The Oransky Journal

Interesting stuff that doesn't fit on Embargo Watch or Retraction Watch

My brother died 25 years ago today.

with 4 comments

Me, David and Andrew, circa 1984

My brother died 25 years ago today.

Twenty five years feels like a significant length of time, even if in some ways it’s an arbitrary interval to mark. It has been close to a decade since another milestone, when David, who was 17 on January 9, 1995, had been gone longer than he was alive.

Perhaps there’s nothing significant about a quarter of a century, but this year’s anniversary prompted me to fly across the country to spend it with my mother, my other brother Andrew, and his family. It also prompted me to want to leave a record of some scattered thoughts.

So here they are.

I have reached an age at which it is still uncommon and tragic to lose a sibling, but not a vanishing rarity. Cancer, heart disease and other killers do strike us in our 40s, if not nearly as often as we age further.

One hundred years ago, of course, it was altogether different. “The average across a large number of historical studies suggests that in the past around one-quarter of infants died in their first year of life and around half of all children died before they reached the end of puberty,” according to Our World In Data, an Oxford project. Still, “Globally 4.6% of all children die before they are 15 years old; on average a child dies every 5 seconds today.”

That means there are millions of us — the vast majority without any of the privileges I’ve been afforded — who are left wondering and, even years later, grieving at unpredictable moments. For me and others, those moments happen at family gatherings. My wedding. The bat mitzvah of Andrew’s daughter, who is named for David. 

But they also happen when I cheer for someone being admitted to Brown, where David had just been accepted before he died. 

I shook hands with Bruce Springsteen before one of his shows several years ago, and thought about the fact that David — a huge Bruce fan — would never be able to do that. It turned out that one of the new friends I made that night, both of us hanging on the barricades of the Pit in the Meadowlands, had also lost a brother at a young age. Those kinds of quiet revelations are no longer a surprise, but they are sometimes jarring.

My wife Cate and I sublet an apartment early last year just around the corner from the Greenwich Village restaurant — still in operation — where David and I had dinner together for the last time just days before he died. I stopped to look at it any number of times during that short period, and still do when I walk between my office in Soho and the classroom where I teach at NYU.

But I was 22 — younger than the graduate students that I now teach — on the afternoon of January 9, 1995, when my parents reached me on the phone at my dorm to give me the news. David was 17, the age he will always remain. One mark of how long 25 years is: I missed several calls from my parents that day because I was out studying and didn’t have a cell phone. That meant there was no Facebook or Instagram, either. I’m sure our collection of pictures of David would feel tiny to younger generations.

Today, David would have been middle-aged, as I am. What would he be doing if he had lived? Would he have a family? Would we have been close? I’m confident that he would have been using his considerable talents to try to change the world for the good. He already had. I have guesses about all of that, but that’s all they are.

What would the rest of us be doing? I would be fooling myself if I pretended David’s death had no effect on my life, even today. Some of those changes no doubt lurk below the surface in ways I’ll never know. We lost my father a decade ago, to a chronic illness that I am convinced was exacerbated by David’s death.

There are the relatively obvious behaviors to probe. David died in a car accident, but I have not particularly feared driving since then. I have been in several accidents, two of which easily could have killed me if things had gone just slightly differently. One involved a drunk driver going the wrong way on the Merritt Parkway late at night, and in the other, a semi took off the left rear corner of my tiny rental car, totaling it. I prefer not to drive if I can avoid it, but that’s mostly because I can work on a train and not worry about traffic. I find myself wired after driving for a while, particularly in New York, but doesn’t everyone?

Andrew and I grew closer after David’s death. It felt to me as if we were vastly different people as teenagers, and yet now it feels to me as though we can anticipate one another’s thoughts as if they were our own. It’s entirely likely that our relationship would have evolved this way anyway as we became adults, with or without the triangle formed by David. We can’t know. The same is true of the always-deepening relationships I have with many of my cousins.

There were losses in my family before David’s death, there have been losses since, and there will be more. Sometimes there is time to prepare, sometimes not. Each recedes in time, but leaves a mark, the same way those we have lost did.

My writing partner Adam Marcus — a better writer than I’ll ever be — tells me I have a knack for coming up with pithy and effective ways to end pieces that we co-author. Perhaps. But I don’t have one that offers closure here.

Then again, maybe that’s the point.

Written by Ivan Oransky

January 9, 2020 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. I know. I lost my brother, very suddenly, when he was 38 and I was 42. I did not think I would ever recover, and I don’t think that I actually have. There are moments when the grief is still unbearable, no matter how I rationalize it.


    January 9, 2020 at 12:46 pm

  2. ☼ I appreciate this entry. I’ve come past a few pieces on grief tonight. Even with methods training, there was still something (*dare I say magical? oh, I have no career to protect) *magical* in the synchronicity of sharing in these moments with others. At least in the past. The “pain shared is pain halved adage”. Which still holds true somewhat, at least for me. Of course, there are so many algorithms and microphones recording things we whisper under our breath, and every keystroke recorded (eyes tracked, if the camera isn’t covered etal): Point being, the synchronicity part is harder to maintain than ever. But does that matter? I’m not even sure exactly what it added, in this moment. But by the same token, why go back to the restaurant at all? Why share so openly at all? There is something else here. Likely something that, were I not so tired, I’d see.

    And all of that being said: I do post daily to keep my socials alive, but check twitter properly once a month, at best; I rarely read blogs; and rarely scroll. I could easily have never seen this. You are a hero of mine. Medicine and investigation. Writing in a far more serious way than I can (currently) easily elect to do. Mostly because I am not sure who the writing would be for. If I write about things I already know, and believe, isn’t the rest just performance? It is a lot of effort to write properly (you may have noticed). And the super-systems are reasonably broken. It isn’t clear wading into them is anything that could be oriented as a “forward” momentum necessarily. At which point it is just work. Work for no-body or benefit. Though, most would agree, I would likely benefit from using fewer neon colors and caps-lock laden paragraphs in some of my work. In fact, I mostly agree with that myself! (Only drafts look like that. But it is energy expended. You do good work, is my point. And props to you!)

    But that doesn’t leave me anywhere in particular. See, death is my anchor and my drive. It is the chariot with two horses. And in any event, that is not why we are here. Avoidant. I knew that was happening as I was typing it though. So, for now, it is what it is. So why are we here? I do actively try to never look away from death. But I certainly no longer always attempt to engage in any capacity.

    I am not sure why you being a hero of mine makes a difference either? An intimacy generated for the schematic shaped like you in my mind, populated with a best estimation of your social character, as interpreted by a part of the machine that echoes my “me’ness”, extrapolating a “you’ness” from your various performances, viewed through filters (known and not), constructing a final avatar, with whom I have a relationship dynamic. OK, so maybe I do have some idea.

    But that is to say, constructing an avatar that has to be wrong! In nearly every way, by a prominent margin, and at a near certainty. Suppose all of my heroes are mortal, with mortal relatives? Seems reasonable. And I never build that in. I spend a reasonable bit of time on death awareness too. And what that means. And what it isn’t. As such, it doesn’t surprise me that the avatars, that place hold for people in my mind, do not have relatives or suffering built in. Death tricks people into thinking they are looking at it all the time, when they aren’t. I’m sure this intellectualizing is nothing to do with that though, not in my case *coughs*. At a minimum, it is all a little interesting. Or if not interesting, better than James Cameron’s “Avatar” anyway. Low bar though that may be, I will always at least have that much. (I’m such a serious ridiculous person – which is a poor mix socially, I’ve often found).

    Hitch died in real time, without the two of us crossing paths yet. His wife finished his final work. And that death was impactful for me. Though all I was doing was retiring his avatar! And did I even have to do that? Plato I was never going to meet. His avatar never got retired in the same way. How does one best use these constructions? It seems to be the case that, at a certain level, these “avatars” are all anyone is. When people betray us, it is our fault. It is a prediction error. Collated the data wrong. Dated models (*separate issue).

    But death is something else. I suppose we lose the ability to test the model and error correct. And we grieve for futures that were never going to happen anyway. But in those cases, we have lost the ability to replace them with an alternate. I don’t talk about my losses or early hospital experiences directly. Possibly why I do appreciate other people sharing so deeply. Even this reply is clinical and abstract (and far too long).

    Well. That is a good cue to try and end. I have crossed paths with many of Hitch’s friends, since his passing. And in your world I have met Nosek. And Goldacre I think, but before I cared (still counts). I suppose I’ll end with saying that I hope to at some point be able to update your model with real time data, such that your avatar is slightly more reflective of your irl signature.***

    Why? Who knows. Look at comicon, why anything! Pain shared is pain halved, again. Or commonality is kinship, kinship is group, group is safety, safety is closer to power over death. Death opposes existing, we are existing machines (because the non existing machines don’t exist), therefore anything opposing death is valance positive. Something around there.

    Thank you again for writing. And if you read this, well, I just hope it is on a computer and not on a cell phone. It will be a block of text either way.


    ***Ioannidis would be nice too. Thanks again.

    J.Chron.Ltt.&Sci. [JCR]

    January 9, 2020 at 7:02 pm

  3. ❤️. May his memory always be for a blessing. I think of your family often. Your writings are always warm, thoughtful and from the heart.

    Barbara federman

    January 26, 2020 at 2:55 pm

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