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One morning my brother sat in our family’s kitchen, happily hoisting a teetering forkful of pineapple upside down cake into his mouth.
He’d already eaten half the cake I’d made for a co-worker’s birthday. When I started screaming at him, he just stared at me a while. Then, he walked out of the house, carrying the cake, and smeared the remainder onto my windshield.
“Have fun driving to work,” he said.
I hated him.
He was 16, I was 18 and we’d been taking turns being cruel to each other for years.
But we took turns taking care of each other, too. I guess that’s the thing about sibling connections, they often are purest forms of love-hate relationships.
The night before school started one year and I made the big transition to middle school, Mom had bought the bare minimum school supplies. This was before teachers distributed the shopping lists in advance. There were two folders, one nicer than the other. I don’t know why I even remember this, but my brother handed me the nice one and said I should have it because I was the one going to a new school.
So, I loved him, too.
We did fight. Viciously. But we outgrew that as soon as he was bigger than me. We still had the hate part of our relationship — like that cake incident — but we turned out to be each other’s great advocates and defenders.
When I left home for college, he visited me. I watched his high school wrestling matches. We conspired against our mother. I came to appreciate all he could do — hunt, fix his own truck, turn a perfect gainer into our backyard pool and befriend anyone.
And we talked, really talked. We told stories but also had great conversations about college and careers and friends and family and God.
I spent my 22nd birthday, an otherwise boring Tuesday, eating out and talking with him. A couple nights later, we had another great talk, sitting up late at our mother’s kitchen table. We both were living at home again.
Later that night, I poked my head into his bedroom and told him to stop snoring, and I was snippy about it. Those were my last words to him.
Brian died the next day. A college student, he had a part-time job at a concrete plant. That icy Friday at the plant, he fell in a sand hopper that couldn’t be shut down. He suffocated. The bruise on his forehead let me believe he was unconscious and I don’t have to think about the horror that could have run through his mind as that sand piled up around him.
He was 19.
Tomorrow, I’ll be 35, and I’m sure I’ll spend a moment thinking how nice it would be to relive my 22nd. And, come the anniversary of his death, I’ll play some old songs, maybe pull that size 12 Reebok shoebox from the top closet shelf and stare at the photos and keepsakes inside. And I’ll be thankful I had a good brother.
I’m probably supposed to leave it at that: I have my memories.
That’s so true, but there’s so much more to it.
Sometimes, I don’t think about him for such a long time that it feels like he never lived, didn’t leave anything behind. I start thinking about life in strict biological terms, how death is just death, and I’m ashamed of that.
And desperation shows up in my unconscious mind with dreams that we buried him alive and even after all these years he can be saved from his grave. I’m a little frightened by that.
But mostly, there’s just sadness. My sons’ little-boy ways remind me of Brian and it’s crushingly sad they don’t have another uncle and more cousins. And when I still can feel Mom’s thin fingers clutching me through black clothes, my heart breaks again for her, her pain much bigger and different than mine.
What Brian would have been, we’ll never know. All he ever got to do here was grow up. He was young and loved, and then gone. It is, still, so unfair.
Sarah Berkshire can be reached at (270) 505-1745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.