Why did this happen? — A journal excerpt

Why Did This Happen?

May 2008.  Journal entry about the death of my 3-year-old brother


I wish I had a photo of him. I don’t.

He was special to us, no doubt about that. He taught us all, Brian did… without knowing it or intending it. He had the love, openness and sense of wonder that you’d only see in a really young child. I named my oldest son for him.

He died, drowned on 30 November 1980. Just after Thanksgiving… at that time when everything is moving full pace toward Christmas.

My sisters and I had Thanksgiving with Mom, in her apartment in Panama City. That’s where we were all living. My baby brother was living with my father and his mother, my stepmother. All we knew was that they were in central Florida.   I think  it was Hollywood, Florida… but I’m really not sure anymore.

Mom answered the phone. I remember it ringing.  That is where my memory of this starts, with the ringing of the phone. Perhaps I remember because Mom got that tone of voice she saved just for him. My father was on the phone and they were talking, then Mom said, “Oh, no… “.

It seemed like forever before she put down the phone. She called us girls together and … things are a bit patchy from here … I remember going outside on the breezeway and looking out through the other buildings. I was crying, I remember just standing there, wiping my nose on my sleeve… (I was 14 and still a tomboy). Someone came and held me by my shoulders and brought me back inside the apartment. I remember screaming and falling on the floor of my living room. I cried. I raged and cried in my bed. I screamed into my pillow and hit the wall of my room.

I remember feeling like it just couldn’t be true. I remember at some point, I suppose I was cried out, but at some point I just stopped feeling much of anything… I just did what I was told, we packed for the drive to central Florida.

I remember what I believed. I believed God was punishing me and my family for our sins. I remember I believed that Brian was an angel that we didn’t deserve him. My part in the family sin was my rebellion, the fact that I ran away from home a couple of times, that I had started letting boys go farther than they should. I believed my sin counted most of all, because I was doing exactly what my father predicted of me. Mom was the one who explained how sin worked.

I believed that God in his wrath and mercy saw fit to take Brian from us because of the secrets. Brian would have been poisoned by our family eventually. My father would have poisoned him or destroyed him… one or the other. Brian, our angel, was lost to hell and God took him back to protect him. That is truly what I believed at the time.

Again, things are patchy in my memory. I don’t remember the drive there… I just remember arriving in a town, driving to a funeral home, and parking the car. I remember family members, aunts and uncles, my grandmother and grandfather, being there in the parking lot.

I remember seeing my brother lying on a table that had some velvet cloth over it. In my memory, the table wasn’t completely covered, Brian had a blanket over him and he looked like he was sleeping. I could see a string or cord sticking out of his hair at the back of his head. I was so horrified by that.

I chose to stay with my father and stepmother. I thought they (he) needed me. I thought I should try to help him.

I’m going to continue working on this entry. This story is a crossroads for me somehow. When my brother died, things changed quickly… for the worse. My memories are patchy.  But, here’s the view you have when you’re 41… not 14, as I was at the time.

At the time my brother died, my father, stepmother and Brian (actually my half-brother) were living in a van. Not a nice van, a sort of a hippy van without the hippy style. It was dirty and cramped and had no facilities, certainly not the way they should have been living.  My father had hit bottom again. Drank his way out of a job or some such thing. He was so deep in the bottle that he took a job as a painter. Yep, from government contractor to house painter… that’s what drink will do to a person.

On the afternoon that my brother drowned, my father had been sitting in the van. He didn’t say it, but no doubt this meant he had been drinking since early morning. My stepmother was working at the time, so he was in charge of my brother and was letting him play outside around the apartment complex.

The complex was newly built, fairly nice and was partly rented out. The family sort of built their lives their while the painting job was going on, living in the van parking lot. Brian made a playground of the property.

The story was told so. My father was in the van. He could see my brother playing, running between the buildings. At one point, he ran behind one side of a building and didn’t come out the other side. After a minute or so (who knows?)… my father went to look for him.  Time has no meaning, the sequence of events is someone else’s memory told to those who were not there. He did get my brother out… he did perform CPR…  he did keep him going until the paramedics arrived… but, my brother died in hospital.

He was lost to us and I felt compassion and sorrow for my father and his wife. When my mom and sisters said it was time to go home, I decided to stay. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I sort of set myself up to bear the brunt of a lot of pain from both of them.

There’s still more. Why did I go to school there? For how long? What was the school? Why can’t I remember how long I was there? I remember having terrible headaches, really awful. I remember living in a cabin at a tourist park. I remember wearing my stepmother’s clothes to school.  I don’t remember when or how I got home to Mom, but somehow I did.

After this, nothing was really the same. I went back at least two more times to my father’s house… both times to run away from some trouble I was in.

I had a pattern then, too. I would start off doing really well in school, but not with many friends. I had successes, awards, making the varsity cheerleading squad, twice, going to national competition for DECA after placing 2nd at state.  I was friendly and strange and hid behind a smile. 

But, then my grades would start slipping and I’d start cutting classes. Whatever was going on, I became defiant and rebellious and downright dared anyone to make me do anything I didn’t want to.

I know now that I was dissociating and acting out because of what was going on at home.  The exact memories are still gone. 



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