My office wall has a blank space, a sixteen by twenty-two-inch patch of paint just below a doodle drawing my wife made for me years ago. I’ve often found myself sitting in my desk chair, staring at that blank section of wall. I have no clue how long I look at it. When I catch myself, I shake my head to break the trance and then return to the task (paper to grade, assignment to look over, whatever) I was working on before my attention drifted. I find myself with an amalgamation of feelings, anger (is it?), or frustration, sadness (maybe?). I’m not really sure what emotion it is. I just know that it’s there, gnawing away like a sore tooth in the back of my jaw.
Only recently did I get a handle on it, somewhat.
The confusion of feelings comes from the realization that my life and my family are changed in ways that cannot be made right again. No matter how much I try.
My son is two-and-a-half years old. He has thin, wispy hair. The color of beach sand. If my wife would let his hair grow out, he would look just like my brother.
They both have the same devious smile, the kind that grandparents, strangers, and parents fawn over. It’s the kind of smile that can and will let my son get away with whatever he wants to in the future. Break a glass cup, smile, forgive, forget. I only know because I saw it with my brother for years.
I am the oldest of three. My sister’s four years younger than me, my brother six years. It was a major difference in age growing up. He hated me, I hated him, and neither of us hated the other because we actually hated but because we couldn’t understand one another. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I realized all that the annoying and frustrating things he did weren’t special to him. He was growing up, testing the limits of life, learning how to be a person. Being a normal kid, just like I did before him.
Around that time, when I was seventeen or so and he was eleven, he and I became friends. We realized we shared interests, we shared passions and dreams and hopes for the future.
I often think of a quote from Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited: “If we weren’t brothers, do you think we’d be friends in real life?” For me and my brother, from when I was seventeen to when I was twenty-nine, the answer would have been Yes, no question about it.
From that point all those years ago when we finally understood each other, we enjoyed the other’s company. We texted back and forth, hung out as often as we could. I’d call him at night and he’d tell me about school and the girl he was dating. As time went on, he and my wife became best friends.
My brother was the hardest person to say goodbye to when my wife and I moved across the country, from California to Georgia.
I was offered a teaching job at a small Georgia school, and my wife and I had been wanting to venture off from California, where both of our families, immediate and extended, lived. We’d been married a year, almost to the day, when we packed our things and drove east to try something crazy and new, and terrifying.
My brother was the last person I hugged before getting in the car. The hug was short, the goodbye shorter. I waited until I had backed out of the driveway to let the tears fall, and I knew he was doing the same. I knew I would miss him above anyone else I was leaving behind in California.
We all fear the phone call in the middle of the night. I’d consciously thought of it during the two years we were living in Georgia. When it came, sounding in the quiet of the dark house, it was like a strange déjà vu I wasn’t surprised to have.
Car crash. It’s the easy go to. Maybe because it’s been so ingrained in our consciousness from movies and TV shows, or maybe because it’s the easiest and most present fear, but we tend to think of emergency phone calls at three o’clock in the morning having something to do with car crashes.
But not my phone call.
I expected it to be about my grandma, or an aunt or cousin. But it was my brother.
“He’s in the hospital,” my mom said.
I asked why, what happened, how bad. All the questions that flood your mind in tragedy. She didn’t have any answers.
Something happened, she said. He fainted and was in a coma. “They don’t know anything else right now.”
I told her we’d fly out as soon as we could get a flight. Late the next night, we got on a plane in Atlanta and flew into LAX.
The few times I talked to my mom throughout that next day, she repeated the same information, that he was still in a coma but he was alive. “Thank God he’s alive,” she said.
I thought the same thing.