And You and I
As I learn to live without Enzo, I contemplate the journey of his younger brother and what I owe him.
And you and I climb, crossing the shapes of the morning
And you and I reach over the sun for the river
And you and I climb, clearer towards the movement
And you and I called over valleys of endless seas
There is a small ledge outside our home, and it was there that I waited for him to arrive. Enzo had died a little over an hour before, but his younger brother Dino knew nothing about it. It would be up to me to tell him, and so I waited for the car bringing him to pull into our driveway. Looking back, I recall that I was still processing what I had seen and heard at the accident site only a few minutes earlier, so it was difficult for me to think. My mind was trying to comprehend what had just happened, and there was little time to prepare for Dino’s arrival. How does one tell a boy that his older brother, whom he loved and idolized, was just killed around the corner from his home? What words can possibly convey to a fourteen-year-old the magnitude of a loss that would now be a part of his entire life?
As I debated how to break the news, I looked up suddenly as his stepmom’s car turned into the driveway. A few seconds later, Dino stepped out, and I saw in his face a realization that something was terribly wrong. I asked him to sit with me a moment before going inside to see his mom. I took his hands in mine and told him that there had been a serious accident involving his brother. I saw worry in his face and tears form in his eyes.
“Is Enzo OK?” he asked me. “No,” I replied, “he is not.”
I paused for a moment to compose myself and to find the right words for my son. Dino is on the autism spectrum; though high functioning, his mind processes information differently in many ways, so I wanted to speak calmly to him and to let my words land as gently as they could.
“Dino,” I continued, “Enzo has been in an accident. The accident was very bad. Unfortunately, Enzo was hurt so much that he did not survive. My heart breaks to say this to you: our dear Enzo is gone.”
I stared at Dino without speaking, still holding his hands in mine, and saw pain cloud his eyes. He leaned forward, and I hugged him tightly in my arms. I could feel the weight of his head on my left shoulder as we held each other. After sitting in silence for some time, we spoke about the unfairness of what had happened that day, about how life can be unforgiving, and about the pain we would all have to endure in the coming days. I then told him that we needed to go inside and to be brave so the two of us could help everyone else get through what had happened to our family.
“You will have to be strong, especially for mom,” I told him, “and I know that you can be.” He nodded, and we walked together into a home that would never be the same.
In the next few days, Dino would go through the rituals of a sibling’s death: shopping for a black suit, discussing the funeral service, talking through what he should expect to feel, and — what turned out to be very painful for him — watching his family members deal with the loss. Throughout this time, as I watched and interacted with Dino, I came to know that his mind was processing the death of his brother differently from the rest of us. Enzo’s accident had hit us all like a wrecking ball, tearing us down with a violent and unstoppable force. Dino, however, accepted the loss in stages: first feeling guilt for being the last one to see him alive, then wishing that it could just be “Enzo tricking us” and that he would suddenly reappear before the funeral, and then, at last, accepting what had happened once the cremation had taken place.
Since then, each day I sense that Dino is one step closer to understanding the finality of his loss. As he processes Enzo’s death, I have witnessed a transformation in Dino perhaps unique to a child on the autism spectrum. A mental plasticity has developed — with a thoughtful perspective on life and death — and he seems to be adapting himself to life as an only child. It is as though he wants to be more to us now, sensing how much we have lost and wishing somehow to help us recover from the death. Throughout this evolution, there are moments of deep sorrow but also signs of the joy and optimism that define his essential nature. There are times when we discuss what he would say to Enzo, if his brother were to visit him, and what his brother would say to him, just as there are times that need no words. On Friday, in a lovely dusk, we walked the beach on Tybee Island, watching the tide wax as small seabirds skimmed the water’s surface. As the sun set in the distance, Dino and I strolled in silence until he looked at me and said that he wished his brother were with us. “Me too,” I said, as I placed my arm around him and kissed him on the head.
On the drive home to Maryland yesterday I looked often into the rear-view mirror and saw Dino and the space next to him where his brother would have sat. It was easy to imagine the conversations I would have overheard on the long trip home. There would have been the usual teasing and jokes between brothers who, deep down inside, love each other, as well as those stretches of peaceful silence in which I would look at my boys, my heart filled with love and pride, and feel grateful to be their father. Instead of those wonderful sounds and sights, all I saw in the mirror yesterday was a single boy, sitting alone, deprived of the brother and friend I had hoped would accompany him all his life. Was he thinking about Enzo, I wondered at times, as Dino stared into the distance. Was he, like me, glancing out of the corner of his eye at the empty space that marked his brother’s absence from a trip we had planned in a moment that belongs to a lifetime we shall never recover.
Like Dino, I found myself gazing out of the window at the endless line of cars moving beside us, sometimes catching a glimpse of two boys sitting in a backseat. At those moments, I looked back at my solitary son and was overcome with a sharp pain, seeing the child who remained and the specter of the one who had departed. I was grateful and broken-hearted, filled equally with the same immense love and sorrow that must be borne by every parent who loses a child and carries on for the sake of the children who remain. So great are these feelings that there are those who find it difficult to cope with love and sorrow at the same time, either devoting themselves to the needs of the children who live or engulfing themselves in the memories of the child who is gone. I can sympathize with parents who pursue either of these outcomes, yet I try to continue mourning for the son I lost ten weeks ago and rejoicing in the life of the boy whose future deserves its own hopes and dreams. It is not an easy task to balance both worlds, but I refuse to have lost two sons on the same day.
On Tuesday, the 16th of August, Dino will turn fifteen. As with many other children born in mid-summer, a birthday with friends will have to wait until vacations are complete and school is back in session. For now, his family will gather round him and find the strength to celebrate his life and its intrinsic promise. For a moment, I shall put aside my grief. His mother will light fifteen little candles and ask him to make a wish. Dino will smile and tease us about not knowing his secret. As he blows out the flickering lights, I shall applaud and pledge my undying love and support. Inside of me, I know the pain will run deep. But it will also run in secret, for on that day the son who remains deserves only my joy at his presence and my gratitude for his existence.