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My brother, Marc-Emile, sparkled brilliantly. At sixteen years old, he could expound on physics or Plato, calculus, or car mechanics, Stravinsky or Steppenwolf. At seventeen, he began reading the Great Books series, starting with Homer and Aeschylus and moving forward through the Greeks. I don’t know how many of those Great Books he read. He didn’t have that long.
My brother had everything going for him. He was kind, ethical, and handsome. He graduated high school a year early, at the top of his class, with virtually perfect SATs. He started at MIT as a physics major. He ended at MIT too, one year later. At the age of nineteen, he flung himself to his death from the tallest campus building.
Then there was me, Marc’s little sister. Everyone knew me too, but not because I was brilliant. I was exceptional in a less appealing way, having been severely burned in a fire when I was four years old. I barely survived this injury, which left me with no lower lip, no chin, no neck and my upper arms fused to my torso. Bright purple raised scars traveled the length of my small body.
I spent month after month in the hospital alone, undergoing one terrifying reconstructive surgery after the next. When I was home, I was bullied and taunted, kids running past me, screaming “Yuck!” as they fled, laughing. The children’s hospital ward was my playground. Wheelchair races were my soccer. I couldn’t take ballet because I couldn’t lift my arms above my head.
So why is it that I am now living a contented, fulfilling life, happily married and surrounded by friends? And why is it that my exceptional, gifted brother took his own life forty years ago? No one would have bet on this outcome.
Perhaps a clue lay in our baby photos. As toddlers, each of us had been brought to a professional photographer’s studio. In his photos, my brother sits cooperatively on a wooden stool, holding a ball with stars on it. He looks at the camera with pensive eyes, half-smiling. In another photo, he gamely holds a toy train. Again, he peers into the camera, observing and reticent.
The page turns in the photo album and there I am. I laugh, mouth stretched as wide as possible. I point, tiny eyebrows comically raised. I hold my head coquettishly. I am probably nine months old and clearly having the time of my life. I don’t even need a toy. I’m a party all by myself.
My basic temperament was different from Marc’s. I was friendly; he was introverted. I was optimistic; he tended toward depression. I was gleeful; he was sad. From the start, we displayed these differences, differences, which turn out to be vital factors in our survival.
I have spent my lifetime trying to figure out why I am still here when my brother is not. It feels wrong, even four decades later. I feel his absence as an ache in my chest, a slight stabbing on the left side, like a slender silver knife slipping into my heart. His absence has been present within me, every day of my life.
A day I have grown to loather is National Siblings Day, a reoccurring nightmare of a day, which happens every April 10. My friends post loving photos of themselves, arms around their brother or sister. Sometimes they share old photos taken decades ago and pose cleverly in new photos to recreate the original picture. They stand, embracing each other in an identical pose, but now with gray hair and glasses. They smile, grinning at the years that have passed, sharing the joke together.
I don’t know how National Siblings Day started, or whose bright idea it was. I never used to have to endure this day. My only comfort, and this is cold comfort indeed, is the comradery of my friend’s daughter, who lost her only sibling four years ago. Every year, for the past four years, I have texted dear Laura on April 10th.
“Happy F-g National Siblings Day. I love you.”
Within seconds, Laura responds. “I know. It’s awful. I love you too.”
I am here, Marc is not. I am resilient, despite the odds against me. He was not resilient, despite the odds in his favor. It turns out that being naturally cheerful might be more important than acing the SATs.
Perhaps in this year of COVID-19 and other assorted disasters, the capacity to be cheerful is the most crucial gift of all.
I am upbeat and optimistic, despite being burned, abandoned, neglected, bullied, and despite losing my favorite person in the world. I don’t necessarily mean to be cheerful; it just happens. I’m like the red and white plastic bobber on the end of a fishing line. I go under and then just pop back up again, for no real reason other than that’s just what I do. It’s my temperament; I don’t choose it.
Marc didn’t choose his temperament either; none of us do. Our genes are what they are. But luckily, genetics are not the only factor in resilience. Life experience matters too, and so does social support.
Optimism can be encouraged. Gratitude can be worked on. We can teach people the skills to cope, in our homes, our schools, or our psychotherapy offices.
We can impart the importance of physical, mental, and emotional self-care so they develop a strong foundation of well-being. We can give them tools to handle life’s challenges—like reframing struggles as opportunities, focusing on things they can control, finding strength in all they’ve overcome, and letting other people in. And we can teach them to recognize stress before it escalates so they can calm and soothe themselves.
Resilience is like intelligence: some people are born naturally smarter, but everyone can learn. Some people are born more resilient, but everyone can be helped.
We need to keep our collective eyes out for those who are sad, who seem hopeless, who don’t smile for the camera. We really need to keep our eyes peeled now, during this time of quarantine and social isolation, because emotional distress is on the rise.
Science tells us resilience can be improved. However, offering help will be more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive than simply exhorting, “Be more resilient!” Demanding resilience does not make it happen. Some people need to be taught how.
Let’s not pretend we all begin at the same starting line. And, speaking from a lifetime of missing my brother… let’s not leave anyone behind.