4. Atonement

The following post contains language and imagery that refers to suicide. Please take care in reading. If you need support at any time, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

I am not sure if the voice I hear in my head belongs to my brother or just my memory of him. I hear it most profoundly in my sleep, even just a word or two. Watch your step, he gently warned the other night, right behind me as I hiked up a steep hill. I turned back to look at him as I stumbled. He was gone. 

The loop that plays through my head is not the moment just before he took his life. It is the moment just after. I do not conjure up the opportunity to change his mind. I do not imagine trying to stop him. Neither options occur to me until suggested. Rather, my mind insists on this: I will rush to where he lies. I will slide my arm under his neck, lean over his chest, and pull him close to me. I will hold him as tightly as I can. I will push away the terror that comes at seeing his broken body, and I will mind only that I am there with him, that he is not alone, that he feels the wellspring of love my heart holds for him. I will pour it over him again and again in those final moments. I will speak to him calmly. I will fill the room with my voice and I will fill it with my love. I will banish the anguish that surrounds him. I will comfort him as I did when he was small, when it first crept in, when our childhood began to crumble and little made sense in the world. 

I will breathe out the years of anger that stood between us. I will sweep away the countless times I tried to navigate around and through his rage, the origins of which I could neither understand nor uproot. I will unfold each delicious moment of laughter. I will savor the sweetness of the years of healing. I will revel in the moments of love and joy and growth. I will tell him again how proud I am of the man he had become, of the man he is. I will cover him with my gratitude. I will cover him with my love. This is how my mind will preserve itself. I will stay with him in that room for as long as it takes to feel he is at peace. 

But oh, how I resent time. I resent the way it moves forward and forces this to become a thing of the past. I resent the distance I gain from my grief. I fear that if I stop feeling it, I will stop feeling him. I resent that he will one day be someone I knew, that this will one day be something that happened. I resent the unreliability of memories, the way they stretch and warp and fade. What did I know? What did I think I knew? Memory belongs to the dead. 

There will be things about this that I will never understand. Like how my body feels that a piece of it has been detached and disseminated. Thirty-four years of love and anger and hurt and then more love all evaporated in the blink of an eye. 

A single question plays across my mind throughout the day, over and over until I am compelled to place a hand over my mouth. Where is my brother? I have to stop myself from saying it out loud, keep it inside, because I know it is a question that no one can answer. But also… can anyone tell me where my brother is? Where did he go? How can I find him? What do I need to do to bring him back? 

I find my head shaking back and forth during lulls of activity. I’ve become aware of its slow side to side sway while standing in line at the grocery store, waiting at a red light, or sitting still at my desk. It is a silent protest, my body’s own refusal to accept this thing. This Thing That Is Impossible To Have Happened. 

I suppose this response is owed to the sudden nature of his death, the lack of context and the absence of a goodbye. When people go on vacation, they let those they love know where they are going, how they can be reached, and when they will return. My brother did not tell anyone where he was going. My brother cannot be reached. My brother will not return. In the beat of a second, he ceased to exist. What is left of the space he once inhabited? What lingers? A last breath was exhaled, atoms drifting through air, a heart stopped. His DNA still rests on the fibers of shirts and chairs, sheets and pillows, the leather on the seat of his truck, the lip of a glass. Eventually, it will all be washed away. But for now, his atoms and molecules still take up space on this planet. In some way, they always will. 

And yet, I cannot reach him. 

Where is my brother? 

It isn’t a philosophical question. I don’t need priests or pastors to pound down my door with an existential answer. I can make sense of the options. I just can’t make sense of this newly wrought reality. 

The tether has snapped. That fine, invisible tie that formed the bond between us, is broken. It is an unfixable thing, a problem without a solution, and I am plunging into the darkness beneath it. It is a darkness that I spent most of my adult life trying to keep at bay, but now I am once again face to face with it. It is not just grief and sadness, though they should be enough. It is the same excruciating fear, agonizing despair, and brutal anxiety that my brother ran away from, that my sister battles, and that I try to face down in whatever moments of bravery I can assemble. It is the great tidal wave that extinguishes everything in its path. 

I have faced it before. I know that it will abate in time and that I will survive. Except that… I did not tell him. I did not tell my brother that the tidal wave is only a moment in time, even if it feels like an eternity. I did not tell him there is life on the other side, even if everything in between becomes unrecognizable. I did not tell him because I believed him to be infallible, impervious to what I perceived as my own weakness, a short in my system. I did not tell him because I did not think he would believe me, because there was still time, because it was a truth we were still working toward. I did not tell him for a thousand reasons that are confusing and complicated but owing, mostly, to my own shame. I did not tell him because I did not think he would understand. 

How could I have known that he, perhaps, was the only person on this planet who could have so perfectly understood. 

We do not have a particularly expansive vocabulary in our culture with which to talk about death, better yet suicide. Perhaps that is an irrelevant statement. It seems unlikely, given the aforementioned reasons, that an expansive vocabulary on the topic would have changed anything. Even if we had found an eloquent way to talk about it around the dinner table, denial is often our best chance at survival. Still, I am not sure. I once heard an anecdote in college of a tribal village where a bell was rung whenever anyone was acting particularly down. The people would gather around the individual and hug them, assigning different ones to accompany the person until they were well again, so that they were never alone in their despair. I do not know how much of that is true. Still, I will always wonder… had that proverbial bell been rung and we hadn’t heard it?

I threw away the shirt I wore to view his body. The hospital morgue had insisted he be moved to a funeral home before we could be permitted to see him; his body would need to be cleaned and properly tended to. The implications of that statement still make my stomach churn. I imagine the hours he spent on that cold, steel tray in such a condition. The mortician, seemingly too young to hold the title, had been a friend of my brother’s in high school. He had taken great care in preparing the body. It was a kindness. There would be no public viewing, the effort just for us- his mother and sisters and wife. 

His body was frozen, something I had not expected but that made sense in light of his pending cremation. Little flakes of frost clung to his eyelashes and hair, as though he had just come in from a snowy day. His hand, when I reached for it, felt foreign, cold and rigid. It didn’t satisfy the desire to touch him, to wrap my arms around him. I could not gather the smell of him, his sterile body swathed in his Marine uniform, too formal, too stiff. I preferred him in his flannel shirt and boots, craved his scent of the outdoors and hard work, tobacco and kitchen, his four dogs. The body in front of me was not my brother. And yet it was, the unavoidable confrontation of a reality I was not yet ready to face, the truth I would now live with. 

I traced the pieces of his fractured skull with my eyes. The bullet had entered his right temple and shattered his left, now carefully sewn back into place. I thought of what he had taught me. Keep your target in sight; take a long, slow breath; squeeze on the exhale; supress the urge to flinch. I pictured him in that bathroom, pushing out his breath, his hand steady, his resolve clear. Was he standing in front of the mirror or had he turned away? Did he meet his own eyes, challenging himself until the very end? I thought yes. I thought he would not have looked away.  

Six weeks later, I held his phone in my hand. I desperately wanted to find some clue as to what he had been thinking, what had so rapidly led to this point. I needed to understand. The bits and pieces from previous weeks and months reflected a slow escalation of anxiety and pain. Little of it surprised me. But when I opened his photo album, I was stunned to find something wholly unexpected. My brother had recorded the final moments just before he took his life. I no longer had to ask whether he faced the mirror or turned away. I now knew. 

He did neither. 

It had not been planned. He had locked himself in the bathroom to let loose the gasping sobs he could no longer keep at bay. His pain echoed off the walls. He sat on the floor, his back leaning against the vanity, his feet straight out in front of him. It was a posture of surrender and exhaustion. There was no challenge, no final moment of glory and strength and dignity. Only pain and brokenness and absolute despair. 

Do you see it? Do you see what I did? Even in his final moments, I asked him to be a hero. 

Here’s the truth. Here’s the thing I’ve not allowed myself to admit until this exact time. Perhaps you will hate me for it. That would be alright. The truth is, I was repulsed by his cries. I was repulsed by his vulnerability and weakness and unfiltered pain. In every picture I created of that final act, I still asked him to be strong, to be the vision of the man we all needed him to be. In not one of my imaginings had I envisioned his turmoil, his weeping, his absolute despair. Even in that moment, I could not allow him to be weak. What does that say about me? 

What I have come to understand in these past few weeks and months is how greatly we are bound to the roles we were designated to play in our youth. My brother was the protector and defender from a very early age, designated man of the house when he was just 7. It was a role he took seriously and one that his enlistment in the Marine corps allowed him to fully embody. We all asked it of him. But I only now understand how many places there were in my brother’s life where he was completely and utterly alone, places he could allow no one else into. We so blindly accepted what he wanted us to see, because we desperately needed to see it. Who, though, was protecting him?  

This thing has happened and I cannot change it. I can only work through the nuanced layers of acceptance and try to learn what I can from this moment. Humanity seems much more fragile to me than it used to. We take for granted so much of what appears to be true. But the truth is, we can only know so much about the internal lives of those we encounter… and even those we love. 

It has been six months since I began this essay. My brother’s ashes still wait for their final resting place. But I no longer ask where he is. He is gone. And that is all.

3 thoughts on “4. Atonement

  1. your story weaving is done with such grace and the words you choose are so perfectly balanced and compelling – please continue life as the fine writer that you are


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