It's easy to think I'm fine. After all, I've gone out with my friends here and there, I've gone on vacation with my family, I've even taken my mother to Paint Night. I post pretty pictures up on my Facebook page of all the wonderful things going on and the accomplishments of my three children. To the casual observer, I'm happy. I'm moving on.
The trouble is I'm crumbling inside. Leaving the house is preceded by thirty minutes of heart palpitations and tension, as I try to keep it together despite the fact that a panic attack is clawing at my throat. A text that goes too long without a response from my husband and I start worrying something's wrong.
Something is wrong. I got the call on January 6th, some time in the afternoon. "Listen," my brother Bill said on the other end of the line. "You have to go over to South Shore Hospital. Michelle called. Charlie sat down on the couch, then Ari came out and said Papa's not waking up."
Everything else he said was lost as I fumbled out of the blanket wrapped around my legs and stuttered, "I'm on my way!" My hands were shaking as I tried to put on my shoes, and my throat was stuck as my husband asked me what was going on.
I don't remember what I told him. In my head, I was busy re-playing the deaths of my youngest brother and father, fourteen and fifteen years ago respectively. Re-playing the last month, when my oldest brother, Charlie, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Re-playing the night before, when I'd dropped him off so he could see his girls.
I declined my husband, Chris's, offer to come with me, thinking the kids would need him more than I would, because I was just being silly. Charlie would be fine. I would be fine. I was wrong on all counts.
I've been late for all three of my loved ones' deaths. When my father died of lung cancer in 2000, I had been scheduled to take the following week off, but he died overnight and by the time we drove up to Middleton to say goodbye, he was cold, and gone. I felt completely crushed for getting there too late--too late to see Da one more time.
When my brother Jay went into the hospital after a night of seizures and not being able to wake, I was too late then too. I had stayed home to watch my brother Bill's daughter, Ashley, but as the night wore on into morning I knew I had to leave her with Chris so that I could go to the hospital. As I walked through the halls, trying to find my mother, I saw them wheel a completely limp body past me for a CT Scan. It was Jay, no longer thrashing but lying docilely asleep. It didn't look like him. His fever reached 104.5, and they transferred him by ambulance to another hospital. He went into cardiac arrest on the way. I'd never see Jay awake again.
As I drove to South Shore Hospital, I knew it couldn't happen again. How could it? I couldn't be late again. When I got put in the small room, I knew it was bad news--but as the doctor spoke to me and told me they were working on him still, I somehow, foolishly, had hope that I wouldn't be too late again. She asked if I wanted to be there while they worked on him, and because I couldn't bear to be too late, I said yes. When I got into the room, they had just called time. I was too late to say goodbye to my brother, and my last remaining brother and my mother weren't there yet to keep me focused on someone else's grief, so I collapsed to the floor.
When I finally managed to send a message to my husband, it wasn't elegant. It wasn't careful. It wasn't gentle. It said "my brother is dead", because that was all my shaking hands could type.
I could tell you all about the services, or the severe flu that everyone came down with except me, or even the ride to pick up his ashes. But the point is that the world goes on. Those things are big moments to me, but not necessarily to the world. To the world, it seems like six months or longer has gone by. To me it's a day. Maybe a week. I put on my happy face, because neither his nor my children need sorrow, and my mother is grieving two sons the only way she can--by pretending it hasn't happened. But for me, I want to sit down and burst into the uncontrollable sobs that just won't stop. There's never time for that, so I let a little burst happen here or there, and then I force myself to go outside the house, no matter how much I hate it. I would much rather spend my time inside, safe in a bubble of music and writing.
Invitations have been coming to family events. I have a lot of family, and I used to go to all kinds of big events with them until my brother died. Now the idea of stepping into a room with all of the people who I last saw at my brother's wake terrifies me. It terrifies me to the point that I shake, and I gasp for air, and I ultimately just say no. It doesn't make sense, but then anxiety and grief have never had to make sense for me.
Because I'm not ok. All is not well. My brother is dead, and I'm not ready to move on. It feels like if I go to a big family party, I'm admitting that he's gone, and I'm saying it's ok to move on. It's not ok, yet. Not for me. So please, when I answer no to an invitation, know that I'm doing it out of love, a love for my brother that says I'm still here, I still remember, and I'm not ready to let you go. Someday, in the way of grief, I will be. When my tears are dry, when my sobs have finally been purged, I'll be able to think of a family gathering as just that.
But until then, please understand, I'm not letting go of you. I'm just holding on to my brother.