My first real blog post was originally entitled, “My Brother Hates Me.” I’m sure he doesn’t but when my sister, your wife, passed away, the tenderhearted, kind, gentle and amicable baby of the family became mean and cold to me. This is a series of letters about my life with my little sister, her death, and to thank you profusely for stepping in as my brother.
On the way to her wake, with his new girlfriend in the truck whom I was meeting for the first time, my little brother called me a ‘racist,’ though I have spent years fighting for equality for all. I promptly chewed him out when we stopped for gas and as I walked away he started punching the metal gas tank so hard his knuckles bled. I bought band-aids, got in the car and gave them to his girlfriend.
Then he got us lost on country dirt roads. She and I were hanging out the windows trying to get cell phone service while he laughed gleefully, blasting the twangiest country music I’ve ever heard to annoy me. Why that was on his IPod, I’ll never know. Every two minutes I stuck my head back through the window and asked him irritably to turn it off. He turned it up.
Sometimes I’m sorry I looked at her body that way; that I have that memory. A million people I hadn’t seen in decades said hello. I did not cry. There were a million emotions beneath the surface and I felt a numb panic, if that makes sense. I saw it mirrored in my brother’s eyes. I did not look at her body that final time with everyone else at the church. I had seen enough. Are you sorry we had the wake? The funeral service? The graveside gathering, where the pastor had the gall to advertise his Easter service? Was it cathartic for you?
When I threw the rose on that closed casket, I thought I said, ‘goodbye,’ but maybe that’s what I’m doing now. This is an odd sort of gratitude but thank you that I can share my grief with you and I know you empathize, go through it with me, yet I’m sure so much stronger. My heart constantly goes out to you, Brother-in-Law.
Brother-in-Law, from that time, do you remember people, something that was said, feelings, memories, nothing but a blur, a mix? My memories are fragmented, barely there. A few things stuck out:
One of her college roommates approached me and said, ‘She was always excited when you called.’
Her best friend, who was like another sister to her said, ‘Thank you for sharing her with me.’ I replied softly, ‘I didn’t want to.’ She returned, just as softly, ‘I know.’
My little brother came and sat down on a bench next to me and ask, ‘So I’m not your brother anymore?’ I do not remember my response, whether it was nice, or firm, or even cold because I may have still been angry at the ride. I only remember his gentle nature. Absent a visit to my home maybe a year later, it was one of the last times I would see it.
When Anna and I were together as adults, she would affectionately tell people–people we had JUST met–that as kids I ‘made [her] drink mud’ and ‘almost burned down the church.’ In my defense, a friend and I had a club at a very young age and she wanted to join. We told her to drink a milkshake, adding a little bit of mud. She had one tiny sip and spit it out. We let her play in our club anyway and she never actually drank the mud!
We grew up in small town North Carolina back in the day. The biggest employer in town was the American Tobacco Company. They actually gave two free packs of cigarettes to all employees every day. The dangers of smoking hadn’t been studied to the extent they’ve been now. Between Sunday School and and Morning Service was the time to go out on the porch and light up and a teenager smoking just wasn’t a big deal.
At age 11, the same friend I previously spoke of, a dear friend whom I’ve known since the age of 4 and spoke to via Facebook just days ago, went with me ACROSS THE CHURCH PARKING LOT to a little wooded area, separating it from the closest home. In hand was a cigarette. We were ONLY eleven. We planned to light it up and practice inhaling because, of course, it was cool! After getting through half and a lot of coughing in between, we put it out in a hole beside a tree, a hole made of bark and filled with dry leaves.
As a spark started to become a frenzy we both looked on captivated, even gleeful, but as it quickly grew even larger, spitting flames, we ran for help. We were promptly and sternly lectured about putting out cigarettes in wooded areas or using any fire device on dried leaves, but not at all about two 11-yr-old’s smoking. Welcome to Reidsville, NC:) Listening to Anna, you would have thought I fire-bombed the church.
During her wake, this same friend, now an adult with daughters, and I went outside to (what else?) smoke. We stepped away from the entrance to the wake and went over to the church steps. It was no longer cool but we had been hooked a very long time ago. We sat and talked quietly and the old story of the fire came up. For some reason we both turned around at the same time and low and behold we were DIRECTLY under a “No Smoking” sign. We both laughed wryly–it wasn’t haha funny, hysterical like two giggling 11-yr-old’s, but it wasn’t completely sad. She then stated the also half-funny obvious, in true Southern twang, ‘Well, it ain’t tha first time I done been in trouble at church fer smokin’.’ It was the one and only time I laughed, probably for a long time.
I went back in and tentatively sat close to my father. He’s not the most affectionate person–preferring to show he loves us in other ways. I was scared but I gingerly lay my head on his shoulder. He didn’t stiffen or get up. We sat that way a while.
What do you remember about our house, where everyone went after the funeral? I did not see you there afterwards . . . but I was also hiding in the basement a good period of time. Were you hiding, too, or could you actually talk to people?
I took a walk in the rain for a smoke and alone allowed myself to cry for my sister and my family. I knew we would be fractured. I knew I couldn’t hold us together and no one else could either. Each role each member played was too rigid. No one could play her role. Even then I had no idea the pain the next (almost) five years would bring because of that, because I was right and it was horrible to be right. And thank you, bro-in-law, for never talking to me about my family, never chastising or lecturing or interfering. I know you know things aren’t well. Your support of me personally has been never-ending, though. Thank you.
(L-R) ANNA, LITTLE BRO, ME
You were the one who told me about her death. She had been upset with me a couple of days before for ending up in yet another rehab for alcohol. She told me I “had better get it this time.” I was frustrated and initially decided I wasn’t going to talk to her for a few days.
I don’t know what made me let it go. I’m not the best at letting things go. But I did and called her from one of the piece-of-crap rotary phones we had in rehab the next night. One would stand in line for a half hour for the privilege of an uncomfortable seat and 20 minutes maximum of a bad connection. We talked awhile and she was cleaning the kitchen tiles with a toothbrush, so happy to be cleaning every ounce of the new house you guys had just bought. That was the last thing she told me before I had to go . I told her I’d call her the next night. The last thing we said to each other was, ‘I love you.’ At least I will always have that.
The night after that I was exhausted; my day had been bad, and I just wanted to go to bed I’ll call her tomorrow. There was a tomorrow but for part of it there was no Anna. Not on this Earth.
I called. You answered. I ask to speak to Anna.
‘She passed away.’
‘She passed out?!?’ Are the paramedics there right now? Are they helping her? What happened? Not again!
‘She passed away.’
*yelling* ‘She. Passed. Out???’ This connection is really bad.
‘She passed away. I’ve sent the Sheriff’s to your parents house.’
And then some piece of it infiltrated my mind and I do not know if I spoke another word to you, bro, before hanging up the phone. And then it came faster and I thought I would be the one to pass out and I ran for the doors.
I ran towards an outside entrance and it seemed the door was too far away for what was swelling up inside of me; I hit the glass doors with both hands to the large cigarette patio that was more a backyard with trees and picnic tables set up and I screamed. I don’t know how loud or for how long. It did not feel voluntary.
When the screaming stopped I balled up behind a tree where I thought I was hidden from everyone and just cried and smoked. But someone found me and dared to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ I wanted to attack her but instead I said nicely ‘Of course I’m okay. What would give you the impression that I’m not?’ *dripping sardonic smile* And I walked away.
I went to see the APRN and said ‘my sister’s died today and I need to use a phone where I’m alone and can hear.’
‘Alright, come on. You can use the doctor’s office but you’ll have to have someone in there with you. There’s a doctor’s desk in there and it may have confidential information.’
‘Then I’ll shove it out the door.’
‘Okay just keep the door open.’ *sighing*
I called Dad first and I knew he knew; I’ve never heard him sound so tired. Never. Another nurse came in. I hung up with dad and told Ms. Nurse ‘get out or I’m moving the desk.’ She was still in the middle of talking about policy when I had the desk all the way to the door, pondering how to flip it and get it in the hallway. She finally just left. I called my little brother and he was driving aimlessly, crying. He didn’t even know where he was. I yelled, ‘You’re going to wreck in this state of mind! PULL OVER!!! I’m not going to lose you, too!’ I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, just that I didn’t forget to say ‘I love you,’ when I disconnected. I still haven’t forgotten.
The next day I got on a plane to Asheville, NC. My little brother met me at the airport. We embraced. It is the last time he has hugged me like that, as if we were hanging on to each other for dear life. When I saw my Mom, she fell into my arms, crying hysterically. We are not extremely close and it was a shock. How could I comfort her? How could anyone comfort any of us?
How could any of us comfort you, Brother-in-Law? I know that we could not. I know that no matter how many times people said ‘I’m sorry,’ it could not penetrate the treacherous tide of swirling black waters of grief. These waves were pulling all of our family under, again and again and again, as we all fought and trashed to struggle for air.
My last memory was being in the basement alone and looking out the dusty window. I could see the porch swing to the back porch hidden outside in the very lower part of the home. My Mom, the ultimate hostess, had left all those people and was talking privately on the swing with my Aunt. Why couldn’t it have been me she gave that time to? As I watched, I had never felt lonelier.
I can’t even imagine, brother, how lonely you must have felt to have lost your partner. Maybe then, maybe that first night of her death, maybe not until it fully sunk it later. I’m sure still now. I still feel lonely when I miss and need her, too. I still feel it at some point every day. I don’t know when or if that will go away. A piece of me–my blood, my genes–is missing and people think it’s weird when I say I can physically feel the missing part. Let them think that. Does this make sense to you, brother?
I’ll write again soon. I love you. — LC
*PART II: It’s Not Like The Church Burned Down is coming soon!!
**THIS IS A LETTER WRITTEN FROM THE AUTHOR’S POINT OF VIEW. ALL EXPERIENCES, OPINIONS, AND FACTS OF THIS TIME PERIOD ARE FROM THE AUTHOR’S PERCEPTION. NO ONE ELSE TOOK PART IN THE WRITING OF THIS PIECE.