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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Death of Siblings: Remembering Alone

Mike Goska

For me it's always been all about stories.

I'm not that into things. I think my divorce from things is related to my cognitive challenges. Butterfingers, that's me. I drop things. I don't know how to operate things. I am flummoxed by the challenge of storing things. I own a Stanley tools 25 foot Fat Max tape measure. I have no idea where it is.

I remember being a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic, a dangerous place. It was close to the equator and the following always arrived around six p.m.: sunset, night-long polyrhythmic drumming, bats, eight-, six-, and four-footed predators, and two-legged thieves.

One night I took my lantern apart to fill it with kerosene and – I couldn't put it back together. It had about four movable parts: the lower can that held the kerosene, the upper can that held the wick, a glass globe, and a frame. I could not put these items, that I had just taken apart, back together. I was terrified. The light didn't protect me from the darkness and its dangers, but I felt that it did, and the darkness was coming on quickly. I struggled for half an hour before figuring out that I had one of the parts upside down. That simple.

So, yeah, no, things. Do I own anything that was once owned by my mother? Yes, one thing. A low-cost pendant. That's it, I think.

The stories, though. The stories.

How and why my great-great grandmother was murdered, and the fallout from that murder that lasted for the next one hundred years. How and why my paternal grandfather died, and the impact on my father. His riding in the same jeep with Douglas MacArthur. What his men said to him at the reunion. Why he was in the army twice, under two different names.

The stories.

My sister just died. She is my third sibling to die. I've been talking about the impact of siblings, and their deaths.

Here's one impact. My sister's death is in many ways my own death. I kept waiting for someone to see this and say it: "You are sad because your sister is dying, and of course you are also sad because in a sense her death is your death." No one did so I'll say it. One reason siblings' deaths make us so sad is that their deaths are our deaths as well.

My sister and I didn't have a good relationship. Even so I loved her passionately. My insightful friend Robin Schaffer asked me why. I listed Antoinette's qualities: her intelligence, her honesty, her talkativeness, with me, anyway. She never shut up with me, and I like to talk and I like people who talk.

Later, though, I realized that that list could never add up to my love for her, and that two things really would have done a better job of explaining: Antoinette and I laughed at the same things, and Antoinette and I remembered the same things.

Antoinette's home was put up for sale shortly after she died.

We grew up poor. Our mother hammered this into us. I always assumed I would die in a cardboard box on the street. I still assume that. I probably will.

Antoinette was the first one of us to buy and inhabit her own stable home.

Antoinette's aesthetic was the classic concept of feminine and pretty: pastel colors, soothing motifs. Pink, sky blue, gold, lavender, ocean scenes, starfish, hummingbirds, floral patterns.

Her home was in a great neighborhood on a lovely lot with trees. When she told me that a bear attacked her bird feeder, I was so jealous. She had reached heaven. No cardboard box on the street for her. Her yard was full of plants she bought, planted, and nurtured, including a blue spruce next to a pink dogwood. See? Pretty. There was the girls' swing set, and a wren house inhabited by a real house wren, whirligigs and wind chimes.

Antoinette created that space and kept it alive every day with the turnings of her body, just as an animal forms a den. Shortly after she died, it began to be dismantled, so that the house could be sold. That house will never sound the same, smell the same, or feel the same. The house that Antoinette created died when she died. I feel sad.

I think of my mother's home. I was an abused kid; my home life was hard. But I loved the house. I loved its smells of onions, ham, and bread. I loved the creaking floors and the knot in the staircase that let light through as you walked over it. I loved the peek of the older wallpaper under unpainted corners. I loved the sound of Tramp's occasional pants or scratches at night on the porch, or one of my brothers coming home, clearing his throat, and peeing in the toilet. No sound has ever touched me more than the sound of the heat kicking on that first night in autumn.

I loved what happened when people came over. I especially loved Aunt Phyllis. She was beautiful, and she had something special. She and my mother made each other laugh. It was such a grace. My mother was a different, better person around Aunt Phyllis.

Aunt Tetka and Uncle Strecko came, too. Sometimes Rose and Rudy and Sophie Stupko. They would sing Slovak folk songs. They would speak Slovak, my father would speak Polish, and World War II and the Depression would be re-told.

I was at a family function recently. Everyone was a WASP, including those who had Bohunk ancestors they have forgotten and don't want to know about. Everyone spoke English only. Not a single person there would have known how to respond if I said "A ja taka carna" or even "Chodz." No one had survived anything – no WW II, no czars or Hapsburgs or Nazis. No, they had all survived their trip to the mall. 

I am remembering alone.

Amanda Cooney, a talented photographer, took some photos of Newark's Branch Brook Park when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I shared the photos on my facebook page. Sue Knight, a well-read woman, quoted A. E. Housman's poem "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now."

Sue's reference reminded me that my brother, Mike Goska, had written a very funny parody of A. E. Housman's poem, "When I Was One and Twenty." It was published in the Lakeland Regional High School literary magazine, or maybe its yearbook. Mike rewrote the poem as "While doing six to sixty," about a prisoner in jail being offered wisdom by his cellmates.

I wanted to snatch that memory back.

I wrote to Matthew Certo, the current principle at LRHS. I asked if there was any chance he could find a copy of Michael's parody. He tried. Principle Certo just emailed me. No luck.

The memory is gone. I am remembering alone.

Antoinette would remember that poem. When she was in the hospital, and in bad shape – that day she did not recognize me – I was talking to her. I would talk about anything. I said, "Antoinette, remember Barry Bogerman?" I was mentioning a guy Mike used to hang out with when he was in high school. And she said, "Yeah, Mike's friend."

This is something – she was barely opening her eyes, she was hardly speaking, and when she did speak she didn't say anything coherent. And she remembered Mike's friend Barry Bogerman.

Mike had two kids: Donald Skidmore and Grace Lydia Skidmore Fowler. Their father died before they could know him.

I was Mike's little sister. I remember things about Mike that no one else who is still alive remembers. I have tried to contact his kids over the years because I have wanted to share these memories. I've never met Lydia; I was in the same room with Donald when he was one year old, I think. Neither of them has responded to my offers to share with them memories of their father. I don't understand. I feel sad. These memories of Mike will die with me. 
Photo by Amanda Cooney
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow. (A.E.Houseman)


  1. Shared memories. Yes. There is no-one else who shared our childhood, for good or ill, the way our siblings did. And there are the shared jokes too, that get funnier as time goes on, but mean nothing to anyone else.

    There are only a few of us alive now - two siblings, and a couple of cousins, I guess - who remember the childhood Paradise that was my granny's rambling country cottage and garden. Once they are gone, there is no-one I can share those memories with. and we are all getting horribly near our sell-by dates.

    Here is another poem about spring blossom that has the same message - how short our lives are now - the contrast with the freshness and renewal of Spring. (At least, I think it has the same message, with this post-modern poetry, its sometimes anybody's guess).

    Karen Volkman

    In May’s gaud gown and ruby reckoning
    the old saw wind repeats a colder thing.

    Says, you are the bluest body I ever seen.
    Says, dance that skeletal startle the way I might.

    Radius, ulna, a catalogue of flex.
    What do you think you’re grabbing

    with those gray hands? What do you think
    you’re hunting, cat-mouth creeling

    in the mouseless dawn? Pink as meat
    in the butcher’s tender grip, white as

    the opal of a thigh you smut the lie on.
    In May’s red ruse and smattered ravishings

    you one, you two, you three your cruder schemes,
    you blanch black lurk and blood the pallid bone

    and hum scald need where the body says I am
    and the rose sighs Touch me, I am dying

    At the moment, as the Inspired Scriptures tell us, "death reigns as king over us". But a rescue is on the way. So.I was sad that you said, in a previous post about your sister, "I just knew right then and there. God was fixing to take my sister away from me forever."

    I hope very much you know that isn't true. Jehovah wants to give us life. He made us to live forever, and never wanted us to go through the pain of losing those we love. Jesus cried when Lazarus died. Jehovah never wanted to lose your sister, or for you to lose her. Doesn't he long for the time when he will resurrect the dead?

    The Book of Job gives us this assurance:
    Job 14:14, 15 says: "If a man dies, can he live again? I will wait all the days of my compulsory service Until my relief comes.  You will call, and I will answer you. You will long for the work of your hands."

    Weren't your brothers and your sister Antoinette the work of Jehovah's hands? And doesn't He long for the time when He calls them out of death and sees them again?

    1. Sue, don't worry. I am confident that my sister is in a better place. But she is lost to me forever in this dispensation.

    2. I knew Mike in high school, and Barry Bogerman as well. Mike was the second brightest person I knew. Barbara Needell was the first. He kept his light under a bushel so to speak. Unfortunately, I wasn't aware of his writing. I wish I could read them now. I am sorry to hear of your losses.

    3. Thank you so much for writing. :-)