image by Anaiptol
If there is light
It will find
— Charles Bukowski, The Harder You Try
My 21-year-old brother died on the Spring Equinox in 1999.
When the phone rang and I learned that he was dead due to a combination of drugs and alcohol, part of me left the world, too. I was instantly propelled out of what had been my life before (drinks with friends, sarcastic jokes, changing jobs, dating) and into something metallic and raw and shocky. Into the in-between.
The in-between was terrible. At first it meant gagging. Saying, “no, no, no,” over and over, the words rolling out of me. It meant I couldn’t sleep or eat. Mostly it meant I couldn’t believe this had happened to my family, to me, to my brother.
It meant leaving my little life in Maine and returning to my childhood home in Alaska. It meant reading my brother’s autopsy report and breathing in the sick-sweet smell of flowers filling our house. It meant long days in my pajamas and smoking on the porch. It meant watching my parents shoot out into their own orbits of grief.
I was no longer in my life before, the familiar, comfortable, confusing place. But I couldn’t see my life after. I could only see what was missing.
Days and weeks bled into months.
I spiraled deep into my own pain over my brother’s death. If he could die, so could I. It wasn’t hard to imagine what my own death would look like– it would look just like what was happening– devastated parents, a house full of fading flowers, an obituary. Before, I’d had a bubble of protection around myself and my family. I hadn’t known it was there, but when it popped, I woke up. I could and would, someday, die. If my brother’s life was complete at 21—which it had to be, because there was no other option now—then if I died at that moment, my life would somehow be complete, too.
There was something about this new world where I found myself without the one person I was supposed to get the most time on this planet with, the only other person who knew what it was like to grow up in our particular family. There was something about being so sad that nothing could fix it—not a haircut or a cute boy, not a pizza or a rum and Coke. There was something about drilling down so deep and dark that unexpectedly, I hit light.
I started to breathe again. I started getting dressed before noon. I went to grief groups and I spoke. I stopped hiding, for maybe the first time ever. I started writing down the memories of my brother that flitted through my mind, unburied by his absence. I met some amazing women who had also lost loves, and suddenly there was some magic, some newness, some spark. We sat together and ate greasy food. We talked about the stupid things people say when someone dies, and worse, about how some people say nothing. Our suffering braided us together. It entwined me with the people I saw on news stories, with survivors names in obituaries.
With time, I started noticing small, good things: the symmetry of the veins on leaves. The warm, sweet taste of the lattes a friend brought me. The heart-deep purr of my cat vibrating against my chest.
I thought about how my brother died on the Equinox, on that day when light and dark exist equally. How they only really exist because of each other. Without death, the little and big moments of our lives, our loves, wouldn’t mean as much.
And slowly, like drips of honey, this became my after. This life where we ache and love and die. This life where if we dive deep, we might come out the other side, dripping with light.