We’ve all lost someone close to us. Eight years ago today my brother, Jeff, died very unexpectantly. He left behind a broken-hearted family. People say that time heals…and in a way it does…the pain isn’t as intense now. But it’s been eight years since we’ve seen him and we all still miss being with him so very much.
Jeff was born in 1964 which made him one of the last of the baby boomers. He served in the United States Army, graduated from Indiana University South Bend, and has a daughter, Jessica. He loved many things including being outside, travel, rock and roll, history, beer, air shows, practical jokes, grilling, playing Euchre, playing chess, museums, fishing, pizza, animals, football…especially Notre Dame football, ice cream, Christmas, telling jokes, his friends, his family…especially his daughter, and God. He wasn’t perfect but oh was he ever fun. He could make anyone laugh and he enjoyed doing so.
I am the oldest in my family, Jeff was four years younger than me, and our youngest brother is six years younger than him. I wrote this piece about how we struggled to get through the first Christmas without him. It is longer than most of my postings. I hope you will forgive me for that and understand. Next week, the subject will be happier and shorter. I promise.
December 2006…It rained throughout the hour-long drive to my parent’s house. It was a steady, cold, dreary rain which matched my mood perfectly. “Angel tears”, my mother used to say when we were little. “You can’t do anything but wait for them to feel better.” I wished I could feel better.
I tried to remember my last conversation with him but I couldn’t. Had I said “I love you”? Had I hugged him goodbye at Easter? Life had been so busy and such a blur for so long. Why didn’t I remember our last moments together; our final words? Because he was only 41 and I thought I would get to be his big sister for another half lifetime.
At home, my Christmas decorations were stacked in the living room in dusty cardboard boxes as if we were moving. I needed time…time and a clear mind to unpack them and make the house at least look like the holidays, even if I didn’t feel it inside. How does one celebrate a birth when the pain of a death is still so raw?
They both came to the door as I pulled into their driveway. They hugged me silently and then stood back as if they were waiting for me to give them direction. I knew that lost look. I felt it with every fiber of my being. What do I do next? How do I go on?
The oldest usually bears the burden of responsibility. Jeff used to tease me about the proximity rule. He lived in the same city as our parents so even though I was the oldest, he was the one they called first when they needed help. I pictured him looking down from heaven and laughing because now the proximity rule applied to me because our youngest brother lived over 1000 miles from our parents. I so desperately wanted to hear him laugh again.
Their artificial tree stood in the center of their living room, bare and waiting for ornaments. The basement door stood open but I didn’t see any decorations on the main floor. My mother offered me coffee from the Mr. Coffee that was still choking and gurgling out the final few drops. I was glad to see their tree up; at least they were trying.
At Halloween, my mother had said she was going to get out every single Christmas decoration she had. She said he loved Christmas and that was the best way to honor his memory during the holidays.
By Thanksgiving, she said she didn’t think she could put up any decorations. It was all too hard and the memories were too painful. We went through the motions and we admired the turkey and the myriad of desserts, but we were all so aware of the empty chair that sat between us like an elephant in the room. The football games were on and we played Euchre like usual, but the entire day felt like we were in an abstract painting with all the parts in weird places and nothing seemed right.
Isn’t that the way life is after the death of a loved one? Our lives as we know them shatter into a million tiny pieces and we try to glue them back together one piece at a time like broken pottery, but we are never the same and the cracks become our scars.
We lingered over our coffee and made small talk about the day. We were not quite ready to begin and not quite sure how. Finally, my father disappeared down the basement stairs and carried up a box that was labeled “tree ornaments”. He sat it on the floor in the living room next to the tree. I followed him back down the stairs and we stood staring at the gray metal shelves filled with Christmas decorations and years of memories in box after box. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to open the boxes and set all those memories free.
We added more boxes to the first one in the living room. My father said we didn’t need so many decorations on the tree; my mother insisted that we needed them all. She wanted to look at and touch each one. She wanted to hoard the memories associated with them and find my brother within the folds of those memories.
I carried our filled coffee cups into the living room as my mother opened a box of ornaments. My father was putting lights on the tree, but I took a sip of coffee and watched as she unwrapped the first ornament. As the tissue paper fell away, I could see that it was an old, white, Styrofoam ball that had been made by a child, probably in grade school. It was decorated with glitter and had a green pipe cleaner hanger. As my mother turned it over in her hand, she caught her breath as she saw the small, black and white school picture of my brother from the first or second grade. She put her head in her hands and began to sob. My father took the ornament from her and fell to his knees.
It was as if Jeff was saying, “Hey you guys, I’m still here.”
I didn’t want to see their broken hearts that day but I did.
Death makes life stop and pay attention. Every reminder brings a fresh wave of new pain that refuses to be diminished by anything except time. After the funeral, a cousin of ours said, “The pain you feel is the price you pay for loving someone so much. It will get better, but it will never go completely away.”
At the funeral home, I noticed how much gray hair my brother had around his temples. He had more than I did and I wanted to tease him about that. I hadn’t even noticed it when he was alive. I wanted him to wake up and talk to us, to tell us it was a really bad joke or a horror movie or a nightmare; anything as long as it wasn’t real. I just wanted him to be with us again.
But it was real and as much as we didn’t want to face life without him, we had to. We struggled to fill the void he left. Who would wear the Santa hat and pass out the gifts at Christmas? Who would tease the nieces and nephews? Who would appreciate all the food we made and tell us not to put green peppers in anything? Who would tell us joke after joke until we were laughing so hard our sides hurt? Who would call me every year on my birthday and say, “You are getting so damn old!”
Death changes how we define ourselves and our vision of the future, and how we fit into that future. Life takes on a new shape when a person we love is gone. Family takes on a new shape. We must somehow carry them with us through our memories and through the love we shared with them. Moving forward after a loss is the hardest thing.
One day on the phone, my mother said to me. “Children are not supposed to die before their parents. It’s not the natural order of things. The only thing that helps me get out of bed some days is my belief that I will see him again after this life is over.”
I wish I had an answer for my mother and one for myself. I believe that somehow, some way, my brother is still with us but we cannot see him. He is obscured from our vision but not from our hearts. When the time is right, we will see him again.
For now, our family circle is smaller, but he is still a part of it. I wake up each day to a world that is different from what it was when he was with us. Some days are harder than others. I miss him every single day. I am grateful for the time I had with him. I try to honor his memory through my thoughts and my actions, and through my love for his daughter. And really, that’s all a person can do.
Author’s note: This September 30th would have been Jeff’s 50th birthday. And about that same time, Jessica is going to make him a grandfather. He would have been so proud…and he would have reminded me often that he got to join the grandparents club before me!