I am going to write you down. I’m going to put you into a place you can’t wriggle away from. Because I don’t understand what you did, and I need to capture what I can.
There’s an awkward pause after the initial standard greetings. Neither of us are sure what to do with this. I’m not a little girl anymore, and you just got back from another world. We no longer speak the same language in a sense.
I break in.
“I hear they have big spiders there. Did you see any? What are they called again?”
“Camel spiders!” You say, eager that I’ve brought up a subject we’re well versed in: Gross things I need you to protect me from.
“I saw a picture of them online. They’re disgusting!”
“Yeah. They are. I didn’t see any that were real big. But there was a good sized one in my boot once.”
“It’s not so bad.”
We pause again. There’s nowhere to take it from here.
“Well, I’m glad you’re home safe. Happy Thanksgiving!”
“Yeah, thanks. You too.”
I hand the phone to my brother and walk off into the kitchen.
You are my picture of a boy. Always slightly dirty. Able to fix things. Never TOO concerned with girls. You are my picture of a brother. I have very few clear, happy childhood memories. And you’re in most of them. You are the boy who took me fishing after school. You are the boy who waded into the muck to pull up a water lily for me. You grabbed snakes by their tails and whipped them out across the pond when they got too close to me. You never let me curse, but freely swore in front of me.
Even though you kept to yourself, I always knew that if I knocked on your bedroom door, you would open it for me. You would let me flop onto your bed, and patiently describe the premise of each book I pointed at.
I remember the day you picked me up from a friend’s house. It was summer and we had been playing in the yard. As you walked around the corner into the driveway, you ever-so casually picked up a skateboard we had abandoned earlier and jumped on to it, gliding the rest of the way to us. Without turning towards her, I could feel my friend blush at your grand entrance. If 12 year olds could swoon, that’s exactly what would have happened. I brushed the gravel bits off of my palms and ran towards you.
You were effortlessly cool, and I had the joy of being your baby sister.
I held you on a pedestal so high. I never stopped thinking of you as a measure to which all boys I met fell short. You were tough, cavalier, but dedicated. You served your country diligently, read quietly, and possessed a patience for my antics that has yet to be matched. You treated a broken little girl with a level of kindness that my heart will never forget.
I hate sleeping right now. Because sleeping means I have to wake up. And when I wake up, I have to realize it all over again. There are those few moments when I first open my eyes that are delightfully ignorant. I stretch; make sure all my toes still work. Evaluate my surroundings.
Then it starts.
I feel like I had a bad dream. Something is tugging at the edges of my heart. What was it again? Oh. I dreamed you were dead. I dreamed you killed yourself. God. What a horrible nightmare.
Then. Faster now. My brain moves quicker. It was real, wasn’t it? My phone did ring. My mom did say those words. It is true.
Did you really go? You did. You chose a violent and awful end for yourself.
I’ve talked a lot on my life. Usually, the challenge is shutting me up. There are phrases that, no matter how unpleasant, have needed to be said. Things like, “My grandfather died,” or words like, “cancer,” and, “car accident.” But never, ever, have I said the phrase, “My brother killed himself.” I wasn’t sure how to make the words come out at first. I went to work extra early so I could practice them over and over in my head before the first time I said it. Explaining to my boss why I had to leave. I still almost choked on them. Hearing myself. Hearing those words out loud. It felt like I was killing you myself.
People keep trying to give me facts about suicide rates among veterans of the Iraq war. I’m really not sure why they think this is valid. It’s like they’re trying to comfort me by pointing out, “Hey, the numbers SAID he was going to shoot himself.” Like this was some kind of inevitable outcome to your life.
I don’t want to be angry at you right now. I don’t want to talk about the family you’ve left to sort this out. I’m wallowing in you. If I think about those things I have to fully face that you no longer exist. I’m not ready for that yet. Right now, I need you to be the big brother who had tattoos, smoked cigarettes, and made me safe.
I drove to Vermont today. 6 hours in a car. And I drove straight past home. I went right to the pond. I followed the path and climbed out onto the rock were we sat. I thought about the time I caught a fish, but the hook had gone through its mouth and into its eye. I burst into tears as the poor thing flopped in grotesque pain. You calmly held the creature steady and removed the hook. You talked to me quietly. Saying he couldn’t feel anything. Instead of putting the fish into our catch bucket, you slipped it back into the pond. It sank to the bottom and rested quietly. You put your hand on top of my head.
Fuck. Everything about this place is exactly the same.
Except nothing is the same now.