Name: Paul Weinstein
Tell me about the person who died:
My brother, Stan, died of lung cancer in 1979. Stan was my only sibling. He was fifty-seven years old and living in California. I was fifty-four at the time and living in New York.
Stan was the consummate “older brother,” always in charge, always my “boss.” When we were kids, he was often controlling and abusive. When we played cowboys and Indians, Stan would tie me up with a rope and tickle me until I cried. Why I agreed to play that game is beyond me, but I guess I just liked to interact with my big brother. In Brooklyn, as kids, we played lots of street games. I recall a game of ringolevio where my brother and I were on opposite teams. I hid behind a car and when Stan came by, I captured him. He threw me to the ground and shouted, “You can’t capture me, I’m your brother.” My hatred of him burned right through my heart. I thought, “I wish you were dead.”
All through our growing years my brother never let me forget he was the older brother and as such I needed to respect him or pay the price. I learned to monitor my behavior around him and distance myself emotionally. When Stan settled in California I was glad for the distance between us. He called me on my birthday and I called him on his birthday. In between, we rarely had contact.
What was your experience of grief like after your loss? How did it change over time?
Stan battled the cancer for almost a year. The disease metastasized and over the last few weeks, he was on heavy doses of pain medication, he couldn’t eat, and he had trouble staying conscious for any length of time. Each day he slipped a little more. His wife and children knew, and the doctor confirmed, that my brother wouldn’t last more than a couple of days.
My wife and I flew out to be with him. Stan seemed happy I was there, and soon after we arrived I bathed and shaved him. Stan’s cheeks were hollow. His eyes had that unfocused look of a person already partially dead. His body was fragile and gaunt. The cancer had bloated his stomach and ankles.
Sitting at Stan’s bedside, holding his hand in mine, recalling the history of our relationship, I watched my revenge fantasy play out. There I sat, my brother holding tight to my hand as though my hand was his connection to life. There I sat, watching the morphine that would stop Stan’s heart, slowly drip into his bloodstream. There I sat, hoping this would be a short vigil.
As the evening wore on though, I began to think about my brother’s struggles. He was not an easy child, nor was he a happy child who felt loved and worthwhile. According to my mother, Stanley was irritable from birth. She would often recall and retell the trials and tribulations of having to deal with Stan's projectile vomiting episodes in his infancy, or the sleepless nights she and my father had to endure because my brother wouldn’t stop crying.
When I came along, I was a “good baby.” I kept my food down. I wasn’t “trouble.” My mother gave me all the love that she withheld from my brother. Beyond infancy, it was still clear that I was the “good son.” Even as an adult, Stan found that acceptance and a sense of achievement still eluded him. Perhaps because he was unable to control how he was regarded by my parents, Stan needed to control something (or someone) else, and I was the obvious choice.
Stan was still clutching my hand. Time lost its relevance as I sat there and relived our relationship. I found myself remembering things that I had long since forgotten.
For the first two years of my life, we lived in the Bronx and shared a bedroom. Sometimes, during the night, I would awaken and be frightened by a picture that hung on the wall. I would crawl into my brother’s bed and say, “There’s a man on the wall.” Stan would snuggle with me and reassure me that I was safe.
I remembered the way he used to like to take care of me when I wasn’t feeling well. He made a game out of it. I was the patient. He was my nurse. In summer, he would take me to see fireworks at Coney Island. Those gestures continued into adulthood—on my fiftieth birthday, he flew to New York for my surprise party. I recalled other kind and caring things Stan was capable of, and I began to feel his pain. Was this the revenge I had fantasized about for so long?
Stanley was always my big brother, always in charge, but when I was sick, or hurt, or being taken advantage of by other kids, he was always there for me. It's something I knew in my gut. I knew it through my anger, through my frustration, through my rage.
Through the experience of sitting with my brother at his deathbed, my sense of our relationship shifted profoundly. Now, after his death, when I remember my brother it is with love, and my memories are filled with the loving things he did for me. I will never stop regretting the loss of what might have been. I regret never being able to give him the support and empathy that could have drawn us closer together as equals.
If you had to describe your grief as a literal landscape, what would it look like and feel like at different points since your loss?
The feeling I am in touch with as I reflect on this question is sadness. I think about the brothers we could have been but never will be.
Tell me about an object that reminds you of the person who died, and why?
When Stan was in high school, he was on the gym team. As a member of the team he obtained a varsity jacket with "Midwood High Gym Team" emblazoned on the back. It was blue with white lettering. I coveted that jacket and when he left high school and joined the Air Force, I began wearing it and got a vicarious thrill from it.
Did anything surprise you about your experience with grief?
I didn't cry.
How did people who were grieving the same person respond to the death compared to you? What similarities and differences did you notice?
While others were presumably thinking back to loving memories, I was remembering the times when I hated him and feeling guilt about that. I knew my brother in ways only I could have known him. His wife and children reminisced about the good times. My perception of the man was a complex and multifaceted one.
How did your loss and your grief change you?:
I try to take more responsibility for angry feelings.
Paul Weinstein is retired and living in South Florida with his wife of fifty four years. Golf and writing are two of his passions, both of which keep him engaged and excited. Paul takes very well to the retired life and finds he has a natural gift for it.
This post is part of Grief Landscapes, an evolving art project documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief. Participants share an experience with bereavement, and I photograph an object that evokes the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the story.