February 6th is the anniversary of my brother’s death, though most probably remember the 7th. The 7th – a Tuesday – is when the world would know – our world – that we had lost someone so good and dear. On the 6th, it was like we shared a secret, the longer we shared it, the less real it would be. J. was missing. Missing? The secret unraveled, got away from me, quickly; soon the news—the radio, the TV—like the scream in my chest, had broken open. There were words like search and rescue and mountain and delay and snow and more and more, and as I sat with a total stranger in my dining room – we signed to refinance our house that evening – I wanted to yell, but I couldn’t believe, my brother is gone – Gone! I wanted to shout, get out of my house, stop making small talk, get out! We snapped off the evening news to protect the kids, how surreal, are they talking about my brother? How could that be?
The nightmare would continue through the evening, through the night, and into the next day. I showered that day and said today we will find my brother. Do I go to work? What do I do? I dropped our daughter off at school, swallowed humble pie, asked for prayers from her teacher, she looked horrified, shocked. How do I look? February’s full moon was still up, beautiful skies, and a clear, sunny day for a search. I drove for coffee, in a trance.
Finding J. that morning didn’t bring what they call resolution as hoped. It brought tears, and screaming, and heartache, and stomachache, and an amount of anxiety that would take shape over years in the form of avoiding the news, shortened attention span, unwillingness to talk on the phone, impatience in small talk, inability to hold eye contact, lack of appetite, fitful sleep, anger, and more forms of grief than the books certainly explain.
Described as a “loss of interest in regular activity,” I fell into what can be described as a hole in our couch, getting through each day but with no vigor or grace or care. For some it’s described as walking through life in a dreamlike state. The shock – to be sure – is very real and accurate, but the domino effect of grief in tragic loss cannot and never should be underestimated. Understated. It goes on and on, to this, the beginning of the 6th year.
I used to wait for normal, beg God to bring back normal, to bring healing, to feel like I used to feel. And in pieces, I was able to return to some version of being a “normal person,” but in time I also stopped begging and started stepping. It couldn’t be predicted, it wasn’t quick, but I took steps eventually to integrate this horror into a life that wouldn’t be … horrible. When these steps were literal, they took shape early on as my walk from Cornelius to Forest Grove and back, resulting in a huge blister I wore as a badge for weeks. When they were figurative, they hurt just as much.
Those scars, these scars—they’re my scars—they don’t look like much on the outside. I’m older and grayer, to be sure, but the inside’s gone through more change than parenthood or middle age or any amount of education brings.
What J. was best at was living well. He had a drive—and sense of commitment—like no other. It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized we had that in common, except his wasn’t tempered by fear. For years, I still saw him as my little brother, who wasn’t as bothered with homework or class or others’ expectations of him. If forgetting to turn the assignment over to the other side resulted in a C, he was okay with that. He could let it be. He’d snicker and move on to the next thing because there was always a next thing. A computer to be taken apart, a board to be torn up, tinkering, putting back together, and learning. He spent late nights in his room doing things none of us understood. He used apps before I understood there were apps, responded to emails and dings and alerts on his phone years before any of us had a smartphone or knew how to operate one. He discovered and learned and set goals to be a better person or to see something new, and he did so every day.
J. skated through Portland’s Sunset Highway Tunnel, took hills with no fear, jumped over cars and climbed great heights and swam oceans, while I worried about what was next. J.’s lips blue or feet cold or knees hurting, none of that mattered. Instead, he explored and learned and grew.
In doing so, J. became—he became the J. we love and miss. Never one to settle, he was the first dad at the beach to raise a tent for his kids, with kites and cots and love, while the rest of us parents collapsed to the ground with car seats and chairs in exhaustion. He played and rode bikes. More than once he called me out of breath, only for me to determine our conversations were by skateboard.
J. lived well. He lived with a vigor and passion for life—what you do, do it well, no matter what it is—J. was all in. There was no encampment in a hole in the couch. There was no hiding. This is the life you are given, and you are to live it. It is as Ecclesiastes reads, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might …” because this is the one life you’ve been given (9:10). Live it well.
And so now I live outside the couch, not in. Five years later, there are days-turned-inward, where it’s as if time hasn’t passed and I want to sink—sink—into my thoughts, not bothered by media or conversation or expectation. But most of the time, those days are a choice, a choice to enter into grief, to navigate the domino effect, the changes these losses bring. More days than not, though, I choose to take steps to live, to follow J.’s example. Because what other choice do we have but to live it well….