By Lynn Shattuck
“Does your husband have blue eyes?” the cashier at the grocery store asks, her brown eyes peering into my equally dark ones.
“Nope, his are hazel,” I say. I paw around in my coat pocket, my fingers reaching for the smooth, thin debit card within. I stifle the urge to make a joke about the milk man being the real father of my child.
“He has such beautiful blue eyes,” the cashier says. She looks at my five-year-old son Max, who is half-hiding behind me, deciding whether to peek out and flash his ridiculously charming smile.
“Does anyone in your family have blue eyes?” she asks.
I pause for a millisecond.
“His uncle does.” Did.
“Okay,” she says, loading my goat cheese into the bag. Mystery solved.
* * *
When Max was born his eyes were a steely blue, as most babies’ eyes are at first. We all waited for them to turn hazel or even brown.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to turn brown,” my mom said.
“They’re going to be green—I saw a little ring of green around his pupil,” said my husband Scott.
Being an olive-skinned, dark eyed gal, I expected that the fetus who had wreaked havoc on my body for nine months would be a dark little bundle, the male version of me. When my husband handed Max to me for the first time, after three nights of false labor and one night of very real labor, I stared at my new baby. My first thought was that he looked so utterly foreign. The crown of his head was stretched into an enormous cone from all the hours he’d spent trapped in my birth canal. His pale little face and eyelids were swollen, making him cockeyed.
He looked so other, so un-mine.
A beautiful photo of my husband Scott and Max peering into each other’s eyes is perched on our mantle. Max looks like an ancient soul, and Scott looks mesmerized and delighted. “What I was really thinking was, God, all those ugly baby jokes and now I have one,” he admits later.
Swollen and ocean-eyed, coned and tiny, Max looked alien.
With time, he looked more and more familiar.
* * *
“Haha!” Max shouted when he was two, pointing to a picture of my little brother when he was about the same age. It was the kind of ‘standing at the window’ shout Max favored at that age, as if he was an old man railing on about the whippersnappers in the neighborhood. Kids today, he seemed to be hollering.
I followed his gaze and was once again struck by the similarities between Max and my younger brother, Will. Like Max, Will had big blue eyes that seemed to have come from a blip in the gene pool—like me and Scott, my mom has brown eyes, my dad hazel.
“Yeah, that’s your uncle,” I said, trying to keep an even voice. Max smiled at the photo. I took a deep breath. It’s a beautiful photo: my gap-toothed brother, little wisps of hair curling on his forehead as he gazed, smiling at something in his sightline. What Max doesn’t know is that his uncle Will died of a combination of heroin and alcohol at the age of 21. I kissed Max’s forehead, inhaling the earth scent of his skin. I brushed a tendril of hair—medium brown and pin straight—out of his eyes. For a second, I considered the thought that something similar could happen to him, especially given the genetic plague of alcoholism that burns through his bloodlines. I choked on the thought and pushed it aside—or at least as aside as it could go while the picture of my baby brother smiling, unaware of his future, remained visible.
* * *
Fifteen years ago, my phone rang and everything changed.
My mother’s words slipped through the phone: police officer, brother, heroin. Coroner. The words rumbled in my head, black and stilted, colliding into each other. My brain tried to comprehend. “No, no, no,” I said, a mantra. As if I said it enough times, my words could somehow stop what had already happened, what could not be stopped.
* * *
Me, almost three. An only child all this time, forever. The dark comforter of my mom and dad’s bed cool against my legs, bare beneath my nightgown. “Do you want to feel your little brother?” my mom asked. I pressed my palm to her growing stomach, tentatively. Brother. The word sounded wild, yet solid. “Brother.” I tried it on for size. And sister. “Sister” felt like a fur coat, warm and soft and sure. I pressed my palm to her stomach and I felt a small fist or a foot connect with my hand. The orb of her belly where I too had grown, shifted beneath my hand. Everything shifted, or at least it would, very, very soon.
* * *
After my brother’s death, I moved from Maine back to my childhood home in Alaska to live with my parents. I was 24 and blindsided. Flowers crowded our home, turning the air sickly sweet. A box arrived with my brother’s ashes. I sat on the porch and smoked. I watched clouds smudge across the sky and waited for a sign. For the first three months, I slept in bed with my parents like a scared toddler to chase away the dark thoughts that came with nighttime. It was just us three again curled in the dark, and I hated it.
I wrote letters to my dead little brother, and I went to grief groups. I watched my parents suffer and I thought not only is my brother gone, my parents are too. I mourned that the person that should’ve been with me the longest in this life wouldn’t.
“You’ll have good things in your life,” my mom said one day. “You’ll have your own family someday.” I knew she was right. But at 24, I couldn’t picture that someday family. I could only see what was gone.
* * *
I first noticed the resemblance between Max and my brother when Max was several weeks old. He was nursing and I studied him as his eyes darted back and forth, intense with concentration. His almond-shaped, Atlantic-blue eyes were the first part of his face to smile. He looks like Will, I thought. It unnerved me.
When we were kids, people used to bend down to my brother and ask, “Where did you get those big blue eyes?” They’d look from my mom to me, from me to my brother, trying to reconcile the dark hair, eyes and skin that my mom and I had with my brother’s butter-toned hair and big turquoise eyes.
“From God,” he once answered, elevating charming to a whole new level.
Max’s eyes are wide and luminous. A little tease of green still swirls around his pupils. When he’s observing the world, his eyes are big and as round as a quarter. When he’s sad, they crumple and go navy. When he’s happy, they glitter and take on an almost feline shape.
When Max was about six months old, I briefly considered whether he could be the reincarnated spirit of my dead brother. “Will?” I whispered first, then louder. The first months of parenthood were already so otherworldly, it didn’t seem like that much of a stretch. Max kept playing though—he didn’t turn to me with knowing eyes and a wink.
I asked him again when he was a little older, too.
“Do you remember Booger from Revenge of the Nerds?” I’d been asking Scott for some reason.
“Yeah!” Max exclaimed. Scott and I looked at each other and our 21 month-old offspring and started laughing.
“Are you my brother reincarnated?” I asked Max.
“Yeah!” he shouted, just as excited. My eyes widened. I held my breath and thought for a moment.
“Do your toes smell like sour pickles?”
“Phew,” I exhaled.
And yet, I still sometimes wonder. At five, Max’s temperament resembles my brother’s teenage moodiness. He also inherited my brother’s passion for music. When Max is tossing his body around to “Party Rock Anthem” or thrashing on his guitar while singing “Back in Black,” I’m struck with the image of my brother attacking his own electric guitar, belting out a punk version of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.”
And in my dreams, the two sometimes swim together. “Will!” I call out, then realize it’s Max. “Maxie!” I say, and my brother, once again, disappears.
* * *
One of the hardest, most simple parts of grief is the pure and utter goneness of the one who is lost. My brother was here… where is he now? I know his body was scorched and blazed into soft grey sand. We left a sprinkle at a white beach in New Jersey, and folded handfuls into the damp moss beneath the thick pine trees at our old house in Alaska. But how could he just be gone when he was so, so here before? I am speaking of his spirit, the piece of us that is more than our fumbling, fragile bodies. The piece that brings us dreamscapes that later thud into our waking life, the piece that picks up the slick, cool phone to call a friend just as they are calling us, the piece that is utterly certain we are carrying a little boy fetus long before our eyes rest upon the white glow of bones on the ultrasound, the curves and shadows blooming deep within.
Similarly, I find myself asking Max, sometimes out loud, and sometimes in a whispered string of words that brushes my throat, “Where were you?” Because just as my brother is so, so gone—Max feels so, so here. So vivid, so distinct, that I can’t imagine that the sum of him used to lie split and dormant, half within me, half within Scott, waiting quietly among billions of other possibilities. That he is all split cells and coincidence, a random card plucked from our genetic deck.
When Max was not quite five, Scott asked him why he picked us to be his parents.
“There was no one else left,” he said plainly. We laughed, not caring so much how he had gotten here – just glad that he had.
Max brings great joy to my parents. We visit often and my dad, Max’s Papa, lets Max roughhouse with him. Max runs and lunges at my dad, and they both topple over, laughing. My mom, whom Max has coined, ‘Baba,’ hands over her iPad, fresh mango and popcorn to Max, along with most anything else he asks for. When we leave to go home, their knees ache, but they say the pain is worth it. I know that Max doesn’t replace my brother—no one could. But I like to think that he eclipses the pain of their loss a little bit.
Each night when I used to nurse Max before bedtime, I’d watch his lovely eyes and wonder what he was thinking as another day wound down. Sometimes he would look up at me, a smile curving into his mouth and eyes. I held him close and silently asked for help, from the universe, from Will, from whomever would listen. Keep him safe, keep him healthy, keep him happy. I watched his eyes, near-navy in the dim room, sweet slow songs wrapping around us. Keep him here.
Though we’ve been done nursing for three years now, the prayers remain the same. I repeat them in my mind and in whispers that gather around his bedroom door. With a mother’s force and a sister’s ache, I pour my deepest wishes into small words. Let him outlive us. Let him have a long and lovely life.
Let him stay.
As a mom of two young children, Lynn Shattuck attempts to balance diapers and laptops, yoga and running, and tucks as much writing as she can into the remaining nooks and crannies of her life. Besides writing for her blog, http://thelightwillfindyou.com, she is a featured columnist at the elephant journal and blogs for Huffington Post. Find her on Facebook.
Subscribe to Brain, Child