On Literature, Loss, and the 5th Grade

Yesterday was my brother Dane’s birthday. He died when I was 9 years old, but had he lived he would have just turned 17. As the years go by, I am constantly struck by how much life he missed out on, how much life we should have gotten to share. 

As a kind of belated birthday present, here’s a very short essay I wrote about losing Dane & finding healing through, what else?, reading. I hope you like it. 

When I was 9 my little brother died in an accident at the neighborhood pool. While my mother and the lifeguards were distracted he slipped face-first down a slide and struck his head on the pool’s concrete bottom, knocking him unconscious. He drowned without struggling, and we didn’t know until a girl I knew from school found him a few minutes later and screamed.

Flash forward two years. I am 11 and in the 5th grade. I am tall and thin for my age, with long red hair that hasn’t decided whether to curl or lay straight. I read constantly, compulsively, so much so that I sometimes get in trouble at school for slipping novels under math tests or in-between the pages of my science book. When I’m not reading I’m scribbling in a growing collection of miniature journals, inventing fantasy languages or practicing writing backwards like Michelangelo. I am shy and quiet but seemingly well-adjusted and content.

In the years since my brother has died my family has made vague attempts to address our shared loss but for the most part we have allowed ourselves to drift apart, to fight our own battles with grief. These battles in turn have, for the most part, not happened. After the first awful months of constant tears and microwaved casseroles we have settled into a pattern of normalcy, and while there are definite cracks in our façades it is much easier to pretend that we are doing okay than to admit that we are all very broken.

My 5th grade reading teacher, Mrs. Wright, has become something like a family friend, and she encourages my reading habit unwearingly. In the fall of that year she assigns our class Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. We read a few chapters every evening and answer questions about plot and characterization in class. I read ahead because this story of a sensitive young boy and lively, fearless girl who run off into the woods to a land of empowering make-believe appeals to me in a very personal way. I want nothing more than to slip through the pages of this book and enter Terabithia for myself.

I hope I am not ruining the book for anyone when I tell you what happens next. Nobody ruined it for me, and I am so thankful for that gift, but you must know how the book ends. Leslie, the girl who brought such life to the novel, to her friend Jesse and to me as I read her story, swings on a rope attached to a tree across a small river, the only way into the make-believe of Terabithia. But it has been raining, and the river is high and strong and the rope is old and rotten. The rope breaks and Leslie falls, hits her head on a rock, and drowns in the high tide.

To say that I was devastated by the ending of this book is an incredible understatement, almost a lie in its inadequacy. I was destroyed. I locked myself in my room and cried, not for a few hours or an evening but for days. I cried at dinner with my family, cried holding my brother’s stuffed animals, cried in Mrs. Wright’s class at school, my head sunk onto my desk, sobbing, the other children watching in shock. But though I felt like I was being consumed by years of unspoken grief and sadness, I was simultaneously being healed of a long failure to admit my feelings to myself and to others. Now there was no way not to admit what was happening, what had happened, what it had meant. Through losing and grieving this beloved fictional character I was able to truly grieve my brother.

This, I think, has always been the magic of literature for me. A good story, a good book, enables me to make friends with characters and enter worlds of make-believe that otherwise would remain unknown and inaccessible. But at the same time, and more importantly, a good story teaches me a little bit more about what it means to be alive in this world, to love and to hate and to lose, to, to be quite corny, be human. Reading can be about a lot more than that, of course, but there’s always that element, and that’s what keeps me coming back again and again and again.

Happy birthday, brother. Love you.

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