My little brother Andrew was a bright light. Almost a fire. He imagined. He created. He produced. He supported and encouraged many others, making their lives fuller. He wasn’t concerned much with people’s judgment of him, if it got in the way of being himself. He smiled, he laughed, he made others laugh until they cried. He seemed to turn every situation into fun. He was sharp, curious, open-minded. He always had time for conversation, and made everyone feel special, in an authentic way. He was compassionate and helpful to others to the point of anticipating what they might need ahead of time, and offering it. He didn’t complain much. And yet, his fire was put out. Snuffed. Tragically, unexpectedly, and inexplicably.
You know that phone call you worry sometimes about getting, the one that makes everything else fade into oblivion, the one with the bad news you never expected to receive, the one that makes you turn cold and shake and just repeat “no” a thousand times? I got that one. And my other little brother was the one who had to make that call to me. To give the news to many others. To give the news to my mom and be haunted forever by the reaction on a parent’s face when she hears her son is gone forever.
Those calls, these events…they happened one year and one day after Robin Williams died. A year after I texted both brothers and told them that sad news, and Andrew replied, “Whaaaat?!”
Cliches can be irritating, but that phrase, “I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me”? My entire floor has been ripped away. Andrew has been gone nearly 3 months and I still feel like a cartoon character suspended in air, looking around confused before falling into a canyon.
In the days after, we were all cloudy-headed. For over a week, most of us couldn’t complete sentences. Thoughts and memories intruded upon other thoughts, and those pushed aside just dissipated somewhere in the air for good. We were a clan of sad zombies. Yet in the midst of it, plans had to be made— memorials, care for children who shouldn’t see such sadness, laundry done, luggage packed, other plans cancelled. Texts must be responded to or sent. Stomachs must be fed, though they didn’t seem to require much.
Each morning I’d awaken feeling suffocated, gasping for air, dealing with panic attacks I never had before in my life. Certain situations made me feel “buggy”, anxious, like I needed to escape. Noises and worries were all amplified. I felt like I was crawling out of my own skin. I had flu symptoms for at least 2 weeks. One strange morning I woke up with my teeth feeling loose and I thought, hopefully, thankfully, “My teeth are going to fall out! This is just that terrible nightmare and as soon as my teeth fall out I’ll awaken and it will be over.”
In the week after, I was surrounded mostly by loving, caring people who also miss my brother. They offered to help in any way. Most of them meant it. For those who meant it, I wanted to respond to the “Let me know if there’s anything at all I can do” phrase with, “Can you bring him back?” and hope they knew a way to answer yes. Because that’s all I wanted and still want.
And then I was whisked back to “normal” life—for me, many miles away. Like a time traveler, I realized that the rest of everyone’s lives had transpired as usual. Few of my friends here knew my brother. And my kids, who should not know the details of this sadness at their ages, needed me. School started 9 days after I came home. Teachers needed to be met. The kids had homework, and needed my help. They needed meals, and clean clothes. They didn’t want to be cooped in the house doing nothing, while I cried and journaled. In my head, for encouragement, I tried playing a modified version of the Nat King Cole song: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and crawl all over again.”
Sometimes that song works, sometimes it doesn’t. Some days I find joy before the tears come. The joy remains dulled by sadness and sometimes anxiety, and I try not to be frustrated with that. Other days, there is no joy, because I’m preoccupied that one of my best friends—someone with whom I shared my early years, my growing up experiences—is now gone forever. I get sad thinking of his physical pain at the end, and the emotional pain before it, and I wonder how long each lasted for him. I never saw either. I failed him, somehow, as the protective big sister I thought I was.
Most days I just feel like an alien, an observer of the rest of life. I know I may never be the same again.
I’ve had to begin learning all over again who and what I can trust. Nothing is assumed anymore. I feel an urgency to prioritize. All relationships must be examined with a healthy doubt because I don’t have time to waste on things that won’t matter in 5 years. Life has always been short; now it seems increasingly so.
How do I make sense of this? Time hasn’t helped explain or ease anything. All these talented, creative, productive, compassionate individuals in the world—where do they go when they pass, often too early? Surely it’s not nowhere. It can’t be the end. What a depressing thought, that our best people are taken from us for eternity. Does the Universe tap them on the shoulder, steal them temporarily, and enlist them in greater plans we can’t comprehend? I’d love to think so.
Sometimes I picture my brother keeping company with me, observing my kids, his niece and nephew, play and learn and grow. The other day I imagined he was walking with me and looking at all the fall colors on the trees. Whenever I’m having a happy (albeit dulled happy) moment, I feel like he’s there with me, laughing and living it with me. When I’m sad I can’t imagine him sharing in the sadness. And then I think—if there’s an afterlife, would he really be hanging out with me at all? I can’t imagine that is how he spends part of his eternity.
I know nothing for certain, except my brother would want me to live my life fully. I know I must. Some days I don’t know how, exactly. Other than to snuggle with my kids and make sure they know how loved they are. And to use my gifts and not discard thoughtlessly a single day.
In a recent Rob Bell podcast, grief expert David Kessler said: “Most of us think we wake up in the morning because our alarm clock went off… I can tell you, this morning, people’s alarm clocks went off, and they did not wake. Plenty of people didn’t wake this morning. Your life is not an accident. You’re alive for a reason…. If you woke up this morning, there’s a reason. That’s your job. What’s the reason you woke up? Why are you here? …. It doesn’t have to be grand, you don’t have to change the world….it can just be—you’re someone who shifts the world just by who you are.”
When I try to celebrate Halloween, a favorite holiday of our family, this weekend, I’ll picture my brother watching all of us, with his orange jack-o’-lantern shirt he often wore, smiling and participating from afar. He may be doing something more important right now, but I’ll pretend, selfishly. I’ll work hard to keep his memory alive, and continue to try to create things daily.
Because I’m still here.