Wednesday, February 12, 2020
When I was a little girl, there was one Christmas Eve where I couldn’t sleep.
I was wired, the excitement of what Santa was going to bring overwhelming any possibility of being able to calm down. I had already come out of my room multiple times that evening, going back and forth from my room to my parent’s bedroom, hoping that each time I asked “did Santa come?!” or “is it time to open presents yet?” that my question would be answered with a “yes!” rather than a desperate, sleep-deprived urging to go back to bed.
The last time I got up, hopeful that this had to be the time, my brother was sitting on the living room couch right outside my bedroom. Upon seeing me he immediately stood up and ushered me back into my room.
I remember reluctantly laying back down and I must have told him how I couldn’t sleep. He didn’t admonish or ridicule me. Instead, he encouraged me to picture clearing my mind and to take deep breaths…in and out.
I gave it a try and was soon fast asleep for the rest of the night until morning.
Reflecting upon it now, I find it comical that my brother was the first one that taught me what mindfulness and meditation was.
For whatever reason, I have never forgotten that memory. Over the many years since then, whenever I can’t sleep – the anticipation of opening Christmas presents now being replaced by a myriad of adult anxieties – I have always thought of that moment from many years ago, along with my brother, and it has never failed to calm me down and lull me to sleep.
A personalized ace up my sleeve.
The first night of my brother’s death, I was too in shock to do anything but fall asleep, my mind numb. I woke up that way and spent most of the next day in the same state.
The second night was different. I hesitantly turned off the lights and as soon as they flickered off, I felt an uncharacteristic fear of the dark and suddenly felt very alone being away from my hometown. Trying to quell the rising panic in my chest, I closed my eyes and thought of Nic’s words as I always have in those moments.
In and out. In and out. In and out.
Exhausted, I drifted off to sleep, my brother on my mind.
Over the years, my parents and I would say that we feared the next time we would hear anything about my brother, it would be from the police showing up at the door telling us that he was dead. Though it was a realistic sentiment given my brother’s history, I personally never actually believed it.
However, that’s exactly what happened.
It had been about four and a half years since we had seen or heard from my brother. He had disappeared soon after his mother’s death (we’re half-siblings, and he was eleven years older), and we always knew that was an unfortunate sign that my brother had once again succumbed to his heroin addiction. It had been a revolving battle for two decades, and there were many times where I watched my brother conquer the slow descent up the mountain - fighting and working and struggling to get clean - and then something would happen and he would tumble down a precipice once more, all of the people in his life powerless to prevent or stop it.
I was still at work when my mother contacted me the evening of his death and I was told the news. When I heard the words “your brother is dead, honey”, I immediately thought they were going to be followed by “he died of a drug overdose”, another realistic fear we always had in the back of our minds.
What I didn’t expect for her to say was that my brother had taken his own life.
My mother would often say she had two very different kids.
One that never shut up – me.
And one that never spoke – him.
Where I was all books and school and studying, he was all trade work and technical knowledge, and gritty, physical labor. However, we both liked working with our hands, and we both liked completing a job to perfection.
During disagreements with our parents, I would be the one to stubbornly argue whereas my brother would be the one to silently (and smartly) acquiesce (I blame our age difference for his wisdom in those no-win battles; I’ve since begrudgingly learned the past few years). Nevertheless, we both never failed to have the same dry sarcasm and similar sense of humor through most of our endeavors.
We made a good sibling pair, our differences and similarities complementing each other well.
I’ve had a hard time processing my brother’s death.
For much of the past decade, he had been a ghost, out of our lives more than he was in it, and it’s been challenging to fully grasp the concept that my brother is gone since there’s no change in my daily life. Transitioning from the natural thought of “when I see my brother again” to “I’ll never see my brother again” has – and will be - a fractured, lengthy process, and sometimes I still don’t fully believe it’s real.
I always thought I would see him again. I wondered what he would say about the person I’ve become and the evolution that occurred in my life the past few years, though my brother has always supported me without condition. I had hoped for conversations framed by a more mature lens that I didn’t have before and that one day, I’d be able to sit with him and truly listen to him and his story.
I had looked forward to the future.
And I guess I had ultimately hoped that my brother’s story would have a happy ending.
One of the last times we spent together that I can remember was when I wanted to go out for a run and he wanted to join me. However, given his hatred of running this inevitably meant that he jumped on a bicycle and ended up heckling me the entire time, much to my annoyance.
Brother-sister bonding at its finest.
The memory had nearly been forgotten until last week when I was out for a run in that same neighborhood along that same route. I stopped mid-stride and had to compose myself when it abruptly came to me.
I wonder if this is going to be the norm – random snapshots revealing themselves to me when I least expect it.
Frustration and sadness creeps in whenever I have a hard time recalling more concrete memories. The last time my brother was consistently in my life was when I was much younger, too far back to clearly remember most moments aside from glimpses of memories plucked from our timeline. And then the last decade my brother was out of my life more than he was in it.
I remember the feeling of things sometimes more than the actual moments themselves, but sometimes fractured memories shine through. Our family dinners. A car ride here and there. Brother-sister dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant. That time he brought his obnoxious dog over and he shit on the carpet (he loved that dog – Rip…what a stupid, god-awful name). Putting me in headlocks. Him falling asleep in church. Going to the movies together. That time a horde of ants attacked me in your car. Christmas’ spent together as a family.
I even remember the smell of him…so clearly that it’s almost as if he was right next to me.
What I can’t recall is the exact last moment I had with my brother. Was it that bike ride-run? Or was it at his mother’s funeral? My last text to him was me taking a picture of one of our dad’s famous dishes and sending it to him to tease him, adding, “I hope to see you before you leave!” at the end. Was that it? Did I ever see him? Or did he disappear soon after?
I hope I gave him a hug the last time I physically saw him, because that’s one of the things I wish I could do now.
I’ve had an even harder time processing that my brother died by suicide.
It speaks to something different - a lack of hope? A desire for control? A desperate bid to find peace? Perhaps a bit of everything…and with the apparent loneliness he felt combined with the heroin addiction that I knew he hated, I can imagine it was a recipe for major depression.
My brother had been on my mind more than usual the past few months. I remember talking to a couple of my best friends that have known me – and my brother’s story – for over a decade and mulling over the idea of hiring a private investigator to find out where he had disappeared. I discovered after my brother’s death that my parents had been thinking of the same thing, and it turns out that he had been living in our hometown this entire time.
The logical part of me understands why we ultimately hesitated and didn’t try to find him. Heroin addiction doesn’t just affect the individual, it also inevitably affects everyone in the vicinity without preamble and without discretion, and multiple people in his life, including ourselves, had unfortunately been collateral victims to his disease in a myriad of ways throughout the years…emotionally…mentally…financially…the fact that we never quite knew whether my brother was caught up with dangerous individuals. Combined with the fact that he clearly didn’t want to be found, everything led to us deciding to leave him be, despite how painful it was throughout the years.
After all, when does it become time to stop trying to fix an adult individual and give them the space and time needed to work through things on their own?
I can beat all of the aforementioned, sensible reasons into my brain as much as I want but at the end of the day, why didn’t we just do it? Despite my career, I believe in the concept of intuition and I can’t help but feel guilty at the “what if?”
I wish I had just done it. Life is too short.
I hope he knew how much we loved (and still love) him.
My brother died on January 21, 2020. We had his funeral service just over two weeks later on February 5, 2020.
After the shock and numbness of the first few days wore off, I strangely felt relatively okay. However, after gaining more of a self-awareness and understanding of myself and my coping mechanisms in the past few years, I knew that my “I’m fine now” was inevitably going to abruptly transition into “I’m absolutely not fine now.”
About a week after his death was when that transition happened, and each day after was a struggle until I arrived home the day before the funeral, hugged my mom, and immediately started crying. And finally seeing mine and my brother’s dad was another step in truly fathoming that my brother was gone.
The funeral itself was a blur and it was as emotional and draining as one would expect it to be. I met a couple of his best friends, one of whom was like a brother to Nic. He knew we were painfully aware of the bad aspects of my brother’s life but he took us aside to make sure we knew the good – how my brother was selfless and compassionate and caring…how my brother at one point had saved his friend and helped launch him into a successful life. Hearing his words had been more cathartic than most things up until that point, as was spending time with my family.
Since the funeral and being home, the heightened emotions have dampened some, but the pain and sadness certainly hasn’t dissipated. I’ve never truly experienced the loss of a close loved one before and it’s fascinating how grief works, especially in such a complicated situation – I’m fine most of the time until I’m randomly not. I imagine that will be the norm for some time to come.
One thing I do know for certain is how grateful I am for the people in my life.
If I wasn’t convinced before that my residency program is like a family, I certainly am now – the love, the care, the empathy, and the check-in’s have been a saving grace that has helped carry me along. The outpouring of love from everyone, old friends and new, has been immeasurably valuable as well.
And to those few in my life that have traveled Nic’s journey with me the past years – that cried with me when I shared the news, talked with me through every dark thought and difficult moment, and spent time with me when I was home…they have showered me with the love that has consistently defined our friendships during our journey through life together, and I truly can’t express in words how much they mean to me.
After discussion, my family and I came to the conclusion that we were going to be open about my brother’s heroin addiction and death by suicide.
We figured that’s one of the many ways that we could honor his memory…if sharing his story can help one other addict or prevent one more suicide, then the vulnerability and discussion is worth it, no matter how tragic.
I imagine that my brother would support it.
Most importantly, through all of this, I hope that my brother found his peace.
Until next time, bro.