The question I am asked most often is, “what happened?” What could have possibly led someone as outgoing, generous, and gregarious as my brother to take his own life?
I think I understand that answer a lot more now than I did a year ago, though no one will ever be able to say exactly what was going through his head. I don’t know if it is for me to surmise, or to write about. Perhaps in time but certainly not yet. For now, I can only tell my story, witness the places where it overlaps his own. I keep moving from room to room, setting down and picking up items, looking out the window, sitting, standing. I am waiting for some revelation. I am trying to untangle the pieces. Time folds in on itself. The beginning and end and everything in between.
I do not look forward to New Year’s Eve with my usual enthusiasm. It is one of my favorite nights of the year, a time for sequined shoes and all things new, when my early-to-bed friends stifle their yawns and brave the late night hours. But this year feels different. This year feels as though I am being dragged toward something weighty and draining, something I have neither the energy nor courage to face. I call my best friend in Pennsylvania and tell her I don’t have it in me to make the six hour drive. I can’t explain it, but I am overcome by a deep exhaustion and dread.
The morning of New Year’s Eve, I wake with an epiphany. I am going to build a candlelit labyrinth in my backyard. I am going to do something slow and contemplative, shake off the burnout of the past year. I will leave the darkness of 2019 behind and walk into the light of 2020.
My daughter and I drive to the dollar store and buy several dozen pillar candles. I spend the afternoon in the backyard, fortified against the cold by my Carhartt overalls and tangled in rope as I lay the spiraling path of light. After dark, I light each hopeful flame. A smattering of friends stop by to walk the looping arches. By 11, the wind has blown half the glass jars over and the grass has caught fire a half dozen times. The bottoms of my boots have melted from stomping flames. I blow the rest of the candles out and join my daughter inside.
January 07, 2020
I pause while making dinner. The news eeking out through the speaker I keep in the kitchen sounds alarming. If I am hearing correctly, it seems as though WWIII has possibly just begun. I pick up the phone and text my brother, a Marine veteran. “Has WWIII just begun?” I ask.
He explains the potential risks of what has occurred. The next day, he sends an article that validates our discomfort while simultaneously allowing us to sleep. I smile when I see the notification at the top of my phone. These casual exchanges still feel new, having steadily bloomed over the past few years. They are the hard won result of years spent navigating the baggage of our history and the walls built between us throughout our childhood.
It is an arrival. Not to what once was… but to what should have always been.
January 27, 2020, 1 am
I am sleeping deeply, the pressure of the last 36 hours dissolving. I’d spent the previous 24 hours in the hospital with a student who needed emergency surgery. Just another day in the life of a boarding school teacher. The January air is cool, and I am cocooned beneath several layers of quilts and blankets. I love my bedroom. Vestiges of its former life as an elementary school classroom remain, ink stains dotting the ancient wood floors. Built in the early 1900’s, it has 12’ ceilings and 8’ windows. I love the way the sun dances through the tall single pane glass in the mornings.
It is not the sun that wakes me now, but rather the dog growling from the foot of my bed. He is not yet a year, and it is the first time I’ve heard him growl. His ears prick and he rises, staring alarmingly at the door across from my bed. My room opens to a small side porch, easily accessible from the yard. And then I hear it, a creaking of the porch boards, the discernible weight of footsteps. The doorknob jiggles and the dog breaks into a bark. A scream escapes me, something I am wholly powerless to. I cannot move. The thing I have always dreaded is finally happening, and I cannot move. When that door swings open, I will be paralyzed and defenseless to whatever comes next.
Above my own screaming, I suddenly make out my mother’s voice. Somehow, she is on my porch. “It’s me. It’s mommy. It’s just me,” she calls. I stumble from bed, bare legs cold, and lurch toward the door. As I pull it inward, I catch a brief glimpse of the star-studded sky behind her. The cold sweeps into the room, my mother in her mustard yellow dress coat, her neighbor behind her. I think it is an odd choice for a winter’s night. I think someone has died because my mother is on my porch in a mustard yellow coat with a sky full of stars. She is shaking, falls toward me, grips my arms. She is not saying anything but I know then. I am certain my sister has died. My sister, the battles she has fought, the last year her hardest, the recent months we have spent collectively holding our breath. I begin to wail. My legs tumble backward and I feel the cold of the floor beneath me, my whole being folding inward.
My mother is saying my name again. And then my brother’s. She repeats this several times. I squint through the darkness as though seeing clearly will make this make sense. “Frankie?” I ask, incredulous. My mind cannot take it in. My mom is mumbling streams of words that make no sense to me. “A car accident?” I ask. “No… no… a gun.” I am pushing my body away from her. Pushing all of this away and trying to find air. I feel that I am shaking. Someone sets a blanket over me. The dog is wriggling in excitement to see the new guests. My mother says she can feel my brother, that she can feel him right now. I brighten. He is still alive then. I picture a hospital bed and realize I have misunderstood. “I don’t understand,” I cry out. “Is my brother alive?” No… no… he is not. But my mother can feel him still.
I am astounded at my body’s physical response, at my inability to think myself out of the impenetrable cold that has overtaken me, of the shaking, the frailty of my limbs. I do not know what time my mother came to my door or how much time passed in the darkness on that floor. I am amazed and relieved and grateful that my daughter does not hear and wake up. I would not want her to see this, could not possibly be present for her now. Someone makes tea. My mother collapses into the chair in the corner of my bedroom, intermittently sobbing and moaning. We have all stayed in the room together, my mom and her neighbor and her neighbor’s husband, so we do not wake my daughter. I think how strange it is to have my mother’s neighbors sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, murmuring idioms about grief and lessons gained.
My mother asks me to call my uncle. I do, but first I call my step-dad, my brother’s father. I am sure he has not heard the news yet. Despite my brother’s unflagging loyalty, he too was cut out of my step-dad’s life several years earlier. It weighed on him in incalculable ways. My step-dad does not answer; I leave the cruelest voice message imaginable and hang up.
I call my uncle. He answers but I cannot say the words. “What?” he keeps asking. “I can’t understand you.” I try my little brother next, once, twice, three times. I curse the iphone sleep setting. My mother is in the room with me but she is a thousand miles away. I cannot comfort her and she cannot comfort me. I try my step-mom. She doesn’t answer either.
The sky begins to lighten. I will need to wake my daughter for school soon. My mother’s neighbors urge me to try to sleep and take her to their car. I try to call my brother’s wife. A few minutes later, my phone rings. It is their neighbor. He is factual and calm, though I know he and my brother were at each other’s homes daily. He fills in the details of the evening. My mind resists every word. I picture the bathroom off the guest bedroom, a detail that will imbue my dreams for months to come.
January 28, 2020
I lie in bed for the hour before I need to wake my daughter. I splash water on my face, hoping the redness will disappear. I lean over her, taking in her small body, her smell, her childhood stuffed animals snuggled close. I try not to think of what this might do to her. I decide to wait until she returns from school to tell her. I cannot bear both her grief and my own. When the bus disappears out of sight, I collapse onto the couch. I am too tired and too stunned to cry anymore. And anyway, I’m not entirely sure I believe that this thing has happened.
My phone dings. It is my ex. “I’m so sorry,” the text reads. I am absolutely flabbergasted. “How do you know?” I ask. “Your mom called,” he responds. “She wanted me to come be with you when she told you.” I am floored. That he should know before me seems inconceivable. That my mother thought I would somehow need him in this moment is more than I can even take in. “I’m fine,” I respond. “But just for the record, if either of your parents had called me, I would have come.” I know even as I type this that I wouldn’t have wanted him to be here. Not even remotely. And I know he is smart enough to know that. Still, it feels good to say it.
I can’t sleep. I know my mom probably needs me, though I am reluctant to go. I want to stay in this silent space where it still isn’t real. In the car, I call my younger brother again. He is in Portland and three hours behind, but this time he answers. Though he and Frankie weren’t related by blood and didn’t spend much time together as children, they had become close in their adult years. Last year, I had driven to visit Frankie only to discover that Jason was there as well, having flown across the country to see his not-real-brother without even telling his real sister. I loved it. I loved that they had forged a brotherhood between the two of them, so much so that Jason had begun making plans to relocate to North Carolina that summer.
Now, I don’t know the words. My voice is high and tight as I try to explain, flippant even, in its delivery. I am surprised by his response, surprised by the shock and confusion in his voice, because deep down I still don’t believe the thing I am saying is actually true. “No,” he utters, though it sounds like a question. He repeats the word again. We sit in silence. “I have to go,” he says and hangs up.
In the mile before my mother’s house, my phone rings. It is my step-mom. “Oh Dana,” she says and lets out a sob. She sits there on the other end crying openly and unabashedly. I am grateful for it. I am suddenly able to connect with this thing inside of me. I let loose the torrent and for several minutes we sit together on line, sobbing. When I hang up, I feel less alone.
In the first hours of that first day, everything is in confusion. My sister in law calls and her sobs break something open inside of me. She has not seen him yet. He was taken by ambulance from the house and life-flighted at the bottom of the mountain. She was not allowed to accompany. The hospital will not let her see him there. His body needs to first be moved to a funeral home. This becomes a point of frustration for everyone over the next 24 hours. My brother lies alone in some room, and none of us can get to him. More than anything, this is the thing that causes me pain.
My mother asks for a separate funeral in Pennsylvania, independent of the one that will inevitably be planned in North Carolina. Mostly, she just wants to see him. I understand this desire. By the day’s end, arrangements for a service have been made. I try to scrape together some semblance of an obituary, though I can’t make the words make sense. A friend takes over. Everything is happening so quickly. Plans and demands and requests and necessities. My uncle arrives. I leave to meet my daughter’s school bus.
A friend is waiting for me when I return home. We sit in my living room in silence. I feel as though I should cry or say something profound. I sort through a few disassembled tears, separate of any feeling or meaning. My body seems to have levitated outside of itself. I feel less than I think I should. Despite that, the shaking continues.
My daughter is stoic. She asks only if she can go to her room. I relent.
January 29, 2020
On the way to my mom’s, I stop to pick up a pack of cigarettes. I quit smoking fourteen years ago, though I still sneak it in when I’m with my brother. Now, I am overcome with the craving.
By late afternoon, my uncle has driven my sister, mother, daughter, and I to North Carolina. We drop our bags at the hotel and drive to the funeral home. It is only now, waiting outside of that room, that my body truly begins to believe this thing has happened. I begin shaking again, quick, spastic movements that I can’t seem to control. I do not go in with my mother and sister. I do not want to mingle their grief with my own. When my mother crosses the threshold, she wails. “Somebody help me,” she pleads.
A sound fumbles over my throat, my body doubles over. I want nothing to do with that room, with what lies inside. And yet, I desperately want to be with my brother.
January 30, 2020
We leave my uncle’s car at the airport and fly to Pennsylvania. I feel the rise of anxiety I usually feel when airborne. And then it occurs to me that everyone I love is either here on this plane or already dead. My fear evaporates. For the first time in my life, I fly in peace.
January 31, 2020
We attend the memorial service in our hometown. I see faces I haven’t seen since I graduated high school. I feel suffocated and claustrophobic during the service. In the front row, it seems that all the eyes behind are bearing down on us. I want to stand and scream for everyone to go home, that this is all a joke, a terrible, terrible idea.
February 01, 2020
We fly from Pittsburgh back to Asheville. We make the drive out of the city and into Barnardsville. With each familiar turn, my heart constricts in pain. At the Airbnb, a friend from high school arrives. With 20 years of military experience, she seems to know exactly what to do.
In the evening, Jason and my step-mom arrive. He and I climb into the car and drive to our brother’s home. There are people there I have never met. Everyone is loud and drunk. We slip into the back bedroom, into my brother’s closet. We sit amidst his belongings, tidy, organized, his smell still palpable. My brother’s dog finds us and lays mournfully at our feet.
February 02, 2020
All the people who ever loved my brother descend on the hillside retreat he built for beauty’s sake. I resist it all. I don’t want their kind words or memories or reflections. I want only for this to not be happening. I sit with my little brother in my lined Carhartt overalls and smoke cigarettes, sip the Laphroaig scotch that Frankie loved. It all feels absurd, ridiculous. I am certain that at any moment my brother will come striding down the hill, his swagger and drawl making everyone laugh.
I do not understand in this moment that I have yet to taste true grief. The strain on my heart is merely shock. It will take weeks, months even, for the real grief to settle in, for the absent places to be made clear. My body will hollow itself out. Stop and begin anew. My brother’s death will pull me into another realm. Over the course of the coming year, I will walk away from my old life almost wholly and entirely.
January 27, 2021
I want to tell you all the things I think you should know about him, but I don’t feel equipped to do so. His friends would do it better, because they were the roots of his existence. His Marine brothers, his Asheville crew, his high school buddies aptly named “The Wingdingers,” and dozens of others that I don’t even know about. His wife, his not-real-brother Jason, his sister Jess. His mother.
There are pieces of me that still cannot believe this thing is true, pieces that wait for him to come walking through the door with his huge grin on his face, his laughter ringing out ahead of him.
His heart beat for the last time at 11:43 pm on January 27, 2020. I imagine it exploding into a million infinitesimal pieces, settling over each of us. I carry it with me. We carry it with us, his heart in our hearts.