There are times when my feelings are so strange to me that I don’t really understand what feelings they are, what name I should give them.
When my brother died, I smiled when I told my teacher. It wasn’t that I was happy. I mean, I didn’t really understand what had happened, the things that were happening around me. It all felt different and up until that point different had always been special. I didn’t quite understand different as being a bad thing.
I was only four then. I’m thirty-seven now. And my brother would be thirty-three. His absence has been one of the most defining things of my life and yet I still don’t really know how I feel about his death. He was too young to be known. I was too young to know him. And the rest all seems very strange and hypothetical.
I hold this ambiguous position in my family: I am both the youngest child and the middle child. And the part of me that is the youngest feels that Paul would have taken my place and made everything so utterly different that it’s just unfathomable to think about. And the part of me that is the middle child feels his absence all the time, this ghost of a brother, this outline of another that never got coloured in.
Can a four year old grieve? I don’t know if I could or did and yet I feel like I’ve never stopped. I’ll never forget the man in our house, saying to another in front of me, isn’t it a good thing she’s too young to understand. Something I’ll never say in front of a child. A moment of complete fracture, hearing myself being talked about, perceiving a gap in my own comprehension. The earliest moment when I simultaneously felt embarrassed by all I didn’t grasp and yet squirmed on the inside to assert that I wasn’t, in fact, uncomprehending.
The thing is I don’t understand it much better today. I don’t think, oh I get it now — why he died, where he went, how it derailed my family in some ways forever, what it would have been like otherwise. In fact, I maybe get it less now. Back then, I swallowed the explanations given to children that I don’t believe in any more — that God missed Paul and called him back to heaven. There was some sense to that. Maybe that’s why I smiled. Maybe I did think it was special.
And I don't understand it better today because at that moment it was simple to see how Paul's death had forked the road for my entire family. But now... now that road has been travelled so far, has been forked so many times, that it’s impossible to imagine all the ways it would have been different. And it’s impossible to want to change that first big fork. After all, everything we’ve known, our whole lives, fall from that spot.
But more: Can I grieve for Paul when I don't know who he was or would have been? I only remember a baby in a striped orange onesie with pom-poms down the front, a little clown in my Mammy’s arms. I don’t know what combination of Flanagan, Maher or Conway he would have been. Would he have had my eyes (my only nice feature)? It’s as impossible for me to think about Paul's 33rd birthday as it is for me to think about Joyce turning 132 on February 2nd (I don’t even really get why we tweet Happy Birthdays to dead celebrities).
And when I miss Paul it’s often in selfish ways. I think of there being somebody more like me in my family, of having somebody who was on my side at times. I think of saying and doing things for a little brother that were never said and done for me. I'm grieving for myself over something I never had and will never have. Those wishes will always mark an absence of Paul. And I wonder about the ungranted wishes the rest of my family have too, the different things Paul has stood for for each of us.
Sometimes - mostly when I don’t want to say all these messy things - I too say what that the man in our house said; that I was too young to understand. As if I've been immune to sadness all along because I was so young.
But some nights I just cry. And I don’t know if I’m crying for me or for Paul, or for Mum or Dad, or for us all. Or just for loss. Or just for loneliness. And when I cry like that, not comprehending what it is I'm feeling, I’m four again. Only now I don’t think I’ll grow up and understand it any better.