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I hadn’t seen or touched it in almost 49 years. It was a homemade schoolbook satchel before the days of book bags. It belonged to my older brother, Doug. He carried it home the last day of school, 1961. Having completed the first grade that day, he skipped home from Washington Elementary School, proud of his report card and happy to be officially a second grader. And I, being one grade behind him, was as usual anxiously waiting for him to get home so we could play. And that was the last day I touched that satchel or saw my brother. That’s because that was the day my brother died.
Now, almost 49 years later I was back home, helping mom go through boxes and boxes of things long forgotten. And we had only scratched the surface.
That’s when I found myself holding a white satchel with “Douglas” neatly written in big, red block letters across the top of the bag. Drawings of sports cars had been sewn on the front of the bag. It was a bit soiled, definitely a boy’s bag, a tough survivor of the first school year.
The satchel was just as it was the day he dropped it in our room to go out and play with me. It even had his writing tablet and the “Crayola Crayons,” still inside. And tucked to one side, his report card, signed by Mrs. L.D.Whitlock every six weeks, with the lonely exception of that last six weeks, the one left to be signed, left blank forever.
Mom had buried all this in that box, entombing it in a crypt of memories, leaving it there these many years until I, reverently holding it in my hands as if it were an urn containing sacred artifacts of a historical memory, flashed back to that day 49 years ago, to that emergency room where the two of us — brothers, playmates, friends — were being treated after a car accident, and where I heard him speak his last words to me, “Am I gonna die?” And I didn’t know what to tell him.
When asked the question, “How long does it take to get over a death?” grief therapist, Dr. Harold Ivan Smith, says, “As long as it takes.” Sometimes, perhaps especially with the death of a child, it doesn’t necessarily get better, it just gets different. In his book, “Grievers Ask,” Smith tells about Izzy, Dwight D.Eisenhower’s 3-year-old son, who died in 1921. Eisnehower, a WWII general and two-term president, said of his son’s death, “It was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life…the one I have never been able to forget completely.”
Holding my brother’s first-grade school satchel in my hands, choking down a golf ball size lump in my throat, and seeing the tears in my mother’s eyes, I would have to agree with Mr. Eisenhower. And folding up that book bag, not knowing exactly what I would do with it, I realized as I carried it home, that in its burial, it had become much more than just a bag: it was a satchel full of memories, a bag full of grief, a receptacle of sorrows, the opening of which released images long forgotten, surreal-like as they rose to life, floating before my eyes like moving scenes on an 8mm family film, portraying a little boy laughing his way home from school, wrestling his little brother in playful fun, chasing his dachshund to the car, edging his way in front of his little brother into the front seat, crashing onto the hood of the car, lying lifelessly with his brother in shattered windshield glass, crying in his brother’s arms on the way to the hospital, asking little brother that final, most ultimate question, and not receiving an answer.
Memories have a way of apprehending us when we least expect it. Pain is the price we pay for having loved, and grief is the residue of memories long forgotten but always remembered.
Life Matters is written by David B.Whitlock, Ph.D. David’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his Web site is DavidBWhitlock.com.