Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Twenty Years

It was way past my bedtime, and I knew better, but I hopped out of bed and opened the door, to where my mom and sister were in the hallway on the phone. “Mom, I wanna talk to him!” Mom looked at me, surprised, and said, “Kathleen, it’s after nine. You have school tomorrow. Go back to bed.”
“But Mom! It’s been two weeks! I just wanna say hi!”
“Kathleen-“ Mom’s warning tone was quite clear. Normally, I would have obeyed, but for some reason, I just had to talk to my brother. So I pushed.
“Mom! I’m not tired! Let me talk to him!”
“Kathleen, you know the rules. Go to bed. NOW. You can talk to him the next time he calls.”
“But it’s been two weeks!”

I turned around, slammed my bedroom door, and stomped back to bed. I’d gone weeks without talking to my brother before, and hadn’t ever thrown a fit about it. I don’t know why this time was different. But what happened the next day has kept me wondering about that for the last twenty years. My fit was very out of character for me. All I am really sure of is that for some reason, I felt like I absolutely had to talk to my brother. The feeling bordered on desperation. I didn’t have anything specifically to tell him, I just really needed to talk to him.
The next morning was just like every other morning. I got up, ate breakfast, and put on my uniform. It was the second-to-last week of school, and I was looking forward to the summer. I was about to finish 3rd grade and turn ten. Double digits! My mom reminded me not to tell the kids in my class she was coming to school in the afternoon to help a couple other moms give ice cream to the other kids in my class. It was supposed to be a surprise. Mom dropped me off at school, and I headed to my classroom.
Mid-morning, I realized I had left my English book in my mom’s car, and went to the office to call her at work and ask if she could drop it off on her lunch break. The school secretary made the call, and when she hung up, she said simply, “Your mom went home sick, so you’re going to have to share someone else’s book.” A knot formed in the pit of my stomach, and I knew something was wrong. I started crying, and the school secretary said, “It’s not bad, she just didn’t feel well.” I kinda freaked out a little, standing there in the school office. I absolutely KNEW something was wrong. My mom really doesn’t get sick just like that. She never has. And she rarely stops when she’s not feeling well unless she just can’t function. And that never just suddenly happened. I remember sitting there in the office thinking that someone had died. My dad’s mom had been experiencing declining health, and I thought perhaps she had died. Something was very wrong, I just didn’t know what.
By the end of the day, I still felt something was off, but I was no longer overwhelmed by this awful feeling that something was horribly wrong. I just thought something weird was going on, and I’d find out later. I didn’t know who was coming to pick me up- usually my mom did- but the secretary had told me someone would come. I figured whoever it was would tell me.
School always ended at 3, but around 2:50, my mom’s secretary hurried into my room. She told Miss Cornelius she was taking me home, showed her my mom’s note, and then looked at me, and said, “Come on, let’s go!” Rose was always high energy, but she was really nervous about something. She was already at the top of the steps out in the hall before I could call after her, “I have to get my bag!”
The feeling of dread slowly came back as Rose chatted nervously all the way to my sister’s high school. Anna was waiting where she always did, but I had to jump out of the car so that she’d see me. She’d had no idea anything was going on. She got in the car, looked at me strange, and said, “Where’s Mom?” I told her what I’d been told, and she just sat still, looking at me with an expression that mirrored my feeling that something just wasn’t right.
Fewer than five minutes later, we pulled up in front of the house, and Anna and I both saw Mrs. Molloy’s car in the driveway. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.” We knew this wasn’t good. Mrs. Molloy was a good friend, but for her to be at our house in the middle of the day, supposedly when our mom wasn’t feeling well, we knew something BAD had happened. I don’t remember if Rose came in with us or not, but I know she wasn’t around long. All I really remember is that as soon as we walked through the door, Anna and I KNEW something awful had happened. We’d already been through an awful lot for our ages, but this was different.
Mrs. Molloy was sitting in a chair in the living room, and mom walked in from the kitchen. She’d obviously been crying. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but Anna and I sat on the couch as we were informed that our older brother had been found dead outside his apartment in Dallas, Texas, earlier that morning.
My world had been turned completely upside down. My brother was dead.
Shortly before 4, a police chaplain showed up. He was going to meet my father when he came home from work, about 4:15. My dad was still completely unaware anything had happened. I remember him walking in the door, and as he always does when something is unusual and confusing, said, “What’s going on?”
The chaplain introduced himself and told my dad what had happened. Now, I’d seen my dad cry before (seriously, the guy weeps watching most movies), so that wasn’t the disturbing part. What was so disturbing was the way his face crumpled. It was immediate. I’ll never be able to describe the way he wept. I’ve never seen anything like it since- in movies or in real life. He just wept hard, making very little noise. He looked completely beaten.
The chaplain left, and our pastor came, then left. My mom’s brother and sister came, with food. My dad’s older sister Mary and her husband Bob came. I remember they met me at the doorway. I was smiling. I always look back on this moment when I think about how I process grief or something horrible that has happened. I usually react very badly and very dramatically for 5-10 minutes, then I’m good for hours, sometimes days. Then it hits again and I fall apart for another 5-10 minutes. I realize this isn’t normal, which is why Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob hugged me, and then Uncle Bob leaned over and said, “It’s okay to cry, you know.” I said, “I know, I already did.” This is bizarre, I realize, but I was genuinely happy to see everyone who came.
I’ll never forget Jon Detroy, one of my brother’s best friends, coming over and basically spending his entire night with me, in the midst of 50 or more people who were crowding our home, bringing love, food, and support. Jon told me story after story of my brother. He had me laughing almost all night. The stories were hilarious. He told a few of them at my brother’s funeral- including one about how my brother would set the Nintendo (we’re talking the original one here) to one player, then hand me the disabled controls, and he’d sit behind me with the active controls, beating every level, and making me think that was me! Jon- if you’re reading this, thank you. You were exactly who I needed then, you reminded me that my brother loved me, and for that, I will always love you!
The next few days were a blur. I opted to go to school, and I must say, I will NEVER forget how amazing my friends were there, particularly Amy and Kelly Schomaker, Laurie Hall, Sara Otero, and Amanda Hoffman. Looking back, the maturity with which they dealt with the situation is astonishing for a bunch of 8 and 9 year olds. Maybe it’s because we’d all lost a classmate to a brain aneurism the year before, or maybe it was something else, but they never left my side. At least one of them was with me at all times, and somehow, they managed to deal with my random crying with amazing grace and compassion. If you girls are reading this- thank you. I haven’t forgotten. I don’t know how I would have made it through those days- and the next year and a half- without you. Really, everyone in my grade at school was great.

It’s amazing to me that all happened twenty years ago. Twenty years today. It’s funny- grieving doesn’t happen in a straight, steady line. I struggled for about three years, and then I was good for about fifteen. I’d go four, five, maybe six years without crying, then maybe cry once, and then be good for another several years. It’s not that I no longer missed my brother, but I had learned to live without him. The wound was there, but it had healed. Not perfectly, but healed.
So imagine my surprise when one day in 2010- nearly 17 years after his death- I was sitting in one of my English classes discussing Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Tennyson wrote this poem over a series of many years, after the death of his best friend, and his sister’s fiancĂ©. There were three Christmases featured in the poem, one being the second one after his friend’s death. Things were still more somber than usual, but unlike the year before, the family was back to playing some of their regular Christmas games, and singing their songs. On the one hand, Tennyson mused, it was a relief that the pain was no longer so raw. But on the other hand, he felt a little guilty that they were starting to find joy again, even though a beloved member of their family was dead. He specifically wondered what it would be like when his friend had been gone seventeen years.
Seventeen years. I got out of my seat and barely managed to close the classroom door before the tears started falling. I ran outside and doubled over- the pain was more than I could bear. It was even worse than when I had first been told Matt had died. I was 26, about to graduate from college, hadn’t cried over his death in I don’t even know how many years, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe from the utter anguish. I called my parents, and my mom answered. I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t even talk. My poor mother just stayed on the phone, telling me it was going to be okay, whatever it was. When I could finally talk, I remember shouting into the phone, “But it’s not okay! Matt’s dead!” Mom teared up a little- I could hear it in her voice- and said, “Yes, honey, he is.” All I remember is standing outside, trying to get ahold of myself for the next forty minutes. I walked back in after class, determined to calmly explain to Dr. Curlin what had happened, but as soon as I started talking, I started crying again. I managed to explain, and, loving father of seven children that he is, he was nothing but understanding.
That incident was surprising and a little disturbing. Disturbing, because it’s a little disconcerting to think you’re over the worst of something and then suddenly have the emotions come back times ten. But in a way, it was also reassuring. I hadn’t forgotten my brother. I hadn’t forgotten what an important part of my life he was. He hadn’t stopped mattering to me.
The last three years have been harder than probably years four through sixteen combined. I’m in a new phase of my life, and while I grieved the loss of my brother as a child, I’m now in the process of doing that as an adult.
Matt was a really troubled individual. I remember standing outside with him in the snow as he smoked in our backyard, and he looked at me and said, “Promise me you’ll do something with your life. Promise me you won’t grow up to be a loser like me.” I promised him I would do something with my life.
And here I am, twenty years after his death. About to turn thirty, the only one of the three of us to have graduated from college, finishing my Master’s thesis and a mere two months away from being awarded my M.A. My health has often not cooperated, and as most people who know me well at all will agree, I’ve had a rockier road on multiple levels than most. But I’ve pushed on, I’ve made it through. I choose to be healthy- or to take the necessary steps to become healthy- personally and physically. In a couple years, I’ll go on to a Ph.D. program. It’s been hard not having him here to encourage me along the way, but I know he’d be so proud of me.
To those of you who are reading this who knew and loved my brother- even when he was hard to love- thank you. He desperately needed positive attention in his life. Aunt Mary, Uncle Bob, Scott, Jason, Danny, Aunt Marlene, Uncle Dave, Bob and Sue Wade, Jon, David, and so many more- thank you. You will all always have a special place in my heart, simply because you loved a boy- my brother- in so much pain.
So, Big Brother, you’ve been gone now longer than the 19 years you were here. You’ve been gone from my life more than twice as long as you were here for it. But I’m always grateful for you, your life, your love, and the things you taught me. I wish you were here still.


  1. Oh Kathleen! Thank you for sharing you heart Re: your brother. It has been 18 years since I lost my brother. I can truly relate. Praying for you and your family.
    God Bless You!

    Nancy Rejholec

  2. So sorry for your loss. Mourning doesn't follow a straight timeline. This is a beautiful tribute, both to your brother and the friends who helped you.