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  • Jan Flynn

The Loss We’re Not Prepared For

When An Adult Sibling DiesJ

My husband and I sit before a crackling fire in the lobby of the old Mendocino Hotel. Outside, mist blurs the headlands as it drifts into shore and then draws out again, as though the ocean is taking a long, deep breath. It’s the last night of our leisurely road trip home from visiting family in Idaho.

We’ve just learned that my husband’s brother has been hospitalized, again. After struggling for over thirteen years with COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his battle for breath is at last winding down. The doctor, with a compassionate clarity too rare in such instances, has told the family that death is near.

It’s late, the road from Mendocino to the hospital eighty-five miles south is winding and treacherous, and we are too far away to arrive in time under the most hopeful of circumstances. My husband has said his final goodbyes into a phone held up to his unconscious brother’s ear. There is nothing for us to do now but sit here amidst dining vacationers and some of the most beautiful scenery on earth as we keep a vigil so discordant with our surroundings.

In the morning we learn that he’s gone. We drive homeward, the road skirting cliffs that plunge toward surf that rolls and crashes in a palette of pewter and turquoise and cream. Further on the highway winds through old growth forest, coastal redwoods rising above us with the solemnity of cathedral arches. We stop at times and breath in the sun-warmed air, bereft of words.

My husband and I are no longer young, far from it, but we are each the youngest of our families. Our parents died years ago; we’ve grown accustomed to their absence. But our siblings — most of them ten or more years older than we are — have always been there, providing the sturdy if not always comfortable webbing that has supported our identities all of our lives.

How is it we failed to realize they would not always be there, underpinning us, attesting to our shared history, giving our lives shape? Now this brother is gone, and my two sisters are beset with neurological diseases, and the webbing is unraveling. My husband and I hold each other carefully through the days that follow, with a new understanding of our fragility.

To lose an adult sibling is to feel your foundations being swept away underneath you, like pilings being eroded by the surf. It means an erasure of your personal history, the stories and shared experiences you thought were chiseled in stone being worn away by time and tide.

And, even more than the death of our parents — a passage which, however sad, we knew was inevitable — the loss of older siblings leaves us vulnerable, unsheltered, exposed to the chill of mortality in a way we have never been before.

It seems we should have seen this coming. How surprising that we did not.

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