The numbers of plates on our dinner table always seem to be changing. At first it was four-me, my mom, dad, and brother, but that’s a time I hardly remember because I was so young. Then it became three, when my parents divorced. I was a little relieved when they split up, since they were constantly fighting, but the missing plate made me sad that they couldn’t work it out.
Later, it became two plates, when my brother died. “There should be three plates here,” I thought fiercely every time I had to set the table for dinner. Sometimes I would take out three plates, not thinking, and then remember that my brother died. That realization always made me want to smash every plate we had. I was so angry at the meaninglessness of his death, how much pain we had suffered, and how much pain we were still in. We had to carry on like everything was okay. I’d set out the plates just like I always had.
And now, as I had wished for years, there are three plates yet again. Me, my mom, and my stepdad.
I was eleven when my nine year old brother died from a yearlong battle with cancer. During that year, he lost a lot of mobility. When he couldn’t swallow, there was horror when I saw tubes sticking out of him like some kind of machine. When he was well enough to come home from the hospital, he went to physical therapy. Babies are supposed to learn to walk, I wanted to scream, not nine year old boys! It was incredibly painful to see him struggle to make the movements we take for granted like kicking a soccer ball or climbing stairs.
Finally, the physical therapy started working and for a few months he could walk again. It was a wild celebration when my brother shakily relearned how to ride a bike. He was soon well enough to participate in tae kwon do, his hobby and passion. A few months before he died, he actually won first place in a competition. When I saw the judges place the gold medal around his neck, I was in disbelief. I cried and felt that I would burst with pride. I wanted to cheer “that’s my brother!” Winning that competition was amazing, but the real victory was one only my family could truly understand.
Ultimately though, through all of the treatments and therapies, victories and milestones, my brother’s death was inevitable. We let the cancer run its course. I thought there was nothing good that could come out of it, that his death was a mistake. I was so angry that such an innocent child with so much promise had to be taken, and that it was my family that had to experience the loss. Before he was diagnosed, I was naïve enough to think that tragedies like this didn’t happen to us, they only happened to other people. Now I knew better. It’s something no eleven year old should have to learn.
To my surprise, in the two-plate years that followed, a magical thing happened: my mother found healing and fell in love. The first time, it was with my brother’s physical therapist, of all people! He made us laugh so hard, tears ran down our faces every night he was over. He was incredibly goofy, and wasn’t afraid to be silly and loud, even in public. When we went out to eat Chinese food with him he’d always stick the chopsticks in his gums and pretend to be a walrus…hilarious sound effects included. Sure, it was a little embarrassing, even when he just did those antics at home, but I found myself smiling over getting out three plates again. When he was in the house, I knew there wouldn’t be sadness and silence that night. I loved him for the gift of laughter, and the permission he gave us to be crazy instead of silent, which it always was without him.
He and my mom dated for a year or so, but eventually broke up. Two-plate nights once again, I sighed. It wasn’t all lost though, since they still kept in touch, and were great friends. Eight years after we met him in that therapy office, he still comes to birthday dinners and family events.
Later, my mom and my brother’s karate teacher were an item! I was 14 by this time so I had gained a bit of perspective, and I was amazed at how my brother kept creeping back into our lives to deliver love and remind us that if he hadn’t lived and died, none of this would have happened. There were, of course, growing pains and shifting experiences as the karate teacher moved in with us. But for the most part, it was a pretty cool time for us all. We met his kids, and went camping with them and the rest of his family, and I thought about how I never would have met them if my brother hadn’t died. Even though most would see the introduction to this new family and life as something catalyzed by my stepdad, I always trace it back to my brother, and always will. He gave us the gift of renewal, the gift of hope.
I see now that my brother’s death, or anyone’s death for that matter, is not a mistake. Death is not a door slammed shut, but a gateway that opens to people and a life you never would have imagined possible. I still miss and love my brother like crazy, I still wish he was here and I always will.
There are many lessons I have learned over my 7 years of grief and healing. I’ve learned that not all change is bad, and that it’s okay to cry. But the main thing I’ve learned from all of this is that it doesn’t matter how many plates are on your place mats, but how much joy and love you have around the table.
Special thanks to Hello Grief Community member Crystal for sharing this story with us.