When Death Happens To The Unknown Next Of Kin

My 67 year-old brother-turned-sister had retreated into work over the last 15 years. She was […]

Duo Dickinson / 10.25.17

My 67 year-old brother-turned-sister had retreated into work over the last 15 years. She was a bus dispatcher, but was, by all accounts, totally dedicated to being “at work”. No friends outside of the office, no hobbies.

So when she told her co-workers that she was going home after a morning shift to return for the night shift to “Do some things at home” it was unusual.

She never returned. They found her body, in bed, on Monday morning.

I wish it was a surprise. I wish I could say I now will miss her. But we had not spoken since I was the Executor if our parents’ estate over 15 years ago. I had sent any number of invitations, cards and letters, but they were sucked into a black hole of sad history. In truth I have missed him for about 50 years. In the maelstrom of Mid-Century families, the intensity of Mad Men only bit because it was true – hugely, socially true.

Discovered in the apartment entryway

After The Big One, WW2, everything was “fine” for my mother and father. Despite a health issue or too, they had three children and settled into a place that was lovely and worth the labors of restoration and joined a Country Club. They found a church, private schools for their kids and learned to Barbecue.

But although happiness was assumed, it did not come. The 6:30pm train, greeted by joking and smiling kids brought home a man to dine on a fine meal prepared by his snappy wife and the dozen ounces of scotch before he ate.

Despite the presumed rightness of the life after war, there was no therapy in post-war suburbia. The golf course at the club was soon abandoned. The church was part of a social framework that was maintained, but changed as the drinking closed off relationships. There was medication in drinking, calming in smoking, and expression of brokenness in screaming anger after the second 4 or 6 ounces of booze.

Like the lawn the children offered no solace for the wounds of a complicated life: in fact they offered a vehicle for its projection into anger and remorse.

We knew what was expected. We would dress well at church, clean our plate, and be quiet. But some could not get the A. Body types were an issue. We could not understand. My siblings were called “failures” early and often – and I watched.

No amount of black and white four channel TV or ballroom dance lessons could render his children what he hoped for: better versions of him. The inevitable disappointments found in stilted expectations became expressions for his anger, damaging the growing minds of children in ways that take lifetimes to fully realize.

One of those children died two days ago. His life was a series of attempts. Just like my parents’ suburban therapy, those attempts did not work out. Two marriages, several career paths, a sex change operation all promised happiness, but his estrangement from anyone I knew or heard of marked a sad life, not a redemptive one.

For a while he was my bother, defending me when my drunken father wanted me to learn to mow the lawn at 9, picking me up from football games – but a constant self-medication by the familiar tools of drugs and alcohol ended that. He then became a young husband, with a younger wife, a photographer, a churchman then married to the parish secretary, and then finally becoming a woman with a job as a bus dispatcher. The full transition to being a woman happened after both parents had passed and left him money for the many therapies.

Then, silence.

No word back from scores of mailings. My last contact was a brief encounter when she came to see her nephews, my sons, concert singing in NYC. I was with friends we were all happy and glad to have her hear them, perhaps the only time my sibling had ever come to hear them sing in their terrific Episcopal Choir of Men and Boys.

So, as I had for 50 years, I continued to pray for the happiness and resolution of my brother-turned-sister. None of us had asked to be born, we had parenthood inflicted upon us with an incoherent volatile judgment that bent the life of my sibling.

I assumed he, at least, had a church life.

Until a call from Peekskill Police Department Detective Merritt on Wednesday, in my car. “Sir, I regret to inform you, your brother is dead.”

“But he had become my sister…”

“We have his name as Win Dickinson.”


“He – she – died in her sleep – he did not show up for work, and his boss called us and we went to check on him and went through his unlocked front door to find him dead in bed. Um, he was a hoarder, too.”

“I thought so.” I remember cleaning out his attic bedroom with my mother after he left for college in 1968 – amid the cigarette butts and Playboys, there was a full and hidden pile of animal poop, courtesy of his pet rabbit in one corner of his bedroom. 15 years without family or spouse meant there was no cleaning out. Of any kind. Ever again.

The apartment when I arrived

So I have begun the process of figuring out if there was a will, are there any assets, where a decent service could be had. No one but the police has called me, but I have called a fair amount – lawyer, county coroner, sister, and, finally his last known parish.

Now with a part-time Priest-in-Charge, I was finally able to connect and asked in every way that came to me what relationship my sister had had there. “I can tell you I never knew her, and she never attended in the six years I have been here.”

Her friend at work noted he quoted scripture. He also said he loved his brother and sister. But none of that love, including God’s, kept first him, then her, from a life of isolation. Maybe she was happy, perhaps fully in connection to God. I cannot know.

But the peace that passes all understanding has been reached. I wish I knew that he was finally able to connect with the parents who loved him, then judged him, then simply could not understand him. I wish I thought I could tell him how much his pain was in my prayers.

But, even being a fully engaged Christian and Episcopalian, I do not know these things. I hope these things, know they are promised by the God who has given me everything in a full blessed life. But I also know that despite all the extremities and distortions, my parents loved us, but ultimately did not know what to do with us, so the elemental trust of the devoted was bent a bit in broken faith at a tender age.

Just like my brother-turned-sister, my memories are the scars of a time when faith failed us. For me at least, Jesus was there, is there, every day even if my parents weren’t. I do not understand much, in fact I seem to understand less in many things where ignorance was a blessing, but I know that I am loved beyond any season, despite my insufficiency and abiding failures.

I know I must find my sibling a place of peace in this world. After 3 weeks no one has stepped forward. I know that his house has been repossessed by the town for back taxes, there is no closure, but I know that his body can be cremated for $1,300.

It now makes more sense that my wife and I purchased 8 spots in our church’s Columbarium.

So ends a life. Now, again, a war casualty needs a measure of resolution. Those remaining end up caring for the passed, not in understanding, or even faith, really, but the hope that the resolution of so much that is broken, can happen – or at least the unhappiness cease.


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One response to “When Death Happens To The Unknown Next Of Kin”

  1. […] of my childhood since my mother died over twenty years ago. And more so when my sibling committed suicide over four years ago. I have been fully open and expressive of the truth of being in a bad […]