I never knew how hard it was to process death until it knocked right at my front door. You think because you may have been to funerals, heard stories and seen other people process it that when you’re faced with it that you can deal with it and contain yourself. And then, suddenly, when it’s literally staring you right in the face, nose to nose, you fold and, if you’re like me, begin to think that almost all the things that make you smile and even laugh are selfish of you.
I’ll never forget it. I was 23 and in grad school in Terre Haute, IN. It was mid-terms and I was stressed beyond belief. I had 3 papers to finish, all having to be over 20 pages long. I remember at that time I didn’t know how to process stress very well so I cried and said, “I can’t do this!” I was mentally psyching myself out because I knew I was going to push through. But the amount of stress and pressure mounted my shoulders and I was buried knee deep. Strangely, I remember thinking very morbid, dark thoughts, one in particular. I thought, “what if, in the midst of all of this, something bad were to happen to someone in my family?” Immediately, I thought of my brother and something happening to him. I don’t know why I thought about him. Maybe because we were always at each other’s throats or because I felt like he was someone I, along with my mother and father, had to worry about. Regardless of that, I thought it, and I cried deeply at the thought of something happening to my brother.
I ended up shaking it off, thinking that was the most horrible thing I could ever think of. I knew he was going to be ok because I prayed for him every night. The next day went by and I continued to pour through my papers, reading, researching, and writing. I went to the bathroom and when I came back to my little desk in my living room to begin writing again I looked down at my phone and saw that I missed a call from my brother. I told myself, “I’ll call him back as soon as I’m done with these papers”. I believed this. My mother called a few hours later and I ended up talking to her, telling her I missed my brother’s call and that I had to call him back as soon as I got a chance. We ended up talking about him, as if he were a memory. It’s strange to think about this now because these were thoughts that I buried and told myself I did not want to conjure up again. My memory goes in and out from time to time, like most people, but for some reason this memory has stayed with me for 12 years and will continue to be tattooed to my brain in the most painful way.
I don’t remember what day it was, but I remember I had to give a presentation for one of my classes. I sat in the class, anxiety-ridden, waiting patiently for my classmates to finish their presentations and for my name to be called. As I sat there, I felt a jolt. I don’t know where it came from or why I felt it, but it jerked me forward as I sat in my desk. I looked around to see if anyone noticed. No one did. It gets fuzzy here because I don’t know if I looked at my phone before my presentation or after, but I saw I had missed calls from my parents house and my dad’s cell. My parents had never called me back to back, so I wasn’t sure what it was all about.
As soon as my presentation was over, I walked to my car with my classmates, chatted and laughed with them for a few minutes and loaded myself in my car. I checked my messages. My mother’s friend left a voicemail. “Hey, Drea, this is Auntie Barb. Give your mama a call.” Why would my mom’s friend call and leave a message asking me to call my mom from their house? I thought. My dad didn’t leave a message. I called the house and one of my cousin’s answered. I was taken off guard. Obviously, no one but my parents, my brother, my niece or myself would answer my parent’s phone. I said hello and asked where my mother was. He told me to hold on and put his sister on, my other cousin, who I’m close with. She asked me where I was, and I told her I just left a class and heading home. Once again, I asked where my mother was. At that moment, I pulled the car over to the nearest Auto Zone. No one was in sight. It was dark and my body began to get cold and jittery. My cousin asked for the number of one of my closest friends, a woman named Judy who was like a second mother to me and for my friend Erin’s number. I gave them to her and she hung up. By now, I’m freaking out because I hadn’t gotten any indication as to where my mother was, why my cousins were answering my parent’s phone and, most importantly, what the fuck was going on. Instead of being pissed I was scared.
I called my dad, remembering he had called me earlier. He answered and I heard it. As I write and think about it now it’s one thing you never want to hear, your parent crying on the other end of the phone. I asked my dad what happened, where was my mother. Tearfully, my dad said, “It’s Errol.” “Where is my brother, what happened to my brother?!” I screamed. One of my Aunt’s took the phone from my dad and I couldn’t stop crying. She told me to calm down, that my cousin was going to be getting me on a flight that night to come home.
My cousin must have been busy making calls because both my friends Judy and Erin were on their way to my apartment. When I spoke to Judy I asked, “Judy, please tell me what’s going on!” I was still in the Auto Zone parking lot, unable to move. Judy broke the news to me that something happened to my brother and he passed away. You ever seen those cartoons where the anvil or a large boulder or some heavy object lands on top of the character and they’re instantly smashed? That’s what it felt like for me. The wind had been taken out of me and I felt this enormous weight fall from the sky and land directly on top of me. It was here. Knocking at my front door. The hardest death I was going to be dealing with for the first time. And it hit me in a way where I didn’t know what to do or think next. But I was undeniably in a zombie-like state, everything passing by me and me being present but not.
Fast forward. I made it home to Augusta from Indiana the next day. I told my niece I was coming home and to stay strong, that I was coming. I knew I had to be strong for her because she had lost a father. My parents were going to need strength because they just lost their child. I could only imagine having to bury your first born, your only son, your child. I saw all the cars in our yard. I’ve been to a lot of funerals and have seen cars loaded up in front of the mourning family’s house; bringing soda, cake, chicken, anything that can get them through their inevitable state. I hugged my mother, hugged my niece, saw my dad drinking from his bar in his den. I tried to hug other family members but when it got too hard and I wanted to cry I ran out the house, not wanting my mother to see me cry. She needed to see that I had this, that I was going to tough it out for her, my father and my niece. But even some of the strongest people are unable to handle a force like this hit them without succumbing to the pressure.
It’s been something that, even after 12 years, I have a hard time with. I know it’s not healthy, but I do beat myself up for it because I should’ve talked to my brother when he called. What could I have done? No clue, probably nothing, but the what if is what burns in my brain and pulls on my heart. The hardest thing for me throughout this ordeal has been to know that it’s ok to be vulnerable and heal along with everyone else; that just because he was my brother that doesn’t lessen or make the hurt of losing him less effected as my niece and my parents. Our loss is equal because of the role that he played in each of our lives.
Years passed and I feel his presence, him visiting me in my dreams and talking to me, and making it known that he’s still here in some way. I wish I could’ve done more but what was written in the stars is just that. God has a plan for everyone, whether we’re ready or not. We can’t fix the broken pieces of someone else just to make ourselves feel whole. And we can’t feel as though laughing is selfish, even if that person is no longer there in spirit. At some point, we have to accept what has become and channel the energy of missing that person to turning it into a positive by living for that person.
My brother had so much life in him. He had more charm in his pinky toe than anybody I knew. He was energetic and passionate and people LOVED him! He made some folks mad, not going to lie, but for the most part he was definitely the guy that everyone wanted to be friends with. So, I take that charm and that attitude that he possessed and I use it for myself, knowing I have my brother’s spirit to carry me through some of the most uncomfortable to the best conversations. I learned so much from him, I’ll spare you the details. But just as I vowed to be the strength for my parents and my niece through his death I also vow to let him live through me, having everything I know he could have had and would have done having stayed the course. He won’t die in vain. And I continue to smile and belly laugh as much as I can and as much as I know he did. That’s the best way I know to get through the hard deaths that knock on your front door.
Peace and Love