This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 31, 2015
My brother David Michael died suddenly a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m thinking a lot about him as this year comes to an end.
The last day, December 31, is shaping up for me as a Day of the Dead, a day for looking back and remembering David and others I have lost over the past 365 days and before. Maybe a lot of people do this on this last day. Maybe it’s a human need to look back and ponder loss amid the pain of grief.
David and I had known each other longer than anyone else alive. I’d known him all his life. I was 14 months old in January, 1951, when he was born. The two of us were followed by two brothers and ten sisters.
Our parents, David and Audrey, raised the 14 of us as a tight, affectionate, inter-connected family. Both are gone now. Mom died in 1995, and Dad in 2003.
A family Christmas party
We remain extremely close, probably closer now that we have to rely on each other than we were before. All of us live in the Chicago area, about half in the southwest suburbs and the rest of us scattered from Lake County, Illinois, to Lake County, Indiana, and from Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood to downtown LaGrange.
Each year, we have a family Christmas party, usually stretched over a December weekend at a state park lodge. In attendance are the siblings, our children and our children’s children. About a hundred people, give or take.
Last year, the hosts — our brother John and his family — had the 14 of us at a table in the center of the banquet hall, all by ourselves. We hadn’t sat together at the same table for — well, maybe never. Certainly, never without our parents.
As anyone could see, we were getting older and dealing with aches and pains, and we joked a lot about that. I had just turned 65. David was nearing 64. Mary Beth was a few days from 63. Rita, the baby (and, like our dad, a Chicago cop), was 45.
We also joked about who among us would die first. And who of us would be the one to bury all the others. We were whistling past the graveyard, kidding about the bad stuff that we knew would be coming — but only at some vague time in the distant future.
It all became very real when David Michael died.
A tear in the fabric
His death ripped a tear in the fabric of our family. It is a tear that we are mending as we share our sorrow with each other, as we lean on each other, as we grapple together with our loss. But the fabric will never be completely whole again. There will always be a scar.
And, in the mystery of love, David Michael’s death is also weaving us together even more closely as a family than we were before. We are more connected, we reach out to each other more with love, because of the loss of the brother we loved.
This is a new and stronger life among the 13 of us, even as we ache for David. And not only among us, but also spanning the generations, all the way to two-month-old Erin, the youngest of us.
At this year’s Christmas party, the siblings were all together again at the center table. At one end was a memorial to David Michael. We talked a lot about him and about a lot of other things. We were mostly upbeat. We felt better being together in the face of his absence.
I spent a lot of time at the party and in the lodge with my siblings, of course, but also with my many grandnieces and grandnephews under the age of 10. They were a tonic for me, so full of energy and curiosity, so full of life.
They danced like ballerinas. They pored over books. They used crayons and markers to create bright, joyful drawings. They rolled and jumped and did handstands. They tickled and were tickled, and laughed and laughed and laughed.
So, on this year’s last day, December 31, I’m not just remembering my absent brother. I’m reveling in the glee and spirit of those little kids.
It’s an end, this last day. But it’s also a beginning.
At midnight, it gives birth to a new year. The first day.
And I am thinking that’s how life works. In the midst of death and sorrow, amid the pain of loss, life blooms.
Patrick T. Reardon