Disclaimer: This is only how one person, I, attempted to make sense of something that will never really make sense.
This lyric begins the Tupac Shakur song, “Changes,” released as a remix in 1998, two years after his death. And one year before my brothers.
My brother, Rob, was a fan of Tupac and other 90’s hip hop and rap luminaries. Although his struggles took place in a land far, far away from theirs, he seemed in some ways to relate to their distress.
Rob was born into a loving family, with privilege and opportunity aplenty. He had an easy smile and a generous heart. His nature was silly and he was easily and fully loved by all.
To many, it may seem strange that Rob would have identified with Tupac and the type of music he put out. But he did. I believe they both were innately disturbed by inequality and injustice in a such a profound way, it would be impossible for either to ignore their sorrow, for the moment, in order to function as if it weren’t there.
Many of us, including me, rely on self-preservation tools: compartmentalize, ignore, focus on the positive, in order to find happiness and satisfaction in a world that can be really sad and scary. We employ them so that we can be productive rather than overcome by guilt, horror and hopelessness. I don’t believe Rob had access to, nor desired, those tools. Perhaps Tupac didn’t either.
Robbie and I were very close as children. We had the same compliant exterior, but we masterfully balanced it with a wicked and wacky sense of humor we only shared with those we trusted, or those we thought it would be fun to shock. Our brother, Abe, was more of confident “take me as I am” type of person, which has always served him well. The three of us made sense together.
As kids, we laughed a lot and we possibly fought more. We traded bedrooms and promised each other we’d never “hit you or bite you” in exchange for that person’s night to sleep with our dog. Or for assurance that whatever naughtiness had ensued would not be mentioned to Mom or Dad.
No matter the mood, we were big sister and little brothers. Along with our parents, we were the “Goldberg Five.” A non-changing, permanent, fixed, for-better-or-worse basic assumption. A given that wasn’t challenged for the first 23 years of my life.
After I graduated from high school, I set out to start my new life. With my close friend, Amy, my new plaid comforter (for my new dorm bed!) and excited nervousness about my newfound independence, I left the safety of the Goldberg Five for Ohio University.
During my freshman year, my brothers came to visit for the famous OU “Sibs Weekend.” I fulfilled what I thought to be my older sister responsibility and made sure they had a ton of fun, ate a late night bagel and went home hungover. Each goal was accomplished and then some.
Time does what it does and moved quickly along. Abe joined me at OU the next year. Rob started West Virginia University two years after that.
Family times occurred quite often in the years that followed, but the specifics blur together. It now seems as if Rob was visiting me my freshman year and then in the blink of any eye, I was doing the unthinkable. Preforming the final Jewish act of honoring a loved one; shoveling dirt upon his grave.
“Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change.” — Thomas Hardy
As I learned later, Rob’s sadness had flared during his first couple of years after high school. I knew that he was having a tough time. He’d left WVU during, or maybe never started, his sophomore year and I didn’t know quite why. I knew he liked to party. I knew being a student hadn’t always been easy in the past. I knew he was like me in many ways, so depression and anxiety were quite possible. But I didn’t, by any stretch of my imagination, know how utterly in despair he was.
The last time I was with Rob was at my grandmother’s funeral. She died too young, too vibrant. It didn’t make sense and was utterly heartbreaking. He seemed a bit off during the time we spent in Wheeling for her funeral. We were staying in a cabin with our aunts, uncles and cousins. Being sad around others has never been comfortable for many of us, so we all tended to focus on the positive and spoke of happy memories.
Rob was withdrawn. Until bedtime. At which time, he decided to teach our young cousins his favorite rap songs. He went a line at a time, and as they repeated completely inappropriate (in so many ways) lyrics, they, and everyone else in the cabin, laughed hysterically.
I was annoyed. And, begrudgingly charmed by his ability to be utterly brash and tasteless, yet still have mourning people in stitches. It wasn’t until he mentioned my grandmother’s passing in his final letter to our family that I understood the overwhelming sadness he felt by losing her.
Life is a trip. It typically moves along without too many memorable moments, good or bad. It can even be boring and uninspiring at times. Most changes naturally evolve and are only noticed in retrospect. One small difference leading to another small difference and then another. At a snail’s pace.
It may seem sudden that you find yourself in a new place, with a new and improved perspective, but in actuality, much of the journey simply went unnoticed.
Then there are times, like when I learned that Rob was gone, when your world is rocked in an instance. When all of those basic assumptions crumble to the ground. When the world seems strange and unreliable and even unreal.
A beautiful June morning. Walking my favorite dog. Just moved in with a boyfriend — assured proposal soon to follow. Graduate school signed up for — check. Things are moving right along.
Boyfriend’s car pulls up. At the park. Confusion — it’s only 10 a.m. It’s a weekday. Did he miss me that much? He tells me to get in the car. Confusion.
I ask him what’s going on. He looks stressed. I become worried.
“It’s Dedaddy — I know it’s my Dedaddy! Is it Dedaddy?”
“No, he’s fine.”
“Oh no. What’s going on?”
“Is something wrong? Someone is hurt? In my family? Is it my brother?”
“You need to call home.”
Call home. Mom.
“Rob shot himself this morning”.
Drop phone. Run to kitchen floor and collapse. Scream. Cry. Hope!
“Is he OK?”
Maybe he’s in the hospital recovering!
“No” And more, but I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t process.
He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.
Scream? Cry? Silence?
Next thing I remember is being driven to Charleston.
This type of change is sudden, abrupt, jarring. Immediate. Rash. It doesn’t allow for time to prepare or the luxury of slow acceptance. To learn that my sibling, my brother, was gone, on his own accord, for me, was to learn that life is indeed unjust.
To digest the information that he suffered so. That he left us because he didn’t have hope. That he loved us. That he didn’t want us to be sad. To this day: unfathomable, unacceptable and completely heart-wrenching.
I was able to evoke those good ole’ self-preservation strategies for a time: smile ’till you feel happy, relate it all to science, find happiness in his lack of pain, find comfort in G-d, find comfort in coincidences, put it on the back burner, write in journals, live life to its fullest.
But it never was and never will be truly OK. And I’m glad I’ve come around to accepting that.
Rob is remembered by many for his devilish grin. His pixieish good looks. His strong relationships with family and friends. His silly antics.
I am simultaneously thankful for and haunted by my favorite moments with him. Our car game, “Complete Control.” He and Abe playing He-Man and Star Wars, and WWF Wrestling. The silly, and completely annoying, tricks he played on my friends, who usually blamed poor Abe. His love of Gatorade. Him opting to sleep in the bathtubs of hotel rooms. His love of Curious George and his giant stuffed dog, Bogie. He and Abe suddenly offering to be in charge of getting all of the family’s cars washed on a weekly basis (coinciding with the discovery of the topless carwash a few towns over), him all bundled up in a snowsuit, him asking us to start calling him Bob, rather than Rob…
I wish he was here. He’d be that uncle who the kids loved to hang out with. He would still be making us all smile and laugh. He’d eat strawberries dipped in powdered sugar with me. We’d laugh and we’d fight. And the world would seem normal once again.
“How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me? I’d love to go back to when we played as kids but things changed, and that’s the way it is.” — Tupac, Changes
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Images via Joy Redmond