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Our mother had a secret that she kept for 63 years. She kept it through two marriages - the divorce of one and death of another. She kept it through a ten-year abusive relationship. She kept it from seven children with whom she was extremely close. She kept it through her first bout of kidney failure. She would have kept it forever were it not for an email received by my sister Donna eight years ago. This is the story of her secret.
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The last of the speakers finished and Pastor Peterson asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to contribute. “Anyone? Anyone at all?” he asked. I had been sitting there, barely hearing the words spoken as I thought of everything that had happened in the last five years. I knew I needed to represent the family, but I just didn’t know where to start. No story is ever easy, is it? In its relative simplicity, somehow this one is more complex than most. I didn’t feel up to the task, but in the end, I couldn’t let Jim down. I needed to do something to validate him, his existence. There were only two of us here, so I needed to speak for us all.
My sister Barbara looked at me in astonishment as I stood up from the pew and slowly made my way to the podium in front of the casket. I stooped to touch my niece Kim’s knee as I passed her in the front row. I don’t think I had any idea what I was doing. I just knew I had to do something.
I paused a few seconds to get my bearings. So many people. Many had no idea who I was, and in hindsight I realize I should have explained. Instead I looked out over the church and felt a hush come over the crowd. Perhaps they were as surprised as I was. I took a deep breathe and began.
“I have no idea what I’m going to say here. As I look around at the people in this room, I cannot believe five years ago I knew nothing of your existence. If someone asked me how many siblings I had I would have said what I always say – four brothers and two sisters. But that is not true. I have five brothers and two sisters.
I shudder when I think how close I came to never knowing my brother Jim and my beautiful nieces and their families. What a terrible waste that we weren’t able to share our lives and grow up together. But I am truly grateful that they reached out to find us, and that they welcomed us – not with resentment and bitterness which might have been only natural under the circumstances – but with warmth and acceptance and love.
I remember when I first met my brother Jim. He was walking toward me and my sister – our sister – Donna, at the airport. He carried two perfect white roses in his hands. Donna grabbed my arm and said “Oh my God. He looks more like Mom than any of us!” And he did. I could have picked him out of a crowd.
Jim was so much like Mom it is uncanny. For me, it just doesn’t seem possible he never knew her. I know this is a small thing, but Jim’s handwriting was identical to moms, and he even put little hallmark seals on the backs of envelopes like she always did. The first time he sent me a letter, I thought to myself ‘What did Mom send me?’ It was jolting to realize it wasn’t from her.
So many of Jim’s characteristics were like Mom – being a night owl, not getting going until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, being well spoken and apparently outgoing but internally very nervous and at times somewhat of a shut-in. They shared many traits. You may not believe this, but in some ways, it was more Mom's loss than Jim's that they were not together.
It’s hard to understand why Jim wasn’t with mom, isn’t it? It’s hard for us too. She was such a loving person, but sometimes life is so terribly complicated. It would be too difficult to try to explain here. Over time I believe we have helped Jim’s girls to better understand this. I can only imagine how cheated Jim felt most of his life. I hope we were able to help ease that feeling in some small way during the last few years.”
I looked over at my nieces Kim, Lynette and Melanie.
“I can tell you unequivocally mom would have loved her granddaughters, just as you girls would have loved your grandmother. She was witty, laughed easily and was truly the most tolerant woman I have ever known. At an age when most women would have had difficulty accepting others, she was able to completely embrace all walks of life, never batting an eyelash at different lifestyles, never pronouncing judgment on anyone who felt or looked or behaved differently than she. She had tremendous compassion and empathy. She was humbled by mistakes she had made in her life, and understood when others made missteps.
We lost Mom a scant two days before we lost Jim. In the last seven or eight weeks of her life Mom kept asking about a baby boy. Sometimes she thought her pillow was the baby, and she was so concerned about him. Was he hungry? Was he cold? Did he need to be changed? We believe that baby boy she was so worried about was Jim.
If it is possible, they are together now. Now, finally, Mom is free to accept her son.” My voice broke. But I needed to say this final line that came out in a whisper. “And we gladly share her with him.”