O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Tomorrow is the 9 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Discussing it is still so hard for me, and yet I’m increasingly realising that I must find better ways of dealing with it and talking about it. When I recount how he died, when I explain everything, I somehow feel like I have to give people a disclaimer.

It’s a pretty morbid story. I don’t know if you want to hear it.

I tend to avoid talking about it. But when someone starts asking about the scars on my arms, or about my depression, or about being a teenager, inevitably the topic of my stepdad comes up. And then through talking about my stepdad, I talk about my brother, and the whole dark and twisted story comes out. There’s no good way to talk about it all, there’s no simple way to say it. When I push the words out of my mouth it’s like I’m shoving them through a barrier of cotton wool, as if by uttering them, the person I’m speaking to will be so horrified that they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

He drowned, okay? He had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub.

If he was alive he would be 18 years old now. I can’t even imagine what he would be like, what his life would be like, what any of our lives would be like. When I think about him my chest feels tight and heavy, and I feel as if my mother must be consumed by this sorrow so large that she cannot even begin to climb it.

I remember stroking his hair in the hospital when he was in the paediatric ICU. His hair was flattened into a Johnny-Bravo-style peak, from everyone stroking his hair in the same way. It was so soft.

The doctors had to test if he had any brain activity remaining, so my parents could decide if they wanted to switch off the life support or not. The doctor shone a torch into his eyes, and I stared so hard at his pupils just hoping and screaming inside my head: “React! MOVE! JUST DO SOMETHING”. But nothing happened, they turned off the life support, and that was it.

I hated his hugs, because he was always sticky and slimy and he was so skinny that his hugs were bony and painful. He would hug me and say “I love you, Leah”; he’d wake me up at 3am, standing by my bed, wanting me to play with him; my boyfriend and I would babysit him and take him places and look after him as if we were our own little family. But then he was dead and the hugs were gone and I wished with every piece of my body that I could go back in time and love him better, pay him more attention, spend more time with him, make sure he knew in his bones that I adored him even though he drove me crazy.

Four brothers seems like a lot to most people. But to me it seems like such a tiny number, just four. Four doesn’t seem like enough, when it should have been five.

It Only Took Me 29 Years

I’ve been thinking about beginnings. A friend of mine, J, told me once that moving to a new city is a chance to reinvent yourself, to start over.

But I have always lived two lives anyway: my real life, and my reinvented, sanitised life that I present to people. I simply don’t talk about a lot of stuff, as if the details of my world are somehow shameful or unimportant. That inability to talk, that reluctance to be open, is something that has slowly eaten away at me over the years, and it made me feel inauthentic and hollow. Now that I’m getting to know J, and another friend S, I’m starting to feel like maybe I should be more like them.

J has a correspondence art project between herself and another artist. One of their mission statements is this:

Conservation of Energy (knowing– exactly –when to “end”/knowing what is a “beginning”)

In my eyes, a beginning is about change. Often it’s a conscious choice to change state; a movement in ideas and approach, with the result that things are new, refreshed, and unique.

The other friend, S, writes about the shift in her worldview when she moved from new York to Mexico, and then the turbulent relationship with her son’s father. When she found out she was pregnant, he left her. In a Mexican farm town in the middle of nowhere, he left her and didn’t come back. She says she won’t tell her child this story, she will only say that he chose fear and she chose love. It’s her own story of beginnings, as well as big decisions that change your life forever.

The choice between love and fear is one I live every day, with every person I interact with, including myself. Against my own desires, fear seems to be my default choice. I’m anxious, untrusting, wary. With certain people, choosing love is a struggle. With J, it’s a struggle. I am more afraid than I have been in a long time, in my interactions with her.

But I decided years ago to choose love wherever I could, to push myself to be brave.

Six years ago, my friend T was just about to get married. He and I had this complicated sort of love. He was dedicated, completely, to his fiancee. I had just begun a relationship with my now-husband, M. But T and I had this connection that felt so thick, like a twisted piece of boat-rope, linking our hearts and pulling them together. Whenever I looked at him, I felt as if there was someone else inside his head, a much older person just hiding behind his face, loving and loving and loving, pushing it outwards like brilliant light.

I travelled to his wedding alone, and on the day of it we found little pieces of time to connect. He had a million people to talk to and thank, he was busy getting married, of course. But it felt like every moment he had spare, he would come and stand with me, smiling, warm. He danced with his wife, his mother, his sister, and then me.

Four months later, I got in the car again to go back, this time for his funeral. Living in his new house with his new wife, he had died of a brain aneurysm in the night. As I held his wife’s hand, I wondered what it felt like to be her. I imagined that her soul had been cut out and doused in kerosene; she was watching it burn with the life she had planned.

Whenever I think of what happened, I just feel so angry. T embodied love, he was absolutely everything that love should be. It felt so unfair that it was him who was gone, like the world had suddenly become a much worse place.

Before him, I had always blindly chosen fear, not recognising that I was torching my own life one piece at a time. I’m the girl who has never been dumped. The second somebody starts to seem like they might reject me, I reject them first. Walk out the door, close off my heart, never look back. I was so afraid of being hurt that I could never really love anyone.

After he was gone I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt as if I would be disappointing him. I chose love with M, and I chose it again and again and again, even in moments where previously I would have been out of there so fucking fast I’d leave a me-shaped hole in the wall.

The beginning here is this: to start to choose love with my own broken, messed up brain, to allow myself to love others, and to value my own experiences. I’ve been so afraid, for the longest time, of everything, of what others think of me, of the thousands of ways in which people can rip my heart out and throw it on the ground.

But this fear wasn’t born in me, it was made. My Dad left, and then my stepdad came and broke all the pieces of me that were still whole. And then something happened inside me, a black rot in my stomach that slowly took over my body and mind. I was so scared of being rejected, so scared of being hurt, that I slowly became a shadow of a person, barely breathing at all.

But fuck all of that. I started on the road to change things a long time ago, but now I need to take a conscious step towards being less afraid, more trusting, more loving, and simply taking the risk of whatever comes. A beginning is a choice to change things, and I choose this.