Today is Katie’s birthday. Happy happy birthday, Katie. In our 20’s, I once sent you the same birthday card two years in a row, which caused uproarious laughter, but as I have not sent you a birthday card in quite a few years, this year, I give you, not a card but my words of love.
Life is beautiful. And we hope that it’s long. But, with Katie’s sudden passing, we had a caustic reminder that life is not always as long as we would like it to be, and we utterly have no idea how long we have. It has been three weeks since my eldest sister passed away. I can’t believe those words, even as I type them, even as I saw her in the hospital, even as I attended her celebration of life. Those words, “Katie has passed away,” still seem to be lies that will be disproved and I will be embarrassed for their dereliction.
As we gathered for Katie’s passing, our family laughed. A lot. And irreverently. Our currency is comedy. Our love is our combined sense of humor. Katie would not only have laughed the loudest, she would have made sure we all had food and places to rest our heads. She was a caretaker.
As a teenager, when I rejected my Brady-kid-ness, the one person who kept me in line and made me BE a Brady kid was Katie. She was often a mom-figure when we were kids, and then, when she was a young mom, I used to come home (which was defined as her house) from college (and there I was for 7 years) and she would make connections with family, with community. Funny recollection: she was a young, married mom. I was a young, confused college student. On weekend nights, we would go out to the college bars in the little town of Bethlehem. She was always cuter and always mistaken for being younger than me (even after three kids!) and so we would play a game: I would wear her wedding ring, and we would see who would get hit on more. Our unscientific explorations at dumps on the South Side, like the Tally Ho, yielded the results that an unmarried, cuter woman got fewer advances than a “married” less cute woman. The following day, we would howl about how silly men can be.It was all good fun.
As our siblings arrived from all over the US, driving and flying to be there in time to celebrate her raucous life, I could only think about how grateful I am for these people, that after all the pain, after all the challenges, when we have to come together, we are filled with love.
Our siblings define us. They are the walls of the metaphorical rooms of our childhood; they create the boundaries of who we are and who we aren’t, and perhaps who we can potentially be.
–I can’t be the athletic/troublemaking/smart one; that role is taken.
–I need to be cool and collected; my sister is the stressed out one.
–I want (insert wanted thing or feeling here) but can’t have it because a sibling needs it more.
You know the drill. How many messages in life can you trace to the definition of self given to you by your siblings?
As for my siblings, there are eight of us. Four boys and four girls. (And, yes, our last name is Brady. Cue the music.) You might know this about me already, because the one thing everyone knows about me (and each of my siblings) is that I am one of eight siblings. I am number 5 (read Doris Lessing, the 5th Child and be very, very afraid of the 5th Child), I am the oldest of the bottom four. However you slice it, my identity has always been “one of eight kids.” It’s a party trick, it’s a conversation starter, it’s a way for people to see who I am and why I am.
Being in a large family means learning to live with an often baffling duality: the need to subjugate yourself and your needs to the group coupled with an intense need to draw attention to yourself as an individual, defined separately from the group.
Many times I’ve thought about what it means to be a Brady kid. In fact, most of my life was me trying to *not* be a Brady kid. In general, though, I’m fairly obstinate and have never wanted to belong to a club that would have me as a member.
Reflecting on the time we just had together, I realized that, no matter how tumultuous our beginnings were, we are all defined very clearly.
- Show up. All seven siblings came together again to be there for Katie’s family and each other.
- Do their jobs. I am so grateful for my siblings who each did their jobs: made a beautiful slideshow, procured food, supported our parents, hosted family, found photos, drove each other to the airport, hugged one another and each others’ friends. On and on, we did our jobs.
- Have amazing friends who are like family. Every sibling had friends who showed up and worked as hard as (or harder than!) a Brady kid. With all of our siblings, we have managed to create sibling-like relationships with people who willingly step in and step up.
- Love each other. We are not an affectionate bunch (see stoic Irish heritage), but I received some of the most loving hugs and affection from my siblings when we gathered to celebrate Katie. Thank you.
- Hold each other accountable. There is now a family conversation about high blood pressure, regular exercise, and smoking. I love these people and, regardless of the love, we don’t want another funeral any time soon!
- Love each others’ kids as if they are their own.
- Forgive freely and generously, without reservation.
For all of this, I thank our Mom and Dad. They had a complicated parenthood, which was located squarely in the middle of the 70’s benign neglect era (interesting question: how different would they be as parents today?). We had a boisterous and sometimes chaotic childhood, but if all those roads lead to the love that we all expressed and felt for Katie this weekend, then our parents did a pretty bang-up job. I can only hope to impart the same love of family and community to my two kids that my parents managed to give to eight of us.
Life is complicated, and over the years Katie and I grew apart. As it turns out, Katie had a few strained relationships in her life. However, Katie also had an incredible knack for bringing people together, for bypassing transgressions and being in the moment in the most loving way. You may not have seen Katie for several years, but she would treat you as if a moment hadn’t passed. All complications aside, she loved deeply, and she loved truly.
Katie, we love you and we will always miss you. My heart will break every time I introduce myself as one of eight kids, knowing that there is now an asterisk. Yes, I’m one of eight, but now there are seven and life will never be the same.
Mom, Dad, Siblings, Katie’s family, and dear, dear friends: thank you. Thank you for sending Katie’s soul off to its next adventure. Whatever that adventure is, her soul can hold the love and forgiveness and laughter and caring that her passing brought.
If Katie’s passing teaches us anything, it is to love fiercely and love without judgment. Even when it gets complicated. Now I have a few long delayed phone calls to make to tell some people that I love them!
And, Katie, it’s been a few years since I sent you a card, so here’s a video postcard to say Happy Birthday. And I love you.