I am not my family’s narrator. I don’t house their voices somewhere in my larynx. I cannot speak for them. My family is like everyone else’s: raucous and dysfunctional. We are an assembly of flawed beings sewn together with double helix thread. My family is a mess, and we love each other. I tell people I have four siblings. Two brothers, two sisters, but that isn’t entirely true. I also have a brother who is not alive.
Chromosomes are how biology gambles. Tom, my big brother, and I inherited a crop of viable genes. So did my younger siblings Liam, Bridget, and Kate. But, Matthew, who came before the younger three, didn’t. Matthew had anencephaly. The US National Library of Medicine describes Anencephaly as “a condition that prevents the normal development of the brain and the bones of the skull. This condition results when a structure called the neural tube fails to close during the first few weeks of embryonic development.” The cerebrum and cerebellum are missing with this defect. Babies with anencephaly are born blind, deaf, and unable to feel pain. The US National Library of Medicine also states, “Because these nervous system abnormalities are so severe, almost all babies with anencephaly die before birth or within a few hours or days after birth”.
Matthew, you would be twenty-three this year. If I had been a boy, I would’ve had your name. If you had been the first daughter, you would’ve had mine. Ours are the only monikers Mom and Dad didn’t debate over. Did you know that? We are both MM. Mirrors, twin initials. We are both Geminis which literally means the twins. I know I’m making correlations where they don’t exist. You are all becomings that never had a chance to arrive. Your wake is a sea of unanswered askings. Is there a heaven up there where things were finally fair to you? Do you know that we love you? Did you watch when we celebrated your birthday and brought flowers to your grave? I hope you know that you are always ours, that the one day you were here was enough for us to call you family forever. Each of our hearts is a separate zip code you can call your own. We are your seven hometowns on earth. When we talk about you, those are the postcards we send beyond the barrier between us.
It is a sin of the arrogant to believe your grief dwarfs all others. To survive is to mourn those who did not. There’s an awkward grief in Matthew’s memory. He was a known loss. That is to say my parents knew he would not survive and chose to continue until he was ready to leave. I only know my brother as a memory. He is the stuffed elephant Tom picked out for his casket and the white tiger I chose to be his friend in the afterlife. I don’t know what his voice would’ve sounded like, but I know they played “baby of mine” from Dumbo at his funeral. I’m glad my memories do not exist beyond that point. Matthew passed sixteen days after my second birthday. I cannot describe my parent’s agony over those months to you because I don’t remember it. Childhood shielded me from consciousness. I do not mourn my brother like I would if I lost Tom or Liam. But Matthew is still my brother. There is a legal certificate signifying his existence– that he was here and he was ours. He is ours.
There’s no graceful way to mention your dead brother in conversation. The words come out clumsy and terse. There’s the immediate regret that follows such an admission, and then, I assuage it by reassuring everyone how fine we are. I’ve quit that strategy. I quit it because people minimized the loss. “Well, at least he wasn’t actually alive” “at least he wasn’t an actual person” “you don’t seem that affected by it” Please excuse my language here, but fuck you. Your discomfort is a pitiful excuse for insensitive words. People who minimize grief are those afraid to sit with it and call it by name.
My mother, on the other hand, deserves an Olympic gold medal in grief. Mama McGrath is the Simone Biles of getting over death. What I mean is that she processes loss in an emotionally healthy way. I observed her through my grandmother’s passing, relatives dying, miscarriages, and other tragedies. She doesn’t deny her pain. Learning to reorient your life in the absence of someone so dear is excruciating. We are meant to mourn and shriek and curse the selfish God who wouldn’t let us keep them. But my mother understands that memories are joy too. What a blessing it was to witness my grandmother’s titan spirit firsthand! And how special it is, despite these miscarriages, to have multiple healthy children wracking her peace and quiet. Death is just as complex as life. We want it to be all one thing and then over. My mom rides the waves of loss, never fearful of the tides because she is the shore– she will remain and it will be easier to remain if she does not try to be the moon through that process. Her purpose is to experience, not control.
This blog exists because of Matthew. His birthday is June 14th. Every year, I do something that reminds me how alive I am, that I was the undeserving beneficiary of viable genes when it could’ve gone some other way. It would have been his twentieth birthday when I began this blog. I told my mom this fact recently. She cried. I shared my creative and vulnerable parts in such a public way because I want to know that my words are somewhere in the world more than they are in my head. I know I can write, and if I can make the world a better place while I am here, I must do that. My writing is the ongoing eulogy I deliver for my brother. My good deeds are Matthew’s signature. His legacy echoes in my small gestures. I don’t think about him every day, but I never want to forget him either. Reader, I don’t know that there’s a heaven soaring above us, but I’d like to think that there is. I hope that’s where everyone’s Matthews go– a celestial haven far away from harm. Babies affected by anencephaly (like Matthew) are unable to feel pain. I hope that’s true in the afterlife too. Whether it’s Heaven or Valhalla or the Elysian Fields, I hope nothing hurts, and you are safe.