an institution. Rather than have her die alone in a hospital, a group of us ran in and out of her home, along with a hospice team, until her final two weeks when she needed constant care. I believe I was only able to make the decision to care for our neighbor because I had faced death so squarely.

During what we thought would be our summer of freedom, just as the Delta variant of COVID was surging, my mother-in-law took a steep downturn while we were on a road trip to visit family not seen for two years. Her 84-year old digestive track slowly gave out leaving her in a lot of pain. She and I had many sweet talks about her life, her thoughts about what comes after being on this Earth and how she wanted to live the rest of her days. After a particularly painful visit to the hospital, with no permanent pain relief in sight, she declared she was done with the stints, tests, pokes and antibiotics. It was hard to hear, but she was clear that she no longer wanted to live in pain and discomfort. As sad as it was to say good-bye to her, I'm grateful that she and I were able to speak directly about her thoughts and feelings. Her death was calm and pain free.

Author Laila Ibrahim
Author Laila Ibrahim discovered at the age of four that she had an older brother who had died before she was born. Laila Ibrahim

In my heart of hearts I'm a religious educator and I want to give people tools and practices to find faith even in the hard times, perhaps especially in the hard times.

My faith tradition is more concerned with this life, than the afterlife, but children are not so easily willing to let go of the ego. They want to know: Why do we have to die? What comes after? Amongst other answers, I often tell them that what comes after we take our last breath and our heart beat ends is a mystery, and no one knows for certain if we have a spirit that lives on after. I also tell them that our lives are sweeter knowing they will end.

As an adult, I was able to ask my mom about Joey. How did she face it? She told me the pain was so great she would have killed herself if she didn't have a living child. After a time she realized there were only two choices—living or not living. Shakespeare suddenly had new meaning. She simply decided to live each day until she was given no more. She lived every day, with joy and sorrow, until the end.

In the end my mom was not afraid of what was to come, only sad for what she was leaving behind. And I wasn't afraid for her either, only sad to say a final good-bye to the sound of her voice, and the warmth of her skin. As for her spirit? I know it lives in me, and my children, and if it's been recycled she is soaring through the universe in joy and sorrow.

Laila Ibrahim is the bestselling author of Scarlet Carnation, Golden Poppies, Paper Wife, Mustard Seed, and Yellow Crocus. She spent much of her career as a preschool director, a birth doula, and a religious educator. Find out more about her work at lailaibrahim.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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