Where the Air Is Thin: Learning to Breathe After My Brother's Suicide
“Hello,” I mumbled.
“Hey, are you sleeping?” my sister asked.
“I need you to pay attention, OK? Are you paying attention? I really need you to pay
“Yeah, I’m paying attention.”
“Brad took his life.”
And with those words about my brother, phantom trains rumbled. Writhing in some invisible pain, my body revolted with hyper-ventilation and nausea overtook me. Under a half moon in the pre-dawn hours of a tepid August morning, I ran outside and listened to the soft clanging of wind chimes. Frogs bellowed, crickets chirped and moths flittered about the light radiating from the bathroom window. All the world was peaceful except for the dismantling of my existence. The sounds of internal implosion.
There are moments in life that obliterate the landscape of all you knew. Visions that paint the past in grey and words that capture the future in bitterness. In a living room lit by small, decorative lamps, I watched my mother transform into an old woman that early morning. With only the retelling of those four words about her son, her once smooth complexion was overridden by wrinkles and crevices. A haggardness covered her and her irises drained of their color. I listened to her beg my sister to stop, to wait, to go back.
Throughout the hours that followed, my brain became stained with her moans of “Mama,” a desperate prayer to her mother that had passed 41 years prior. Clad only in his briefs, I watched my father begin his disintegration into a void of nothingness. Before my dazed, tear fogged eyes I witnessed his Parkinson’s disease shake him into a wheelchair and his dementia thrust him into a nursing home only months later.
Brad was my father’s favorite of us five kids. We all knew it, including Mom, but none of us seemed to mind. He always carried a special affection and pride for his third son and perhaps, in the back of our minds, we all knew why. Brad had the energy of a prince who was on the verge of taking over the world. He was, physically, the runt of the litter. No taller than his sisters and dwarfed when standing beside his brothers. But that only made him fight harder and he eclipsed all of us siblings in many ways. Where we stumbled, he rose. What we feared, he played with. What we dreamt of, he attained and what we thirsted for, he bathed in. How could a father not appreciate that? And how could any of us in the family blame him?
But The Golden Boy was gone. Motivated by a collapsed serotonin vein, he drove six hours north to the cabin in Vilas County and left us quickly. Dad’s mind burnt out, Mom’s mind convulsed and mine flickered. It went in and out of consciousness with a relentless flow of disbelief, confusion and vertigo inducing sorrow.
Like a star that explodes in a nebula, Brad’s shimmer could no longer be found. But the remnants of his power showered down, covering me in invisible soot. I rewound mental tapes of him on a constant loop. The twinkle his eyes would carry when he smiled, the way he would wrap his arm around my shoulder when we stood together in a picture. His honey complexion, his pompadour hair, even the vein that would protrude from his left forearm. They would waltz through my brain. His spirit was gone and yet unstoppable. Suddenly, simple memories that we had made of sand, turned to pearl…
It was just another night it seemed, to be filed away in the bottom drawer. It was another Friday evening at the bar with pitchers of Miller Lite collecting on a pub table. Brad gave me my jukebox lesson on one of those nights. He led me to that fluorescent lit record player in the corner and said, “OK, this is a science. It takes skill to play a jukebox just right. You have to look around at the crowd and sense the mood. If it’s low key, you play mellow songs. If it’s nutty, you play high energy songs. Here, I’ll show you.” And I stood there, with my big brother, and received my first tutorial in bar etiquette.
The cigarette run to the gas station? It held no more weight than any other stale routine of the day but somehow, looking back on it, it’s vibrant and spiritual. I can hear folk songs playing in the background and out of the corner of my eye, I can see Brad tapping his foot that rested near the wheel well. A concert was an excuse for a good time. We thought we would spend two hours in that hall wrapped like corn silk in the fingers of a melody. How quickly two hours can become an eternity. With one phone call, an evening that you hung a curfew on becomes an experience that you hang a happiness on.
In childhood, I admired his ability to build a sheet fort. I longed for his imagination and I envied his bravery as he would volunteer to sleep with me through the night because I was afraid of the dark. In adolescence, I admired his popularity and the fact that, by using only his words, he forced a bully to stop heckling me when I was a freshman. Adulthood brought on friendship and respect and I could sense, finally, that it was a mutual feeling. After 20-some years, I was no longer the annoying little sister, I was an equal. We used to look the other way when we passed in the hall, exchanging only mumbled, artificial comments to each other. But finally, after years of fighting and name calling had subsided, he threw his arm around me, breaking any blow he ever made. And I ate it up. My big brother finally didn’t just love me, he liked me, too. The charmed big brother saw something beautiful in his black sheep little sister.
The brain is an enigmatic organ. It is the most beautiful, the most rancid, the most powerful and the most mysterious creation. One day, in the midst of an admired marriage to his high school sweetheart, a highly respected job and three wondrous children, it caught him. Suddenly, with only the flick of an invisible switch, Brad became a little Pinocchio tethered to a string by a salivating, black-eyed Geppetto.
With a swoop of the devil’s arthritic hand, Brad went from being a doting father who held his daughter up to the basketball hoop to a man so despondent that he stood alone, far from the gathered crowd at his daughter’s tee-ball games. The man who loved his wife with a passion I had never seen before and may well never again became cold, distant and neglectful. And the brother that had finally let me into his brilliance disappeared into silence and shut the door behind him. Eventually, my desire to speak to him was overrun by his inability to be social. Conversation was impossible and seemed futile, so I simply stopped trying. A hug and a “love you” at Christmas was the most I could hope for. His yearly Valentine’s Day card to me stopped arriving in the mail and my birthday cards were no longer signed by him, but rather by his wife. He stopped smiling in pictures. Brad had left us years before he left this world, we were just too blind to see it.
But death brings everything to the forefront. You see with new eyes and you catch glimpses of the deceased everywhere. You see visions and you hear voices but instead of being frightened, you long for it to be a reality. You paw at it and try to hold it closer. I would spend broken moments of the day gazing out of the kitchen window, seeing flashes of my big brother. Nanoseconds of his frame in denim overalls and an orange tank- top. He would be riding his John Deere tractor through his garden, turning over the soil for next autumn’s crop of pumpkins. Maybe he would be kneeling beside Dad who was sitting in a lawn chair, looking at him in a way that only a boy can see his father. Or maybe he would be sitting with his wife and me around the fire-pit, smoking a cigar with a glass of whiskey sweating in the grass. I saw him, all around me and everywhere, in a way that I had never seen him before, with a power I never knew he had. Ghosts, they are epic creatures.
Grief is an excruciatingly awkward place to live. It’s like being surrounded on all sides, within an inch of your flesh, by razor sharp iron spikes. It is anvil heavy and has an overwhelming way of convincing you that it is insurmountable. Of all the emotional hollows I have found myself in, grief is the most disturbing. Perhaps mourning is so eerie because you are thrust there by something you cannot control — death. And you are held hostage by something you cherish — love.
My existence was swallowed by Brad’s absence. In every breath I searched for his spirit beside me. As I sat in my car in some random parking lot smoking cigarettes, I would find him in sad songs. Gazing out of my window at a passing world that held no more vibrancy, I shuddered at the fact that my brother had become a muse for heartache. I tasted him in the burn of alcohol as I scorched my liver night after night, fumbling with emotions that were too large to grasp but had been left in my lap nonetheless.
I would go out to the cemetery several times a week. I wouldn’t talk, I would just stand there silent with my hands in my pockets. But if I was there, next to his grave, his presence was still with me. If I couldn’t hear his laugh or the inflection in his voice, I would listen to the stillness of his heart. Maybe if I invited him to haunt my existence, I would never have to say “goodbye.” It was an easy decision for me – I would break beneath his weight just to feel him one last time.
The blackness did not die with Brad, it only spread to everyone who loved him. He made the pain a wildfire, a riot. The bruised clouds that he left above us made me some kind of wreck. I became vulnerable to fear and exposed to wrath. Life jolted to grossly intimidating. Suddenly, I was a soft heap of flesh so petrified of what my next breath would bring, I was tentative to take one.
The aftermath of death is not only wrapped in the emotions of sorrow and fear. It is not only felt in the rippled sleep one experiences, a sleep that is a breed apart from her blissful sister because she oozes with emotional mucus. And it is not only heard in the tearful whimpers of a mother as she lies sleeping, with her deceased son’s shirt tucked beneath her pillow. It is also seen through the flicker of DNA that you see in your loved one’s eyes. When I would look at Brad’s children, I would see two little girls without the shelter of a father. When a little boy at school took to teasing one of them, who would reassure her, with all authority, that he only does so because he likes her? Should a boy reach for her hand at the movie theater on her first date, does she place her hand in his or awkwardly reach for her soda? What would Daddy think if she accepted it? I would look into the innocent eyes of his 2-year-old son and I saw a boy who had no one to teach him the correct release point for a fastball. No, he would have to learn that the hard way after giving up a grand slam to the opposing team. And the grace that one needs to employ when casting their fishing line into a tranquil river? I saw a boy who would have to fumble his way through it.
Suicide leaves a stain that no other agent of death can claim. It heckles you. From inside of your head where you can’t reach to pull it out, suicide mocks you with “what if’s” and “I should have’s.” Death is always accompanied by regrets, but with suicide they become more than mere regrets. That one phone call you put off, that last beer you just didn’t have time for, the smile that so easily could have been an embrace. They become, in a survivor’s mind, the bullet, the blade, the noose. I convinced myself I had been capable of saving Brad’s life with only my touch, only my words.
Adjusting to death is backbreaking, callous inducing work. You have to move the dead in your mind from right here beside you to somewhere out there. From a friendly conversation to a prayer, from something you can touch to something you will never come close to ever again. Shock bled into confusion, confusion bled into denial which transformed into agony and anger. Eventually and invisibly, through some wonder of time’s ferocity, I arrived at compassion and understanding. It’s not an easy place to get to. Some never do arrive. It’s a long, Herculean journey, but through time I began to link suicide to disease and love to, not being some kind of savior in life, but being forgiving in death.
Love holds no one captive, we hold love captive. We hold onto it with all of our strength, till our knuckles turn white because we believe that in order to truly have something you have to own it. That is not the case with love. It is much like a butterfly trapped in a jar. We capture the butterfly because we adore it, but seem to forget the reason we adore it is because it’s free.
There were moments, while set adrift on some turbulent sea, when all I could think about was how easy it would be for me to join Brad. He was just a bad mood and a bottle of pills away. Maybe I could find him in that new atmosphere. Maybe he would meet me where this life and the unknown intersect.
He would be standing at a jukebox with his back turned to me wearing his orange tank-top and overalls, with his corn-cob pipe tucked into the chest pocket. He’d press a button, wait a second and then, as the record drops and the needle softly scrapes the surface, he would slowly turn around. With his boot heels clicking on the wooden floor he would approach me, spread his arms wide and tilt his head with a Cheshire Cat grin. He would call me “Stephers,” just like he always used to do and I could touch him. I could smell his cologne, admire the wave in his hair and feel the callous on the pad of his hand.
Oh, the fun we would have, up there in some big blue sky, bouncing our legs up and down to the “boom-chicka-boom” rhythm of Johnny Cash who would be standing atop a white marble stage. So young, innocent and pure that he still dressed in cream suits. His skin would be smooth and his frame thin. He would strum his Martin guitar high up on the neck while singing “Big River” as Brad and I stood leaning up against an oak-railed bar. Bobbing our heads to keep tempo, the alcohol would swirl around ice cubes made of holy water. The smoke would be thick around us.
But even as romantic and alluring as those visions seemed to me, I knew, despite the plan that my mind had erected, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t grab that bottle of pills that sat on my dresser. I couldn’t untwist the cap on that bottle of water. I couldn’t, with good conscience, grab my car keys and drive far out of town where only a stranger would find me. Something wouldn’t let me. Was it 30 years of programming? Thirty years of taking breath after breath, no matter how labored that pushed me to seek another sequence? Was it guilt? The shudder of reality that suicide had brought to my door? Or was it Brad, with his chin resting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear that, no, this was not the road. This was not the time – this was not me.
And he knew me as only a brother could. The arc that bows my hair, just above my ear; Brad knew it well. The acne that scarred my face when I was 16; he never focused his gaze upon it. No, he always looked me in the eye. I was never one to fit in but I think, maybe, he admired my courage. I could be awkward and insecure but I think, maybe, he admired my honesty. And I could be exhaustively temperamental but I think, maybe he admired my passion. He kept me alive, with his inaudible whisper in my ear. And that was reason enough to carry on – the belief that Brad wanted me to.
Acceptance is elusive, like trying to capture fog in your hands. You see it before you. You watch your hand grasp at it and then, when you open your fingers to admire and cherish its wonder, you find it has disappeared. Or perhaps acceptance is so difficult to attain not just because of its stealthy elusiveness but because of its scope. Death encompasses everything. It swallows our lives, our memories, our plans and our hopes. There is more to digest than a funeral, more to say goodbye to than a person. You have to forfeit the future, too.
Suddenly, there is one less bouquet of flowers on Mother’s Day, one less confidant to seek for advice and reassurance. There’s nobody to go to concerts with anymore, so you regretfully let your favorite band pass through town. The past becomes painted in a different light, with colors your eyes have never seen. The future just stops moving forward and in between is a memory you’d rather not keep.
I had told myself early on that I would let Brad’s death take me under, but it does no honor to the dead to die along with them. Honor shows itself through gratitude that my big brother would sit with me on the bus as I started kindergarten, just to make me feel safe. Through a smile when I remember him reaching for my hand at his wedding and asking me to dance. His life remains through the sweet scent of cigars and his eyes, they still twinkle through mine because I spent 30 years absorbing his light.
Redemption. It’s all one can retrieve from tragedy. There’s no silver lining to suicide. Nothing can make up for that breed of grief. It cuts too deep and its scars are ugly. But if you can traverse that juggernaut and navigate that open water back to dry land, you have triumphed. Following Brad’s death, the only demand I put upon myself was to breathe.
Breathing bought me time, time granted me acceptance and acceptance redeemed me. Am I what I once was? No. I’m more frightened of life than I used to be, as if pieces of my exoskeleton have been torn away. And yes, my heart does have a perpetual ache. But I am still here. With my brother’s hand soft upon my back, I am still here. The comfort learns to appreciate the splinter. The koi fish learns to swim against the reel. And hurt is the only place where healing can begin.
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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