Originally published May 9, 2016
It was an accident. I was only a child myself when it happened. It destroyed my family. It destroyed my life.
My little brother was three. I was five. We were playing together, as we often did. Typical boys of that age, we were loud and wild, often disobedient (especially me) and always looking for new ways to get around the rules.
My mother stored some special sweets in a high cabinet far out of our reach, available only as rewards when we were well-behaved. One morning, when she was distracted by other things, I convinced my brother that we should climb up and retrieve them. We stacked some chairs, stools, small tables, and boxes into a makeshift ladder to enable us to reach the cupboard.
Then, in an instant it was over. The pile collapsed and we came crashing down, bouncing first off the counter which was crowded with jars, canisters, sharp implements. Somewhere along the fall, he hit his head. There was a lot of broken wood and shards of sharp, smashed ceramic. I landed hard on top of him.
Mother came running when she heard the noise and found us in a bloody pile. I was hurt — my arm was badly broken – but I was still conscious. My brother was not. He was bleeding so much, it was hard to know exactly from where.
My mother rushed his limp body to the doctor who immediately realized the need for the hospital, where my father joined her. Two days later, my brother was dead.
From that point on, my family was irrevocably broken. My father blamed my mother for not taking proper care of us; for leaving us unattended even for five minutes, but she barely heard him. She blamed herself even more, and that was a much louder voice in her head. My own guilt and pain were only just beginning.
At the time, I was too scared, and my parents were too distracted, too inconsolable, too angry at me and at each other for me to dare mention the pain in my arm. I never said a word about it. The break eventually healed unattended and incorrectly, rendering my arm practically useless for the rest of my life, a physical reminder of what I’d done; an external symbol of my internal pain.
Over my lifetime, I must have replayed that morning in my head a million times. If only I hadn’t suggested we climb, he would still be here with us. If only I had landed first and he fell on top of me perhaps he would still be alive. If only Mother had not been so stingy with the sweets, I would not have spent my life crippled and racked with guilt.
The guilt and blame destroyed my parents’ marriage. They did not divorce, for they were bound forever by this tragedy but there was no love, no kindness, no compassion for each other’s suffering. They lived together, side by side, going through the motions, each alone in their unhealed pain
My mother died when I was 15. My father was never an expressive man. He had barely said a word to me for most of my life, but while my mother was alive, there was some semblance of communication as they maintained a semblance of a normal life. Once my mother was gone, however, he made no secret of ignoring and avoiding me. He could barely stand to have me around. His disdain seemed natural and understandable to me.
I left home a few years later and never saw him again. I heard after the fact that he died a few years after I left but I felt no sorrow. He had been dead to me since my childhood.
I lived the life of a wanderer, doing what I could to make enough money to survive, living hand to mouth. I was often hungry and homeless but I knew life did not owe me more. I had to pay for what I had done.
Although I could not have articulated it then, this was my spiritual debt. If I hadn’t paid it while I was alive, I would have had to pay for it eventually. I know now, that this was a debt already owed from a lifetime previous, when I committed evil with impunity.
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