Posted by: Dan | April 24, 2016

Once Were Children: A Poem on the Occasion of my Oldest Brother’s 40th Birthday


I saw a picture of you today when you were a child.  You had a gentle smile.  You look shy and sweet and tender – like the kind of kid who wouldn’t say a word if he was abused.  And you didn’t.  None of us did.  But for you abuse has just steadily been overshadowed by chronic pain, long-term illness, and dis-ease.  Yet, for the most part, you still don’t say a word.

(I’ve been thinking how strange it is that I used to describe our childhood as “sheltered.”  I think the term “deliberately isolated” might better capture what was going on.  It wasn’t that our parents were trying to protect us from the evil out there in the world – it’s that our dad didn’t want others to know the evil we experienced at home.)


I saw a picture of you today when you were a baby.  You are peering over the edge of an old-school baby stroller – that kind that you see and think maybe it’s actually called a pram.  You remind me of my own babies and I think, hey, once upon a time you, too, were brand new.  Once upon a time you, too, were thrown into a world not of your choosing.  Once upon a time you were innocent and, before you had a chance to be anything else, you were beaten and you were altered so that pain would forever be a part of your life… and you’ve just been finding your way from there.  As best you can, however you can, finding your way from there.

We were all of us innocent, once upon a time.  We were all of us longing to love and be loved.  We were all of us full of wonder – but for you and me and our other brothers, our wonder all too quickly turned to fear.  Instead of embracing the world into which we had been thrown we retreated into ourselves – we looked for escape in books or music or computer games or working late shifts at jobs when we were young just in order to be away from our house.  Because the world wasn’t full of wonder for us.  It was a place that only appeared to be safe but where violence could erupt at any time for no perceptible reason.


I saw a picture of you today when you were a young man.  You still looked happy then.  Like there was still a joy and sense of adventure inside of you.   Perhaps even something to look forward to in life.  You are beautiful.  Your smile is still gentle and I can connect the shy and sweet and tender boy I remember with this young man in the picture.

Forty isn’t old but it isn’t young either (they say age is just a number… but the “they” who say that are always old).  Life has taken you and I places where we never wanted to go.  Death has been a constant companion for both of us and some days, when the sorrow and loss and heartbreak and unfulfilled dreams and physical pain become a little more intense than their usual intensities, Death feels more like an old friend than an old enemy.  I don’t ever remember praying for anyone else to die but, back when I used to pray (the kind of prayers one writes in one’s mind like letters to God), I prayed that for you.  Mostly though, over the years, I have longed to hold you in my arms and cover your face with kisses and love you so much and so strongly that it takes your pain away.  I know your wife feels the same way.


I saw a picture of you today as a father.  Your sons have gentle smiles.  They look shy and sweet and tender.  They look hilarious and silly and delighted to be with their dad.  As for me, what have I learned in life?  That being a loving father is the greatest thing I will ever do – and even though we are all smaller than grains of sand on the beach, and even though our lives pass faster than the blink of an eye, and even though millions came before us and millions will come after us and soon we will all disappear just like when we never were – even in light of all of this, being a loving father is no small thing.  I suspect we all mean less than nothing, perhaps some days you agree with me, but I’m not convinced meaning has anything to do with love.  Loving is good, even if goodness doesn’t exist.  And when your children climb up into your lap because they feel sad or sick or hurt themselves playing (kids are crazy) and you wrap your arms around them and I see them nuzzle into you that, too, is good.  It is very good.

I don’t remember our dad showing us that kind of affection.  I only remember once when I was home sick in bed and he came to ask me how I was feeling and put his hand on my forehead.  When I heard him coming up the stairs, I was so scared that he was going to accuse me of faking sick and punish me that I was completely taken by surprise by this one small gestures of affection and I couldn’t speak because I was on the verge of tears (and I didn’t want him to “give me something to cry about”).  And I remember another time after your first surgery, even saying that phrase “your first surgery” is appalling, but I remember another time after your first surgery when you were at our parents house and you were curled up in pain on their bathroom floor and you had vomited and your abdominal incision had ripped open and I could see inside your body and our dad came in and looked at you with something I understood to be disgust and our dad said “either go back to bed or go back to the hospital but don’t just lie there on the bathroom floor” and then our dad turned and left the room and didn’t say anything else or offer any help as I carried you out to the van and some days when I remember this I still get the urge to go to his house and ring the doorbell and then kick his teeth in.

Yes, being a loving father is no small thing.  And it is no small thing that you hold your children in your arms when they aren’t feeling well and it is no small thing that they seek out your arms at those times.


I saw a picture of you today when you were married.  We all still look like puppies then – youthful faces and flat stomachs and smiles that look like that came more easily.  I think both you and your wife were hesitant to get into a relationship at first because you had both been hurt in the past.  Being rejected by someone you love, and who you think loves you, is a strange and devastating and alienating experience.  In some ways, it is more traumatic than death for, while death is tragic, in part, because you are forever separated from someone you love, in death the separation is (usually) not a choice.  Part of what is so hard about rejection is that a person is choosing to reject you and choosing to live forever separated from you.  But as you and your wife fell in love, I think you felt safe loving and being loved by each other.  That, too, is no small thing.  As you continue to recover from your second surgery, and continue coming to grips with the recognition that the surgery did not heal you as much as we all hoped, I hope you and your wife will continue to communicate to each other that the relationship you have is a safe place to love and be loved.  Pain tends to isolate us and you both have experienced a lot of pain in recent years.  Isolation, in turn, when experienced by someone in a relationship can be experienced by the other person in that relationship as rejection.  I hope you both continue to find ways to say, “I am not rejecting you.  I love you.  I love being loved by you.  We can get through this together.”

Once we were children.  Now we are not.  Once we were young.  Now we are not.  But we can still be kind, we can still be gentle, we can still be sweet, and tender, and shy, and hilarious and silly.  Only now, in the last few years, have I been recovering the sense of wonder that was stolen from us and replaced with fear when we were kids.  I don’t know how much pain will permit you to recover that wonder yourself, but I see it coming through sometimes when you are with your family.

I love you, Josh.  For you today my heart is full of joy and sorrow, love and longing, and sometimes in dreams that carry us well beyond hope and hopelessness, I walk hand-in-hand with you in a place that feels like peace.



  1. I’m mostly focused on recovering the flat stomach. But a sense of wonder sounds nice too.

    • Dan did say, flat stomachs ‘like puppies’, so I think there’s a bit of leeway there…

  2. […] found Austerlitz to be an extremely well-composed and well-written book.  It inspired me to write the poem that I did for my brother on his 40th birthday.  Very rarely do I star passages in novels anymore, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: