Two Tragedies That Shaped a Man, by Bruce Sallan
Becoming a man does not occur as a natural progression. Instead, it results from the accumulation of lessons, discoveries and accomplishments, as well as the inevitable tragedies that transpire along life’s journey. For me, the first and most influential tragedy occurred when my sixteen-year-old brother, Arnie, died in an accident. This tragedy was framed, decades later, when my father died, the second and equally most impactful event in my evolution from boy to man.
My parents, June and David, didn’t know how to handle both the loss of their first son and my psychological needs, as a five-year-old boy. I was left alone in dealing with his death. I didn’t attend his funeral, or get to visit him in the hospital where he lay brain-dead for days. Pulling the plug wasn’t an option in 1959. He died a week or so after the accident, the costs of his hospitalization pretty much bankrupting my parents, along with leaving them heartbroken.
I remember that on Sunday, two days after my brother’s death, the family gathered at my grandfather’s house. I did not understand what we were doing. It was definitely not like a celebratory occasion or holiday: no one was laughing, many were crying, and no one was talking with me.
On most family occasions, my Uncle Sandy would try to teach me a little French, as he was a French teacher. That day, he sat on the couch, looking down at his hands gripped together. I parked myself in my grandfather’s beloved television chair. So often I had sat in it with my grandfather, snuggling against him, as we watched “Superman,” “Rifleman,” and “Gunsmoke” together. That Sunday, though, I inhabited it all alone.
Relatives brushed by, silent. I clambered to my feet, standing on my toes to make myself taller, more easily noticed. The adults whispered in the corners of the room. I heard a few words, like “hospital,” “unfair,” and “June and David,” the names of my parents. I thought I heard my own name. I whipped my head around to see who had remembered me after all; it may have been my cousin Steve, just behind me to my left. No, Steve was looking the other way, talking with another cousin.
My parents never talked to me about my brother’s death. No visits with clergy and only, much later, did they take me to various therapists. All I remember of those experiences was sitting on the floor of the offices of the therapists and playing with toys that they had available and thinking they were all idiots, speaking to me as if I were a twit of a kid. I was given a round of tests and one of the results was that I had a pretty high IQ and was therefore diagnosed as a gifted child. The consequence was that my parents decided, foolishly as it turned out, to put me in a special private school for so-called gifted children.
These kids were a motley mix of idiot savants, and their social skills were on par with amoebas. I got in a fight with one kid over using a scissors and he actually stabbed me in the hand. I then picked him up and threw him through a window, which was thankfully open and on the first floor. Almost kicked out by that incident, I struggled on until my parents recognized the failure of this place for me. But, what was now clear was that my personality, being changed, had developed a serious angry streak.
The next years, most of my childhood, are a dim memory in so many ways. My parents claimed, and I fully believed them, that my personality underwent a wholesale change from a happy, playful, easy-going child to an angry, possessive, sullen one. I do remember how sharing anything, a toy or otherwise, would bring on extreme fear and often a fighting spirit. My childhood friendships were almost instantly altered. Now, if friends touched something of mine, I’d lash out. Friendships were ending; other parents were certainly noticing. My goal was clear; nothing was going to be taken away from me again.
Five years later President Kennedy was assassinated one Friday morning. I ceaselessly watched the endless television coverage of related events through the weekend and into the next week. When the first souvenirs commemorating JFK’s presidency and assassination appeared in retail establishments, I began collecting them obsessively. Soon I had three or four times as many artifacts pertaining to Kennedy than I did for Arnie. I was ashamed that my memory of shape and detail of my brother’s face had already begun to erode, and I determined not to lose JFK as easily.
In those days, kids who were designated “gifted,” in public schools, were often allowed and encouraged to skip a grade and I was skipped twice, resulting in me being younger than all my classmates by a full year or more. The sense of not belonging was enhanced by this action. I was the one who had a dead brother and I was the one who had been skipped and was younger than everyone else. This did wonders for me in high school, where as a Southern California kid, your merit and worth was in when you got your license and what car you had or could use. I didn’t get my license until my senior year, lagging far behind all my friends.
As a teenager and young man, I had some success in individual (as opposed to team) sports. I also did well in academics. Just skating by characterized my approach to school. I identified the easiest way to complete any assignment, and I applied my fundamental intelligence from there. As a graduate student, for example, I submitted my thesis paper for three separate and unrelated classes, changing only its title each time (and, ironically, getting three different grades).
I wrote God off as the culprit who took my brother. I routinely dreamed about death, yet renounced the attendant comforts that religious belief can bring. Sleepless nights, staring at the ceiling, frightened out of my wits about my perception of the emptiness of death, framed much of my teen years.
By the time I entered the professional world, I believed that achievement resulted from being clever, not diligence; from making one’s own luck, not collaborating; and from monitoring how others had failed me and might do so in the future. Ironically, my adulthood was often marked by considerable professional accomplishments, often achieved by cleverness versus hard work.
Personal relationships were a different story as I didn’t ultimately marry till I was 39 and have my first child four days after my fortieth birthday (a second son was born three years later). My first marriage was a disaster from the start, except for the blessings of our boys, and we both blamed each other vs. working out our issues and problems.
I experimented with various popular self-help fads of my time, including EST and many others, also reading too many New Age books. The only comforting book, during my early adulthood, was by Harold Kushner called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” but even that I eventually discounted. I remained mired in much of that anger and had lost so much memory of my youth, except for that image of the little boy in a big chair being left out by the adults as something terrible happened, and I was ignored.
There was one memory, or image, that always remained. My dead brother remained frozen in perfection at sixteen. Perfect in his death and perfect in the photos of him that graced our walls. My parents didn’t overtly compare me to him, but the undertone of how he was so terrific was always subtlety present, along with his mythical popularity and outstanding performance on the swim team. There was even this framed newspaper clipping of him winning a “best smile” award which made me feel inferior and horribly self-conscious during my pimple, brace-wearing days. When I reflect on those times, I realize that my parents really did their best to make me feel significant in my own way, but the covert feeling that I carried was one of never being good enough.
As is so often the case, when we look hard at our problems, and ourselves it rarely is someone else’s fault but more how we react to the events in our lives. No one said it and lived it better than Victor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” where he describes the horrors he experienced in the concentration camps during the Holocaust and said the only thing that the Nazis couldn’t take from him was his reaction. Nonetheless, I did allow my childhood trauma largely to define who I was and allow my reaction to diminish the quality of my life and how I treated those around me.
As my parents aged, I took on the role of being their caregiver. I did it with love but it was often a hard and thankless task. Their decline was painful to watch and only further reminded and scared me about my own mortality. However, David was a man of such courage that it was inescapable to get some lessons and solace about life from his example.
So, his death three years ago propelled me to the ultimate and final stage of my journey from angry five-year-old boy to finally, an adult man who could face life on his terms and take responsibility for my own actions rather than blame others, the world, or God. The events that played around my dad’s death seemed to enshrine him in my memory and yet also challenged me. Would I embody the character and passive strength he had; the assurance, the peace-of-mind he always projected? Or would I continue to let life’s setbacks define me instead of defining and knowing myself regardless of the inevitable bumps in the road?
My father’s death almost immediately brought back all those memories, fears, and sense of isolation that I felt as a five-year-old. I remembered being left out of all of it: left in the dark basically, trying to even understand what death was, let alone being allowed to participate in the rituals that comfort the survivors. So, here in the middle of my sadness over losing my father, who thankfully lived to be 90 years and 2 months, I was given the blessing of giving my sons, all which was kept from me. It compelled me to recognize that part of being a man is to take seriously the feelings of my young sons and that protecting them meant including them. My parents did what they thought was best and what they were advised. I hold absolutely no grudge against them, but am grateful that I could support the boys this way, allowing them to participate in the rituals, in fact contribute to them, and have the opportunity to have a little closure upon the first death they’d experienced.
When my dad died, my boys were eight and eleven, and my parents were living in an assisted living facility. By now, I was divorced and taking primary care of them. Dad died after dinner and we got the call and all went over. He was lying peacefully in bed, next to my stunned and still-in-shock mom. I left the boys outside and went in to see Dad and check on Mom. There was no question that they would attend the funeral and be allowed to face their grandfather’s death, but how much should I allow them to experience was unclear to me. The answer seemed to come from some innate instinct and would provide healing and solace for all of us.
My eleven-year-old, Arnie, named after my late brother, asked to come in, and shortly after, so did his little brother, Aaron (whose middle name is David, after my father). This is when that instinct took over as I allowed them to go into the room with their dead grandpa still there (the mortuary came a little later), and sit on the bed with their grandmother who was still holding in a death grip the hand of her beloved husband of 66 years. She wasn’t ready to let go.
I marveled at the positive reminiscing and attitude of my boys as they supported my mom during this difficult time. The first time they ever saw a dead body was this day, when they saw the peaceful yet ghostly pale dead man they’d only known as their vibrant and loving grandfather. But, after a quick glance, their attention was completely on looking after the living, my mom and their grandmother. I watched them closely, wondering what their reaction would be. They couldn’t look long at my dad and, instead, the three of us shared our love for my father while comforting my mom. It was such a spontaneous occurrence as we remembered outings together, his toughness regarding pain (no anesthesia whenever he had dental work because he didn’t like being numb), and his unending love for his wife and us. We reminisced, we laughed, we cried. The caregivers said they’d never quite seen such a beautiful handling of the loss of a loved one.
Arnie, a burgeoning rock guitarist, composed an instrumental tribute to his grandfather the evening he learned of his death and performed it at the funeral. I hadn’t heard his composition, had no idea what it would be, and was blown away by its power and simplicity. No one, including my mom, was crying more than Arnie at the funeral, yet he got it together to play his song for his grandpa, simply and beautifully.
For me, the combination of all these events, simultaneously, helped me understand and fully accept my role as a father, a man, and later-to-be, a husband again. I needed to allow Arnie and Aaron to make some decisions for themselves, while still guiding them on the path of manhood. Now, finally I accepted that I was no longer the child, that I was the senior adult, and the senior man in my family. Through my sons’ eyes and actions, I could heal and put to rest that five-year-old little boy that was so much a part of me, the one who never got to properly deal with his brother’s death. I could understand, through my father’s life and my sons’ strength, upon his death, that holding onto any of that anger at God, at life, or blaming anyone or anything was absurd, and I let it go.
That was over three years ago and I’ve just remarried and the lessons I learned from these deaths, so many years apart, will hopefully help keep this marriage as strong, affectionate, and committed as my father’s marriage was. Plus, I will take responsibility for my contributions, good and bad, in our evolving marriage. The easy route of running away or blaming is finally no longer an option for me, whether in my new marriage or anywhere else in my life. My mother June lived another two years, before passing on, each day painful without her beloved David.
It’s the serendipity of life that my father’s death, nearly 50 years after my brother’s death, provided me with the tools to finally put my brother’s death to rest. My moment, my growth as a man, all coalesced around the events surrounding these two tragedies.
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