Is grief an act? A verb, to grieve. A condition, an illness of pain and loss? Or is it a process? She’s still grieving, they say in hushed tones. A hand draped across the chest in sympathy, a casserole on the doorstep. A limited period of time to purge emotions and loss, to emerge at an acceptable point weeks or months later with a stoic yet pleasant smile…
Does anyone even know what grief is? Does anyone even care?
What is this thing I carry, but pretend is weightless? It is part of me, but separate. Embedded into my every thought but makes no sense. An equation I’m living but can’t solve. A derealization of the soul – outside of myself, unsure of what’s real, yet knowing it’s me.
It travels through me, grief. Sometimes my heart physically hurts – when I wonder what he would look like now, where he would live, would he have kids he would have been the most amazing dad. Sometimes it’s in my gut, a dull ache. And sometimes it’s in my limbs. My arms and legs heavy with helplessness.
The same helplessness I felt that day, when the doctor said it was bad. Real bad. “There have been some who have survived this.” How long does it take a pediatric oncologist to find a gentle way to tell a family their son/brother is probably going to die? I wanted to run out of the room. Take the coward’s way out. My little brother. He was not the one who was supposed to be sick. He was the light in our family, the one who made us whole, who made our patchwork family real. He was the joy and the laughter. Not him not him not him.
All these years later that same desperation can flood my cells without warning. In my mind he’s frozen in time. Young, on the cusp of being a man. That baffling but beautiful age when you can see glimpses of the man he would become sprinkled in between the typical sixteen year old antics. A boy who played pranks and told jokes and cruised around with friends. A boy, old enough to understand mortality, but too young to have to face it. The unfairness of it all.
It’s my brain that is most confused. Cleaved in two. A ragged, uneven fault line. A clean cut would be nice, but grief is messy. One side of me is still reeling, still trying to process that he’s gone. Still confused by the unthinkable. Still accepting casseroles on the doorstep. The other side of my brain is a more gentle place. Floating along as if the world hadn’t turned upside down 23 years ago. Not blissfully unaware, but very adept at pretending like he’s here. He’s just… traveling. Living abroad. This side still misses him, missing him is as much a part of me as breathing, but misses him in a less devastating, more fathomable way. This is where I indulge in an alternate reality. And honestly, it’s where I live most of the time. Sometimes I even find myself exasperated that he hasn’t visited in so long. That’s what it would have been like. He would be living a magnificent life of adventure and we would always admonish him for being gone too long.
Delusional? Self protective? Coping? Does it really matter?
There are some things that can yank me across the chasm, landing hard into despair. When I think about how much my kids would have loved him, how he would have loved them and encouraged so much bad behavior, just to drive me crazy. When I hear certain songs that feel like goodbye. When I can’t find the mix tape CD he made me. Panic rising in me as I try to remember the last time I saw it. Did it get lost in one of the moves? Broken? How did I not put it someplace for safe keeping? How do I have a fridge magnet from a cereal box that is 40 years old, a fridge magnet, but not my brother’s CD? Music was our thing. He was into hip hop, I liked rock. He teased me about how depressing grunge was. But he thought it was so cool that I went to Woodstock and wanted to hear every detail. He knew I like Tupac and Biggie, so he made me a CD with some of my favorite songs along with others he thought I should like. With some Bob Marley thrown in, because of course. How did he know Concrete Jungle was my favorite Marley song? He didn’t. It was his favorite too.
But now I can’t find the CD and I feel like my heart has an anvil on it and I can’t believe he’s gone.
Would he be sending me Spotify playlists? Send me links to obscure bands he’d discovered? Would he tease me about the bands I’m obsessed with? Would he be going to concerts with us? Would he…
This is what his birthday is like. Snap back to reality. He would have been 41 today. Impossible. Beyond comprehension. It’s the “would have beens” that haunt the grieving. Birthdays and anniversaries, sometimes holidays, sometimes a random Thursday, have you asking what would have been. The question hangs in the air, always there. Some days louder than others.
Thursdays were our day. Weekends were for hanging out with his friends, if he was feeling up to it. If it was enough days removed from chemo and he had the energy. But Thursdays were our day. We’d go out to eat, to see a movie then back to my apartment to watch South Park. We would laugh and tease and forget reality for a little while. I tried to navigate the line between protective older sister and friend. On Thursdays he wanted his friend, not his sister. A few times I slipped up and it irritated the hell out of him.
The dichotomy of grieving is smiling at a memory while it rips you apart.
This is where I live now. Twenty three years after he was supposed to walk me down the aisle. Twenty five years after that awful day when the doctor broke the worst news in the kindest way possible. Forty one years after he was born, one of the most exciting days of my life. Of all of our lives – my sister, my parents. We shared the anticipation and the excitement of his arrivalt. And when he was born we shared the love for this amazing little human who made everything better. We watched him grow up, be independent yet always tethered to us. To all of us. Still tethered to us. Just… off on an amazing adventure… but also not… the irreconcilable difference between the two sides of my brain can’t decide on a day like his birthday. It cuts through the delicate balance of grief, or whatever we call this, that I have come to know.
Today it is a verb and a condition and a process. All at once. It is love and happiness and regret and sorrow and disbelief and searing truth. It is messy. Always always messy.
I’ve come to realize I’ll never understand grief. It will always be a baffling, muddled state. I used to think there was a process, steps you climbed through, when you reach the end you find a somber peace. Steady and predictable. It sounds comforting, the idea of working through a process, a to-do list to keep one occupied in the endless days after a loss. A lifetime has happened since he died and I’m still blindsided on a random Thursday with the realization that he’s gone. Two decades of grief and I think it’s an action, a process and a condition. A chronic infirmity. Some days good, other days bad. But always present. It’s love and pain and happiness and regret and sorrow and disbelief and searing truth and questions that will never be answered.
And still, in my mind, over and over, not him.