Talking about loss is never easy. When losing takes the form of a very long untangling you become good at forgetting. And when you allow yourself to remember, everything starts to ache all over again. I feel arthritic and bent by time. I’m moving through this terrain slowly. The story I’m carrying is so richly detailed that it’s heavy; much too heavy to carry alone. So I’ll give you pieces of it to hold with me, one at a time. Then together we can lift it up to the light like one of those old brass kaleidoscopes to see what patterns emerge.
My brother was 15 months old when I was born. From the day they brought me home, he’d hover over my crib and scold anyone, other than my mother, who tried to touch me. “No! Mama’s baby!” He’d shout, slapping at their hands while furrowing his brow. When she’d sit on the couch to breast feed me, he’d crawl up next to her, unwrap my feet and hold them while I ate. They never had any reason to be concerned about his behavior toward me. He was always very gentle. In fact, he was always very tuned in to the emotional states of others.
My biological father left the first time when my brother was about two. My mother was sitting on the couch one evening after putting us to bed wondering how she was going to take care of a huge house and two small children on her own. She was obviously distressed, but claims that she wasn’t crying. Still, only moments later my brother shuffled down the hall, crawled up on the couch next to her, patted her knee and said, “mama, it be ok.” He just knew that she wasn’t ok and that she needed someone to comfort her. At two he had greater emotional sensitivity and empathy than most adults. He was sweet, sensitive, and protective. These are moments that stay in a mother’s heart forever, that tether them permanently to the essence of what was. It makes letting go so much more difficult.
We lived in a big house in Summit Park, a mountain community just outside of Park City Utah. We spent a lot of time outdoors playing in the snow, climbing trees, terrorizing my mother’s flower beds, and playing with the neighbors. It was a charmed life in so many ways. Of course, we never knew that my mother was struggling financially. We had everything we wanted. We attended the best (and most expensive) preschool in the area and my mother even paid for my brother to have skiing lessons (I wasn’t old enough yet). These are the sorts of sacrifices that you don’t recognize as such until years later. She worked so hard.
Sometimes she still gets weepy thinking of how little she had to give us in those days. But we never knew that we lacked for anything. I always thought it was awesome that every morning she’d put out bottles of food coloring so that we could pick a color for our oatmeal. She’d give us a drop or two and we’d make a big production of stirring it in. I know now that the reason she did that was because she didn’t have anything else to give us. I don’t remember this, but sometimes we didn’t even have milk or sugar to put on our oatmeal. Only food coloring. We didn’t care (in fact, I still eat oatmeal every morning for breakfast. Sans food coloring, of course.)
I suspect that my mother’s creative enrichments are what nurtured creativity in us. She has always had the uncanny ability to creatively reframe situations to direct focus on the positive rather than the negative. It’s not always the best strategy. Some situations really are just awful and should be acknowledged as such. But there is wisdom in her practice. Cognitive reframing shifts your attention to things in your environment that were not previously salient. It can help you discover new ways of solving old problems. And that’s what we spent a lot of time doing in those days.
She bought child craft books at a garage sale one day. From that point forward we would sit on the floor and go through them together as a family activity (our family of 3). There was a book for every topic you can imagine. I remember one book in particular that had clear overlays that had all of the organ systems on them. I was fascinated by it. By the time I was two and my brother was three we knew human anatomy. We also went on nature walks and learned about plants and animals. We played games of make believe. It remember it all clearly (my memory goes back to when I was a year old) and I never had any sense that anything was wrong with our lives. I remember being filled with curiosity and wonder.
There is a down side, of course, to fostering creativity. Our little brains started to explode with all kinds of ideas. It was during this early childhood period that my brother and I started taking on creative projects together—what one didn’t think up, the other did—and my poor mother found it increasingly difficult to channel us. Put yourself in her shoes. You’re working two jobs and raising two preschoolers who are too smart for their own good. There is no one to help you and you are tired all of the time. We were never bad children, mind you. But single parenting and a strong aversion to stifling free spiritedness gave us more leeway than we might have otherwise had.
As often happens in single parent homes, there were gaps in supervision. It was during these precious moments that we did some of our best work. Take, for instance, that jumbo sized bean bag. Have you ever opened one up? They are filled (or at least, used to be) with little bitty styrofoam balls. Why they put zippers on them is a mystery. A zipper is an open invitation for a child to wreak havoc. And, of course, we did. Did you know that a single jumbo bean bag can turn an entire play room (with tile floors) into a huge, squishy, swooshy, staticy pit of fun? The contents of a jumbo bean bag when spread out covered the floor to over a foot deep. When you run and slide on your belly in it it’s like sliding on snow. Never mind that the more you slide around in it, the more electrically charged the little balls get, and the higher they climb up the walls. Also never mind that they’re packed in your nose, in your ears, and in your butt-crack. It’s totally worth it. My poor mother had to bring in a garden hose and spray everything down with water to cut the static charge so she could clean it up. She filled six 40 gallon leaf bags with the stuff.
The truth is, my brother would never have done anything like that on his own. But I would and I did. In fact, my favorite thing to do was get up before dawn and make a terrible mess in the kitchen. Sometimes I’d mix all of the baking ingredients together and sift them into the carpet. Other times I’d find a creative way to swing a huge bag of dry macaroni around the house so you could get a nice spray of elbow macaroni all over everything. What I remember about those moments was not delight in making a mess. Rather, I was simply in love with the texture of flour and sugar, the sound a hollow macaroni makes when it hits walls, floors, furniture (each one sounds different), and the sound/feel of a sifter—that strange rhythmic grinding ch-ch-ch-ch-ch. And soft wax: I loved warm, drizzly wax! I’d take the papers off of my crayons and lay them across the heater vent. Once they were soft enough, I’d use them to finger paint on the hard wood floor under my crib. Once you apply hot wax to cold floors you have very little time before the wax hardens. I was fascinated with the transformation.
I was independent and curious about how things worked, but my brother was fearless. When he was only three he’d climb all the way to the top of the huge pine trees near our house. They were probably 60-80 feet high. It would terrify my mother, but he was just like a little bear cub going up and down. He also liked to jump off of things. As he got older, his jumping became much more dangerous (mainly because it involved skis or motocross bikes). When you put inquisitive and fearless together you usually get a disaster. But as we got older, things got less messy and more strategic. We started working together like a well-oiled machine. By the time we were three and four, we didn’t even have to communicate our goals or plans to each other. One would start an action and the other would immediately apprehend the plan, know what to do, and fall into step—a seamless performance of shared agency. More than one baby sitter found us too difficult to manage. It wasn’t like dealing with two kids. It was more like dealing with a single, co-located individual. I’ve heard that twins often behave just like this. My mother thought it was funny until she took us to a children’s portrait photographer one day and we drew a crowd with our antics. Timing is everything and we had our timing down pat. Everyone was laughing except the photographer and my mother. I think it’s the first time she realized just how difficult we were to manage when we were “feeding off of one another” (her words).
There are some facts about how the brain works that likely explain why we were so motivationally intertwined. I’ll get to that part of the story when I tell you what happened to his brain and how that shifted a highly intuitive, dynamic, and creative connection into a death match. But this is all I can give you today.