The Three Legged Stool: On the Death of a Brother

Jeanne and I are left feeling strangely off balance. I imagine a three-legged stool, and how each leg is essential for its function. Over our lifetime, my siblings and I learned how to continually interact as a unit, calling upon our very different talents and personalities.
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On July 23, my beloved older brother Jim died, and it rocked my world. When I'm grieving, my personal inclination is to search for words to describe how I'm feeling in hopes that it will soothe my aching heart. Additionally, as a practicing psychoanalyst, perhaps I can even help someone else who is experiencing a similar loss.

Curiously, there is a lack of information in clinical literature about the loss of a sibling in later life. In fact, the books that I did find on the subject all mentioned that there are few studies. There's also little acknowledgment about the loss of the very people who helped shape us, who are expected to be our lifelong fellow travelers, and serve as our historians of family life.

Therefore, I want to describe my relationship with my brother and why his death represents such a profound loss to me. My hope is that if you have lost a sibling, or are facing this possibility in the near future, that my experience might help illuminate how important our relationships with our siblings really are.

According to family lore, when I was first brought home from the hospital, my big brother Jimmie hovered around my crib, very excited to welcome his new baby sister. "Don't cry, 'Hun'in'," he softly crooned over and over, doing his 3 ½ year-old best to comfort me. "You're home now." He wasn't able to pronounce my name Helen yet, but his place in my life was firmly established from that day forward.

I was born into a family of four generations who were living together: my father, who was 28 years older than my mother, believed that "family takes care of family," and invited my mother's mother and grandmother to live with us. It was a bustling household, full of relatives coming and going, and many people who worked in our family business.

My father was born in 1887, and my grandmother in 1886, which left my siblings and me with a feeling of being born in the wrong century. Because our father was old enough to be our grandfather, our feelings of difference from other children further strengthened our sibling bond.

Possessing English origins on both sides, my family was structured in a Victorian, patriarchal way, with my father as its undisputed head. That left my big brother Jimmie as the next in line for succession. Perhaps you can imagine the weight of the responsibility on my first-born brother's shoulders from the very beginning.

When I was just six months old, my father suffered a near fatal heart attack, and had to go away for a month to a hospital to recover. My mother went with him, and I was placed in the care of my grandmother. When my father returned -- and for the rest of his life -- my brother Jimmie, my sister Jeanne, and I were only too aware of the doctors dire warning: that my father would die with his next heart attack.

Because my siblings and I needed to be prepared for an emergency, I was taught how to stop a car when I was 5 years old, in case my father had an attack. Thus my siblings and I shared in common the fear of losing our father, as well as the desire to help our mother, especially when, just as I turned 4, our great grandmother died and I began to understand that when a person dies, they're not coming back. I've written often about this and the other emotional effects of my father's fragile condition, and the anticipation of losing him (See "Counting My People").

My father, the son of John Davey (who created the science of tree surgery), turned his own extensive knowledge of trees into a passion for international travel to investigate the world's vegetation. He lived an extraordinary life, filled with adventure and creative achievements. In fact, he was in the center of the group of celebrated people who were opening up the world to travel in the first quarter of the twentieth century (See "Do You Have a Case of Wanderlust"; "The Amazing Hippopotabus: The World's First Luxury RV.")

As children, Jimmie, Jeanne, and I would sit wide-eyed and spellbound, absorbing every detail of my father's true-life bedtime stories. No matter how often he told us about the time he was sitting on what he thought was a log in Africa -- until the giant snake started moving - we would get scared all over again! He was an exuberant man who loved life, and was a gifted storyteller.

It rubbed off on his children. Late at night, when we were supposed to be asleep, my brother and sister and I would whisper about our own plans for adventure: with Jimmie in charge, and Jeanne second in command, we were going to run away down the French Broad River, the largest river we knew. We would build a raft, float down the river until we reached the ocean, and then set sail across the sea. I'm convinced that it was this early introduction to the wonders of traveling the world that set me on my path to become a Pan Am stewardess for 20 years.

My father and my brother were my heroes, and I believed they could do anything. I was thrilled when Jimmie would pay attention to me, and reveled in his constant teasing. Like my father, he was authoritarian, protective, and loving, and - unlike my sister, who was more his contemporary with less than a year between them - I pretty much did what he told me to do. His pet name for me became "Snooky."

To my delight, sometimes Jimmie would "let" me watch him play with his incredible electric train and his chemistry set for the "reasonable" price of 10 cents. He established "The Last National Bank," of which he, of course, was President. He required that Jeanne and I deposit all our money in the "bank," and then she and I would have to trade pieces of paper back and forth as credit. I don't remember how long it took for us to rebel.

When Jimmie learned how to play poker, he set about to win all his sisters' money, and succeeded only until I finally told my mother on him -- one of the few times I ever did such a thing. I always used to tease him about either becoming the world's biggest crook, or the world's biggest miser. Thankfully neither one happened.

Best of all, Jimmie and I had our own on-going make-believe game that we called "The Adventures of Life and Joe." He, of course, was Joe, and I named myself "Life" in what I think was my youthful attempt at philosophically trying to understand what I was here for.

One of my most vivid memories was the summer of 1951 when Jimmie, Jeanne and I roamed the incredibly beautiful mountains of North Carolina on our horses. It was an idyllic time of playing cowboys and Indians and other games, and -- always there, always in the forefront, was my father -- who made the world seem full of excitement, and lit up our lives with the feeling of endless possibilities. I feel sad when I look at our photographs from that summer, knowing that those three happy children didn't know that these magical times were about to come to an end.

Soon after school started in that year, my father died from a massive heart attack. He was 64, my mother was 37, Jimmie was 11, Jeanne was 10, and I was 8. Our world as we had known it shattered around us, and everything came to an eerie standstill.

From the day my father died, my traumatized family had no idea how to mourn him. Instead of talking about our feelings, we all withdrew into silence and rarely mentioned him. My brother, at the age of 11, became the "man of the family," and it was understood that he would take over where my father left off. Jim was symbolically in charge of four females, including my grandmother, and I often try to imagine what that was like for him. He had to grow up way too fast and shoulder an unimaginable emotional burden.

Looking back, I realize that I was intuitively aware of the threat of yet another potential and very painful loss: that of my memories of my father. I would lie awake at night, trying to catalogue every detail in order not to forget them. My brother, who looked like my father and grew to sound like him, helped to anchor me and provide a lifelong link to my father.

My mother, as well, began a 50-year project of gathering family photos and newspaper articles that chronicled the history on both sides of our family, going very far back. For many years, I poured over these books, and expanded them after my mother's death, because I always felt they were such a touchstone for my own identity.

Luckily for me, Jimmie stepped in as my surrogate father, and I could always sense the presence of that hovering, soothing brother of mine whose responsibility it was to protect and comfort me. As we grew older, it was Jim who dutifully terrified my boyfriends if I was one minute later than my 11:30 P.M. curfew. His name for me changed from "Snooky" to "Sneaky," and in front of company I began to call him "Jim." In private conversations, however, his real name "Jimmie" would sometimes slip out.

When I was home from college one summer and considering a job that Jim felt would put me (in his mind) around unsavory characters, he wrote from his naval ship off the coast of Vietnam that he would be happy to pay me not to work. I settled on babysitting, which he considered safe enough for me. It was Jim who gave me away at my wedding, and it was Jim who consistently wrote or called, checking in on my well-being. I never resented his interference, because I knew -- I fully understood -- how much I needed him.

As Jim, Jeanne, and I left home, we chose very different paths. Always attracted to order and service, Jim joined the Navy and later became a lawyer. Jeanne, the traditional daughter, along with her husband, raised three incredible sons, and she always sought to bring elegance and style to everything she did.

I, on the other hand, as the youngest -- my mother's "free spirit" -- felt compelled to pursue my own path. Following as closely in my father's footsteps as I could, I became a flight attendant for Pan Am for 20 years, and traveled the world just as he had done. When it came time to get really serious -- as I always knew I would -- I became a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst.

Over the years, with the death of our grandmother, and then our loss of our mother 3 years ago when she was 96, the solid and constant nature of our sibling bond became more apparent. "The Three Musketeers": we were comrades, indivisible, united by our common loving memories and our shared trauma, as well as our profound devotion to my mother. I don't mean to imply that we never had our differences of opinion or disagreements, but there was never a question that we would be there for each other.

As he aged, Jim began to have trouble with his heart, and developed COPD from smoking. My sister and I watched Jim nervously, as we had anxiously observed my father, worried about losing him. The bright light, however, was that after a divorce, Jim fell in love with Darlene, the woman who was to become his second wife. During the last seven years of his life, I had never seen him so happy, and so able to shed the burden of heavy responsibility. I just wish he had had more time.

Jeanne and I are left feeling strangely off balance. I imagine a three-legged stool, and how each leg is essential for its function. Over our lifetime, my siblings and I learned how to continually interact as a unit, calling upon our very different talents and personalities. It has always been difficult to imagine Jim not being there, as he always has been; the death of a sibling feels particularly "close to the bone."

After all, as children we dreamed big dreams of floating down rivers and sailing across the sea - always together, the three of us -- exploring life's mysteries.