Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

My Brother By the Numbers

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“Tell me how…

‘n show me now..

To understand…

What makes a good man?

Tell me now…

Hey walk the line…

Hey understand…

What makes a good man?”

-The Heavy, What Makes A Good Man

It’s different every year. I never know what to expect. Some years it’s a day of celebrating. Some years it’s a day of wiping away the tears. Some years it’s both. This year it feels like a kick in the gut. Today is my brother’s birthday.

My brother would have been 33 years old today. That’s the number that makes my insides quiver and my throat tighten with emotion. Thirty-three years old. That’s an adult. That’s someone quite different from the 18-year-old who we lost 14 years ago. Fourteen years seems like a blink of an eye. I can’t wrap my brain around that. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. I honestly feel like I saw him just last week. I always wonder if that’s my way of coping with the unthinkable. My mind’s way of protecting me from the pain of not seeing him. There is a part of me that operates in a comforting denial. I kind of pretend that I just saw him. I tell myself that I’ll be seeing him again soon.

Thirty-three years old. That is a man. A man who maybe would be married. Maybe with children. A career. Those are things we can only imagine now. But I got glimpses of who he would have been. Getting diagnosed with cancer at the age of 16 makes you mature real quick. My brother went from being a red-blooded good-natured mischievous teenager to being a strong, wise man. In a matter of a few months, he evolved. He was still mischievous. He was still hilariously funny. He still had a zest for living and soaked up every bit of life in those 18 months. But he was rudely and abruptly thrust into a harsh reality.

I saw my brother handle things that would break the strongest person. I saw him handle them with grace and humor. I saw a strength that I think few people possess. I saw the little brother, 8 years younger than me, become protective of me. Protective of my sister. Protective of my parents. He went from being the youngest child who had been adored and doted on by all of us to turn the tables without any of us even realizing it. He took on a role of a man who was looking out for his family. He was concerned about the nurses and the hours they had to work. He advocated for them and wanted to help them get real dinner breaks and reasonable hours. He was concerned and protective of his girlfriend and his friends. He didn’t want them to worry about him. He didn’t want them to see how sick he really was. He didn’t want to shake their carefree teenage world. He was becoming not just a man, but a great man.

My little brother, who I had joked with, teased, and harassed became my trusted friend. He became a sounding board. He became a confidant. I saw the best of both of my parents in him. He had always been sensitive and sweet, but I saw how that would translate to the man he was to become. Like my mom, he would listen, he would offer wise advice. He had learned from her how to be a supportive and tender friend. He and I spent many hours at the hospital talking. He wanted to talk about me, my job, my engagement and my upcoming wedding. Just like my mom, he put me and my concerns and my life before whatever he was going through. Just like her, he wanted to be there for me, for others. He was becoming so much like her.

Like my stepfather, he became the caretaker and the protector. He had learned from his father how to take care of the ones he loved. During this time, I called my parent’s house looking for my stepfather. I was having car trouble and he was my go-to person for these kind of things. My brother answered the phone and before I could finish explaining what was wrong, he was in his car on his way to help me. He showed up at my apartment with ramps and tools so he could take a look under my car. I protested. I told him I could wait for my stepfather to get home. He shooed me away and got to work under my car. I stood there and watched with a lump in my throat. My little brother had just changed before my eyes. He was so much like my stepfather.

This is the most bitter of the sweetest of gifts of the most difficult 18 months. Eighteen months that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But 18 months of the most precious moments.  A time that gave us a glimpse of the man. A time to see the amazing grace of an amazing person. A time to get to know a remarkable man.

So, these numbers are the numbers that cut right through me. The numbers that snap me out of the foggy denial I willingly and happily operate in. 33… the age my brother would be today.16… the age he was when everything changed. 18… the age he was when we had to say goodbye. 14… the years that have somehow passed since. 2… sisters who adore their baby brother.  2…  parents that I know he is looking upon now with pride and joy because they are still living and loving and thriving after so much grief and pain. 1… niece who remembers how he made her laugh and who he loved so much. 1… nephew who looked up to him and who he loved so much. 4… nieces and nephews that he never met but who seem to know their Uncle Todd somehow. 1… sweet boy, caring friend, loving son and brother, doting uncle… one amazing man. Happy Birthday little brother. I love you.

13 Responses

  1. That was heart breaking and inspiring at the same time. He would have been very proud of you. I wish you could have had more time with him.

  2. Gretchen, That was so beautiful. One day you’ll see him again and what a wonderful reunion that will be. Love you girl.

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