By Sarah Braasch
In Loving Memory of My Baby Brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)
I was working on this piece when I received news that my beloved youngest brother, Jacob, had taken his own life by hanging himself in my parents’ basement.
I was ten, almost eleven when my mother told me and my brother and sister that she was pregnant again. I didn’t speak to her for weeks. I was a good little Jehovah’s Witness girl back then, but I’m pretty sure that the present day equivalent of my little ten-year-old interior diatribe would be something like, “You stupid bitch.”
Our family was on the verge of cracking open and oozing out onto the ground like a rotten egg. “Was she trying to drive my abusive father to killing us all?” I asked myself. Our financial situation left something to be desired as well. The last thing we needed was the introduction of another stressor, another mouth to feed and another victim. I was so angry that I couldn’t find the words to express my rage, so I just stopped speaking.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. And, my baby brother was born. If by born you mean torn out of my mother’s body as a corpse before being brought back to life by a team of doctors. I remember assembling in the school library to watch the news footage of the Challenger exploding in the sky. I remember feeling numb.
I had been so overexposed to constant violence and the constant of impending catastrophe. My Book of Bible Stories was replete with images of apocalyptic mayhem and destruction. I was in full anticipation of being torn from limb to limb by demons at any moment. And, I lived my life in constant terror of my father’s fickle and vindictive temper. I didn’t have anything left to give to the Challenger. My entire world was exploding in a ball of fire.
When I was told that the state had taken custody of my baby brother, I thought, “If only I could be so lucky.” He had needed an immediate life-saving blood transfusion at the moment he came into this world. Of course, my parents refused. Jehovah’s Witnesses view blood as sacred and blood transfusions as a mortal sin against Jehovah God. So, the hospital called a judge in the middle of the night, and my baby brother became a ward of the state.
I blamed my mother. I blamed her for everything. She didn’t protect her children from abuse, so it seemed fitting that her body would try to kill my baby brother in the womb rather than try to nourish and protect him.
I decided that all of our woes were the result of the fact that my parents were terrible and sinful Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were not strong in the Truth. My father’s only interest in Scripture was as justification for his maltreatment of his children. He rarely attended Kingdom Hall meetings, and he never went out in service, i.e. going door-to-door, witnessing the Good News. My mother was not the Jehovah’s Witness she should have been. But, I would be.
My martyr/savior complex reared its ugly head. I decided to show them up. I would be the best Jehovah’s Witness ever. I would keep our house together. I would take care of my siblings. I would be such a good little Jehovah’s Witness girl that Jehovah would not only protect me from demons, he would protect me from my own parents.
I enjoyed the feeling of spiritual superiority. I couldn’t smite my parents, but God could and would. One day. And, I would save my siblings too. And, we would make new lives for ourselves in an earthly paradise in the new system of things after judgment day, free from our parents’ abuse.
While my mother and my baby brother remained in the hospital, I became the mistress of the house. I cooked and I cleaned and I washed clothes. I made sure that my other siblings got to school in the morning. I took care of and fed all of the pets. I worked and I scrubbed and I toiled. And, I imagined that Jehovah was looking down on me from heaven, utterly enamored by my righteousness.
One day, my father said something cruel to me. He said something cruel, but of no great or particular import. He said something about the condition of his eggs. He said something about my obligation to serve him. I don’t know why exactly, but, in that moment, I lost my faith. Or, I started to lose my faith. But, not just my faith in God, not just my faith in Jehovah, not just my faith in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the tenets of their religion or their governing organization, but in humanity.
I turned off the stovetop, and I slammed the iron skillet down hard. I realized in that moment that no one loved me. I realized that my father viewed me as something of a dispensable and replaceable slave, as divinely sanctioned by Jehovah. I realized that my mother viewed me as the property of her husband. I realized that I was storing up spiritual riches in an imaginary heaven for a just future that would never come.
I screamed in anguish at my father without regard to the consequences. I wasn’t really upset by my father’s thoughtlessness. I was heartbroken. I had lost my God. Jehovah had abandoned me.
I screamed at my father to cook his own eggs, wash his own clothes and clean his own house. I expected to be backhanded, but nothing happened. I think he was in shock at the force of my rage. I stormed off to my bedroom, threw myself on my bed and sobbed into my pillow. I had never felt so alone. No one was going to save me.
I sunk into a deep depression. My insides were turning into poisonous, black lead. My limbs felt heavy. It was difficult to move. I was less than enthused when my father announced that we were all going to visit my mother and baby brother in the hospital.
I sat in my mother’s hospital room. I gazed out the window at the inky black night. I wondered if I would be able to break the glass, if I threw the full weight of my tiny form against the window. I imagined myself crashing through the window and plummeting to the sidewalk below.
I glowered at my mother. She felt the full force of my rage. The sight of her disgusted me. I wanted to hit her. At first she looked at me with incredulity, but her expression quickly morphed into disdain, then irritation and, finally, anger. I wanted to provoke her. I wanted to anger her. I wanted to impose my presence upon her consciousness. I wanted to force her to react to me, to recognize my existence, my humanity.
My father looked at me with more love in that moment than he ever had, either before or since. He looked at me as a kindred spirit, a pained and tortured soul. I understood him as no one else ever had or ever could. I understood everything he had endured during his childhood. I understood his feelings of desperate helplessness. I understood both his longing and disgust for human affection and connection and intimacy. He had made me in his image. I was his baby Frankenstein, an emotional aggregate of all of his childhood traumas and hurts. And, he loved me for it. I was his little girl with rosy cheeks engorged with the blood of impotent fury.
My mother kept harassing him and tugging at his sleeve. “Get her out of here,” she said. “I can’t take this. I can’t stand her right now. Get her out of here. I can’t even look at her.”
I just kept glowering at her underneath a furrowed brow with my chin tucked into my chest. I felt nothing but the purest, most unadulterated hatred for her.
The more hatred that oozed from my pores, the more love I felt radiating from my father’s form.
He responded to my mother, “She’s fine. Just leave her alone. She’s fine.”
My mother kept clutching at my father’s sleeve and nagging him to remove me. But, he refused. He was kind to her, but unrelenting. My mother shot me a look of absolute hatred. My father had betrayed her. He had taken my side. The only time he had ever done so. He had protected me from her.
I finally understood why my mother allowed my father to abuse her children. She didn’t care. She didn’t love us at all. And, worse than that, not only did she not love us, she saw us as a threat, as competition for our father’s affections. In that moment, I think my mother would have enjoyed watching my father strangle me.
I wasn’t concerned about antagonizing my mother. She had dabbled in physical abuse when we were little, but that was no longer her modus operandi. And, at the moment at least, I had my father in my hip pocket.
Our father finally suggested that we leave my mother to sleep while we visited our new baby brother in the ICU.
When I was little, I loved hospitals. I loved staying in the hospital when I had my tonsils removed. I loved being doted upon and cared for by the doctors and nurses. I loved being away from my parents. I envied Jacob.
He was bloated and his skin was a putrid shade of yellow. He looked like a little corpse, as if he had drowned and been plucked from the water a couple days later. He was encased in a tomb-like, clear plastic incubator. He was covered with tubing – in his little arms and legs, in his mouth. Every one of his breaths seemed to require a monumental effort on the part of his tiny body.
We took turns putting our gloved hands through the holes in the side of the incubator, so that we could gently stroke his little bloated body. He grabbed my finger with his little hand.
I tried to communicate with him telepathically. I tried to tell him not to fight quite so hard to live. I tried to tell him not to be in such a hurry to get out of this place. I tried to tell him that the world is cruel and loveless and might not be worth the trouble.
In my mind, I said to him, “I would trade places with you, if I could, you poor, stupid baby. You poor, stupid baby.” But, I could see that he was fixed upon surviving.
And, then I decided to save him. And, I fell in love with him. I focused my attention on his little fingers clasped around my index finger, and I thought, “I will protect you. I will love you. I will take care of you. I promise. Everything is going to be ok, baby.”
I had a reason to live again.