My Brother’s Keeper

“Mom, can we have a baby brother?”

What second-grader with two younger sisters seventeen months apart hasn’t asked that question? My dad, born a farmer, always a farmer, seeing nothing but estrogen in his future, might have thought about asking, too.

My mother was probably all for it, as long as she didn’t have to make it happen.

It happened. A brother was on the way! But things went cataclysmically wrong during his birth and he was delivered stillborn at full term. His name was Dennis Lee, and his funeral service in my grandparents’ farmhouse living room, his tiny white casket placed on a lamp table, was the first time I ever saw my dad cry. My mom was still in the hospital recovering from emergency C-section, so she couldn’t even be there. The room was a blur of tear-streaked faces, and my little sisters were in that circle somewhere, being held by neighbors. My grandparents’ grief-twisted faces seemed foreign to me. The only familiar face I could really see was my dad’s, and he was shaking with sobs. It was somehow a greater loss of innocence than the realization that the flawless little doll in white satin was my brother and he was dead.

The next year, when I was eight years old, Susan about four, and Rita somewhere south of three, it happened for real. A boy named Danny Lee arrived full term and in a hurry, bypassed a mandatory repeat C-section, came home from the hospital and instantly belonged to three older women — me, Susan, and Mother – but mostly me because Susan was little and Mother needed rest. Rita was not in a helpful mood, end of story. After our dad got our mom and the bundle settled in the living room, Susan and I jostled each other for a first peek into the bassinet. Wow, another perfect little face. Rita was across the room in the kitchen doorway with a comforting finger in her mouth, so Mother asked if she’d like to come see her new baby brother.

Finger pop. “I can see him just fine thrum here.”

Pretty much took that as a no.

So for a while, Danny Lee was my baby, sort of.  I got to warm bottles, feed him, rock him to sleep, don’ know nut’n ’bout no diapers, though. Made him laugh, teased him, made him cry. And then the next day he was out of grade school and I was getting married. Meanwhile, my lucky sisters got to grow up with him. Big-sister angst is a thing, people! I knew the baby, the toddler, the sometimes-annoying grade-schooler, and the beginnings of the awkward adolescent Danny Lee. My sisters lived with all that, and then got to spend far more quality time than I did with Danny the adult.

Danny Lee was a quiet boy.  Danny the man was that way too, with subtly-increasing layers of gruff for protection. Today’s social scientists might label him a conflicted introvert.  Tenderhearted, easily wounded, cursed with three idiot older sisters. Talented, gorgeous, funny. Not us, him. Clever and hysterical almost from the start. Cornball humor was his forte, but puns, riddles, and goofy magic were also part of his medicine bag. AND standing directly around the corner from whichever sister was on the stylish black wall phone with the two-inch cord … farting … and walking away.

Susan had her own unique relationship with Danny, in fact they ended up practically related to each other. Oh wait. No, no worries, this isn’t one of those “farm boy and cousin” stories, I hate that crap. Okay, put down the cheese log and give me your undivided because I’m only going to say this once. My brother married a girl whose brother was married to my sister. Not Rita, the other sister. So you can pretty much deduce which sister was a sister-in-law to her own brother.

Rita wins the Sisterhood of the Traveling Overalls, though, because she worked side by side with Danny on the family farm. They got to sweat, laugh, get muddy, cover for each other’s mistakes, hatch ideas and be farm-kids-who-aren’t-really-kids-anymore hilarious. That’s blue-ribbon stuff right there, I don’t care where your state fair is.

Danny had funny lingo for things — a ball-peen hammer was a ping-bong.  He also had a little bug called bipolarism, which runs in our family like … well, what it really does is stroll through at a leisurely pace. Why run, everybody’s gonna be here anyway, unless, of course, maybe they aren’t. In this gene pool if you aren’t clinically depressed, manic, or on the way up or down, you won the lottery.

Danny didn’t draw the winning numbers. In hindsight, a phrase that rarely precedes good news, we can see that he was already living with depression as a little boy. Adolescence extracted its toll, and the illness reached full force in adulthood. Anyone who’s struggled with bipolarism or clinical depression, personally or with loved ones, knows that it’s cyclical — it comes and goes. So a percentage of the time Danny enjoyed life the way we all want to, conceivably feeling what we refer to as normal.

He went into full-time farming with our dad, met the love of his life, married her, and they made three beautiful babies. He became a bodybuilder on his own time, with his own weights, and turned himself into even more of a work of art than he already was. The discipline he applied to that goal was nothing short of astounding. But the illness would not leave him any lasting peace, and he finally had all he could stand of the pain. Depression is a vicious liar that convinces you you’re in the way, you’re hurting other people’s lives by your presence, and everyone would be happier and better off without you. The brother we’d waited and prayed and hoped for ended his life on a chilly October morning with a shotgun shell to the heart, splintering the beautiful body he’d spent so many hours and weeks and months sculpting and toning.  He slipped away from us in the basement of the same house where our first brother’s funeral was held.

There was a brother hoped for and lost — an impossibly small casket. A brother hoped for and found — a tiny bassinet. And then lost far too soon — a ponderous casket that made finality real.

His sweet little family was shattered. It almost killed our parents. There wasn’t anyone who knew him who wasn’t laid low, our legs cut out from under us. For me it was like having all my skin ripped off in one piece and still being required to stand on my feet raw and bleeding, because life doesn’t care, it keeps right on happening. Do I know that Susan and Rita felt the same way? Yes. Yes, I do. We’ve each dealt according to our own individual mechanisms, and come to terms with some of it. But there’s nothing like a suicide for providing your therapist significant other with job security.

I won’t even go into the whole conversation about the whys and hows of depression and suicide. I wrote about it here and I recommend that piece as a companion to this one if you’re looking for some feisty light on the subject.

This isn’t about explaining. It’s about the truth that three adoring sisters, a broken mom and dad, a loving wife and three little kids lost someone none of us could live without. Not and in any way be the same people we were, ever again.

This is longer than most things I write here, but it’s mostly for my sisters, and for me. And for Danny’s kids, Ryan, Jeff, and Kelsie, who were six, five, and eighteen months old when he died. He was 29 and it’s been 29 years this month. It isn’t possible that he would be 58 years old now, because he’ll always be the young Adonis I saw for the last time at a family picnic and didn’t know it was goodbye.

Danny’s funeral service has been an ongoing source of pain to his three sisters. The minister meant well, but he called Danny by our dad’s name throughout his sermon, making it all feel coldly impersonal and needlessly wounding. And his fundamentalist convictions wouldn’t allow him to say the word suicide or acknowledge that Christians with huge loving hearts are as vulnerable to depression and death as the rest of us, so it was a lot of empty words going nowhere.

On this anniversary of his death it feels imperative to try to put something of who our brother was into words, and now I find that I don’t have enough of them. He was a hero to his children and his sisters, the long-awaited son of his father, the joy of his mother’s life, the husband of his wife’s youth. He should have survived so many of us, and there will always be a vast hole where he’s supposed to be. Someone as goodhearted as he was needed to be here forever — those people are in critically short supply.

We love you, Danny, we always will. You were perfect, just the way you were. If any one of us could have known how much your heart was breaking, we would have rocked you in our arms and done whatever it took to keep you here. We know you know that … but we’ll always cry when fall comes and the leaves turn and everything reminds us of inexpressible loss.

Early Years5




Memorial Stone


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Brenda Downing Stoppel
    Sep 22, 2016 @ 10:34:35

    I revisited this saved post and really had time to savor it. The memories of his wittiness (outdone only by Uncle Danny) and personality will always be with me. One time we were upstairs at Grandma Wagner’s and he put me up to taking a smoke off a cigarette (by the window at the top of the stairs)

    One summer day at the lake I thought he was so hilarious when he would stab the sand with a pocket knife “killing frogs” when he farted. :oD And my cousin Susan’s gorgeous long blond hair – she was wearing a two-iece swimsuit. Cedar Bluff memories are full of Wagners and Hartnetts and learning how to ski…

    So glad you posted a picture of Grandma Wagner. She taught me piano and washing clothes by hand. I’ll never forget her binocular -like picture viewer. Your writing is rich and created a flood of memories for me. Wish I could write such a beautiful piece in honor of my sister, Julie. Thank you, Judy.

    Your cousin, Brenda

    Liked by 1 person


    • Judy Smith
      Sep 22, 2016 @ 11:30:08

      Brenda, your message gave me chills and tears. It’s impossible to encapsulate our feelings about people we loved so much, and when someone not only gets it but adds to the memory box it’s totally gratifying. And I’m guessing you could write beautifully about Julie – just feel all the feelings and write them down. ❤️❤️❤️



  2. murphyvillefarms
    Mar 07, 2016 @ 18:35:08

    Beautiful tribute Judy, I’m sure he’s very proud of his big sis!

    Liked by 1 person


  3. Krista
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 10:22:31

    😥 Such a heartrending piece, Judy. Love and hugs to everyone.



  4. Carrol
    Oct 24, 2014 @ 10:20:05

    Oh, Judy I am crying this minute for you and yours!…. I have so many heart felt feelings for all of this. But…unlike you I have not the words. Know I’m thinking of you all.



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