Mar 8, 2016
Worst Year: My Brother’s Death Is An Open Door
After losing my brother to a heroin overdose this past fall, I now have an Inside Out-ish perception of how my brain functions. I imagine my mind stocked with little men in khaki jumpsuits, packing cardboard boxes full of memories away on sky-high metal shelving. They work without speaking, both because they share a cosmic sense of purpose and because let’s face it, it’s boring menial labor that doesn’t require much discussion. They pack away my harsher memories and keep them away from me for my own sake. I am thankful for the little men.
Matt’s mental health and drug struggles had been a fact of life for a long time, and the year leading up to his death was dotted with stints in the psych ward and substance-related slip-ups. That fall though, he had seemed to genuinely be on the up-and-up. He was taking his meds. He was interviewing for new jobs. He was having friends over for pizza and wine, and asking for book recommendations. He’s going to die now? Really?
My brain couldn’t believe it.
I find myself replaying that night often; It’s somewhere my mind wanders towards whenever I have too much time to sit and think. It starts with me unlocking my duplex apartment’s front door, my dog right inside the foyer to greet me, tail wagging, just like always. He seems calm; the house is quiet. Within a few moments I grow from passively to officially worried, because Matt isn’t around and I haven’t heard from him all day.
Something compels me to go downstairs to his room to check on him. Usually I yell down first: “Matt? You home?” I do not do that this time for some reason. I just go down the stairs.
Matt’s door is closed. He only closes it when he’s not home or when he’s sleeping at night. Usually I see the door closed at this time of day and walk away, figuring he is not home. I do not do this today. I open the door, slowly at first, and then all the way. I opened it all the way.
Here’s the thing about finding a dead loved one: Like almost all things, it is different than how it seems in the movies.
The screaming starts before my brain can realize what’s happening. The loud noises are coming from my gut… not even my stomach, somewhere deeper and weirder. Do kidneys ever catapult noises out your throat? If so, that’s where the screaming started.
I do not rush to him and drape my arms around him, cradle his head and say “hang in there, buddy.” When the EMTs come, they’ll work on him for a while and tell me to hang in there, but in that first moment, it is so clear to me that he is dead. He is so absolutely disappeared from his body, why would I want to be near it? How can I lovingly cradle a head I don’t recognize?
The following sentences are said to me that evening:
“Is he warm?” The 911 operator asks me. “I need you to tell me if he’s warm.”
“There’s a chance. Say a little prayer,” the well-intentioned uniformed officer says this to me while I quake on the front steps, panicking like a kid who broke an expensive vase at the home of an intimidating distant relative; like I fucked up in an important and irreparable way. Why didn’t I get home earlier? Why didn’t I pay closer attention to Matt’s loopiness this morning? I’m thankful for the officer’s kindness, but it feels alien and unacceptable, and my body isolates it like drops of oil in a full bathtub.
“Did he come into a lot of money lately? There’s a lot of drugs down there,” the detective at the scene says to me like it’s water cooler conversation, like we’re talking about the weather. He is gruff and posturing, holding his arms out that way cartoon bodybuilders do. He is wearing a shirt that is so flowy, so lavender, I am certain it was designed for women and he bought it accidentally. He doesn’t introduce himself, doesn’t ask who I am. “Did he come into a lot of money lately?” This is what he says to me instead. This is all he really says to me before breezing out the open front door, into the hypnotic blue and red lights that fill every corner of my dead-end street.
There are some memories I’m relieved to have lost. The finer details of that night fading into fuzziness is one of my body’s greater kindnesses. But I know the images are still lurking somewhere, packed up in a box that my mind’s men have deceptively labeled “college notebooks” or something. I walk around all day in fear that any sudden movement will jostle the college notebooks box off the shelf in my mind, sending its contents exploding back into my consciousness, the little men running around like Sims characters, tiny arms waving as they desperately try to pack everything away again as quickly as possible before I have a total nervous breakdown.
Anything could do it. I recently spent a great weekend away with friends that was punctuated by a violent panic attack when one of the girls suddenly fainted. She was totally fine, thank goodness, but that whole scene—the initial surprise and fear, her body on the ground, people standing around with phones out asking, “Should we call 911?” I was as surprised as anyone to find myself retreating upstairs to heave and scream… but what is life if not a sequence of surprises?
I still have a hard time opening doors.
It’s a great relief that time moves forward, regardless of how I might feel about it. At first, when you’re grieving intensely, the idea that the world is still turning and your Far Side desk calendar keeps getting skinnier is totally amazing. “Doesn’t the universe know I’m miserable, though?” I often wondered as mornings continued to relentlessly turn to evenings, time moving forward without my brother, without even asking my permission first.
I miss my brother. I miss him every day. But time has transformed that feeling. Before, the missing would hurt in an intensely physical way. It would ache and throb, echoing around my hollow insides like a lost bird with knives attached to its wings. Now, the missing is something that just sits quietly with me, watching me go about my day patiently like a polite French child holding a balloon. Sometimes it taps me so persistently that I need to take some time to really lay down with it, but most of the time it allows me to be quite functional.
Here on the other side of the worst year of my life, I’m finding that much to my chagrin, all those needlework cliches you always hear are actually pretty true: Time does heal. Strength does come through adversity. No wonder people have been stitching them onto decorative pillows and working them into political speeches for centuries.
The small stuff, once the singular focus of my myriad anxieties, is now blissfully below my daily level of attention. I finally “don’t sweat the small stuff,” just like the XXL T-shirts at Bob’s Sports Stores tell me to. Before my brother died, I was the sort of person who’d lose sleep over an awkward first date or a callous comment from a coworker. But now I just don’t give a single fuck about anything minor anymore.
I remember receiving a jury duty summons about three weeks after Matt died. Administrative stuff like this would typically send the old me into an anxiety loop. “Am I going to have to put something in the mail? Talk to a stranger on the phone?” Not this time though. I looked at letter for a moment with total calm, like Jimmy Buffett gazing at an empty Corona bottle. Then I walked over to the recycling bin and gingerly placed it inside. I never thought about it again until this moment. (Hey Boston Municipal Court, if you’re looking for me… I’m sorry. But in a flip, Gilly sort of way.)
I feel powerful a lot of the time, to be honest. I feel like I know things a lot of people on this planet do not. It gives me a perverse sense of superiority that I realize is a little silly and conceited, but that I try to just let myself have.
I also feel grateful and full of wonder, like The Little Mermaid exploring the world on dry land for the first time. There’s so much to be delighted by when you start thinking of life as this confusing, breakable but adorable trinket on a toddler’s bedroom shelf. Friends, pizza, sex; warm blankets, rainy afternoons, a particularly cute farm animal. It’s all so much more savory, so much more of a miracle to me that it exists at all.
Life’s different now. My brother is gone and he’s not coming back. But I’m still here, and there are likely to be a lot of doors in my future. I better try my best to open them with a steady hand.
Jess Keefe is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tweets occasionally.
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