IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Still Blame Myself for My Little Brother's Death

It's been 23 years, and I still can't get over the idea that I could have done something to stop him from drowning.
Publish date:
May 15, 2015
death, grieving, family, siblings

Normally I don't share this story. It's that piece of my history I come to every now and again and think to myself, “Wow, my whole life changed in that one moment. “

You don't realize as an adult the echoes of your past can have the resounding impact on you throughout your life. As a kid you only see the dots of your story. But when you grow up you learn to see the lines that connect them.

During a recent family event, an uncle made a comment to me about my history of being trustworthy. An aunt hit him from under the table. I knew what it was about since I've tried everything to be perfect to my family since I was 5 years old.

I have spent each summer of my entire young life in the Bronx with my grandparents. Both of my parents, as well as my brothers and I, were born there. And still to this day, the majority of my family lives within the borough. My parents were separated at the time all of this happened. My father was in Arizona with a friend, and my mother was living in Florida at the time to sort things out.

Richie (3), Chris (4), and I (5) had no idea this was going on as is wasn't odd for us to be away from our parents for long stretches of time. Now that I'm older, I realize it was my grandparents protecting us from a mother and father that shouldn't have been together in any capacity.

This whole scenario feels like it was 20 minutes long from what I can remember — and shockingly I remember the whole day down to what he was wearing.

Richie and I were drawing in the kitchen. Our aunt had just left the room to use the bathroom. I was always really mature for my age, and it wasn't uncommon for me to look after Richie and Chris when there weren't adults around. My grandfather was young at this time and was at work. My grandmother had just taken Chris to the corner store to get some cold cuts — in the time it took them both to walk to the end of the block and back, Richie was already dead.

Something in the living caught my attention. I got up, turned to him, and said "Stay here. I'm just going to check on something." The TV was playing a cartoon. I sat on the forest green velvet armchair and watched it for maybe 2 minutes. Once the commercial came on, I made my way back to the kitchen. Richie wasn't there.

The layout of the house goes as follows: Front door, mud room, living room, dining room, kitchen, backdoor, backyard. To the left is an alleyway that leads back to the front of the house. There is an upstairs with steps along the wall of the dining room, and a basement with steps along the right wall of the kitchen.

I ran outside and yelled his name; turned to look up the alley and the gate was open. I'm a mature 5, but still 5 — so I run to the front of the house and stand on the white steps hoping my voice will carry through the neighborhood. I can see my grandmother and Chris walking up to the house on my right, and I am crying. "I can't find him. I left him alone for a second, and now he's gone." Then, we all hear a scream from a neighboring house. Richie had jumped in a backyard pool.

It has been years since this happened, and there is no shaking the guilt of that day. I am not sure whether to be impressed by how vivid my memory is or if this is residual shock from the event, but it never fades.

New information about his death keeps popping up. My parents were supposed to get back together, but couldn't find the strength to make their marriage work. Apparently there was a lawsuit, but no one will tell me what happened. And Richie's body was found by the children living in that house — that family moved right after this.

Friends say that this wasn't my fault, and I can see their point. But I was a smart kid. My grandfather drilled safety procedures into our heads (and still does to this day) about looking both ways and not allowing for distractions. He expected a lot of me, so when he came home to only find two grandchildren he stopped trusting me. Even growing up he refused me all the coming-of-age tropes (driving, sleepovers, dates). My mother wasn't around to question his judgement, and my father was off . . . somewhere doing something with goodness knows who.

I look at my actions now and see how they all stem from that afternoon. My family stood there in the living room crying telling me that I should have stayed with him. None of it would have happened if I just stayed put. After that I was the most pristine, quiet child desperately seeking the approval of my family or at least an acceptance of an apology. “Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t stay with him.”

“What’s done is done, Laura.”

When I look at pictures of him, sometimes I think that he actually didn't belong to us. His hair and his eyes don't match mine or Chris.

Maybe 3 years was the perfect amount of time for the universe to realize he wasn't supposed to be here.

Or maybe that’s what I’ve been telling myself all these years to make the guilt feel less intense.