Brenna

This isn’t a particularly short story, or an easy one for me to tell. It hasn’t been long since it played out in my own life, and I’m still working to make sense of everything, taking from it what lessons I can. What I know for sure is this: it’s a story worth sharing, and one I hope is shared many times over, because it’s the story where I found my strength, and it’s what he would have wanted.

—-

On Thursday, March 16th, 2017, I sat down with my therapist for our weekly appointment. While typically this would be an event of little consequence, this session was marked with importance. I’d been avoiding talking about my family with my therapist since I’d started seeing her three months prior, but it was becoming harder to evade. I’d be hopping on a plane to see them in only two weeks, and this was one of my last opportunities to prepare.

I had a couple of things on my agenda. Recently I had called my mother, who was still living in my hometown in Arkansas, and broken the news to her that I was separated from my husband, seeing someone else, and had two rather large, prominent tattoos I’d be sporting on my trip home. This wasn’t news to anyone in Portland, as each of these events transpired slowly and deliberately across a year of growth and change. It would definitely be news to folks back home, though, who had just seen me off not long before to a life in Portland with a large, lavish wedding.

For the record, getting divorced is as awful as they say it is. It’s hard enough to have to look yourself in the eyes and say you changed, you made choices that undid confident promises of the past, you hurt the person you used to love the most. To add to it explaining it to every person around you, including your doubters, your cheerleaders, and your lurking gossips, just feels unfair. I’d avoided going home for Christmas out of insecurity, but couldn’t put it off any longer.

While Mom was busy spreading the news through the grapevine on my behalf, I was imagining each troubled, judgmental face looking at the “new” me with doubt or disgust. There was the matter at hand of prepping for each of those glances, of discussing my life choices without getting defensive, and all the while feeling very out of place with inked skin and bright pink hair.

On top of this, I would soon be seeing my brother Ashton after nearly a year apart. Over the summer Ashton had called my mom from the emergency room to let her know that he needed a Gatorade, a pack of cigarettes, and a new shirt. When she arrived, he let her know that he had overdosed on heroin. It was a “one-time thing,” a “stupid mistake,” he had “never done it before,” and he had “zero interest in heading straight to rehab.”

So eight months later and here I was, sitting with my therapist, full of self-loathing, hoping for the best advice on what to say. He and I had never had that tough conversation around his addictions in the past, and with heroin in the mix, it felt more necessary and daunting than ever. At this point, we hadn’t spoken since his birthday in August.

“I don’t understand what I could possibly say or do to change anything. I feel helpless!” I shouted and waved my arms in front of her anxiously. The climax of the spiel came when I told her, as I had hyperbolically said to others so many times before, that I wouldn’t be surprised if I got a call any day to say that he had died. “Any day! Any day, I’m telling you!”

After a raucous session that left me feeling more uneasy than ready, I walked out of the office with a bare-bones plan for unraveling the thread of the last year to my family, and offering my brother my support. I was already in my hiking gear, my partner Jeffy eagerly waiting to drive us out to Horsetail Falls for a day of fun in the gorge. The Spring thaw had left the ground muddy and treacherous, but after six months indoors in the wet Portland winter, we would have gone outside in any condition that promised sun.

When we pulled up to the spot, I saw a high climb with several narrow switchbacks leading us up to what Jeffy promised were worthwhile views. While I’m not too scared of heights, I am intensely afraid of slipping on slick surfaces, even with my feet on level ground. As we made our ascent, Jeffy could sense my unease. 

“Listen, we don’t have to go any further; it’s not a big deal if you need to just go home and rest.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m totally fine. Let’s do this.” 

As so often happens when I feel this way, I mistook my partner’s genuine understanding of my fear as passive aggressive judgment, and stubbornly trundled on rather than admitting my discomfort. Every step was making me more anxious, and more ashamed of that anxiety. Then, after rounding a corner, we noticed that a large tree, uprooted from the saturated earth by wind, had fallen over the path; not the wide, easily surpassable trunk, but its dense thicket of massive branches.

I thought we’d have to turn back, relieved. To my surprise, Jeffy pressed forward, surveying the next few steps. Every suggestion they gave me conjured a new image of one or both of us tumbling down the hill to death or injury. Despite my fear being very real, I insisted to myself that I should be able to totally ignore it. When ignoring it wasn’t working, the tree began to symbolize a host of other obstacles, shining a bright light on my flaws. Why can’t you just do this?

Jeffy saw that I was on the verge of tears and reassured me.

“Listen, it’s no big deal–we can totally turn back and go home.”

“Would you turn back if I wasn’t with you?” 

“Well, no–if you weren’t with me, I’d probably just climb over it, but you don’t think you can, and that’s fine.” 

At just that moment, another hiker came toward us from the other side of the massive branch pile. Without skipping a beat, he hopped over each branch of the tree, came down on the other side, and ran down the trail. I looked at Jeffy defeatedly and they shrugged their shoulders.

“Fuck me, right?”

—-

After admitting defeat and heading home, I was sitting on the couch in our studio apartment. So many times in my life I’d felt held back by my mental illnesses. Bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, and compulsive unwanted thoughts had robbed me of so much in life–friendships, loves, college, jobs, and in many ways, even my marriage. Every small thing I couldn’t do seemed to reaffirm the idea that I was wholly incapable. Rather than accepting these parts of myself or looking at them closely, I found myself constantly working to pack them away. I always thought in losing my illnesses I could become who I really am.

For now, I was staring at the ceiling, angry and afraid, repeating phrases in my head that hadn’t left me since first said by family and friends:

It’s not that difficult. Just do it!

Why are you so scared of everything? It ruins things for the rest of us!

I knew it. I knew you weren’t ready to get married! I knew this was a bad idea!

Maybe if you’d break down everything about yourself, down to your very foundation, and start again, you’d be able to become a decent person.

Will’s a really good guy for being with you. No–listen–a REALLY good guy.

A particular pain point for me was what I lacked in physical ability. Beyond a brief couch-to-5k phase (as soon as I hit 5k, it was back to the couch), I’d never made it to the gym. I couldn’t even do one push up. It’s something I’d always been insecure about while struggling with my weight and trying to help others understand my mental health.

Maybe you wouldn’t feel like you have bipolar if you’d exercise every once in a while.

You don’t need antidepressants–you just need running shoes!

While most other thoughtless comments about mental illness are easy to brush away, this one nagging guilt about physical strength was difficult to shake. Maybe they were right, and my solution this whole time was a treadmill. Doubtful, but possible?

Lucky for me, it was only an hour or two before my buddy Rachael showed up with a bottle of Sazerac and a listening ear. I told her all the things I’d talked about with my therapist that morning, about that “goddamn motherfucking tree”, about feeling like Jeffy was too good for me. She met me with the pure, validating wisdom of an excellent friend who won’t let you feel down on your luck, but doesn’t make you feel bad about feeling bad either.

At 2a.m., both of us drunk and half asleep, we wrapped up the night, and Rachael’s partner drove her home safely. I crawled into bed grateful that I wouldn’t have to get up early the next morning. I closed my eyes for what I didn’t realize would be the last few hours of peace I’d have for a very long time.

Around 6 or 7, I got a call from my dad. It wasn’t too unusual for my family to forget the time difference and hit me up unreasonably early, but this felt odd. I didn’t answer at first, but then I was worried it was important, so I called him right back. When he picked up the phone, he sounded weird.

“Are you sitting down?”

“No, I’m laying down, it’s like six in the fucking morning here. What’s going on?”

“Ashton’s dead.”

In that moment I went from being nearly asleep to wide awake. I shot up in bed and sat there, dumbfounded, staring into space. 

“Um, no he’s not.”

“Yes he is. They found him in his car in his office parking lot. One of my college buddies was the EMT. I just got the call.”

I paused, thinking for a moment. “No, seriously, he’s not.”

Dad’s temper ignited at my disbelief.

“Yes he is! Yes he is! The EMT said ‘cold and stiff’.”

I remembered then the moment of finding my dead hamster in his cage as a child. When I reached out to touch his sleeping body, it was unexpectedly cold, with an odd firmness. I had recoiled, screamed. Something in me knew to be afraid of that feeling. 

Suddenly I was realizing a man had this moment with my brother. A layer of shock peeled back, and the truth hit me, hard.

“No! No, no, no! No!”

“I have to go. They’re waiting for me and somebody’s gotta tell Granny.”

He hung up and I burst into violent sobs.

Running on pure adrenaline and between tearful breakdowns, with the help of my amazing support system, I made it to the Atlanta airport before the end of the day, halfway home. I’d been vegan for a couple of months, but at this point, realizing I hadn’t eaten all day and a mess inside, I stepped into the overcrowded food court in search of fried chicken. 

Chicken sandwich in hand, I took a seat at a table with a couple of young male strangers, the only open chair. As soon as I unwrapped the sandwich, it hit me again, and I started crying–like, really crying, like when you drool a little bit and it’s not pretty or subtle or quiet–and ended up with the table to myself. I’d find myself doing this quite a bit over the next year of grief and recovery. Eventually you just get used to it and your friends do, too.

My mom called me and I talked to her for a few minutes. Everyone from her side of the family was at her house, eating, drinking, and talking, so she wouldn’t be alone. Since my parents were now divorced and not on the best terms, they didn’t interact much anymore. She said my dad was over at his mother’s house with his wife and family, eating dinner. Aunts traded the phone back and forth with each other while everyone expressed condolences. They said they were excited to see me after a year away from home, despite the circumstances. It felt weirdly normal. 

After the call and eating my sandwich in two enormous, tearful bites, I realized a flight attendant had sat across from me. She had heard my conversation and smiled at me with kindness in her eyes. She ended up being the attendant on my flight home, and handed me free glasses of wine and extra snacks to tide me over. I owe so much to kind strangers who don’t walk away from a crying girl.

—-

The first night home is a blur. I was dead tired, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was hungry, but eating never made sense. Every small task required cutting through a thick fog. My mom and I would both lose it for just a moment before sliding back into calm. It never happened at the same time; we spent all week taking turns.

The next morning, I visited my dad’s side of the family. Ashton was my half brother, my father’s son from a previous relationship. His biological mother lived in a small town miles away, and I hadn’t seen her in years. She hadn’t had much to do with him in life, and didn’t have much to do with the week he died either, staying at home until the visitation and then returning just after.

Just after he was born, my granny took care of him when his mother would be out of town. My dad had partial custody, but was still figuring out his life at that time. I was born two years later, and Ashton joined us full time during my mom’s pregnancy. She would be a mother to him for the rest of his life. 

Everyone was in terrible spirits at my granny’s house. No one knew what to say or do. Many of them described feeling sick. I told them I felt sick, too.

I went back to my mom’s place in the afternoon and we started to talk shop. When I texted Dad to mediate a dialogue about picking a funeral home, his wife texted back:

Your dad, your granny, your aunt and uncle–everyone is violently ill. Have you felt nauseous at all?

—-

My family, now bedridden with food poisoning, left all the difficult tasks of a loved one’s death on mine and my mother’s shoulders. We had so many things ahead of us: announce the death, plan the visitation, apply for death certificates with the coroner, obtain his things, write the obituary, have the visitation, and the most dreaded task of all–clean out his apartment. These things felt difficult enough for a team of six or seven, but now it was just us two.

The first thing to tackle was announcing the death. My family all felt uneasy about it, but I volunteered for the task. A wordsmith by nature, my brother had a silver tongue as soon as he learned to speak. It would be an honor to write something in his memory and call on his friends to see him off thoughtfully, in a way he would have appreciated.

I must have written 50 drafts, taking breaks when I couldn’t see through the tears. I wanted something that would speak to his big, vibrant personality, but that broke the news delicately, knowing this would be how many would hear it for the first time. When I finally finished and posted it, the support started flowing in. Call after call, message after message, comment after comment, carrying me when I didn’t feel like I could walk any longer. I looked back on those messages and comments for weeks and weeks after. I owe so much to people who reach out.

At the same time, Southern culture is as gossipy as you’d imagine. There were of course impolite strangers who would just blatantly ask, “How did he die?” The more subtle, hinting comments came through too: “So young! I can’t imagine the circumstances; he wasn’t ill.” The newspaper in the town where he was found, a small college community, had posted an article about finding a young man in his car who had likely died of an overdose. Many folks sent me the link; “Was this Ashton?” 

Was. 

Tears, tears, tears.

With our 84-year-old granny, one of Ashton’s many loving mothers, dangerously bedridden with terrible food poisoning, each task was broken up by visits to her home to make sure she drank fluids. “I’m just so sad. I just can’t,” she’d say. With a confidence I didn’t know I had, I’d reply, “You have to. Chin up. Here–take this.” Whose voice was this? Surely not meek-and-mild mine.

The next task was picking a funeral home. Making decisions had become a talent of mine at work, but had never really carried over into my personal life. Still, where my family was uncertain, I suddenly could be quick and precise. We had a spot in place in no time. It felt unusual to walk in my house with the same strong legs that carried me through the office.

One moment of that week sticks out very clearly in my mind. My dad, still sick, joining us at the dark, wooden table at the funeral home. It was large and high, reminding me of when I was a kid and could barely reach breakfast. I felt like a child, sitting quietly and waiting my turn. Used to letting my dad take the lead, I sat back in silent support.

“When was the bereaved’s birthday?”

My father paused. “August 13th, 1963.”

My mother paused. “No, Keith, that’s not right; it was…August 20.”

Looking at them and seeing how tired and lost they were, I realized that while we had lost the same person, it was in very different ways. I lost a brother, but they lost a child. I couldn’t just be a kid anymore, so I found my voice.

“August 18th. He was 27.” 

With the arrangements in place, we all felt a little more prepared for the week. Lost as a goose after days of violent food poisoning and grief, my dad got in his Jeep and drove back to a hotel to rest. My mother and I hopped in her Honda and went onward.

Staring out the window of the car, I remembered once at church when Ashton and I took aptitude tests for how we could help in the faith.

“What result did you get?” He asked me.

“I got type S: Shepherding.”

“What? That’s what I got, too!”

The description stuck with me: “You’re someone who carries others to light in times of darkness.” I remember feeling exceptionally proud of my result, and unsurprised that Ashton had the same. It was one of the only times growing up I felt like I could do great things. I hadn’t remembered this moment for a long time; this was the first time it really made sense to me. I had become a shepherd for my family.

That afternoon, I penned the obituary. I submitted it to the newspaper. I posted it to the internet. Mom and I chose the photo that would pair with it, and commissioned a print of the photo on a large canvas for the visitation. Ashton at my wedding. Ashton in a pink tie. Ashton with a wide smile. Just out of frame, me in a white dress. 

It’s crazy how things change.

—–

I have often spoken of the last inch of a person when trying to be inspirational, thinking that I had found it as a kid and revisited it many times as an adult. It’s the part of you that carries you when you’re dead tired through making dinner for your sick partner. It’s the part of you that talks you out of suicide on the edge of your bed as a scared teen. I realized in the seven days following Ashton’s death that while I had gotten close, I had never really known that inch until he left. This is particularly true of the day we set aside to clean out his last home.

We drove up to the apartment complex where my brother spent his final months unsure of what we would find. As we came up to his building, it looked like he was standing on the porch. My heart jumped in my chest; I felt angry and relieved. As we got closer, it wasn’t him, but his roommate Wade, eyes red from crying. It was the world’s most painful bait and switch.

This was my first time seeing Ashton’s place, since he’d just moved back home from D.C. not too many months prior, and I’d been gone all year. He loved soccer. Jerseys and scarves hung on the walls above the couch signed by his favorite team, Real Madrid. The biggest television I’d ever seen sat at the front of the room, which smelled strongly of cigarettes. “He won it in a contest at work,” Mom explained.

I found a photo he’d had taken in Madrid where he was posing with a replica of the world cup. Instinctively I pulled out my phone to text him about what a nerd he was, but remembered that I couldn’t. I settled for a half-hearted conversation with the photo. “You’re such a fucking dork.” 

While Mom and Wade talked, Ashton’s bedroom door sat closed in front of me, calling me in. Unable to wait any longer, I walked forward and wrapped my hand around the knob. Taking a deep breath, I eased it open and stepped just into the room. Through tears I saw the home of a sad, scared young man, fighting with addiction. Running my hands over the baseboard of his unmade bed, the energy of his final months seeped into me; he’d been struggling more than we’d known, in secret, ashamed of his terrible habit. 

“Oh, Ashton–I’m so sorry. I should have been there.”

Wade departed to let us have our space. After a moment of holding each other close, crying, we looked at each other knowingly, nodded, and launched into action.

We realized as we trundled on that we had no plan for his things. We weren’t prepared–how could you be? It felt like packing him up for a trip. Somehow though, two hours went by, and we found that he sorted important mail into different pots and pans in the kitchen, that he was working on writing a book, that he drew small comics in a notebook he kept in the pocket of his giant pea coat. There was laughter on finding wrappers for his favorite candy, and tears from the comics he used to read before bed as a little boy. 

There were a few moments where we caught ourselves saying things that would bring us crashing back to the reality of where we were. My mom would unearth a nice blanket from a pile of clothes and say, ”Oh, he’s going to want this!” We’d both sigh or cry, but get back up again, too much work before us to let us sit and stop.

I kept thinking to myself, Ashton always thought I hated him, but when he finds out how much work I did for him after he died–it was hard not to find it funny, even as it broke our hearts. It was a labor of love, being around all his things, in his world, all the while knowing he was gone.

In the final moments of the cleanup, when everything was packed neatly into duffle bags, his clothes all washed or thrown away, his furniture ready for pickup, we both felt a strange sensation that we weren’t alone. The propped open door let in a soft breeze, and a gentle light lay peacefully over the room. Wordlessly, we watched the empty doorway, feeling the same thing: he was so sorry, he loved us. He was saying goodbye.

—-

At the visitation, our family stood in the funeral parlor waiting to shake hands with the multitudes that lined up out the door just to express condolences. I saw everyone there–his fraternity brothers, our old church friends, people who had babysat us as children, folks from his high school, folks from mine. The impact he’d left on everyone was huge. It was almost all smiles, remembering him and cherishing that he was in our lives.

I stood next to my mom, keeping up her spirits. I’d fallen into a habit in Portland of insisting that I was an awkward fool with no understanding of social graces, but here I was talking up a crowd under the worst of circumstances. I smoothed things over when an old family friend confused my new stepmom for me, and rushed people politely who were trying to ask my mom uncomfortable questions. Mom kept holding my hand and squeezing it, mouthing to me every few minutes, I can’t believe how strong you are. I couldn’t believe it either.

 I only cried twice through the whole progression; once on meeting his most recent best friend for the first time, knowing how hard she’d tried to support him through his final months, and once when his high school sweetheart pressed a heavy lump into the palm of my hand–his class ring, too big to hang on even my thumb.

After the visitation, my friends all took me to a house where they gave me wine and pizza, letting me sit half asleep and quiet while they talked. Coming down from that week’s adrenaline in the presence of friends was a godsend. They were all shocked to hear how big my role had been in Ashton’s departure. As they complimented me, I found myself able to take it without denial. They’re right, I thought, this is the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I’m damn proud of it.

—–

For my return home, I had the ring in hand, his giant sweater wrapped around me, that pink tie from my wedding in my bag. I’d made a slideshow of his childhood pictures for the visitation, and a playlist of instrumentals of his favorite songs. I couldn’t stop listening to it, looking at it, clinging to his memory like I was holding him tightly. I’m not ready, I thought, but I had to be. There is nowhere to go but onward.

After a series of tough goodbyes, I boarded the plane to Portland, sitting next to a cranky looking older man. I stared out the window as the plane took off, and felt the tension fall out of my body. Seeing Little Rock’s skyline as we climbed into the air, I let myself weep for my brother. Goodbye, but not forever; goodbye, but I’ll never let you go.

    —–

I was a defiant, strong-willed, loud little girl. 20 years later, I’m a survivor of hundreds of brutal family dinner table arguments, sleepless nights before my diagnosis, my parents’ difficult separation, a few too many failed relationships, and other things still too hard to repeat. Even looking at this past and recognizing that it wasn’t easy, I’ve offered myself so little forgiveness. I looked at a quieter, more passive version of that girl in the mirror, and thought, What happened to you? Where’s all that thunder? It could be so much worse.

However, after losing Ashton, I see the world in a new light. My therapist says a death makes your life a snowglobe where nothing is glued to the ground. It picks up that snowglobe and shakes it violently. When everything settles, the things are the same, but they’ve moved around. Some things are toppled upside down, things are next door to each other that didn’t used to be, and all you can do is walk around getting to know where you are. After nearly a year on this journey, I still don’t know every inch of this place, but I’m learning how to look at it.

I’ve learned that the way that we pack ourselves away and hide our struggles from the people we care about serves only to hinder us. To ignore our fear without addressing it in the moment forces it to demand our attention again and again. We are not the stories people tell us about ourselves. We are not even the qualities we cling to so tightly as innate. I used to see my fear and say to it, “I’m so weak,” and wonder why things never changed. It was only after losing my brother that I was able to look at my fear and say to it, “I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to walk forward with you. We have to get through this together.”

I’ll admit, it’s hard to face how much your self doubt puts a wedge between yourself and the people you love. I didn’t hear from a lot of people I wanted to when I lost my brother. At first, I felt angry with them, but then I realized it was because they too were suffering. People couldn’t call because they were afraid of saying the wrong thing. They’d forget to check in because they were stressed and had no time. They couldn’t talk about themselves because they felt their problems would be dwarfed by my hardship. I saw myself in them.

I’ll have to face forever that I kept myself at arm’s length from my brother because I thought he would be ashamed of who I was. All the while, he needed me. He would have asked for my help, but he was stuck in the same boat, too ashamed to get out the words. In dancing around each other this way, we only became more lost. 

Now every morning when I get out of bed and brush my teeth, when I work hard to make sure all my appointments are on my calendar, when I volunteer whatever I have without questioning my qualifications, I no longer feel selfish. Every labor of self love keeps the promise of your presence in the lives of those who need you. The more you look at every part of yourself with loving kindness, the more that loving kindness radiates out to the world. We all deserve that much forgiveness, even when the mistakes we’ve made have taken us from the ones we love. 

After years of self doubt, I’m happily living as my authentic self with a loving partner. After seeing the stamps in my brother’s passport, I’m taking my first trip out of the country. After hearing my mom read his resume over the phone shedding tears of pride, I’m back to college in the fall to finish my BFA. After making as many excuses as I could, I’m instead going to try whatever I can. I may fail, but life is short, and even when you leave the world under tragic circumstances, no one who matters remembers you for your failures. 

My hope is that anyone who reads this will walk away ready to give themselves a break, or to make a difficult phone call, or to cook themselves a hot, healthy meal. I hope you’ll go easier on yourself, taking small steps with patience. I hope if you’re hurting yourself and you’re not sure how to stop, you’ll find the strength to ask. Every moment is an opportunity to start over, and you don’t have to do it alone. You’re stronger than you think you are.