Reviewed by Michael Varga (Chad 1977–79)
THE DEATH OF Tom Zink’s older brother, Steve, at age 16 is a traumatic event in the life of the Zink family. Conservative Lutherans, the Zinks adhere to a gospel where a death is God’s will, unfolding, in all of its mystery. Tom is only 14 when he loses his brother as they are delivering newspapers and Steve is hit by a car. Tom relies on the adults around him to make sense of this tragic event.
But the adults are grieving in their own solitary way and offer little help to the young Tom. He divides people into those who knew about Steve (the “before people”) and those who didn’t (the “after people”). And since so many of those Tom meets are “after people” he shares nothing about Steve, his tragic death, or even that Tom once had an older brother. Tom feels unready to become the new “older brother” to his other siblings, and teasing from his Dad undercuts his confidence. He takes solace in the Paul Simon song, “I am A Rock,” since a rock feels no pain. For much of his life, Tom locks away his feelings about his loss in a frozen tundra, far from his daily reality.
In a frank memoir, Tom Zink has written about his journey from that fateful day —through many moves (including a stint in the Peace Corps in Micronesia in the late 1960s) and many jobs, to marriage and fatherhood. There are occasions when Tom is prompted to share his feelings about Steve, but his religious outlook and fear of others’ reactions preclude Tom’s opening up. Late in his journey, Tom learns that others who knew Steve — a pastor, for example — have used what happened to Steve as a point of exposition for individuals making religious retreats. Tom comes to see that he could have benefitted so much more from being open about the loss he suffered, what he learned from it, and listening to how others handle death.
This is a well-written memoir by a man willing to share how many of the choices he made early in life proved to be misguided. There is a little too much factual reporting about who was serving on which committees at church and which sports which cousins were playing, but this is a narrative anyone who has experienced death (of a sibling, or other close family member) can relate to.
Death is a challenge for any of us, and the key lesson is that grieving with others who feel the loss — articulating what we are experiencing and what we are learning about the journey of life — is a salve to make the pain more bearable. There is a grace to be had, even in confronting the loss of a loved one.
Reviewer Michael Varga served in the Peace Corps in Chad and has published a Peace Corps novel, Under Chad’s Spell. Varga is a retired diplomat, who served primarily in the Middle East. Learn more at www.michaelvarga.com.
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