I’ve never been in an accident. I’ve never been traumatically injured. I’ve never even been severely sick. I had Mono once, and it wasn’t fun, but in the full spectrum of human suffering it rates at laughable. I was born to an incredibly loving family and wanted little growing up. I excelled in school and had great friends. My upbringing wasn’t without some turbulence, but overall I had a charmed Midwestern childhood. Still, despite my personal good fortune, I consider myself a survivor.
Grief is uncomfortable to talk about, especially for those who haven’t experienced loss. That being said, we all will someday. Death is the great equalizer. To not know grief is to not live life. To not make connections. To not forge bonds. This simple truth gives me the courage to open up. Most of us understand the fragility of life to one degree or another. Some of us also sadly understand “the sharp knife of a short life,” as The Band Perry puts it.
I grew up in a family of five, sandwiched between an older and younger brother. Five is an odd number, literally and figuratively. Car travel was always a tad uncomfortable, with three budding teens squished in the back seat. A fifth wheel was required to venture alone on amusement park rides. Someone was routinely stuck in a ridged chair at the end of a booth for dinner.
We were a family of five, until I received the phone call no one ever wants to get. We were now a family of four. My little brother Justin – who I had the good fortune of loving without limits – was blinked out of reality by a car while skateboarding. It’s incredible how your world can change without so much as a cursory warning.
In my state of shock the phrase “does not compute” seems fitting. My mom, dad, Justin, and Chris were my everything. For the sixteen years of Justin’s life this had been my reality. The world as I knew it came crashing down. My goals, priorities, views - everything needed to be reevaluated in a period of time where I couldn’t even get my brain to accept what had happened. Instead of crying I offered everyone coffee at the hospital. I called my work and tried to help them fill my shifts. I told family and friends “it will be okay.” Shock was a welcome companion for the rest of the night. Then someone drove me to my family home, I don’t even remember who, and the tears came in a torrent.
I remember asking my dad the next morning “How do people survive this?” He answered with a painfully honest “I don’t know.” Neither did I. I slept. I watched the entire five-season run of Alias before revisiting Buffy. I went to therapy. I went on anti-depressants. I abused my doctor’s note to skip college classes. I ignored phone calls. I lost all sense of passion and enjoyment. The flame inside that once had me striving for greatness burned dimmer and dimmer until it threatened to extinguish.
I have no concept of how long I was in this blackness. Years, easily. Time didn’t matter much. I did the bare minimum that was required of me to stay in school, to emotionally support my family, and to satisfy the concerned and watchful eyes of friends. All the while I started to wonder if you could actually die from a broken heart. I didn’t want to die, though. I just wanted to sleep.
Eventually, with time, the blackness lessened. Years passed. Shades of grey entered my life again. Then muted colors. Eight years later, despite the sadness that is always one memory away, my life feels vivid again.
Sometimes gathering courage doesn’t require a public act of bravery or celebrated feat of human triumph. Sometimes it means little more than recognizing you need help. Continuing to put one foot in front of the other. Taking things one day at a time.
Sometimes it takes courage to push through the guilt and remember that it is okay to smile, to laugh, and to love. For me, courage meant taking that pain and focusing it. It meant not giving up. It meant making the most of the life I’ve been given, and doing so in a manner that would make Justin proud. I now live each day to the fullest and take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. I will not look back on my life with regret.
It has taken years, but I feel stronger and braver today than I’ve ever felt before. I’ve not just survived, I’ve thrived.
Thank you for this incredible gift, Justin.