For all of my life I have referred to myself as an only child but that description is not literally true.
On October 15, 1960, just a little over two years from the day I was born, my parents welcomed their second son and last child, Stanley Abbott Ruffin, into the world. On that same day they saw him leave this world which he had so briefly visited. His life on earth lasted about twelve hours.
There is not much to mark Stan’s quick passage through this place: the marble marker on his grave that says “Asleep in Jesus”, the 8mm footage my father shot of the flower-covered grave on the day of the graveside service, and a stack of sympathy cards that we found in my parents’ cedar chest after they had both died. There was also the sense of grief and loss that my parents carried with them in their hearts until the days they died, but they never said too much about that.
While is not literally true that I was an only child, it is practically true.
I wonder how my life would have been different had Stan lived and had we grown up together in the little house on Memorial Drive.
I wonder if I would have developed differently. For instance, had I had a brother off of whom I could have bounced my thoughts and doubts, perhaps I would have become less introspective than I turned out to be. Had I had a brother with whom I could have shared my grief over my parents’ death, perhaps that grief would have been less of a burden to bear. This much I know: had I had a brother with whom I had to share my small bedroom, I would have developed much less of a sense of bashfulness than I ended up with!
I wonder if I would have learned earlier about the challenging nature of life. While I don’t know all the details about Stan’s birth and death, I do know that he was born with severe birth defects. Had those defects not been severe enough to take his life, he and we as his family members would have faced tremendous challenges from the moment of his birth—he would have been a “special needs” child. Perhaps his situation would have given me a different perspective on my buck teeth, my nearsightedness, and my scrawny frame, all of which I regarded as severe afflictions in my childhood. I assume I would have had some responsibility for his care and maybe that would have caused me not to focus so much on my trivial and by comparison grossly manageable difficulties.
No doubt I would have learned those amazing lessons that family members of special needs children seem to grasp—lessons about gifts and grace and love—that most people seem to struggle so much to learn. Maybe, armed with what I would have learned from Stan about the challenging nature of life, I would not have been so overwhelmed when I was confronted with other challenges later.
When both of my parents died by the time I was twenty, I would have assumed the primary responsibility for Stan. I wonder what that would have been like. Would I have learned the lessons that I know my parents would have taught me about unconditional love? Would I have been there for him as they would have been there for him? Now, thirty years after our parents died, would I still be caring for him? Or would I have learned that, in ways that matter most, he was always caring for me?
Maybe we would have shared laughter. Maybe we would have shared hobbies. Maybe we would have shared the Atlanta Braves. Maybe we would have shared church. Maybe we would have shared faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe we would have shared G.I. Joe and baseball cards and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Doonesbury and Frederick Buechner.
Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten along at all. Maybe one or both of us would have proven a jerk in the relationship. Maybe we would have become estranged.
In other words, maybe our relationship would have proven subject to all the stresses and strains and risks and rewards and chances and opportunities and successes and failures to which all relationships are subject.
So here today, on the 48th anniversary of Stanley Abbott Ruffin’s birth and death, I confess that I think I missed something in not having him as a brother; I affirm that I miss the brother I almost had.
But at the same time, since what is matters infinitely more than what could have been, I confess that what matters most is how I have lived in the relationships that I have had; I affirm that much of my joy in life is found in embracing the people that I have had and that I do have in my life.
Yes, I am an only child; I never got to embrace my brother Stan. But along the way I have embraced many, many brothers and sisters. And I am grateful.