09/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHEN A 35-YEAR-OLD AIDS PATIENT named David died in a New York City hospital room last spring, his family was not there. Instead he prayed and held hands with a stranger: volunteer AIDS worker and writer Barbara Lazear Ascher. "When I kissed David goodbye," she says, "I realized this is what I didn't get to do with my own brother. We all do get second chances."
Sitting with David was both charity and therapy for Ascher, 48, who was devastated by guilt and grief when her younger brother, Bobby Lazear, succumbed to AIDS five years ago at 31. At the time of his death, she had been sailing with her husband off Nantucket, out of touch partly because Bobby had not told his family how gravely ill he was, but mostly because she and her gay bartender brother were not close. "I'm embarrassed to say this now, but I thought his homosexuality was something he'd outgrow," she says of Bobby, who came out during his senior year in high school.
Nevertheless his death threw Ascher off course. She found it difficult to write, she says, and kept replaying Bobby's last months: "There was nobody there to say anymore, 'I forgive you, and I love you.' "
The distance between regret and redemption is recorded Ascher's 1993 book, Landscape Without Gravity. "People should give themselves permission to grieve," she says. "Otherwise I think mourning continues to seep into your life." She found that brothers and sisters can be the forgotten mourners. "Siblings may be ambivalent about their relationships in life, but in death the power of their bond strangles the surviving heart," she writes in Landscape.
To help others through their sorrow, Ascher has founded Sisters, a small New York City support group for any person who has lost a sibling. The six original members met once a week for two months last spring to talk about their losses and learn to move on. Volunteering, as Ascher does, is optional. "Sister" Kate Brandt, 26, who lost her younger sibling Melissa to cancer, explains, "We shared something that nobody else in the world can ever share with me, and Sisters' people understood." Two more groups, in New York City and Los Angeles, are forming this fall.
Growing up, Ascher adored the little brother born when she was 12. "Barbie was almost a second mother to him," says her father, Bob Lazear Sr., retired headmaster of the private Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, Conn. With him, their mother, Dotsy, a home-maker, and middle sister Rebecca Lazear Okrent, now 44 and also a writer, Barbara and Bobby grew up in a J. Crew-catalog-perfect world of prep schools and summers on idyllic Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts.
Barbara married psychiatrist Robert Ascher in 1967 and graduated from Bennington College the next year. She raised a daughter, Rebecca (now 25 and a writer at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY), earned a law degree and then started a writing career. Bobby's life took a different turn. He dropped out of Oberlin College and moved to New Orleans to tend bar. "I was scared that he was living a profligate life," she says, "so I came across as being very disapproving."
The appreciation Ascher denied her brother in life came later when she visited Bobby's partner, paralegal George Gillespie, in New Orleans. He told her about the Bobby he knew, a magnanimous, witty man who greeted customers with a flirtatious "Hi, darlin," and mastered sign language to communicate with a deaf patron. "It was important to see Bobby through the eyes of those who loved him," Ascher says.
Her parents, who included George in their lives, say they hadn't noticed friction between the siblings. And Bob Senior calls Landscape "the most beautiful thing" his daughter has written, "because it came from the deepest part of her heart."
These days, Ascher spends mornings writing and afternoons volunteering. "Somehow we have to love the people who are difficult to love," she says. "There's nothing I can do about Bobby today. But maybe there's something I can do for somebody else. I think that is the glory of the expansiveness that comes out of grief. Now what I feel is so much bigger than happy."