My brother died on February 19th.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected given that he had been sick for a while; then again, death is something for which nobody can properly prepare themselves. The long, steady march toward his, I suppose, inevitable demise had started about a year ago. He had been exhibiting symptoms for quite some time- he was lethargic, constantly tired and seemingly always either getting a cold or getting over a cold. I remember the last time I saw him when he came to visit me in New York, and though I didn’t recognize it at the time, it becomes clear in hindsight that his condition was far worse than he or I could possibly have understood. When he arrived at my apartment, he was exhausted; we’d barely caught up on each others’ lives when he dropped onto the bed and promptly fell asleep. The next day was our grandmother’s memorial service, so I drove us from New York to Connecticut, and he slept the whole way there; after the service, we went to our other grandmother’s house, and he fell asleep again. I remember thinking it was strange that he was so totally exhausted, but I dismissed my worries by accepting his explanation that he just hadn’t gotten much sleep lately with a heavy work schedule and a busy social life.
Time passed- he went back to California and, as far as I could tell, things were fine. He never once complained about the lingering feelings of exhaustion, never once vocalized any worries (to me, at least) that something was going on with his body that was more serious than he had anticipated. Whether those worries existed, if only in his mind, I cannot say, but knowing him as I do, I’m sure he was aware that something was wrong. Eventually he went to the hospital, which is around the time I heard from him in the form of a late-night text. I wish I still had the message, but unfortunately the majority of the messages between us were lost when my phone was stolen. I’ll get to that a little later (see: “Regrets.”) The specifics of the text aren’t vitally important and are probably lost forever, but the gist of it was that he had finally acknowledged that something was wrong with his body and he needed to see a doctor. When he arrived at the emergency room, they gave him a battery of tests and determined that, among other things, he was suffering from congestive heart failure. Before that text message, I had never envisioned him as an old man, but not in the sense that I didn’t see it happening; rather, I just took for granted that he would eventually become one and that all those minor details would figure themselves out in due time. After he told me the news, though, I remember being terrified at the prospect of Blake’s mortality. That had never happened before.
That first night was hell.
Sleep was out of the question, as was a respite from the grim thoughts that arrived on the wings of my newfound insomnia. What’s going to happen next? How bad is it? Is Blake going to die? I couldn’t shake any of those nagging doubts, particularly the last one.
When you first find out about a serious health condition involving someone close to you, you’re a nervous wreck, and you try to steel yourself for the worst-case scenario (optimism be damned.) But then, the longer they hang on, a funny thing happens: You kind of just accept it. You’re aware of the gravity of the situation, but you can’t bring yourself to worry about it for too long, at least not at the same pitch as you worried when you first found out. I would imagine it’s the mental equivalent of bracing oneself for a car crash- our bodies have the capacity to tense up in that moment in order to protect our vital organs, but it’s not physically possible to remain in that state for long. The same thing happens from a mental standpoint, too- you tense up at first, but it’s impossible to remain in a perpetual state of preparedness for something so horrible. Instead, we compartmentalize, and this horrible, inescapable reality just becomes the new normal. A paradigm shift is the only way to keep from going insane.
And, for a while, that’s precisely what happened. Blake got out of the hospital and returned home, and though he was by no means out of the woods, he seemed to believe that things would improve. I, of course, bought into this optimism wholeheartedly; after all, if he thinks everything is going to be okay and he knows his body better than I do, who am I to argue? I wonder now if things had actually improved or if I was just so desperate to have my big brother back to full health that I ignored all the evidence suggesting that that was an unlikely proposition. It helped that Blake rarely complained about his health- every time I talked to him, he seemed to be in good spirits, even joking at one point about “shuffling off this mortal coil,” but I can’t help wonder if he somehow knew that his time here was drawing to a more rapid close than anyone would like. As always with him, though, I found it impossible for him to speak frankly about his medical condition- even as he made multiple return visits to the hospital, he never gave me any indication that his condition had deteriorated. In fact, I was under the impression that, though it was moving more slowly than he would have liked, there was a gradual improvement to his health. Maybe that was just willful ignorance on my part.
One important thing to note about Blake: though he could be a singularly frustrating person when it came to communicating his thoughts (or just communicating in general), I suspect it was born from stoicism rather than mulishness. I think he chose not to divulge the specifics of his condition until absolutely necessary because he didn’t want to cause undue stress or worry. If I were to don my amateur psychologist’s hat, I might say he didn’t seek comfort in the sympathy of others the way you or I might, probably due to the amount of unsolicited compassion he received from others as a result of his hearing impairment. If he were here, he might disagree with that ham-fisted diagnosis, but I’ll never know for sure.
Time, as it always does in these situations, passed on. Whenever we need it to go more slowly, to savor every moment, it has a remarkable way of slipping past without anyone noticing. And when we need it to speed up, it does quite the opposite. Time is an asshole like that. And throughout, I never lost hope that Blake would get better. In fact, each day that passed only gave me more encouragement that Blake was going to be fine- this was a momentary hiccup, something he’d look back on when he got old. And one day, I imagined, he would finally divulge what was going through his mind when it happened: his fear, his regrets, everything.
Then came February 19th.
I was at work, finishing up yet another long day, and I checked my phone: a missed call and a voicemail from “Home.” Not one of our parents’ cell phones, but their house phone. Almost instantly, I felt a knot in my stomach- they knew I was at work, and if they were calling from home, that meant they were both there. I couldn’t shake the suspicion that something was wrong. The fear was confirmed when I listened to the voicemail: my dad’s voice was shaking, and I could hear my mom sobbing in the background.
“Ryan, you need to call us. Please.”
That was all he said, and in that moment, I knew. Still, my mind groped wildly for other explanations: maybe Grandpa had died, maybe it was one of their friends. Before I called back, I tried to convince myself that everything was okay- maybe something bad had happened involving Blake, but I refused to acknowledge the worst possible outcome, defying all the evidence that pointed directly to my greatest fear made real. I remember my hands shaking as I pressed “Call Back” on my phone, and when my dad answered, I knew that all the outcomes for which I had been fervently hoping were impossible. There was only one reason for the call. My dad’s voice quavered as he explained that Blake had died, that my big brother was dead.
Strangely, I remember almost everything after I got off the phone. I thought (or hoped, I guess) that there would be shock, that the whole moment would pass by in a blur, but it didn’t. I remember wanting to yell as loudly as I could, but I also remember not wanting people to think I was crazy. I remember leaving work and pacing the parking lot, not wanting to remain in the place which will forever be associated with Blake’s death, but not wanting to go home and be alone with my thoughts. I remember barely being able to blink, eyes gazing off down the street with the same thousand-yard stare usually reserved for Vietnam veterans. I remember wanting to cry but not being able to, and I remember being angry with myself for my inability to have that one cathartic explosion of grief. I remember getting drunk, and I remember not wanting to go to sleep so I wouldn’t have to wake up the next morning and feel the impact of his departure all over again. I remember walking all around the city, and I remember seeing a huge house fire near my apartment and, shamefully, finding solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had lost something that night. I doubt I’ll ever forget any of that evening, and as perverse as it sounds, I don’t want to forget that grief, because it helps remind me what Blake means to me.
I flew out to San Francisco two days later. (And boy, were my arms tired.) I knew it would be difficult to be there without my brother, and I was reminded of that almost instantly when I got off the plane and realized Blake wasn’t there to pick me up. It was a minor realization, but I was shocked by how much it affected me. Just another one of the cruel reminders I’m sure to receive for the rest of my life, I suppose. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow of what happened while I was out there, but there are a few things that resonated with me.
You never fully realize what’s involved in taking care of someone’s affairs after they’ve died. Not only do you have to do all the big things, but there are so many minor, stupid loose ends to be tied up that it’s almost laughable. We had to cancel AutoPay transactions on Blake’s bank account and unsubscribe him from Uber, for god’s sake. (Why he was using Uber in the first place, I’ll never know, because that company is dogshit. Maybe he liked spending $65 on a seven-minute cab ride.)
I thought it would be hard to go through all of his clothes and personal effects, and it was. That paled in comparison, though, to having to move his furniture out, specifically his bed. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking in the moments before he died. Did he just feel tired and went to sleep? Or was he awake when it happened? Was he at peace or, in his last moments on Earth, was he scared? Did he miss his family? Did he wish he could have seen us one more time, just as I wished I could have spent just a few moments more with him? I don’t know, and I’ll never know. I like to think he was at peace when he died.
I was also struck by the outpouring of support, warmth and generosity from his friends. I’d never really had the chance to meet them, since he and I would usually hang out alone when I went to visit. But that didn’t seem to matter- everybody I met was so kind and gracious that it was hard not to feel proud of Blake for surrounding himself with such quality people. His friends put together a memorial for him, and I was in awe of how much people cared about him- everybody even wore pink, since it was his favorite color. He always did have good taste in choosing his friends. (Actually, not really- he consorted with some real pieces of shit. But the friends that came were fantastic.)
And before I could start to process everything, it was time for me to leave. I had to get back to work and get back into a routine, and I really didn’t want to. All I wanted was to sit alone and be left in peace; I didn’t want to go to work as though everything was fine. But the reality is, that’s what happens when someone close to you dies: sooner or later, you have to rejoin the world at large. It reminded me of something I saw by Drew Magary:
[T]here are two worlds out there. There’s your world, which is all about you and the people you know and everything else that’s going on in your life. And then there’s the actual world, which doesn’t give two shits about your problems and is ALWAYS GOING ON. Even when you think there’s nothing happening out there in the rest of the world, like on a slow news day, there are trillions of things happening—people being born and people dying and people fucking. It doesn’t stop just because you had a bad day. It doesn’t even know you had a bad day. You are barely a hair on its balls, and that’s a good thing. Because it’s always there for you when you need it.
This statement is largely accurate, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted the world to stop when Blake died. I wanted everything to slow to a crawl and only speed back up when I was ready to rejoin it. But that’s not how it works, and maybe it’s better that way. Maybe I wouldn’t ever start to move forward without the fear of missing out on a huge part of the rest of my life. And maybe that’s the best way to honor Blake’s memory: by doing all the things that he could and would have done had he been able to live a full life. Perhaps his enduring legacy isn’t just the lasting friendships he had or the family who loved him, but his potential as an individual. The ceiling of my potential may not be as high, but I’m going to do everything I can to reach it- to do anything less would be a disservice to his memory.
It’s still hard to process everything that’s happened these past two weeks. I don’t know how long it’ll take me to accept what happened, or if I ever will, and I don’t know if or when I’ll be back to normal. I strongly suspect that my definition of “normal” will evolve over time; life, as they say, goes on. It’s just a shame that it has to go on without my big brother.
There was one strange occurrence that night at the bar: I pulled out my phone to check my text messages, and Facebook was open for some reason; not only that, but it was open to the message chain between me and Blake, which was about halfway down the list. I’m not normally one to ascribe any significance to things like that, but it was a source of comfort in that moment.
I’ve thought a lot lately about what I’d want to say to Blake if I had the opportunity, but so far I haven’t come up with anything suitable. Nothing I can think of can properly capture how I feel about someone who was more important to me than anybody else, nor are a few sentences sufficient to encapsulate a friendship, a bond, that existed for nearly 28 years. (It still exists, but for obvious reasons, I don’t think it’ll ever be quite the same.) So to my brother, wherever he may be, I offer this woefully inadequate closing sentence: Though I’ve yet to come to terms with the fact that you’re no longer physically here, I have no doubt that you’ll always be with me. I love you and I miss you, Blake. And I always will.