“Come on, let’s go visit Stan’s grave,” she’d say.
She’d drive through the narrow lanes—I remember one time when the car’s rear bumper caught the corner of a wrought iron fence that enclosed a group of graves—to the back of the cemetery. I’d wander around the headstones while she pulled grass from around a solitary marble marker and then stood there, quiet and still, for a few minutes.
Eventually, when I was able to form the question, I asked her whose grave it was.
“Your brother’s,” she replied.
When I was later able to form the question of what happened to him, she said, “He was born with a cleft palate.”
She didn’t offer to explain what that was, either at that time or any other time. I eventually learned that Stanley Abbott Ruffin was born and died on October 15, 1960, two years and three weeks after I came into the world. Mama had been thirty-seven when I, her first child, was born, so she was thirty-nine when she delivered Stan. He had been my parents’ one and only shot at giving me a sibling.
Somewhere along the way I asked Granny what was wrong with Stan and she said, “He had really bad birth defects. He was born with some of his organs outside of his body.”
“Mama said he had a cleft palate,” I said.
Granny looked at me kind of funny and said, “Yeah, he had that, too.”
Stan’s gravestone has a little lamb on each of the two bottom corners and one date, October 15, 1960, right in the middle.
His parents’ gravestones are to his right. I won’t be joining them.
I’m going to be cremated. I don’t see any point in taking up any space after I’m gone.
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, if I’d had a brother with whom to bounce around my thoughts and doubts, perhaps I would have become less introspective. If I’d had a brother with whom to share my grief, perhaps that grief would have been less of a burden. This much I know: if I’d had a brother with whom to share my small bedroom, I would have developed a much smaller sense of bashfulness.
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 buckteeth, 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, utterly 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.
As things turned out, I probably would have assumed primary responsibility for Stan when I was very young. 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, all these years later, 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. Joes and baseball cards and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Doonesbury. Maybe we would have shared stories, both by living them and by telling them.
Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten along at all. Maybe one or both of us would have turned out to be a jerk. Maybe we would have become estranged.
Maybe, even if he hadn’t died on the day he was born, he would have died young. That seemed to me to be the way of things for people who were my close kin.
Had he lived, maybe I would have mattered even less than it sometimes seemed I did. My mother’s cancer took so much of my parents’ time and energy that there were moments when they didn’t have much left for me.
But it would have been good, I think, to have a sibling, mixed blessing though I’ve heard that can be.
--Excerpted from Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life. ©2016 Michael L. Ruffin. All rights reserved. Available in print and Kindle editions.