When a Brother Dies
Written by
Judith Newton
March 2015
Written by
Judith Newton
March 2015

“Even siblings we don’t see, who live differently from us, who move in their own world, may be shoring up our lives, our sense of family, our feeling of being at home in the world without our knowing it.”

Two years ago, in March, my younger brother died, quite unexpectedly. He’d been my only sibling and, both of our parents being gone, the only other person left from our original family. His daughter had asked my daughter to tell me the news. “Mom?” she said on the phone, and the sorrow in her voice stopped my breathing. Had something awful happened — to her?

“Gary died.”

The moment tore at both of us, I initially fearing for her, then losing my brother, then breaking down in tears. She thinking, I am certain, “what would happen to me if, you, my mother, were to die?” The sudden death of one family member can so easily undermine our everyday confidence about the rest.

My brother and I had not been close. As children we were left home alone seven nights a week by our dance-teacher parents, and yet we lived in separate worlds. Although we watched Laurel and Hardy together, laughing until tears salted our faces, we never talked. Was it because of childhood wounds? Siblings injure each other without meaning to, without having control. I remained our father’s favorite, getting grades in school that my brother would never match. He was prized by a mother who had emotionally abandoned me.

The gender norms of the 1950s further divided us. I was inclined to stay at home and read, he to hang out — anywhere but there. As teenagers, we would sometimes, inadvertently, cross paths at the local beach. I lay on a long towel, fully basted with tanning oil. He and his friends emerged from the sea and, still dripping, plopped their half-naked bodies on the sand. Towels belonged to sissies. So did sun tan oil. By the end of the summer the sun had bleached my brother’s blonde hair white and turned his skin the color of dried figs. Boys, I thought.

But we were tied to each other, nonetheless, quietly, below the surface. When I went off to graduate school at Berkeley, he, having dropped out of junior college, bought me a stereo set to keep me company. When, two years later, my mother called to tell me he’d been drafted for Vietnam, I burst into tears and lived in fear of his seeing combat. He never did. But when he entered the Los Angeles Police Department, I worried again about his safety. “Why the police?” I asked. “It’s okay, Sis,” he answered gently. “I don’t want my life to be boring.”

Living in Berkeley, where the sight of policemen clubbing protestors was embedded in my memory, I fretted about my brother, wondered what would happen to his character, feared the dangers he might incur working the night beat in Watts. When I moved East in the 1970s, he was working Vice, sitting around a lot in bars with long hair and a longer beard. He moved on to Robbery and finally Homicide.

At his memorial, the Mexican-American officer who’d been his partner told me that my brother had been an outstanding detective, that he’d been kind and gentle, that he’d “cared about people.” These were things about his work life I’d never known and was glad to learn.

What I did know more about was his life at home. On holidays, when I visited California, I saw that he’d determined not to be a distant parent like both of ours had been. When his young son cried, my brother took him on his lap and stroked his head. He indulged his little fireball of a daughter by throwing her into the pool over and over again at her command. Groups of friends liked to gather in his backyard, moving in and out of the water, eating potato chips and hamburgers, and drinking beer. When the family played cards, he entered into it with relish and wry humor. He liked to joke and eat a lot of crackerjack.

After his wife died of cancer in 2001, he moved to be near his son and grandson and slowly began to decline. He retired and stopped exercising. He ate more, drank too much, developed diabetes and a painful case of gout. He was treated for high blood pressure. I was living in California again, but we only saw each other at our aging mother’s birthdays. When she died, we exchanged phone calls and emails about her will.

I took him for granted. He was my brother. He had always been there, at a distance, but there nonetheless. A large man who did what he wanted, he had seemed as permanent as a mountain. I assumed we would both live to a very old age. Our mother, after all, had died at 101. And then, in the first minute of a phone call from my anxious daughter, anxious that I too would prove mortal without warning, he ceased to exist. I felt a hole in my life that I couldn’t have imagined. I feel it still.

Even siblings we don’t see, who live differently from us, who move in their own world, may be shoring up our lives, our sense of family, our feeling of being at home in the world without our knowing it. I wasn’t aware of it, but my brother had done that for me. Even now, when I occasionally “speak” to him and say, “you’re not in the world anymore,” as if trying to take it in, I hear him reassuring me. “It’s okay, Sis.”

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  • Judith Newton

    Connie, I"m so sorry about your sister.  When I lived my childhood I never thought I'd want to retain anything from it. But I was wrong.

  • Connie Vines


    A very heart-felt topic and an especially timely one for me to read today.  Today is the 1-year anniversary of my sister's death.  Even as adults, sibling loss is difficult.  We have a shared past and think of sharing our golden years together, even if distance limits us to social media, texting, and phone calls.  However, Death, even when anticipated, is difficult.  Suddenly, you may find yourself a 'stand-in parent and grandparent'.  Hopefully, it the near future the sorrow will diminish and sweet memories of the good times will fill the void.

  • Beautiful piece.

  • Judith Newton

    Thank you, Miriam. It surprises me how much I've learned about family in retrospect. Part of it came from writing a memoir, but still there are layers to the onion.

  • Judith, Lovely and honest words about family.  We human beings are so complexed, why is it we always know so much more in retrospect.   Good luck with your writing.  

  • Judith Newton

    Thank you, Bella.

  • Bella Mahaya Carter

    Thanks for this lovely tribute and important reminder, Judith Newton

  • Judith Newton

    Dear Cate, Thank you for these poignant words. I do know so well what you say about some deaths putting us into a constant state of becoming accustomed.  How well you put that.  Please do post a link. Thank you for your good words and for sharing.