The first dead person I ever saw was a boy named Jeffrey. I was six years old and Jeffrey and his little brother George lived in the neighborhood behind our home The two of them would often hop our rusted chain link fence to play with my brother and me. Jeffrey and George had a lot of freedom to roam and explore, something that my mother was afraid to give her children.
It was not unusual to find Jeffrey at our door with George in tow. They were always going somewhere and asking if we could come along. And it wasn’t unusual for us to not be allowed. It was shortly after one of these denials that I learned of Jeffrey’s death. He and George were walking back from a carry out a few miles away along a busy road when a car struck Jeffrey. He was eight years old. George was only six, just like me.
My family attended the funeral. And, as was common at the time, it was an open casket. The first dead person I ever saw was a child just like me. Someone who had just been on our porch. Someone who would never be on our porch again. Someone who was now gone.
When we got home my brothers got ready for bed. Instead of putting on pajamas, I got out paper and markers. I did what I always did when I lacked the words to express what was going on in my mind. I drew. As I sat on the bed I illustrated what I thought Jeffrey’s death must have been like; what I assumed George saw before his brother was gone. My drawing was suddenly ripped from my hands. My brother saw my drawing and had become enraged by it. He thought I was making light of what had happened. Yelling ensued and soon my mother rushed in to put an end to the fighting. I remember her taking my drawing as she left the room with my brother to calm him down. Later that night, when she asked me about my picture. I remember apologizing and explaining that I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I had made something that was hurtful. That I had somehow made Jeffrey’s death worse for my brother.
Our home was not a place where things were overly discussed, examined, and resolved. You just tried to get through stuff and make the best of it. My mother sat me on my bed and told me that there was nothing wrong with my drawing. She explained I was lucky to have something that helps me, and that it was not my brothers place to say how I dealt with Jeffrey being gone. And she never mentioned it again, nor did anyone else in my family.
Years later as I was going through my mother’s possessions I discovered that crude drawing I made that night. Looking at it, I could see how it’s simple childlike depiction of a terrible accident might have upset my brother. I could also see how it helped me understand that terrible things can happen, and that Jeffrey was now gone. But most of all, I can see that my mother understood it, too.