Book Bag: ‘Were You Close?’ by Anne Pinkerton

Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2023 4:27:43 PM

Were You Close? A Sister’s Quest to Know the Brother She Lost by Anne Pinkerton; Vine Leaves Press


In 2008, Anne Pinkerton’s world turned upside down: Her oldest brother, David, died in a fall while hiking alone high in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

For Pinkerton and other people who knew David, his death seemed inexplicable. He was an experienced outdoor adventurer who had hiked, skied, mountain biked, and kayaked all over the country as well as overseas; at 47 years old, he was still in top shape.

He was also a respected doctor — “Dr. Dave” — a radiologist whose job was to help heal people. How could he be dead?

The drive to make sense of her loss — and to understand her relationship to her brother — sent Pinkerton, of Holyoke, through a long process of grieving and plumbing her family’s history, leading eventually to her memoir, “Were You Close?”

The book, Pinkerton’s first — she’s a Hampshire College graduate who works in marketing and communications — is also about her quest to try and learn more about a brother who she loved, but at a certain distance. Dave was 12 years older than her, born during their mother’s first marriage, and as Pinkerton relates early in her memoir, the two didn’t see that much of each other as adults.

“My mind flashes on how much time often passed between our phone calls, how brief our emails were, how infrequently I visited him in Texas where we grew up and where he stayed,” she writes. “Over the course of nearly twenty years, he visited me only twice in my adopted state of Massachusetts.”

That distance, she notes, came despite her still-vivid childhood memories of how much she had worshiped her big brother, the one who made up his own bedtime stories for her, taught her how to ride her bike, and genuinely enjoyed babysitting her.

“David was more like a super-fun uncle than a brother,” Pinkerton notes. “Nothing pleased me more than making him proud.”

“Were You Close?” covers the shock and grief she experienced when David was first reported missing. Then there’s a fraught trip to her childhood home in Houston — right before Hurricane Ike roars into the city — for a memorial service, where she clashes with her other brother, Tommy, with whom she’s never been especially tight.

Pinkerton includes a moving chapter of how she and her mother, a year after David’s death, travel to the area of south central Colorado where he died to scatter his ashes, both of them reluctant at first to approach close to the site.

She also does a strong job examining the emotional toll his death took on her, especially in trying to understand the swings she would have between grief and anger when people asked her how she was doing — or if they didn’t ask.

“We, as a culture, are so inept about death and dying, loss and grief,” she writes. “Worrying over how to address a bereaved person can paralyze us with fear, so we avoid it at all costs.”

As she processes her grief, the author also looks at how little appears to have been written about how people cope with the death of a sister or brother. Society, she notes, seems to reserve most of its concern for the loss of a partner or close friend, or for a parent who’s lost a child.

In one of the few books she finds on sibling loss, she discovers the phrase “disenfranchised grief,” which speaks to a death that is not as publicly acknowledged or accepted as others, such that people who lose a sibling “end up sensing we are alone in our suffering or that we are mourning improperly — for too long, or with too much emotion.”

But Pinkerton eventually finds ways to come to terms with David’s death. For one, she immerses herself in her brother’s outdoor world by reading widely on the subject and talking to people who shared adventures with him. Then she enters an MFA program in creative nonfiction at Bay Path University to begin the process of writing her memoir. In that way, she says, she finds a means for answering the question many people posed to her after Dave died, one that often frustrated her: “Were you close?”

Maybe not in the way she had once imagined they would be, Pinkerton writes, but close nevertheless: “Somehow he is with me — and always will be — in ways he might not have had he lived.”

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