Girl Talk: My Brother Died Before I Was Born

My parents had been married for five years when they had their first child, a boy named Nathan. It was the fall of 1974 and he was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a congenital bone disease you may have heard referred to as “Brittle Bone Disease.”

My mother was told she should institutionalize her baby, but instead my parents brought him home and learned how to care for him. I can’t imagine all that they must have gone through – they were 26 years old with a baby who was critically ill. There are pictures of Nathan in front of the Christmas tree in his bouncy seat, looking pretty happy, with splints on his arms. He lived to be eight months old and then, in June 1975, on Friday the 13th, Nathan died.

The parallels between my life and Nathan’s diverged because I flourished where he could not. I don’t remember the time when I learned about him, because as sure as I was there, part of him was there too.

That fall my mother got pregnant with me and was told there was a 50 percent chance I would also have O.I. She spent many months convinced something bad would happen. This was the era before amniocentesis and ultrasounds, so there was no checking in on me; all they could do was wait to see how I would turn out. In July 1976, I was born, healthy, with my bones intact. My baby book lists the first words said when I was born; my mom said, “Oh, honey, is she alright?” and my dad replied, “She looks just like Nathan.”

For the first year of my life, my parents held their breath. I did everything I was supposed to do and never broke a bone. (I’ve still never had a broken bone or a cavity in my life — my skeleton is apparently strong.) On my first birthday they had a big party and from the pictures it seems as if everyone we knew at the time was there to celebrate. As my mom says, “If you made it to one, I knew you would be OK.”

From there, the parallels between my life and Nathan’s diverged because I flourished where he could not. I don’t remember the time when I learned about him, because as sure as I was there, part of him was there too. Two years later, my parents separated. Like many other families, I think more than anything else it was the death of a child that they couldn’t overcome.

Growing up with my parents meant I grew up with many wonderful things. I grew up understanding that life has value — that it’s fragile and worth taking care of. The sadness from the death of the brother I never met didn’t overshadow my childhood, but every so often there was an undercurrent of loss, a silhouette looming in the background.

But what I learned the most from being a part of my family is that where there is sadness, there can be happiness too. The grief is there, but so is the joy. When my grandmother died unexpectedly a few years ago, of course we cried, but we also laughed. So loudly that at times that I thought the funeral director might kick us out. You have to find the happiness inside the saddest moments – even when you think you can’t. Maybe that is when it matters the most. The pain of what you’ve lost can never be as valuable as the memories of what you’ve had, no matter how long or short you had it for.

Growing up in the shadow of a loss makes you realize that life never stops and for everyone who leaves, others are left behind. We have to keep moving forward through the darkness — and leave enough space for the light to shine in.