I used to have another brother. He was a year or two younger. I remember him as chubby and happy, always smiling. We shared the same mother but different fathers. And some time after our mother died, his father came and took him away.
I remember the day clearly. It was a Sunday morning, and we were playing and fighting like children do. My mother may have been dead for weeks or months, I can’t remember. What I recall is that we were young enough to have rediscovered a way to laughter. I was eight and he would have been about six and we were laughing and fighting that Sunday morning, just before he was taken.
When his father showed up, I initially thought nothing of it. Or perhaps I was a bit jealous as mine rarely ever came by. The father arrived suddenly and simply walked into the house. He picked up Michael and walked out with him. It all happened so quickly, so easily, that it was a moment or two before we all realized what had just occurred. I remember watching them walk away, unhurriedly, up the street. I did not cry. I didn’t understand what had just occurred to cry.
My sister went to the police. I don’t remember them coming to the house. But I do remember that they had said that the father had had every right to take his son. We, the siblings, had no say in the matter. And my mother was already dead so she had no say either.
I remember the feeling of emptiness. It felt like a dull ache. I had not even felt this way after my mother died. I had felt sad but I wasn’t sure if my feelings were my own or if they had been the result of being surrounded by so many sobbing adults. My mother had been much loved.
Losing Michael was different. It felt like there was a hole where my heart used to be, like a part of me was missing. Although he continued to live in the same village, we rarely ever saw him. He was not allowed to speak to us; he was never allowed to visit. His new mother was childless; her husband had had an affair with my mother. He gave his wife a son. And I lost a brother.
Years later I heard that Michael’s father had died and that Michael had moved to New York. And one evening, during my first year at college, he called me. He said that he was calling from a phone booth in Brooklyn. He was homeless. He didn’t have a phone. He had found work in a factory and sometimes slept there. He wanted my help. I am a student I said, I have no money. I don’t know what I can do to help. He called a few more times, always wanting help. I felt helpless, confused, overwhelmed. I live in the dorms I said, they won’t let you live here. Then he stopped calling. I called the telephone booth for months but no one ever answered. And like that Michael was gone again.
For years I could not bring myself to read Judith Viorst’s “Necessary Losses”. I wasn’t ready to face her truths. Viorst argued that the loss of the mother-child connection sets the foundation for all of the other losses we will experience in life. She said that the process of learning how to let go of people, emotions, and situations is a necessary component of the development of a solid self-identity. Loss is a part of growing, from childhood to old age. Loss prepares us eventually for death. Loss is the price we pay for the privilege of being alive.
I still believe that some losses – or perhaps just the manner of their transaction – are completely unnecessary. I do not understand the treatment of a child as a piece of property, to be claimed at will by the sperm donor. I do not understand the wrenching away of a child from the only family he knows. Or maybe I am just haunted by guilt, by a voice reaching out to me from the cold streets of New York, and my inability to find way to stay connected.