Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

On Losing a Brother, Survival, and Sweet Clementines

May 28, 2015


By Joanna Chen

I remember the moments before learning of my brother’s death. It’s mid-December. I do not know why I have been called out of class but I register the horrified look on the face of the secretary as she enters my classroom. I am standing at the window, looking out at the dull fir trees swaying in the wind. I turn around when she calls my name and follow her obediently. Schoolgirls in bottle-green uniforms move about from class to class, ascending the stairs on the right, descending on the left. I am descending. One foot after another, very slowly. My hand lingers on the smooth, polished wood of the banister at the bottom of the stairs. The secretary leads me to the waiting room opposite the office. The pale oak door is closed. I place one hand on the circular door knob, turn and enter. They are waiting for me inside: Headmistress. Mother. Father. There is a pause as they look up at me, standing there, my hand still on the door knob.

Six years in this school and I have never been in this room. There are green easy chairs in a half-circle. On a low table is a silver tray with cups, saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl decorated with rosebuds. Sugar in lumps.  The headmistress wears cat-woman eyeglasses. I offer a small smile. I giggle. I am fifteen.

And then a sentence with words one after the other strung together, each word falling heavy into the air.  My brother Andrew, not yet eighteen, is dead. A coach came out of a side-street into the main road and my brother, on his blue motorbike, hit the side of the coach head-on.  And I imagine him speeding along, his first week with the new motorbike, freedom at last, no more standing at the bus stop in the cold of northern England, no more waiting for our father’s red Rover to drive by after work to pick him up, no more.

That last time I saw Andrew was in the mirror, three hours earlier. He was leaving the house, and stopped at my bedroom door. I was adjusting my school tie and did not bother turning around to face him. It would ruin the knot. I remember his face in the mirror, his hair thick like a bush, his hands on the keys, his stubby fingers, dirty fingernails. And now in reverse. His dirty fingernails, stubby fingers, his hands on the keys, his hair thick like a bush, his face in the mirror.  I always go back to this moment.

I bolt the waiting room. Outside it’s a cold day. Snow. Slush. Crunch under shoes. No coat. My finger traces a word on the window pane. Andrew. I am standing outside the school building, looking in. The separation has begun but people are looking for me already. My green gabardine coat is handed to me, and my school bag. I am led to the car.

We drive first to the Goodmans, friends of my parents. Mrs. Goodman tells me tea with sugar is good for shock and I should have a couple. She leans her stumpy body over me, sitting where I was put, and reaches for the sugar bowl with her right hand. She drops one lump into the tea and then another. The first one splashes faintly as the white lump hits the milky, still- steaming water. The second one she drops in more gently, more reverently, as if the little square of crystal is a child that might fall over. I say nothing. I hate sweet tea.

She hands me a magazine, tells me to stir the tea, passes me the spoon as if she is not sure I understand her and returns to the kitchen, where my parents are sitting. I need to speak to your parents, she nods at me, thundering along, already halfway across the living room with the white carpet.

I slide out of the chair onto the carpet, pull down the magazine and place the cup and saucer beside me. I’m still in my school uniform; we have not gone home yet. My shoes are by the front door; the Goodmans are very particular about their white carpeting. My socks are dirty. I had been in a hurry that morning to dress and grabbed socks from the day before.

Sitting in the living room will be quite a treat for you, she tells me earlier, patting me on the shoulder, and I wonder exactly what kind of a treat she is referring to. I suddenly feel very tired and want to go home. Perhaps he is there, after all, and he’ll punch me in the arm and tell me I’m an idiot.

I turn the pages of the magazine. Paul McCartney on the cover, dressed up as Santa Claus, one arm around Linda’s neck. Now that Mrs. Goodman has left the room, I can stretch my legs out, which I immediately do, knocking over the china cup and saucer, spilling the pale brown liquid over the carpet. It sinks slowly, very slowly, into the thick shag of the carpet; the stain creeps across the living room.

I watch the rain falling outside, turning the snow into gray slush. Later, we head for home in heavy traffic. A motorbike overtakes the car going through the center of town in heavy traffic. The three of us look at the figure in the gray helmet, zipping through the cars. I can’t see his face. Perhaps this is Andrew, I think, laughing at me under his helmet, because I am alone with my parents in the car.

We get home, pull into the driveway, enter the house. Our dog, Biscuit, is confused but radiantly happy to see us, his late-morning nap disturbed. The house is heavy and quiet. Biscuit jumps up at me, craving attention, and I pat his head and then bury my nose in his doggy smell. A neighbor comes to the door, which is open, but she rings the bell anyway before stepping inside. “Oh Diana, you know how I feel,” she says to my mother, requiring empathy where she should be giving it.

My mother goes up to the bathroom Andrew and I shared.  She picks up his dirty jeans off the tiled floor and then removes every single piece of evidence: his raggedy toothbrush, his razor, blades and Gillette shaving cream, all of them dropped into the trash can.  Wait, wait, I say. What are you doing? Cleaning, she says without turning around to face me.

As the day wears on, more people arrive, friends of my mother and father, and I am left to sit on a chair in the living room. The fact is, I have no idea what to do in such a situation. My face is kissed, my cheeks are pinched and my shoulders are squeezed. I catch people shaking their heads in my direction. “You need to be strong for your parents,” one woman says to me with a solemn nod of her head.  “I wish you long life,” others say, “and that you should know no more sorrow.” Even then, I have an idea that this kind of sorrow never goes away. And what does long life mean? That I should last longer than my brother?

The funeral was held that same day. It was the first funeral I had ever attended. My parents, who had always been there for me, were removed from my reach, surrounded by friends and family. Among all these people, I had no one to ask.

As the funeral began, the coffin was wheeled into the small prayer room. A gasp from the crowd and a step back, as if more room was needed for the narrow wooden casket. I was pushed to the front, to join my parents and I turned to my mother, aware that everyone’s eyes were on us. “Let me see him,” I begged. On reflection, I think I wanted to make sure he was dead, really dead. I took two steps towards the body of my brother. Earlier that day my parents had refused to let me see his body in the morgue. My mother said no, she wants me to remember him whole. Complete. And then the rabbi began the first prayer of mourning and the moment was over and I would not see Andrew again.

After the funeral, on the way back to the car, I stop by the faucet where mourners traditionally wash their hands. I turn on the faucet and hold my hands under the icy flow. People shuffle passed me, escaping the cemetery. No one speaks to me. I hold my hands under that water until I cannot feel them anymore.

A few friends called during that week, not knowing what to say. They gave me updates from school and I could hardly believe that life was trundling along as usual. It seemed a million miles away.

For the next six days of shiva, the house was taken over by people I had never met. The kitchen filled up with sweet clementines in the middle of winter because I politely said I liked them when asked. People wanted to make me happy but, ironically, no one thought to ask me how I feel.

I felt a lot back then: terrified of what would happen when the house emptied of people, when it would be just me and my parents rattling around in the house, walking past my brother’s empty bedroom with the purple walls and the old guitar and the faint odor of sweat that lingered in the air for days after his death.

A neighbor leans over me, asking me how school is going, asking me what music I like, asking me what my favorite color is and if my mother lets me wear makeup although I don’t need it, I have such nice skin. Would you like a Coke? Spaghetti? Quiet time upstairs?  A walk with the dog?  No, I would not.

That night, aged fifteen and a half, I wet my bed, waking up in the middle of the night on warm, wet sheets. My mother quickly removes those, as well. She changes the sheets, dries the mattress and does laundry at 3am. I lie in bed with my guilt and the smell of urine, listening to the washing machine whirring around and around in the silence of the house and I wish those sheets were back on the bed and that my brother were here, listening to Deep Purple and Maggie Smith on his headphones when he should be asleep because he has work the next day.

After the week of mourning, in which everything stood still and nothing was the same, in which the house was full of friends, but not my friends, and the kitchen overflowed with chocolate cakes in foil pans, pots of soup and bottles of soda, when people I had never met were cleaning up the kitchen whenever I wandered in and my brother’s friends sat in his bedroom and kept touching his belongings and my mother said it was nice and I was upset because I wanted everything to remain the way he had left it that morning when he left the house.  An uncle told me this is how we keep Andrew alive and I turned this thought over in my mind and wondered what Andrew would have thought of people entering his room without permission. He guarded his privacy fiercely and I always had to knock before entering. Usually, the voice on the other side of the door told me to go away. But now I could come and go as I pleased, and so could everyone else.

After Andrew’s death, I saw my life as a series of long paths that I took alone.  Some of the paths were short, for example the path leading up to the school from the road, or the stairs leading up from the lower level to the first floor of school. Or the path leading from the car to the cemetery. And the two steps I took towards the body of my brother because I wanted to see him.

One week after Andrew’s death, I went back to school. The night before, I could not sleep. I kept thinking about that path that led up the school driveway and how I would walk it, alone, and how everything was continuing as normal when nothing was normal. It would be like walking on a tightrope, treading across a thin sliver of white moon in a black sky. It would be a huge desert (which it was, but later), not smooth but uneven, a stony terrain of a million particles and I did not know where to put my feet.

As the car draws up to the curb, my father fishes two Thornton toffees out of his pocket and hands them to me. I drop them into my school bag and exit the car, slamming the door behind me. I begin to walk and then I stop, turning around, the wind whipping at my school scarf. I see my father, his indicator still flashing, sitting at the wheel of the red Rover, watching me, biting his lip. I lift my right hand up, adjusting my school bag on my shoulder, and I wave, as if to reassure him that I am OK.  I think I see him nodding his head before driving off. I am left in the cold street, about to turn the corner into the tree-lined path that leads to the main school building.  The wind lifts up my scarf, the hem of my coat, the dry winter leaves, and I want to lift up, too, with every step. I keep going, one foot in front of the other, the soles of my shoes crunching in the gravel. Toes, base of foot, heel. Next leg. Toes, base of foot, heel. Am I early or late? Late is better, to simply blend in to the mass of schoolgirls moving along the corridors to lessons on a day that has already begun. And then my hand on the door, on the brass latch, lifting and entering the classroom, but slowly.

This is the path I took. A path that was mine alone but that took other people constantly into consideration.  And it’s me reaching out to them, it’s me trying to break the ice, make them feel comfortable. There’s a pause when I enter the classroom and eyes turn away from me. No mention of my brother, or the funeral, or my desolation. It’s about parties, boys and homework. And there’s me fast forwarding, doing a math test when I can’t remember anything and am sitting, the exam questions on a sheet in front of me, the paper beside it. My name written on the dotted line. The date below it on another dotted line.

After my brother died, the concept of social groups changed for me.  I lost my spontaneity. For example, there was the eleventh grade schoolgirl clique. I no longer belonged because what I needed to talk about the most was out of bounds, embarrassing. I could not join in their laughter during school breaks. I hung to the wall at the local disco on Saturday nights. Blinked at the strobe lights and didn’t understand what I was doing there. Then there were the questions that set me apart from everyone else, regular questions that you’re likely to be asked when meeting someone for the first time. How many brothers and sisters do you have. Ah, so you’re an only child.

Fitting into a group was a task I set myself so I could keep going. Hitting the ground running when I could not feel the ground and did not know whether it was sand or mud or unrelenting cement. No matter. Wanting to be a part; knowing I was not because I was different. And then the panic attacks before meeting people: stomach aches, nausea, dry mouth, a stiffness of body that would not move, that felt clumsy.  Looking for the boys to like me. Looking for my brother, who was all I really wanted.

Life at home was hard to cope with. My parent’s grief was so enormous that there was no room for me. I was in the way, pushed to the side, sent to watch television in the living room, sent to my room, eventually sent away to boarding school in Israel when my parents decided to emigrate there. They decided to send me ahead of them so I wouldn’t have to watch the house being taken apart and packed up, although I knew it had already been taken apart by the death of my brother.  They explained to me that they had nothing left back in the UK. But I had friends I had known for years a school and a home I had lived in for most of my life. And they had me, I remember thinking. Why would they send me away?

Less than a year after my brother’s death, I was taken to Heathrow Airport and put on a plane for Israel, a lanky figure with a blue backpack and a Hard Rock café sweatshirt that my parents bought me the night before the flight. They came with me as far as passport control and waved to me as I walked off, this time briskly, without looking back.  


Joanna Chen is a literary translator, poet and essayist. Her writing has been published most recently in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Cactus Heart, Poet Lore and Word Riot. Her twitter handle is @joannachen1 and her website is

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

Join Jen and Emily Rapp at a writing and the body retreat in Stowe, Vermont Oct 2015. This will be their 3rd one together in Stowe. Click the photo to book.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for June 20th cleanse. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for June 20th cleanse. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the new season of spring. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

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  • Reply Barbara Potter May 28, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    Joanna wow. Your words really got to me.

  • Reply Rachel Krebs May 28, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    My heart breaks for your 15 year-old self. My sister died when she was 19 and I was 25. I was absolutely devastated by her loss and cannot imagine how I would have coped had I been 15 when she died. Her death happened over 19 years ago, but there are certain things that I remember quite distinctly.
    In the moments after learning of my sister’s death, all I could do was simply go through the motions of what needed to be done – almost in a robot-like fashion. In the week following my sister’s death, I could not believe that the world went on, as if nothing had happened. You write about experiencing this as well.
    Your words resonate with me quite deeply. Thank you for writing so eloquently about an incredibly painful experience.
    I know that healing from my sister’s death will last my entire life and I feel that reading your posting has helped me a lot.
    Take good care,

  • Reply Petra May 28, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    Your story moved me to tears. I, too, lost a young brother. Your words spoke some of my thoughts from that time.

  • Reply Sarah May 29, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    You had me with every word, Joanna. Our experiences are not so different. You’ve eloquently captured the divide… the separation from the world around you, including your parents, so deep in their own grief. Thank you for sharing this. This is a permanent save for me.

  • Reply Rachel May 30, 2015 at 2:18 am

    Like you, from Northern England. My brother was 24 and I was 26.

    This: “My parent’s grief was so enormous that there was no room for me. ”
    And this: “How many brothers and sisters do you have. Ah, so you’re an only child.”
    And this: ” On reflection, I think I wanted to make sure he was dead, really dead. I took two steps towards the body of my brother. ”

    who am I kidding? so much of this, thank you for putting words to it.

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