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A Cosmic Equation

A Cosmic Equation

It’s a sensation that never quite leaves you, this feeling that you owe your very existence to someone you will never meet.

My older brothers were born in 1950, 1952, and 1954; I trailed the pack by a full eight years, arriving in 1962. People often smile when they hear that sequence, jumping to the obvious conclusion and silently thinking “Oops.” And I usually smile back, because it’s easier than explaining the truth, which is—as is often the case—so much more complicated.

My brothers and I had known for years that Mom took the three of them away to visit their aunt and cousins on the East Coast for several weeks during the summer of 1957. It was only in the last couple of years that our aunt revealed to one of my brothers why Mom had come for an extended visit that summer: she had miscarried, and wanted a change of scenery to help her heal.

That part we were oblivious to for decades, but the rest of the story we knew well. In June 1960 our brother Joshua was born. His birth was difficult and traumatic—the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and they had to take him by emergency caesarean section—and in the end, Joshua didn’t survive.

During her lifetime, Mom told each of us this story more than once, carefully choosing her words, but usually including this moment: immediately after the birth, while Mom was under local anesthetic but conscious on the operating table, her doctor pressured her to agree to have her tubes tied, maintaining that it was for the best because she wouldn’t be able to have any more children anyway. She refused.

(Mom’s retelling of this story to me would always finish the same way: “And two years later, you came along—my miracle baby.” A well-intended comment that inevitably left me queasy—I mean, no pressure, right?)

Joshua was buried in June 1960 at a hillside cemetery a few miles from what was then our family home in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. I never visited his grave while growing up nearby, and to my knowledge Mom didn’t either, though it’s impossible to know for sure. It could be that it happened and she simply couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about it with anyone.

As I moved through early adulthood into marriage and serious consideration of having kids of my own, Joshua was never far from my thoughts. The two of us comprise a cosmic equation whose components are both devastatingly simple and impossible to resolve: if he hadn’t died, would I exist?

By the time our first child was born in 1987, Karen and I had been talking about baby names for years. And yet, from the moment the discussions became more than theoretical, I was firm on a boy’s name: I wanted it to be Joshua, in honor of the person without whom I might not be here at all. With Karen’s enthusiastic agreement—she’s always loved the name—it was.

Flash forward 30-plus years to last Friday. Seven months after Mom’s passing, for the first time in my life, I am standing at my brother Joshua’s grave. I’ve brought along a couple of things to leave behind, mementos of Mom to help complete that circle. Afterwards, I stand in silence at his small grave for a long time, hand in hand with Karen, as the late morning sun warms the gentle slope where he was laid to rest. I’ve had years to contemplate what I might want to say, standing here on this spot. In the end, the only thing that feels right is the simplest of all: “Thank you.”

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