by Maria L. Evans
O God, whose beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them: Give us grace to entrust N. to your never-failing care and love, and bring us all to your heavenly kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
—Page 494, Book of Common Prayer
The most dynamic-altering event in my family during my lifetime was the November day in 1960 that a bullet from my eleven-year-old uncle Richard’s .22 rifle accidentally went through his brain, ripping through both lateral ventricles and starting the spiral of events that ended his life the next day. My family would never be the same after that.
I was eight months old when Richard died. I have absolutely no memory of him, but all during my growing up years, I can’t remember a time that Richard was not the elephant in the room. I only know what I was told, and I was told very little. I knew of just one picture of him in plain view in the house—in my grandparents’ bedroom—and the few pictures in the family albums that were accessible to me, when I saw them and commented, were generally met by a quick turning of the page and a terse, “Yes, that was Richard.” I knew that each of my grandparents and my mother felt in some way that Richard’s death was “their fault”—shouldn’t have bought him the gun… shouldn’t have bought him the bullets… should have let him go to the movies with me like he wanted that day… shouldn’t have let him go squirrel hunting with an only slightly older boy. I learned way too early in life that sometimes, really bad things happen to children. I learned to worry about things over which I had no control. I remember having a 104-degree fever during one of my various childhood illnesses, and my primary thought was not that I would die, but that my family could not handle my dying on top of Richard’s death. Six-year-olds don’t usually think like that.
My grandparents’ bedroom also contained a drawer full of toys and tchotchkes in the chest of drawers that I once discovered inadvertently, which was quickly slammed shut. I was told never to open that drawer again. Yet the year I desperately wished for one of those little tin gas stations with the cars and the moving lube rack and the garage doors that really went up and down, I was given a marvelous one—but it was suspiciously “dated-looking.” The cars looked more like 1950s cars, not 1960s ones. I realized I was not given my own gas station play set—I was given Richard’s. I also knew I dared not say I knew that fact.
The reality was that Richard loomed large in our house all during my growing up years, but I really knew next to nothing about him. I had no idea what his favorite food was, or his favorite color, and I’m not even sure what color his eyes were. What little I’d learned, I learned from listening carefully, because I learned very early on not to ask—asking upset my mom and my grandparents too much. I learned I was always bumping into Richard somehow, when I said or did some childlike antic, and what I thought would be funny to my family, made tears well up in their eyes. These accidental collisions were often met with “Don’t do that…that’s enough.”
All these years later, I still know very little. When my grandmother was a few weeks from her own death, she opened up a little—just a little. She told me that my birth was an exciting thing for him. Evidently a favorite activity of his was to wait till all the adults were napping, and put me in his Radio Flyer wagon and tool me around the neighborhood to show me to people. She told me that when he died, I had just started talking a little, and I called him “Gee Gee.” She told me that for days after his death, I would crawl around the house looking for him, going, “Gee Gee? Gee Gee?” and it was almost too much to bear.
She wrinkled up her face and said, “You know, I wouldn’t say you were just like him, but as you grew up, you were enough like him that it scared us. Your grandpa and I used to worry that somehow we’d done something to you. When you started being obviously more attached to cars and tools and Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs and not to dolls, we worried we’d made you the way you turned out, by accident—that somehow we did this to you.” I assured her that no one had done anything, I was pretty sure I was hard-wired to be me.
Richard loomed large in my mind, more than usual, during 2014, because 2014 would have been his 65th birthday. I would try and try to wrap my head around it, but I couldn’t, because in my mind, he’s eternally eleven years old. I have no idea what kind of man he would have become. I don’t know if we would have become close, more like siblings instead of uncle and niece, or whether we would have drifted apart. Of course, I want to believe the former, but I can never discount the latter, and I’ll never know anyway. I still listen for clues about his life, but I’m running out of people who give them out. Instead, I’ve moved more to being deeply thankful for the good things I learned in this awful situation—things like learning to listen for clues in people’s lives when asking is out of the question, and a compassion about the power of grief in people’s lives that only comes from riding the currents of another’s sorrow.
The story of the loss of this beautiful boy in our family reminds me that part of the discomfort of the Jesus story is that two thousand years later, every year when Lent and the story of the Passion roll around to their place in the liturgical calendar, we are collectively trying to make sense of someone else’s grief. It’s difficult to learn to let go of any desire to assign blame, or blame ourselves. If we don’t, we simply smother in the silence and live within the restrictive confines of our own anxieties and fears. It’s why we crave the Resurrection, and why we ache for epiphanies.
As difficult as grief is, it forms us—for better or worse. Can we listen and remain present in our own grief stories enough to understand where Jesus calls us to be present in a broken, hurting world?
Maria L. Evans is a surgical pathologist in Kirksville, Missouri, a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church, and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds a moment to write on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.