baby graves

Image by valkrye131 via Flickr

The essay below won the 2007 Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It originally appeared in the NC Writers’ Network Newsletter. I own the rights, so I am posting it below. I hope you find it meaningful.


I am haunted—not by graveyard ghosts rising as white fog over desolate tombstones or by eerie voices heard at midnight from a bedroom window, but rather by my twin brother Jeffrey, who died the day we were born.

As a child, I knew that Jeffrey had died, yet the story remained a mystery to me. But recently I secured Jeffrey’s death certificate and learned that he had drowned in his own blood.

Department of Public Health, Certificate of Death, State of Tennessee, Division of Vital Statistics. Name: Jeffrey Potts. Date of Birth: December 25, 1961. Date of Death: December 25, 1961. Age: 2 hours. Death was caused by: Immediate cause—pulmonary hemorrhage, bilateral, severe, etiology unknown. Other significant conditions contributing to the death: erythroblastosis fetalis, minimal. Was autopsy performed? Yes.

I have no memory of the first time I heard about Jeffrey. Mama or Daddy may have told me, or I may have asked, having heard them speak his name—but I remember once at five, just before Easter, sitting on the tiled living room floor that had become slick and yellowed with overwaxing. I watch the old black and white TV as “Davy and Goliath,” a claymation series about a boy, Davy, and his dog, Goliath, begins. I find the brass rendition of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” stirring as the episode, called “Happy Easter,” starts with Davy visiting his old but vivacious grandmother who has black hair and wears horn-rimmed glasses. She and Davy are having a wonderful time in the attic, finding and playing with old toys. All seems well, idyllic as my own world, living with my parents and grandparents in the country, every nook of our house holding the promise of new adventure. But the next day, Davy returns home after a neighborhood baseball game and walks into sadness; his mother and sister are crying. Davy asks, “What’s wrong?” and his father answers, “Grandmother died this morning.”

I feel my stomach sink. I’m lying on the cold floor, my face inches from the screen to which I’m glued. Then as Davy’s father explains the concept of the resurrection, all I see is blackness. I run into the kitchen, sit on a chair beneath the bright florescent light and hold my head in my hands, sobbing, “When will I die?” My mother, peeling potatoes over the kitchen sink, doesn’t even look up. “Probably not for a long time,” she says.

Although I don’t often consciously think of Jeffrey, he seems to lurk just behind  my obsession with death. He is the ghost who whispers what might have been, who fills me with unexpected moments of grief and regret.

Fast forward twenty-one years to 1988. I’m in the office of a pastoral counselor with whom I meet for weekly sessions. We talk about my long-time fear/fascination with death, and I tell him about Jeffrey. When he asks if it ever bothered me that I had lost a brother, I say, “No.” Then he asks, “But did you ever wonder about losing a twin brother with whom you would have played, shared, grown up?” and I burst into tears.

Growing up, I didn’t think of my brother often—not once a day, not once a week, not even once a month. Usually, his ghost visited only when Mama mentioned him, though there were some rare instances when I wondered how much Jeffrey would have been like me, whether we would have had the same interests, whether I would have confided in him. Sometimes I imagined him looking down on me when I did wrong, like the time in third grade I lied to the teacher about staying outside past play period to watch two boys fighting. I had climbed near the top of monkey bars to watch them, cupping my hands over my eyes and squinting into the sunlight. The boys’ silhouettes leapt as though they were boxers exchanging blows. The bell rang for class, but I stayed outside before finally returning to class with other tardy students. The teacher asked which students had disobeyed the bell to watch the fight. I didn’t raise my hand. Several classmates yelled at once, “Michael Potts is lying.” I turned red, and for some reason thought about Jeffrey, felt him as a visceral presence.

Even today, when I catch myself lying or doing wrong, I think of him and if he’d be ashamed of me. Or if he’d be proud of my accomplishments: my Ph.D., my academic articles, my published poems. Is it a sense of loss, of  buried grief that rises, insisting to be acknowledged? But what kind of loss can I feel about someone I never knew?

Jeffrey Potts…died Monday at Rutherford Hospital shortly after birth. His twin brother, Michael, survives. Graveside services were held at the family cemetery near Smyrna….

Jeffrey’s remains were moved—twice. Once from the family cemetery, near the Stones River in Smyrna, Tennessee due to the construction of Percy Priest Dam to Mt. Juliet, thirty miles from home. Then family visits were rare, though I remember riding with my family one Sunday (I must have been seven or eight), the drive punctuated by the rolling hills of middle Tennessee which seemed to run forever by my car window. The motion was disorientating, making me sick to my stomach, and I was glad when we finally stopped. I don’t remember the grave itself, a small patch of grass and a curved headstone. But many years later, as an adult, I drove to the graveyard alone, looked for almost an hour before finding the tiny headstone. I wept openly. No one else was around—no person, no squirrel scurrying up and down trees—just a breeze which briefly interrupted the stifling July heat.

Mama wanted the grave closer to home, and the family all agreed. And even though I had moved out of state for graduate school, I still wanted to be able to visit when I returned to my parents’ home. They purchased a new gravestone, casket, paid the fee to move the remains. I wanted to be there for the reburial, but Mama and Daddy didn’t tell me, so I missed  it. Later that week when I phoned for details, Mama described the scene: how the old black casket was carried out of the grave and placed on the grass. Decayed, the lid had collapsed. A cemetery worker needed to scrape out tiny bits of bone amid the earth; what was poured into the new casket was mainly dirt. I remember thinking of God telling Adam, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.”

Jeffrey’s remains now lie in the “Babytown” section of our hometown cemetery. A small but attractive stone marks the grave. Whenever I visit, I clean off the excess dirt, pull grass where it has overgrown, say a short prayer, cross myself before I leave. Then I walk over to Granddaddy’s and Granny’s graves as well as to my Uncle Lytle’s and do the same. Looking across the Tennessee countryside—filled with Eastern Red Cedars, sugar maples, farmer’s fields full of alfalfa and fescue, good food for cows—I imagine such beauty lasting forever. But then the ghost of death, like a cold, unwelcome wind comes, and I must leave.

Jeffrey’s death, or rather the idea of Jeffrey—the sense of the other self, the doppelganger, the secret sharer, the person he might have become and how he could have influenced what I might have become—still haunts me, especially on Christmas Day, our birthday, or when I visit my parents. I take the short drive to the cemetery, stand on the cold ground, look down at his marker, say “Happy birthday.” I close my eyes, sense the missing space in myself where Jeffrey would have been, try to imagine it filled. But my mind remains blank, and I open my eyes to find nothing staring back but brown grass and cracked earth.

Sometimes, I’m troubled by a recurring dream—I’m walking behind the wooden garage that Daddy and my Great Uncle Bill built when I was ten. I squeeze my way between the black wall and the vine-covered fence until in darkness, I bend and touch something soft and squirming. Then I shoot awake, often in a sweat.

And recently, not long after receiving Jeffrey’s death certificate, I remembered rabbit hunting for the first time with my father; I must have been nine. We walk steadily out in a sun-blanketed field, shotguns slung over our shoulders. Suddenly, Daddy spies a single gray rabbit, nibbling at something in the distance. He stops, takes his shotgun, aims, and shoots. The large rabbit pops back and falls. When Daddy quickly, deftly skins it, I ask for the heart, carrying it off to study alone near the edge of the woods—its tight red muscle glistening as I squeeze and squeeze, trying to get it to pump again.