Saturday, July 30, 2011

Happy birthday, little brother

Happy birthday…

You would have been 27 years old today. You should have woken up from your evening nap in the basement, shoved the cat off of your lap, and ambled upstairs to celebrate. We should all be sitting around the kitchen table eating a piece of Baskin Robbins ice cream cake with candles stuck haphazardly into it, and you should be blowing them out while ribbons of melted cream drip insolently down the side of the cake. You should be sitting in your chair, next to the window, ignoring the rest of us as you text furiously on your latest, greatest Smart-Phone. You should be shrugging sheepishly as you unwrap gifts, (including the Starbucks gift card I always get you )with a mumbled, barely audible, “Thanks.” You should be racing out the door to indulge in one of your smelly cigarettes before hopping into your prized yellow BMW M3 to join your fellow body-building gym rat friends.

Instead, Dad is in the basement with the television turned up loud to drown out his thoughts. He spent a really hard day outside - he’s ripped out the front porch and is tearing up the concrete to put in a new covered deck. He also smashed out the front houselights on the front of the garage today in a fit of grief. So many things outside lie shattered, in a state of repair - a perfect metaphor for our lives right now.   Mom is upstairs in bed, sleeping, perchance to dream a happier dream of days past. As for me? Well, here I sit in the kitchen on Mom’s laptop, writing you a happy birthday letter that you will never read, mentally singing you a happy birthday song that you will never hear.

Most days, I really hate you for what you’ve done.   I don’t think you could ever understand the anger and the hurt that currently ebb and flow within these four walls. I don’t think you could fathom the destruction that your absence has caused. I like to think that if you knew what the fallout of your actions would be, that you would have paused for just a moment before popping those pills. I like to imagine that you loved us enough that you would have spared us all the mess, if you had only known. But on so many occasions, I wonder if you loved us at all. What you did was not an act of love. It was not an act of redemption, of absolution, of comfort, of solace, of kindness, of gentleness, of peace. There is nothing that has destroyed us all so absolutely as your death. I can’t even understand why this happened. I tell myself that your depression was a terminal illness, that it ate away your brain, wrecking destruction in much the same way as a metastatic tumor. I’ll never understand any of this - ever. Just when I think things are under control, a small reminder of your life and death pops up demanding attention and the wound opens fresh.

The papers for your life insurance came in the mail today - apparently, you made me the sole beneficiary some unknown amount. I can’t decide whether to laugh or to scream. A part of me doesn’t even want to submit paperwork for the claim…the money would be so washed in blood and grief that its momentary sweetness would be lost. The other part of me says that this should just be a reminder to me of the boy you once were - the generous, giving soul who put others before himself, who saw a need arise and did everything in his power to fill it.

It reminds me of when we were just small children, turned loose on the prairie one summer. I don’t even remember the reason that you thought I ought to have a flower; perhaps I was sad and you wanted to brighten my day, or maybe it was just a reflection of the thoughtfulness you used to exhibit regularly. You scoured the prairie with its myriad of summer wildflower blooms before settling on what you thought to be the perfect flower. It was a huge, brilliantly purple blossom dwelling upon a tall stalk. With the abandon of childhood, you set about plucking the flower only to find that you had discovered a thistle in full bloom. Oh, how it pricked your small hands! You brought that beautiful flower to me, proud of your find; you had literally bled to find me something pretty. I think that’s my favorite memory of you, of the small, sunny boy you once were. I try and tell myself that this insurance claim and the financial easement it might eventually bring are same - a beautiful flower that you’ve bled to give me - but unlike that memory of yesterday, this gift was bought with a price too dear. I can't even find it in me to care much about the money - the only thing in my life I want at this moment is to see you again and money can't buy that.

I have so very many memories of you through the years - as the small boy who once was my best friend, as the cocky teenager with the world at his fingertips, as the withdrawn man who could still exhibit fits of kindness and love.   I wish that the last ten years had heralded happier memories to which I could cling. But I try to remember you only as the the small boy who did everything with me, who shared everything with me. I try to remember the flashlight as it glanced off your face, casting shadows on the bedcovers we huddled under, whispering our secrets and our woes. I try to remember the look on your face, the absolute joy, when you drove home for the first time in your bumblebee yellow 1995 BMW.  I try so hard to remember the good times, the ice cream cakes of birthdays past.

Another memory comes unbidden, of an elementary school playground, of harsh winter, of a little boy who had lost his gloves and stood before me with tiny frozen hands, tears streaming down his face. I put your little hands into my gloves with mine to keep them warm and tried my best to comfort you. The playground aide, a horrible woman by the name of Schumacher, found us huddled together and tried to pull us apart, informing me, “You can’t always save him, you know. He has to learn how to do things himself.” How true the words she spoke. I’m so sorry that I couldn’t help keep you safe, that all the love in the world could not save you from yourself. But at this instant, most of all I am sorry that you are not here in the kitchen with me enjoying a slice of birthday cake

Happy birthday, bud. I sure do miss you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Notes on a Death

Last week, I got a 4am text message from my brother that read, “I love you. Just wanted you to know that. I love Mom, Dad, and Chris, too.” The next morning, I texted him back, telling him, “I love you, too. Call me sometime and we’ll talk.” The text was a little out of the ordinary for my brother (who was never prone to fits of affection as an adult) so I called my father, who was out. I called my mother, intending to mention the text to her…but got sidetracked in conversation and forgot all about it.

He called me two days later, on a Friday. I had just finished previewing a bone marrow biopsy in preparation for sign-out with my attending, when the telephone in the bone marrow room rang. As I picked it up, the 307 area code (Wyoming) registered, and I was more than a little confused. I had given the room number to Chris (who never uses it anyway), but not to anyone else. He must have been really determined if he managed to dial straight into the room where I was sitting instead of having me paged. When I picked up the phone, I heard him sobbing. His voice was thick with tears when he said, “Chelsea, it’s me. It’s Chandler. I’m not doing too good. Are you busy?”

At that moment, I was busy. My attending had just walked in, ready to sign out a bone marrow. So I told my brother that I was not free, but that I did want to talk to him. I promised him that I’d call him back in an hour, once we were all finished with work. I didn’t even say, “I love you.” I just said, “I promise, bud, I WILL call you back. Noon. One hour.”

I did call him back at noon, exactly like I promised, only to find that his phone went straight to a voicemail box that had not yet been set up. Sufficiently worried, I called my father’s phone, only to have my brother’s best friend answer. He started with, “Ken is in the ambulance with Chandler. He took some pills.” I just sort of shrugged to myself, thinking, “Oh Chandler, you asshole – now you’ll have a hospital bill you can’t afford when they fix you up.”

And then I heard the words “a LOT of amytryptyline pills.” The sister in me started praying as hard as I ever have that he had been found in time, before the medication took effect. But the doctor in me knew better – knew, somehow, that I would never see my little brother again. Now is not the time or place for a discussion on amytryptyline, but suffice to say that it is a serious, serious drug with a very narrow therapeutic window. In overdose, it is rapidly fatal. As a pharmacy technician, it’s something my brother (who knew almost as much about pharmaceuticals as I did) would have known.

I don’t know what my brother would have said to me on the telephone. I don’t know if he’d already taken the pills and was calling to say goodbye. I don’t know if he was in crisis and looking for me to talk him down before he did something stupid. I just don’t know. But what I do know is that in some of the final hours of my brother’s life, I was too busy to talk to him – busy with something that could have waited for another half an hour. What I do know is that my last words to him were not, “I love you.” What I do know is that when I got off the phone with him, I was annoyed at him for interrupting my work flow. Because, you see, this wasn’t the first time that my brother had called me, sobbing. It had happened numerous times throughout the years, and almost all of the calls always came at inopportune times (like in the middle of a class, or 3 in the morning, or during a movie.) He sounded no worse than he ever had in the past, and eventually, he’d also always been OK in the past. 9 times out of 10, things would have been fine. I just didn’t realize that this was the 1 time in 10 that I would fail my brother. I thought that when this day dawned, that I would be at peace – that I had already come to terms with the inevitability of this moment – but I guess not.

I’d give almost anything in my life just to be able to reverse time and talk to him – to tell my attending, “Hey, I really need to take this phone call.” But I can’t reverse time. I know, in my heart of hearts, that if he’d already taken the pills, he wouldn’t have told me where to find him. And if I had talked him out of crisis, it would only have been a temporary reprieve – it would have simply happened at another time. There are some kinds of broken that no amount of love can fix.

And so, my little brother, my only sibling, passed away on Friday, July 8th at the ripe old age of 26, just 22 days shy of his 27th birthday.

I’m not sure how one works through something like this. It’s early yet, perhaps too early to think things will ever be OK – but to be honest, I’m not sure they ever will be alright again. I’m not sure how one overcomes the guilt, the despair, the incredible anger (rage?), the tragedy, the loss, the hole in life’s fabric, the utter, senseless waste.

I’m sure that like many so called “suicide survivors” (ha – what a freakin’ joke) these feelings are not unique to me. But I’m not used to having my emotions be this labile, and in addition to the death of my brother, I also find difficulty dealing with these sudden bursts of crushing grief and, sometimes, rage. In some moments, I find myself so utterly angry that if my brother weren’t already dead, I would beat him senseless for being so careless and selfish. But mostly, there’s just sadness – a grief so great that words fail. Guilt is there, too, almost crushing the breath out of me as I walk through the land of “If Only.” I know that this is “normal,” that it is “expected,” but nothing about it feels normal to me.

I’m so angry that he was so cavalier about his life, that he was such a selfish, cowardly bastard that he couldn’t stand up and fight like a man. I’m so angry for the strain that this puts on my family, for the pain that this is causing my parents. I’m so damn mad about the strain that this is putting on my finances, so angry that I just had to spend $1,553.30 that I don’t really have on a pair of plane tickets, so angry that I have to take my leave unpaid, so angry that I have to dip into the “buy a house” savings to cover rent and expenses for August, so angry that my family has to clean up after his latest mess. We’re ALWAYS cleaning up after his messes, but this is the biggest fucking mess of all. I want to scream at him, I want to throw things at him, I want him to stand in front of me so that I can beat him senseless. And when that anger is spent, I want him to stand in front of me so that I can hold onto him tightly and tell him just how very much I love him, make him understand just how much I’ll miss him. I’ll never be able to do any of that. He’ll never be there at Christmas time or any other holiday. I’ll never smell his combination of body odor and cigarette smoke on anything again. I’ll never get to show him Vermont or help him discover the best maple creamies a person can have – which is a shame; he always did love ice cream. As my parents age, he won’t be there to help them (or to help me as I help them). I will never see him again in this lifetime. There are so many things he’ll never do, that WE’LL never do together, that he’ll never be. I never thought grief could crush, but sometimes I can’t even breathe. I lie awake at night, crying and replaying that telephone conversation in my head, praying and silently screaming. I am overwhelmed. I am spent.

I am a Christian, and I believe wholeheartedly that there is a God who loves us and watches over us all. I believe that this life is just a stopping place on our journey, that we are not meant for this world but for someplace so beautiful that it defies imagination. I know that One greater than I defeated death, that the grave can never claim victory. I know without a doubt that I will see my brother again one day, far away though it may seem. I don’t know what happens to our souls when we die – I haven’t a clue – but if they live on after death, I truly hope that my brother found the peace and comfort that he was so desperately seeking. I hope that he can finally know how very special he was, how very much he was liked and loved, how very much he will be missed. I hope that he is able to rest in peace.