March 22, 2004 3:20 AM
I awake to a noise, a phone perhaps, an alarm? Something…though I am too groggy with sleep to really comprehend what. I get up to investigate. As I walk past the answering machine a blinking red light catches my eye. Curiously, I reach for the button and push play. Little did I know…this would be one of those defining moments, a marked space in time that would leave me forever changed.
We all have these days. They’re constructed of moments so powerful, memorable and life altering that once they occur you can never return to who you were before they happened. These days change us, challenge us and at times break us with unbelievable pain and indescribable joy. The birth of a child, your wedding day, a graduation ceremony, the death of a loved one, the loss of a limb, the accomplishment of a goal long sought, these are the moments that mark your soul. You can’t return to who you were before these marked days…your only choice is to grow forward.
My 26 year old brother was in the hospital, in critical condition with head injuries. This was the message left on my machine. It’s not the words so much that stick with me, but the tone in my father’s voice will be forever etched in my memory. The heaviness of his heart, as he faced the worst fear of every parent, this tone…still shakes me to this day.
The next two hours are a blur of phone calls, mis-information and complete devastation, as my dad and sister, who are at the hospital, update my mom and me, who live 5 hours away.
My husband, who had been working a night shift, arrived home at 5:15 AM. I remember this clearly as it was a mere 5 minutes later that I fell into his arms as my sister informed me that my brother had taken his last breath and my knees gave way.
My mom, dad, sister and I meet at the hospital to view my brother and say goodbye to him. I don’t want to see him, I dread seeing him lifeless but the thought of never seeing him again terrifies me even more. He is covered in a white sheet, with tubes coming out of his head, arms, and chest. They have put patches over his eyes to shield us from damage caused by the car accident. The hospital is trying to protect us, by covering his eyes. I am perplexed by the irony of this, but only for a moment.
He has a beard and this strikes me as odd. He is my little brother, 6 years my junior and in my mind, still just a kid. A beard looks strange on him, too grown up, to adult, foreign to my memories of him. He is cold and I hate that. I hate the finality, the death, the end, that this cold signifies. I hate the blue of his skin, the smell of the room, the tubing everywhere. I hate it all.
I ask for a lock of his hair, though I don’t know why. A piece of him to hold onto perhaps? A token of his body on this earth? I touch his face and stroke his beard. When I leave the hospital there is blood on my hand…his blood I assume, though it could be one of the 9 pints of blood the doctors went through in an attempt to save him. I don’t wash the blood away until 10:00 PM, wanting to keep any part of him, any part no matter how small, gross or unimaginable, with me for as long as I can.
Grief is a journey, a highly personal adventure that has no real ending only a constant evolution of emotion and resolve. At its best grief can inspire, challenge, shape and alter you for the better. And at its worst it can smother you, crush you and drown you in a sea of pain. The last ten years have been an intertwining journey of grief, grace and gratitude.
- My parents, who were divorced at the time of my brother’s death, are closer now than ever. Both are remarried and we all get together for Holidays and family events. They treat each other with respect and love.
- The accident wasn’t my brother’s fault. This was a big one for us. My brother was diabetic and when we heard about the accident we were afraid perhaps his insulin had gotten too low and he had had a seizure and caused the accident. In reality an elderly depressed man had driven the wrong way on the freeway, aiming for oncoming cars. My brother was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- Time…time is a great healer. The clock keeps ticking, the world keeps moving. I hated this at first, fearing it would force me to leave my brother in the past. In ways it has, but in others, time has been a great healer.
- I found my calling after my brother’s death. I became a professional life coach and absolutely love my job. The name of my business is inspired by a CD we found in the wreckage of my brother’s car. He had burned a collection of songs onto a disk and labeled it Shine.
- We have developed a relationship with my niece, my brother’s daughter, and are excited to share with her, our memories of her dad.
- Collectively, we have added four children to our family in the last ten years. (my sister added three, and I added one) Two through foster care, one from Haiti and another the old fashioned way. They are great blessings and add a new dynamic and depth to our family.
- We have grown closer…literally, as both my mom and I have moved our families over to the other side of the state and now we all live within 30 minutes of each other.
- We have established a new sense of normal. You never get over losing someone you love, but you do develop a new sense of normal. It is a blessing to feel complete when we gather for family activities. It is a joy to laugh again, to reminisce about my brother without tears, but with fond memories and a sense of longing to see him again.
- We aren’t bitter. There is a time to be angry and a time to let it go. I never held much anger about my brother’s death or its circumstances. Every day I am grateful that my family chose to dig deep and reach for something other than blame and bitterness.
- Life…we are all still here. My mom, dad, sister and I and our families are here and healthy and growing and living and sharing. For this I am hugely grateful
There is wisdom to be gained from death. I can’t say I am grateful my brother died. I can’t say that. But I can tell you that I would not be who I am today if he hadn’t. I can tell you that his death and his life shaped me, changed me, and altered me in ways I could have never imagined when he was busy making messes, leaving Legos on the floor for me to step on or eating the last of the cocoa puffs with a huge smile on his face.
The death of a loved one forces you to be vulnerable. It forces you to see how quickly life can change. How fragile we are. How insignificant or ordinary we are. After all, my brother died, and the world still went on. And yet, his death has also shown me the strength of love, the healing of time, the irreplaceable uniqueness of each soul on this earth, the resilience of the human spirit, the depth of the soul, the grace of God and the truth behind the cliché message of live each day as if it’s your last.
Over the years I have learned that life’s real challenge isn’t to find extraordinary purpose or to do or be extraordinary things…the true challenge is to accept and see your extraordinary worth just as you are, in this perfectly ordinary moment. When someone you love dies…it isn’t their money, title, accomplishments, awards, or degree’s that you miss…it’s their laugh, a shared meal, a shoulder to cry on, the sound of their voice, the touch of their skin, or their hugs.
The last ten years have taught me that time, well spent with people I love, doing ordinary things is what makes my life extraordinary. This is wisdom hard earned and well fought for and I am extremely grateful to have been an ordinary sister to my extraordinary brother.