Why my family kept my brother’s death a secret from my grandparents.
Editor’s Note:The following piece is a guest submission of a personal story. The views expressed in the story are the writer’s own.
My brother’s secret is that he’s dead.
He’s been dead for almost 10 years. My grandparents do not know.
The story is that we’re estranged. A lie.
A mercy, but still a lie.
When my maternal grandparents emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s, they worked in, and eventually opened, Chinese restaurants to support their family of eight. My mother was the eldest of five sisters and a brother. My brother was the first grandchild; the start of a new generational line and truly the apple of every eye.
Our childhood was a typical upper-middle-class, children of immigrants’ upbringing. We lived in a single-family home in a diverse Washington D.C. suburb with relatives close by. My maternal grandparents lived next door for many years and my cousins lived down the street. My dad worked a blue-collar job and my mom a white-collar one.
For most of my childhood, my brother was what you’d expect from any other older brother. He was big for his age, adored basketball, and hated sitting still. I was small, quite shy, and loved soccer. We were four-and-a-half years apart, five in school grades. He would tease me and I would pester him. He tricked me into thinking our cereal had nicotine in it and often traded TV privileges for my indentured servitude — the usual. His friends called him “Chunky” as a nod to his love of Chunky brand soup. Or was it because he was a bit chunky in stature? I’m not quite sure anymore. We were kids and siblings together, but I can’t say if we were ever truly close.
Growing up, my brother’s bedroom was next to mine. The walls were light blue with a massive poster of the 1996 Chicago Bulls hanging above the bunk bed. Dozens of basketball card stickers covered the bed frame, the plastic kind that are almost impossible to tear. Our dad used to stand in the hallway, reading his book, until my brother fell asleep. He was afraid of the dark far longer than I was. When I think of my brother from our childhood, I picture that room. It’s the only time I can say I knew and understood him. The next image I see is, a few years later, of the larger room down the hall missing a door. My parents caught him smoking pot and unhinged the door as a punishment. Even after he’d moved, the blue room still felt like his.
He eventually reached the age when hanging out with his younger sister wasn’t cool anymore, but he was still around. Our house was “that house,” the place where all his friends would come and hang out. Our parents never minded. Having both come from large families they loved the liveliness of it and they had known most of my brother’s friends since they were kids. My brother and his friends mostly listened to music, ate a ton of food, chatted on AIM, and walked to the local JCC to play basketball. It was fun and mundane but all the more exciting because they let me hang around the edges.
When he got to high school something changed. He made new friends and fought constantly with our parents. He started smoking pot in the house. All I saw was a closed door, but our parents would come home suspicious of the smell. They would argue. He’d cuss them out. It wasn’t solely a matter of weed though, my brother had a will and a temper. Our dad drove him to school every morning and he would refuse to get out of the car. He was good at school if he wanted to be. He wrote poetry which later turned into lyrics. But he didn’t care about school. He wanted to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. Our parents were at a loss. They got him into counseling, tested for ADHD and bipolar disorder, and we went to family therapy; but ultimately, there was nothing medically or psychologically amiss. The aptest description and subsequent theme of my brother’s life became “defiant.” Doctors, social workers, police officers — all threw that term around. Soon it defined him.
What happened next is a bit of a blur. When I was 11 and he was 16, there were whispered conversations about him getting into trouble at the high school for selling weed. Apparently, a student trying to smoke weed in the bathroom had an allergic reaction that landed him in the hospital. When asked where he got the weed, that student gave my brother’s name. My brother never denied the accusation outright and with no incriminating evidence found in his possession only said, “They got nothing on me.”
The problem with being 11 years old is that no one tells you anything and all you know about weed is what they taught you in D.A.R.E. My mom once asked if I’d noticed if my brother had a “bad smell”. Looking back, this was hilarious. I was a sheltered middle-schooler with little concept of drug use and absolutely no idea what weed smelled like. It’s comical that my mom who was, and still is, incredibly straight-laced, tried to ask me, without really asking me, if my brother smelled like pot.
All joking aside, the accusations were serious enough that our parents withdrew him from public school and sent him to a boarding school for kids with behavioral issues. His stint at the boarding school lasted no more than four months. During that time he tried to run away — twice. He carved the letters “FIMAH” on his arm, meaning “forever in my aching heart.” Why? Who was in his heart? Our parents went down every other weekend to visit him. I never asked to go and they never pushed it.
His time at the school didn’t result in any sort of measurable progress, so our parents sent him to live with relatives in California to start fresh. The first few months went well — he enrolled in a new school, had a part-time job, and my uncle even got him a bike to get around. But, after a while, something shifted and he stopped doing much of anything. He didn’t want to live with our relatives anymore. He didn’t want to come home — he didn’t want to go back to that boarding school. He wanted emancipation. When our dad flew out to bring him back east, he was living in a social-services-run, temporary-stay, group home. When our dad went to pick him up, he didn’t want to go. His time at the group home was up, so the choices were to go with our dad or admittance to the hospital. He chose the hospital.
In the end, our parents offered him a trip to Taiwan to see our grandparents as an olive branch and an alternative to going directly home. Our family in Taiwan always thought he was a quiet teenager, never saying or doing much, distanced also by the language barrier.
When he did finally come home, he didn’t go back to school. Rather, got his GED and worked retail part-time. His deal with our parents was he could live at home and have use of the car as long as he was either in school or had a job. For a few months, everything settled into a polite truce.
There wasn’t a single precipitating incident, but somewhere down the line, the ceasefire ended. Then came the enmeshment of screaming matches, broken tables, and crackling tension — all to the soundtrack of incredibly loud music. I was grateful for the holes punched in our walls — better objects than people. He was never violent towards us, just volatile in temperament. If the situation frayed enough, he would get kicked out or run away and stay on the streets for a couple of days only to be found by a relative and brought back, another temporary peace brokered. Even our chaos settled into a routine.
While he was still underage, the police arrested him when they found weed in his car after a traffic stop. The court sentenced him to two weeks in juvenile detention.
Through all of this, my brother and I drifted and by the time I was in high school, we were strangers. I was more used to him being absent than around and even welcomed the silence that accompanied the absence. We orbited each other. I stayed in my room when my parents and brother fought and, for the most part, he stayed in the basement when anyone was home and awake.
Our aunts would come to reason with him, give him tough love, and be equal parts supportive and judgmental toward our parents. On one occasion when I was taking refuge outside, our aunt found me and insisted I encourage my brother to try harder in his community college classes. The absurdity of the suggestion was laughable. My brother and I hadn’t exchanged more than 10 words in months. I had my own studying to do, my own teenage issues. There was no way in hell I was going to voluntarily initiate an awkward, one-sided conversation with my older, somewhat unstable, brother about the importance of homework. I did what I had been doing and took a line of non-interference.
Sometime after he turned 18, there was an argument that broke out when my brother was in his room blasting music with the door locked. Our mom banged on the door trying to get him to turn it down. After he yanked the door open the whole scene descended into havoc. At over 6 feet, my brother towered over our mom and he knew it. Our dad got between them, screaming at my brother that if he was so tough he should just hit him. He didn’t. But long-burning fuses were short. At this point, my brother was legally an adult and his stay at our parents’ house was tenuous at best. The fight escalated. My dad threatened to call the police and have him kicked out. There was a struggle over the phone, some banging, and more yelling. I could hear everything from my place at the bottom of the stairs. The police showed up a few minutes later. They talked to both my parents and my brother. Nothing was resolved but my parents allowed him to stay.
Not too long after, my brother was arrested trying to buy weed from a well-known dealer the police had been following. As my mom puts it, he had absolutely no street smarts and his trouble with authority was often a product of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She still sees him as her wild child who was secretly afraid of the dark.
We grew up in an area with a relatively large Asian population, but most of the other families we knew were of the “model minority” variety. I don’t think he ever felt like he fit in. No one knew what to do with a young 6-foot-plus, 200-something pound Taiwanese man who loved hip hop, wanted to be a rapper, and, later, walked around wearing a durag and Tims. It wasn’t until college when I finally understood the cultural niche my brother inhabited. When I read Eddie Huang’s memoir “Fresh Off the Boat,” I saw my brother reflected in the pages and wondered if he had a similar truth. Did he find an acceptance in hip-hop that he didn’t get from the world around him?
To the outside world, everything seemed fine. We all put on a good face and went about our lives. If a friend’s parent asked after my brother it was, “Oh, he’s staying with my aunt in California right now,” or “He got his GED and graduated from high school early.” It was never “I don’t know what’s happening,” or “Everyone walks on eggshells so nothing takes a left turn.” As much as I hated pretending, I felt I had to hide our family’s issues for fear of gossip or condescension.
There were times when I’d be exhausted from trying to tune out a late-night argument and wouldn’t say much at school. My friends would accuse me of being “angsty.” But, as far as anyone knew, I was just another sleep-deprived teenager. I didn’t want pity, whispers or questions. I wanted normal high school experiences — to make the volleyball team, get asked out by my crush, and get into a good college. So, I pretended everything was normal because for me it was.
My brother left the summer after I graduated from high school. It wasn’t until a few days after he had gone that our parents told me he tried to transfer a large sum of money from their bank account before packing his car and leaving. Quite frankly, I didn’t think much of it. The stealing was new but the leaving was pattern. But our parents worried, rifling through old school phonebooks calling everyone my brother had ever been friends with, hoping someone would know where he had gone.
It was my second week of university and I was walking back to my dorm when I got a text from my dad. You have to come home for your grandmother’s birthday this weekend. I objected, of course. I had training for my new campus job and couldn’t possibly go home. Besides, I had seen my parents the week before when they drove down and surprised me for my 18th birthday. It was a nice gesture. I had only been at school a couple days and friends were still few and far between. I called my dad to explain that while I loved my grandmother, she probably wouldn’t care either way if I was there. She had plenty of other grandchildren who weren’t at university hours away. And how was I supposed to tell my new supervisor I had to miss training for a birthday party? My dad told me to tell them it was a family emergency. Again, I objected — why would I lie about an emergency? Grandma really wouldn’t care that much. If you come home, I have proof of a family emergency.
What do you mean? What’s going on? I had stopped walking in the middle of the sidewalk. It was a beautiful night. A cool summer night with a clear sky. I could hear my mom in the background. She took the phone from my dad, she was sobbing. Your brother’s dead. We didn’t want to tell you over the phone. We want to see you. I sat down, took out my laptop and Skyped my parents. He was shot by the police in Georgia. It’s too dark — we can’t see your face. You have to come home for the funeral. Where are you? Why can’t we see you?
He was 22 when he died. After leaving home he started living out of his car when it broke down in Georgia. He began frequenting a fast food restaurant to get free samples and use the bathroom. The store manager got annoyed and called the police.
I don’t remember the last time I talked to my brother, but I’m sure the conversation was brief and inconsequential.
Sometimes I’m envious of people whose family members die from cancer or in car accidents. Their loved ones get to be blameless victims of unfortunate circumstances — humanity not afforded to victims of police violence. Those families get to grieve out loud without public scrutiny of actions, motives or deservingness. They don’t feel pressure to hide or feel ashamed.
The day of the funeral was grey. Attendance was small, just the members of my maternal family who were told. It rained that day and someone said it was a good sign. It meant the world was mourning a good man. He was cremated wearing a blue striped button-down and his favorite black hat. My aunt wanted to send something with him. She slammed her wrist against a leg of the casket and broke her jade bracelet into pieces. Some pieces to go into the flames and a piece for her to keep. I can see my dad, in his rarely worn suit, collapsing at the foot of the casket, head buried in his arms, sobbing, asking why? What had they done to deserve this?
The first time I saw my dad cry I was 6 and we were at my grandmother’s house watching “Titanic” on VHS.
My family isn’t religious, really. We have the odd born-again Christian and a Buddhist here and there, but we’ve never gone to church or temple in any sort of meaningful capacity. Regardless, we burn incense and paper money every year on his birth and death days asking whatever benevolent spirit to protect him and wish him well in the afterlife, more for comfort than belief.
With my brother’s death I felt sorrow, anger, confusion, but most of all I felt relief — and then I felt guilt. His death to me was the end of a tumultuous cycle. The end of his suffering. That he was taken into the embrace of oblivion brought me solace because at least he was no longer trapped in the limbo of his reality. Perhaps the worst outcome imaginable, but a closure even so. What kind of person was I to see the silver lining in a death? Even now when I think of him, the grief and guilt come hand in hand. For me, knowing the end of my brother’s story was everything, but it’s a secret. One we still have to keep.
Over the years, I perfected the answers to two questions: “Do you have any siblings?” and “How’s your brother?”
The response to the first question is, “I had an older brother, but he passed away when I was in college.” It took some trial and error to settle on this response, but it’s concise and, unless the asker is on the bolder side, deters any follow up. The best answer to the second question is, “I don’t know, I haven’t heard from him.” A true lie.
The difference is anyone who asks how he is knows he existed. The threat of truth becomes just that much greater. Someone who doesn’t know whether or not I have siblings isn’t a risk. It’s easier to be honest with strangers than parts of my own family.
In 2009 and 2010, my paternal grandfather living in Taiwan had two strokes; the second one left him mostly speechless and needing full-time care. He was a sweet man — quiet, patient, devoted. My grandmother jokes about how they never fought and how it would have been fun to fight sometimes. He was healthy and active which made the strokes all the more bewildering. While the use of his body abandoned him all at once, the deterioration of his mind was slow, making his condition even more excruciating. My parents felt that burdening him with the knowledge of the death of his oldest grandchild would be a death sentence unto itself. They decided the best thing to do was to keep the news from him and the rest of my family in Taiwan. We’ve fought about this many times since.
At the time of my brother’s death, my cousin, the second oldest after my brother, was attending school in New Jersey. They almost didn’t tell him about the funeral, they wanted to shield him for as long as possible. They said they would tell him when he visited for Thanksgiving. I refused to go along. I saw it as a denial of the opportunity to grieve and see finality. They believed it was the merciful thing to do. It came from a place of kindness, one I vehemently disagreed with. I won that argument and my cousin came to the funeral. But it was one thing to appeal on behalf of my cousin, someone of my generation, and another to persuade my parents of a course of action they considered harmful to their own parents. I couldn’t convince them that telling my grandparents of their grandson’s death was painful but necessary.
I wish I could say the deceit was a surprise, but again, it was a pattern. My dad’s family waited months before telling him of my grandfather’s first stroke. My dad is the oldest of four brothers and the only one living outside of Taiwan. They didn’t want my dad to feel guilty for not being around. They wanted to shield him like my parents wanted to shield my cousin. When they finally told him, he was devastated. Between life and work, he hadn’t been back in almost five years. He did notice my grandfather had moved from the fore to background during their Skype calls, but believed my grandmother’s insistence that tiredness was to blame.
One would think keeping a secret from the other side of the world is simple. It’s not. My paternal and maternal grandparents are friends — they may live 12 time zones apart, but they still talk regularly and used to visit each other when they traveled. They were friends before my maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States; they are the reason my parents met, and they all know how to use FaceTime. Keeping my brother’s secret wasn’t just a matter of not telling anyone in Taiwan, it was also the necessity of hiding it from my maternal grandparents, the ones who used to live next door.
In the weeks after my brother’s death, my maternal grandparents could sense something was wrong. They chalked it up to a health scare about my mom that we were keeping quiet. To this day, they have not been told and neither has my dad’s family overseas. When an unknowing person in the family brings it up, all 20 of us, cousins, aunts, and uncles are well-versed in vague answers and evasion. We bank on the fact that they know it’s hard to talk about to avoid the subject altogether.
We think my maternal grandparents, at least, have their suspicions. There have been enough close calls laid like puzzle pieces over the years. When my maternal grandfather needed a home health nurse, the caseworker happened to be the father of one of my childhood friends. When he stopped by to do a visit, he, in front of my grandfather, offered his condolences for my brother’s death to my mother. My mom played dumb. She pretended not to know what he was talking about and told him he must have gotten mixed up. My brother was fine and living out of state. Later, out of earshot, she told him my grandfather didn’t know and asked him not to bring it up again. It’s hard to know how much my grandfather heard or understood. His mind is still sharp, he just can’t hear a thing. He wears hearing aids but leaves them off. He gets tired of people talking to him. Although his spoken English is poor, he has always understood more than he lets on. Whether his continued ignorance is feigned or real, we are not entirely certain.
Just once my dad asked me to help actively further the lie. My participation up until then had been minimal. He asked if I could photoshop my brother’s pictures to show my grandparents, what was essentially, proof of life. I knew this was my parents’ way of protecting their parents, of showing love, of grieving, but I couldn’t do it. The thought of making the lie tangible only sustained what I saw as disrespect for my brother’s life.
I accepted a long time ago that it was not my place to tell my grandparents. I have never agreed with my parents’ decision to hide the truth, but I can understand why they did it. The aspect I worry most about now is as my grandparents age, they want to know where my brother is. They want reconciliation and reunion, they want to see him before they die. My heart hurts every time I see my parents having to lie about their oldest child. Though, I wonder if it’s too late to tell the truth now. There’s no way to un-tell the lie and the consequences would be just as grave.
This year, when we visit our family in Taiwan, it’ll be business as usual. One of my relatives will ask about him in a hushed tone and my dad will give the perfunctory testimony of ignorance. I will sit there silently, confined by both my unwillingness to lie and reluctance to go against my parents’ wishes. It’s tiring, all of it — the kind dishonesties and paternalistic sparing of feelings.
I asked my parents if my brother had instead died in a car accident, would they have told my grandparents. My mom said yes, my dad said no. My mom said they were ashamed and a car accident would have been an easier truth. My dad said he was, and still is, worried for the health of his parents.
My brother was a person, he lived and he died. He is not the worst thing he has done and my family is not the worst thing that has happened to us. I’m not ashamed and I don’t want to lie anymore. I find the decision to stay the course as safest but most unfair. It is unfair to my grandparents, my parents, my brother, and anyone who loved him. I can’t tell the truth to those who deserve to hear it. But I can tell everyone else.
About the Author: Kathy Pao is a resident of Washington D.C. where she serves as an analyst for the federal government. A Maryland native, Pao enjoys writing, reading, and rock climbing. She can be reached by her email at [email protected]