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Last week, I talked to an old friend who’d lost her children’s father and was raising her sons, fraught with the knowledge that they’d been irreparably damaged by such a traumatic childhood loss.
I felt her pain, knowing it was the pain that my own mother would have felt when my brother died in a traumatic accident. Not only did she need to survive the great gaping hole of that grief, but she needed to parent four children through that senseless loss too. She too, must have wondered how that explosion of pain would shape us for the rest of our lives.
So I told my friend what I know to be true. As a child who suffered a devastating loss. As a woman who has been shaped by it. It was a defining event, but not in the way you might expect.
For me, losing my brother was one of the great miracles of my life.
No, I’m not saying that his love was a great miracle, though that is true too. I’m not saying it was a relief to be without him. I’m saying that his death, and my loss and suffering was a miracle.
Imagine this, if you will.
You believe, as we all do, that life is infinite. That you are immortal, infallible. That bad things only happen to others. That if we just read enough fairytales and do all the right things, we will be immune to loss.
And then, it happens anyway.
I was 14 years old when it happened. Still remember the afternoon we drove home in the fading sunlight. I’d been to a gifted and talented art program, and was waxing lyrical about how my life was in a good direction. How the art program was meant for me, how even my jeans were the perfect fit.
We arrived home, only to see my two sisters hovering at the stairs.
“Mum,” they say haltingly. “The police were here. They wanted to talk to you. They wouldn’t say why. They just said they would be back.”
A strange kind of quiet descends then.
The police arrive soon after. Take my mum to a room by herself.
Soon after she calls us down the stairs.
“We’ve just heard from very sad news. Clinton has been in an accident, and is dead.”
I sit on the stairs, my head swimming.
“No,” I think to myself. “This isn’t how the story goes. He was in an accident but he is okay! He will survive!”
The quiet reality tells me otherwise.
My wild bushman dad is nowhere to be seen. I volunteer to go to the cattle yards to climb to their peak, survey the paddocks to see where he could be. There is no tractor, no motorbike, no ute hauling a molasses tank. I scream at the top of my lungs, but there is only quiet in response.
I call his phone, over and over. It doesn’t connect. Eventually, it does, and I tell him a small, stricken voice to come home. “What has happened?” he asks urgently. I am tight lipped. “I can’t tell you. You just need to come home.”
When he finally does, it is dark. When he is told, he sinks to the floor.
My brother arrives home with his girlfriend, ashen faced.
All we do that night, and for many nights afterwards, is sit in a room and sob together.
I go to school the next day. I go only because we are given a choice, and my older sister elects not to have to be there when we tell our beloved grandmother. So I follow her to school. We are shell shocked children, blank faced and broken. There is suddenly a chasm between us and everyone else. There are the children who haven’t faced the great abyss yet, and there are the children who have.
A teacher asks me, as I sit weeping in class:
“Are you okay?”
“No. My brother just died.”
“I know. Your friend just told me. Should you really be here?”
“I don’t know.”
In classes, nothing makes sense. Nothing will make sense for months to come. My grades fall dramatically as my brain reboots from the great reset.
It takes a year for the pain to feel less razor edge, for my brain to begin to work again. Ten years to recover. A quarter of a century later, I’m at peace but sometimes the grief wave rises suddenly and leaves me in a shock of tears.
And yet still, it is a miracle.
Suffering a significant loss at a young age shaped me in ways that is sometimes hard to explain. I will try anyway.
At 14, I learned that life isn’t guaranteed. That death is coming for all of us, and all we love. And we have no idea of when it will happen. A life is not an average life expectancy guarantee. A life can sometimes be a blip – a few days like my beautiful friend’s beautiful baby. A life can sometimes be a wide expanse – my beloved grandmother at 97, her sister at 99, our adopted nan at 102. My brother’s was 25. The numbers don’t matter. What matters is: the miracle of living and loving at all.
At 14, I learned that relationships don’t end with a person’s death. They grow and change and deepen over the years, even through the walls of life and death. I can’t see him, but I can still love him. I can still talk to him. I can still heal the parts of our relationship that needs to be repaired. And somehow, through the vast expanse, I can feel him doing the same. Still loving me. Still talking to me. Still healing himself and blooming our relationship into a different kind of garden. It is a miracle, all of this.
At 14, I learned that wishing you were anything but what you are is a farce, a fucking ridiculous way to spend the precious time you do have on the planet.
My brother had cerebral palsy that affected his body and his brain. I’m sure he sometimes wished it was different. And yet he did everything he could with what he had: won second place for para-athletic high jump in Australia. Could drive and fix more kinds of machinery and vehicles than I ever could. Joked about wishing he was more disabled so he could compete in more disabled sports.
You’re given a body, and a personality, and it might be wonky, but it is YOURS. Glory be! Let us enjoy it for the time we have with it!
At 14, I learned that sometimes the worst things in the world can be the best. The things that seem most tragic, most awful, most feared… can become an unexpected blessing. The illusion of immortality was torn from my eyes, and what I saw in place was tender, precious, precarious beauty. The light shimmering at the edge of leaves after a storm. A stray kitten finding me at the back of the bakery I worked. Unexpected tenderness. The knowing that life was passing me by, one moment at a time. This moment, only once. Look carefully, and you’ll see there are tiny miracles, everywhere.
My mother was right. Her children were changed from that profound loss. Just not always in the way she expected.
I want you to know that it wasn’t just the wonderful things in my life that make my wonderful parts. The hard, the fucked, the excruciating too. They made the gold, they made me deepen with wisdom, they softened me like a river crashes around a rock until it is polished smooth. The tragedies and the grief are a part of my tapestry, weaving me into something more.
My brother died. What a miracle.
All my love,