My big brother died unexpectedly ten years ago. He was 39 years old, my only sibling, and someone who always had my back. I’ve spent the past ten years learning how to say goodbye to him.
Like most siblings, our relationship was complicated. My brother Jerry was my first and best friend when we were little. As we grew older, our relationship deteriorated. Down-right obnoxious is probably the best way to characterize how Jerry acted toward me through our middle and high school years. He’d likely say the same about me. Yet, Jerry was also fiercely protective of me. I pitied the guys who asked me out because they had to brave the relentless hallway wrath of my brother (and many of his friends), which usually culminated in being slammed into a locker. While such displays of male bravado were unnecessary at best, they did have a way of quickly weeding out jerks. If a guy was willing to endure my brother, he had to really like me. I guess I took some comfort in that even though I knew I didn’t need my brother’s protection. When we entered our 20s and 30s, a renewed friendship developed between my brother and I. We ended up buying houses a few miles apart and were only minutes away when one of us needed help or advice. Sure, we still annoyed each other, but we figured out how to be friends again. And then my brother died.
Navigating the initial shock of Jerry’s death and the ensuing funeral services felt surreal and crawl-out-of-my-skin intolerable. There are snippets of horrific memories that are permanently seared into my brain. Watching my mother say her last goodbye to her son was the absolute worst. I thought she might actually crawl into the casket and demand to be buried with him. Listening to my grandmother wail and plead uncontrollably “Sono vecchia! Please, God, take me instead!” over and over again for the entire half hour car ride from the funeral home to the church was pretty atrocious too. Then there was the moment when my oldest son, only nine years old at the time, emptied his pants pocket to reveal two rose pedals he had taken from the flowers on my brother’s casket. After sobbing for most of the day, I knew he was just trying to hold onto whatever he could of his uncle and the poor kid thought he had done something wrong. Horrible, ugly memories. One tiny sliver of joy managed to find us on what would have been my brother’s 40th birthday though. A group of us released 40 wish balloons to honor him that night and, in doing so, accidentally caused a UFO scare. Oops. We certainly didn’t mean to, but it ended up being pretty comical. If you knew my brother and his smart-ass ways, you might find it humorous too. For the first time in months, we laughed. I found tremendous comfort in that…that laughter was actually possible again.
In the initial years after Jerry’s death, I tried to grieve in the ways I thought I was supposed to. I visited his grave. I brought him flowers. I brought him black jelly beans (his favorite) on Easter. And I hated every minute of it. It’s not that visiting my brother’s grave made his death more real. I drive by the turn-off to his road nearly every day and am reminded of his death each and every time. I hated visiting my brother’s grave because I just couldn’t bear thinking about him lying in darkness. When we were little, my brother was petrified of the dark. Petrified. As ridiculous as it may sound, I just didn’t want to think about my brother engulfed in darkness for all of eternity. That thought tortured me. So much so that as the years passed I substituted visiting Jerry’s grave with driving to his house (which my family still owns) and sitting in his driveway. When I did, a tiny part of me tried to pretend Jerry could walk out of his house at any moment and greet me with some sarcastic remark. Most of me just wanted to feel close to him again.
I spent many a night sitting in my brother’s driveway crying and wanting what can never be…to see him again and to hear his bellowing laugh just one more time. I do that rarely now though. Is that a sign of healing? Perhaps. I still think about my brother every day. I still miss my brother every day. I wish I had more pictures of him. I wish I had more memories, but I don’t. I accept that. After ten years, I also accept that I will never be done saying goodbye to my brother. And I’ve learned to be okay with that.