Letters to Chris. April 28th. Day 20

Hey Buddy,

Well, I started crying in Kohl’s today. I’ve been doing okay, but the last two days have been rough. I’m sure the fact that this is my last night home before heading back to Colorado has something to do with it. And last night I went through a huge tub of hundreds of photos, organizing, dating…What do you call something that is super cathartic and super heartbreaking at the same time?? That would describe that experience. But in Kohls, as Mom was looking for a thank you card to send a friend who made a donation in Carter’s name, I happened upon the “Birthday for Him” section. When you passed I obviously thought about how I’d never see you again, or hear your voice, but I didn’t think about other things. Things that continue to hit me. Like how you’ll always be 25. And how I’ll never be able to buy you another birthday card. How I should have bought you a birthday card this last March. So I began to cry. Luckily there were no other people around except Mom, who held me and brandished a much-needed Kleenex from her purse, joking about how she always carried Kleenex for allergies but oh, my how times have changed. I shouldn’t have tossed all the packages of Kleenex I had laying around the apartment. I never used them. But now I’m either going to need to purchase some or throw a bunch of toilet paper in my purse. Because obviously I don’t always know when and where I’m going to be triggered.

So that photo tub…Do you remember that huge plastic tote of pictures that’s been hanging out in the storage room for years? Yeah, you remember-I had dragged it upstairs last year to go through and you asked me to send you baby pics so you could see how much Carter looked like you. Well, like I said earlier, I went through it last night. What a job. Photos literally spanning 100 years. You never met our great grandma, but her baby picture was in there. Then pictures of our grandparents’ wedding (man, Grandpa was a looker!), pics of Mom and Dad before we all came along, tons of black and white childhood photos of Mom and her sisters (I’ve never seen these before. Not many were taken so it’s incredible so many survived). And then…pics of us. So many baby pictures of you from when we lived in Linn. A bunch from when I was going through my pink headband and unicorn shirt phase, holding you in my lap. Of your first birthday where you demolished your cake. Sleeping in your rocker. Laughing, naked, on your baby blanket (cutest baby butt in the world…I still have that blanket). One of you breastfeeding. Then photos throughout the years: capturing birthdays, fifth grade graduation, float trips, Christmases, Halloweens (remember when you were Inspector Gadget?), fishing, basketball games (one where you are literally sleeping on a bench at a game of Nikea’s), dressing up as Leonardo da Vinci for a speech in grade school, waiting for the school bus, dressing up as a biker for Dad’s themed TanTarA meetings, roller rink nights, dressing up with your dad’s firefighting badge. So many pictures. I totally forgot you used to wear glasses as a kid. And play soccer! Man, you were such a skinny little thing. I recalled how I’d get so annoyed with you because you’d always make such goofy faces in pictures. You’d either purposely make your eyes super huge or you’d furrow your brow so you looked super in pain. Hey, do you remember when you’d play around with that tiny leather saddle Mom gave you? You’d put it on your hand and pretend your arm was a horse. We could have gotten you a toy horse, but no. Apparently that wouldn’t have been as fun. Well I found the most adorable photo of you with that saddle, grinning from ear to ear. I have never longed for anything more than I longed to hold that little boy in those pictures. Squeeze him, kiss him and cuddle him and never let him go. Reality is a b*tch. I saw a great picture of your father before he passed, and for the tiniest second I thought how I should send it to you. Before, of course, reality hit me that I couldn’t text you anything anymore. I wonder how many more moments like that I’ll have. Those aren’t fun.

And home videos. OMG so many home videos.There’s an entire tote of those downstairs, as well. Stacy came over and dropped off a VHS to DVD converter, so next time I’m home I want to help Mom do that. We haven’t watched those videos since we had a VHS player, so it’s been years. I can’t remember much of what’s on there, except for one particular afternoon we were playing down at the lake. You were drinking a Squeeze-It super dramatically, throwing it back like it was a beer, and just being the cute and annoying little brother you were, running around and causing a ruckus. I remember you trying to balance on the huge floatie that was wider than we were tall (I miss that thing), and demanding Nikea, who stood too close for comfort, not to shove it out from under your feet (“Don’t! DON’T!!!”) Which of course she did. You were a lot easier to pick on when you weighed 50 pounds. We spent countless hours at that lake. I’m sure school ceremonies and Christmas mornings will be in there, too. Birthdays. I think videos will be even harder than photographs to go through…to see you so alive and happy. Being loud and irritating and just plain adorable. I actually did okay going through pics, until I saw a family photo from Christmas in Sedalia from a couple years ago. The year when the tripod started to tilt in mid-flash. You were wearing the shirt that I have slept with every night (Well, I’m sleeping with nine shirts but I mean the one I sleep with on my chest because it smells like your sweat and cologne). Then I did okay, until I saw a pic of you on a float trip. You look to be about 6. You were so serious in this picture…sitting on a branch and looking at the camera with your big blue eyes. You were annoyed because Mom was asking you to pose, and you wanted to play. You were always so restless. It drove Mom mad. And I was looking at this photo, thinking about how you’ve always been so beautiful and how much I love that face. And then I just lost it. And I couldn’t stop. Then I walked over to your ashes and cried some more. I calmed down, walked to the bathroom to wash my face, then remembered the bar of soap I found that had your facial hair on it (you apparently had trimmed your beard before washing your face and I knew it was you because other than me, you were the only person to use that bathroom) and cried again. I know. I talk about crying a LOT. But this is my reality. Sorry, but it’s kind of your fault. But I’m so grateful to our parents for always pulling out the camera. Because we will always have these photos to cherish now.

You’d be proud of Mom. She did your laundry. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for her. But she did okay. It was actually very cathartic for her. Then she folded all your socks and boxers, towels and blankets. She is probably going to toss your briefs and older socks, but everything else we are keeping. Everything. Even tossing just socks and underwear is pushing it. I hate leaving her. She did better today, but it’s been rough. We had to get her out of the house yesterday so she could be distracted. Mornings are hardest for her. But know what’s neat? While going through the photos, I found a card you gave her for Mother’s Day years ago. You signed it, “Love you always. CJ Nacy.” I set it aside to show her, along with a pic of you two cuddling and holding hands on the couch when you were probably five or so. I was worried when she saw it this morning it would make her cry, but she did okay.

In hindsight, I should have saved it for Mother’s Day.

By the way, that signature of yours is the tattoo I’m going to get. Your childish penmanship writing those sweet words is perfect. I know you wanted me to find that card; that was your way of telling us that you’ll “love us always.” Those are the moments that get me through. Moments where I know you’re here. Like the other night when I was listening to a playlist on Spotify, and it randomly skipped down to my favorite song that I have listened to on repeat in the past because it reminds me of you. Then after it ended, Spotify jumped back up to where it was playing before, seven songs above that Mercy Me song. It was so weird-my Spotify wasn’t on the mix setting. Then Mom’s scanner. I hadn’t even noticed the brand name of it until I was sitting on the couch talking about you. The name is “Brother by Your Side.” Earlier that day, Mom turned on the radio right when Rachel Platten’s “Stand by You” was ending, where it kept repeating “Love, you’re not alone, ‘cause I’m gonna stand by you. Love, you’re not alone. Oh, I’m gonna stand by you.” Coincidence? Some people may say these all are. But I don’t believe so. I believe all those are my little brother letting me know he’s here and he’s okay. Mom’s okay with me taking a bunch of stuff home with me now. I have filled up your camo bag to max capacity with clothing and a hat or two. I’ll have to take your books on another trip; I just can’t fit an entire hardback series of Harry Potter books in my bag. Mom also told me I can have your dress blues. The ones you wore to my wedding. You looked so handsome and so proud. I can’t believe she’d give those up. I don’t know if I could in her situation. But she’s the mom, always trying to make her children happy. I’ll have to come back and get that, as well. I couldn’t ever fold that up to go in my bag. Even for a short flight.

Do you remember when we went to see “Twilight?” I had completely forgot about that, until the other night when I came across it on Netflix. I remembered taking you to “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” But for whatever reason, it had slipped my mind that we saw it together until that night. You and I had read the books, so I took you on a sister-brother outing. And it was so fun! Later on, you would decide you detested the story, and even sent me a pic you found of a Twilight book made into a flask holder because no one would ever open it. But I have a feeling you never stopped liking the books. Not really 🙂 I watched it last night. Just because it was another awesome memory with you.

You were such a big reader. I always thought that was so cute. Mom told me today how excited you were to get the Hunger Games trilogy. I wonder what you thought of those movies. I bet you liked them. We always liked the same books and movies. I found your Lord of the Rings books…Did you actually read those?? I would be so impressed. I couldn’t even get through those in college. I’m going to take them home and give it another go, though. We shall see. But first I have a couple other books I need to get to. Dad bought the family a book about how to survive a loved one’s suicide, called Finding Peace Without all the Pieces. The author’s son had shot himself, as well. I just finished the first book I bought just days after you died, written by a sister who also lost her brother to suicide. While I hate that other people have to endure this tragedy, it helps to know we aren’t alone. Reading her words gave me some comfort. Unless someone has been through this, it’s impossible to know what it’s like. There are deaths, and then there are suicides. The grieving process is so vastly different. “John’s sister” helped me to know any emotion is normal when it comes to grieving for you. So I’m sure the book Dad gave us will also be a big help. And I have to be grateful it’s not a Glenn Beck book (sorry, Dad)!

I told you about the meeting I’m going to start attending for suicide survivors, right? They meet on the third Tuesday of every month. That’s going to be super hard, but I think well worth it. There’s also one that meets on the first Wednesday of each month for the newly bereaved, so I may go to that as well. I just feel that going to one where they know how I feel will be so much more helpful. I don’t know. It’s one thing to talk to family about it…it’s going to be very different talking to strangers. It’s so weird…I’ve always been uncomfortable around the topic of death. I’ve always avoided it, because it’s just depressing to think about one’s own mortality. I mean, what’s the point, right?? But I’ve literally been living this for the last three weeks. My entire existence has become entwined in your death. And I know that’s not what you want. But it’s impossible not to focus on the fact that you are gone. It’s a pretty damn big blip on the radar. And the manner in which you left us. Even if I could take my mind off it, I just need to look in the mirror to be reminded of the hell we’ve been going through the last three weeks (thanks, cortisol). I’ve forgiven you, but I’m still pissed. Maybe that means I haven’t forgiven you. I don’t know. I do know one day we will remember how you lived, not how you died. But we are just so stuck right now. It’ll take time. Lots of it. Years, maybe. And now time passes so slowly.

I blame you for that.

Hey Dad found the perfect holder for your ashes. An artillery box. It is so ironic…but we know it’s exactly what you would have wanted. This is what you would have asked for. You loved all things military. So Dad went to the army surplus store in Columbia and found it. Mom is going to stencil “Nacy” in block lettering on the side. That works, right?

I’ve had a few of your friends reach out to me. That’s been so neat. These people just really loved you, Chris. They share photographs and memories with me…I think it’s healing for both sides, to talk to someone else who loved you. There’s always that same response to your passing…the heartache, but also the guilt and regret. “I should have seen it.” “I should have been there more.” “I didn’t know he was so sad.” The same exact things we say. I mean, I’m filled to the brim with regret. Guide me in what to say to these incredible people. I’m so so glad you had close friends, people who genuinely cared about you enough to reach out to your family. You were so blessed in so many ways, little brother. You did lead a very full life. A beautiful son, a loving family, an education, friends, a military career…I have to keep reminding myself of those things. Especially when I look at pictures of that sweet, innocent little boy that you were. He will grow up to have so many good things going for him. It wasn’t all heartache and despair.

That keeps me going, too.

Love you, Little Bro. Miss you.

Letters to Chris. April 25th. Day 17.

Hey Buddy,

I’ve hoarded more of your things. My pile of Chris articles on the bed has grown to include nine shirts, a jacket, a pair of jeans, a pillow from your couch and one from your bed (complete with camo pillowcase), your stuffed toy dog, pajama pants, four books and your firefighter blanket. I’m lucky this bed is a king or else there would be no room for me. Nikea came home for dinner tonight and went through your things to find stuff she wanted to keep, too. I told her she could go through the things on my bed and she laughed, remarking how every time she comes home the heap grows. But I HAD to grow it slowly. I wasn’t sure if Mom would be okay with me removing anything, so Id sneak up a few pieces of clothing every night. What started out as a couple shirts has blossomed into an entire wardrobe.

Remember how Nikea rarely cries? She did when she started going through your shirts downstairs tonight. She held up one of your grey sweatshirts with the zipper neck, saying how she could just SEE you wearing it. I walked around your things to her and held her tight, then Mom wrapped her arms around both of us and we all started to sob. Mom asked how we are going to get through this. She knows we will, but she just doesn’t know how. I don’t either. Time I guess. It’s going to take so long. But time is the only thing that will help. Poor Mom. She not only feels her own pain, but also Nikea’s and mine. She sobbed that she would do anything to take our pain away, that she wished she could just take it all as her own. And I know she would in a second. It must be the hardest thing in the world, to be a parent at a time like this. She couldn’t save her son, and now she can’t protect her daughters from hurting. That has to be such a powerless feeling. But I wouldn’t want her to take away my pain. Yes, it sucks to ache, to miss you like this. To have this crazy huge chasm in my heart that hurts all the time. Every minute of every day. But this grief is my own. It connects me to you. I was thinking about that movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and if I was given the option to erase you to get rid of the pain, would I? The answer was so simple. Absolutely not. Never. Knowing you, loving you, growing up with you as my brother, is worth the pain. Every single second of it. You helped make me who I am, and there is no way in hell I would ever let that go. Even if I felt like this every day for the rest of my life. I know everyone feels the same. You are ours, and we would never give that up. Nikea ended up picking out several different shirts, and as she held them close to her chest she remarked how the pile was about the same width as you. I held out my arms and hugged the air, the exact width I remember your tall skinny body being. I still remember the exact way my arms fit around you. I just can see you, hear you so clearly. Feel our hugs so clearly. Like I hugged you yesterday, even though it’s been a year (A year…it just doesn’t seem possible that it’s been that long since I saw your beautiful face). Don’t let that fade, Chris.

Yesterday, I met one of my closest friends for coffee. You may have met Chris at our wedding. She’s incredible and is one of the most loving and supportive human beings I know. She’s one of those people who simply calms your heart by being there. She cried with me, and she really didn’t even know you; she just felt my pain with me. I’m grateful you had friends like that in your life. I know of a couple. But despite a few tears during our visit, there were actually quite a few laughs. It was so good to catch up.  It’s so easy to want to stay home, huddled on the couch with your stuff, but I need to keep doing normal things like meeting for coffee. I told Mom tonight that I don’t know how to go on with my normal life, to which she responded, “You will because you have to. You have to go to work. You have to walk the dogs. You have to go to the grocery store.” And I know she’s right. But it also feels so wrong to get on with a normal life. I’m just not ready yet. Not even close. Like tonight, I RSVP’d to a friend’s birthday party. It’s going to be so weird…celebrating someone’s another year alive when you died. It just seems so foreign to me. Things I would look forward to I now have no idea how to handle. I feel so changed.

But I do notice more “normal” moments in between the crying. I put quotations around normal, because it’s still not normal. Not at all. You’re there, regardless of what we do. But there are more moments of easy conversation, even more laughter. We sat on the patio this evening. Today was almost too warm but this evening was perfect. I love springtime in Missouri. Dad, of course, was telling stories about this and that, waving his arms wildly as he does. Somehow Trump came up, which Mom put a stop to quickly. I teased Dad about the Glenn Beck book he has on his work bench, worrying that he was going to pass it to us to read. Then an Oriole perched on a tree close to us, contemplating visiting the bird feeder (it changed its mind. Dad said we moved too much-every time one of us would shift slightly, he’d be like, “Don’t move….Stop blinking! Stop rubbing your neck. Nikea, hold still!” Nikea was trying to remove a hair from her face and commented she was going to throw hair in Dad’s face and see if he could hold still. Such a little smart ass. I really need to record these conversations).

I went to Mom’s therapy appointment with her yesterday. I’m so glad I did. I wish I could take Dr. Kramer with me to Denver. I don’t remember this, but apparently she interviewed you, Bethany and I when Mom and Dad were becoming our guardians. Anyway, she’s amazing. Obviously we talked about you. Ha. But she could just see I’ve been beating myself up about not being there for you. I didn’t even have to say anything, but she pulled her chair closer to me, looked me in the eyes and said, “Jennifer. There is nothing you could have done. You were there for him. That’s all you could do.”

“No. I didn’t reach out like I should have. I was so pissed at him for not wanting to be better. I let him down.”

“You did what you could. You were there for him as much as he would let you. You reached out, and he kept slapping away your hand. He did that to everyone. It was not your fault. You were living in two different states, living your own lives. Unless someone calls 24 hours in advance to tell you they are going to commit suicide, there is not much you can do. Chris didn’t tell anyone he had these thoughts.”

It helped, but I’m still angry with myself. I still have guilt. I still think about all the things I should have done differently. But it helped to hear someone say I couldn’t have saved you, if only for a little while. Dr. Kramer also helped me feel better about something that has been plaguing me: your final moments. See, we went through your phone and know you were alive when Mom and Dad called. You texted someone else that you were thinking about killing yourself AFTER Dad called. Chris, why the f*ck didn’t you pick up the phone? Was it because your text didn’t come through for an hour and so you were upset no one responded?? One thing that haunts Mom is that her phone didn’t even show your text until 730, a full hour after you sent it. It just didn’t come through. I assured her that you had already made up your mind, but she still wonders if you were waiting for a response. I don’t know if trying to figure out the timeline made anything better. No. It didn’t. What do we do with this knowledge? But we just felt we needed to know. That’s the thing when someone you love ends his life-you look for answers. Any answers. We are beyond grateful you sent a text, but in a way it leaves us with more questions. What does “I can’t live like this anymore” mean, Chris?? I hate all these questions that will never have answers. Do you understand what that does to us? Do you know what it was like for Mom, Dad and Nikea to be sitting here, waiting to hear back from the police? What it was like when they patched Mom through to the sheriff on the scene who confirmed what Mom already knew? I wish I had known of that text. I would have texted you, begging you to live, to let me come out and visit. It wouldn’t have done any good. But this is stuck on repeat in my head. Best we can tell, it was between 741 (when you sent your final text) and 830. Like I said, this knowledge doesn’t do anyone any good. But your final moments, at this particular time in my grief, seem so important. To know what you were feeling, what you were thinking. I’ve always told myself you were at peace, but of course there’s that part of me that questions. So I told Dr. Kramer how I keep thinking about those final moments. Were you scared? What was going through your mind? To which she replied that she believes you were at peace. That I cannot possibly know what you were thinking, because I cannot apply my “sane” mind to where you were. She explained that once someone has gotten to the place where they are going to kill themselves, they have crossed from “sanity” to “insanity,” or rather, no longer sane. In those moments, our brains process differently. And instead of the fear and anguish another person may feel at the thought of death, you felt relief. Clearheaded. Peace. It showed through the text you sent Mom. I cling to that. Dr. Kramer has strong faith like me. The serenity prayer hangs in her office. So we talked about God and Heaven, and how God took care of you because he knew you were sick. You weren’t alone in your final moments…someone who loved you very much was there with you. Hearing that has helped more than anything else. My faith, and knowing you are in Heaven and being cared for, that you are here watching over us, are the only things that keep me going.

I did find something cool…I was going through your emails and came across one you had sent your uncle almost two years ago to the day. It was four pages of you talking about how happy you were, describing in detail your time in AIT, your first deer hunt, your new wife and little boy. You were so damn happy, so proud of what you accomplished and so in love with life. It was so funny, too, quoting Forest Gump when talking about your butt shots (“Something jumped up and bit me!” I didn’t know that was your favorite movie). It was heartbreaking and comforting to read, because this was the person I knew before the last six months. Comforting because you DID know happiness. Heartbreaking because of the difference between the person who wrote this and the person who took his life. Two years. Two. Years. But I forwarded your email to Mom, Dad and Nikea. Because this is how we want to remember you. Proud. Deeply happy. Excited about the future. I’m so tired and am going to try to sleep. I wish I could work on this earlier in the day, but it just seems my brain doesn’t work until the odd hours of the night.

Love you, Buddy. Miss you.

Letters to Chris. April 23rd. Day 15.

Hey Buddy,

I’m actually feeling as close to “content” as I possibly can right now. I’m wearing your Army PT shirt, your Breckenridge sweatshirt and your plaid pajama pants. Covered with your firefighter blanket. I’m actually pretty hot but I refuse to shed any layers. This hot laptop doesn’t help. I just went through all of my old Facebook photos and tagged you, Mom, Dad and Nikea in all of them. Pictures of you dressed up for Prom, for Winter Sports, pics of us at McDonalds for Austen’s birthday, wresting at the Rocheport Winery, feeding fish at Tan Tar A…And I didn’t cry. That’s progress. I think it’s still hard to reconcile the boy with the long hair and goofy grin as being gone. When I look at your photos, it doesn’t seem real. That young boy I knew would never do something to hurt himself.

Denial phase again?

Yesterday was a super long day. Dad and I drove to Sedalia to drop off meds for Grandpa and see the family. Sue, Hannah, Holten, Sayre, Connor, David and Stacy were all there. I couldn’t be there during Christmas (rescheduled due to an ice storm so Sedalia Christmas happened after I returned to Colorado), so it was wonderful to see everyone. Connor is adorable. He’s so tiny! I always forget how little they are when they are brand new. New mama Sayre is beautiful and exhausted. Sue is in grandma Heaven. Holten is getting so big! Hannah is doing well and decided she can’t stand her dog (we all got a big laugh out of this). David and Stacy just got back from visiting Derek, and are planning another trip out soon. Of course Grandma and Grandpa are doing well. Poor Grandma was fussing because I couldn’t eat anything since I’m allergic to gluten. That’s right, Chris. There was hole-in-the-bread and freaking Mississippi mud and it took every fiber of my being not to face plant in both. Everyone misses you. Hannah started to cry, saying she had no idea how sad you were. I assured her that it wasn’t just her-none of us did.

Then Dad and I picked up Mom and headed to Mexico to see Bethany. She still didn’t know. So Mom brought plastic Easter eggs to fill with candy and I brought pics I took of Connor to help distract her after we told her. Even though Bethany is mentally handicapped, she knows what death is. The second Mom signed “CJ died” she began to wail. It was awful. We just held her as her heart broke. Then she asked if you died from a gunshot to the head. We just looked at each other. How did she know? But we said, “No, CJ had cancer.” She’d ask again a little later, and we would just repeat the answer we gave her before. Then she left it. Thank goodness. They watch a lot of TV there, so we believe she has seen things like that on shows. Who knows. We took her out to Taco Bell for dinner, and she did okay for a while after. We filled eggs with candy, and then in the middle of handing them out to her roommates, she began to wail again. She kept signing “my brother died.” I was so angry with you. I knew you would never want to hurt any of us, especially Bethany. But here she was, sobbing for her big brother. And we couldn’t take away her pain. You know Bethany is the sweetest, most loving little person. It makes my heart ache just thinking about it. I didn’t want to leave her. I don’t see her nearly enough. I’ve decided to be better about Face Timing her and sending her cards and little gifts. You’ve taught me to not take her for granted.

This evening, I went through all of your things. This was my Goliath. I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle it. Every time I’d go downstairs I’d have to stop at all your boxes and bury my face in your clothes and break down. Yet I knew it would be too much for Mom right now, and I needed to touch all of your things. I only cried like four times. That’s good, I guess. I started with all your clothes, folding and separating. Any I found that smelled like you I set aside. I’ve been reduced to a person who seeks out her brother’s sweaty shirts. Maybe that’s gross. I’m sure you’d make fun of me. But that sweat is from a body that I washed and diapered, wrestled, hugged, probably pushed in anger a time or two when we were little. A body that no longer exists. So any time I’d find one that smelled of you, I’d stop and bury my nose in it. I separated your clothes into several containers: one for shirts, one for pants and shorts, and one for all military and firefighting clothing. You had some dirty laundry as well, mostly just underwear, socks and towels. I pointed those out to Mom when she came down to check on me, and she started crying. It’s so hard for her to be around your things right now. But she doesn’t want to part with any. She warned me tonight that she doesn’t want me to take back many things to Colorado. Not yet. I can have them, but she needs time before she can let them go. That was hard to hear. I’m going back to an apartment that holds no memories with you, whereas you’re everywhere here. And all of your belongings are downstairs. But I know she has the right to grieve over her son in the way she needs to, and if that means holding onto your things for a while, I have to respect that.

I also went through all your books, and set aside the ones that looked like they had sentimental value. A couple firefighting books (one of which had your Citizen of the Month certificate from middle school in it. I was at that ceremony…so crazy. It seems like yesterday). Your books from AIT. Yearbooks. I had to laugh at one yearbook-I’m guessing you had an arch nemesis because you had crossed out one girl’s name and wrote “ugly” in its place. I’ve decided middle schoolers are odd little people. On the inside cover, where your friends signed their names, one girl wrote how she wanted to be friends all year but didn’t think you did but oh wow you actually did want to be friends. Dad and I got big kick out of that. I also found your Harry Potter books. I am going to take those if Mom will let me. I have my own set but I’ll just replace it with yours, which obviously has way more sentimental value. These are the actual books Dad read to you. And then I found your old Legends of Sleepy Hollow I remember reading right here on this couch.

I looked through your cards you kept. I found a couple I had sent you…one for graduation, one for your 11th birthday. I called you “buddy” in both. I’m trying to remember when I started calling you that…I have no idea. I’m honestly amazed I got you cards…I’m the world’s worst card-giver. I keep every card given to me ever, but I absolutely SUCK at getting them for others. Hypocrite? Maybe. But I was excited to see you’d kept those, along with a couple drawings I did for you of Garfield the cat sleeping (no idea why I drew this??) and a dog. You had kept a ton of cards from our real mom, so I set those aside for her. I figure she’ll want them. You also had a ton of thank you notes from your old teacher, Mrs. Dahms. I believe she was second grade. Nikea had her as a teacher as well, and apparently she’s awesome because who keeps notes from their second grade teacher?

Then I went through your knickknacks, mostly your real dad’s things. Military medals, the old black and white pics from Korea I mentioned before. And then rocks. Rocks. Rocks and more rocks. Beautiful rocks, though. Ones even I can appreciate. Geods and minerals I’m sure Dad gave you. Fossils. This cool quartz ball thing. I imagined them all displayed on your bookshelf among with your dozens of books. It reminded me of when you were little, and you would collect all these things in your pockets Mom would have to pull out before she washed your clothes. Rocks, sticks…I’ll have to ask Mom what else she’d discover. But she always found that so funny. She’d put them in a baggy and mail them to Mom Heidi.

Then your jackets. My word, you had so many jackets. I have decided you were a collector of all things camo (shirts, sheets, pants, jackets), rocks and jackets. Oh and cowboy boots. You had three pairs. That’s a lot of cowboy boots!

All your military and firefighting stuff was the hardest to go through. I know how much you loved both. Ever since you were little, it was your dream to be a firefighter and soldier like your real dad. I’m so grateful you got to experience both. How many people can say they accomplished dreams they had as a child? I believe it’s really rare, Chris. We are so proud of you.

By the way, I talked to my boss and am officially back to work next Monday. They’ve been unbelievably patient. The last six months have literally been the worst of my life, what with trying to find job, living in a basement, my health issues, Clay’s torn meniscus and surgery…and now this. I feel so discouraged. I’m definitely hoping life doesn’t keep throwing curve balls, because I’m exhausted. I had really thought things were getting better. We found jobs. I found a doctor I really like that seems to have answers. We moved out of the basement to a cute apartment. Then that phone call from Mom. I’m so tired, Chris. I feel like I’ve been fighting nonstop, and I’m ready for a break. I guess another way to look at it is I can overcome anything. Nothing will come close to this. This is the worst thing that could happen. My worst fear realized..losing a loved one. A sibling. Life has to be uphill from here, right? Unless someone else I love dies. I’m so terrified that will happen now. But I know you’ll give me strength. You’re giving all of us strength. Thank you. Because I feel so weak right now.

I’ve been thinking of the things I’ve learned the past two weeks. Grief really makes you hyper aware of your life and the people in it. For one,  we have so many incredible people in our family. I’ve always loved and appreciated them, but now I have absolutely no idea how I could ever get on without them. They have been so wonderfully supportive. Which brings me to my second realization: some people you fully expect to be there for you refuse to alter their lives to accommodate you while you’re grieving. Sometimes you want to spend time with someone who just has too busy of a schedule for you. This was a hard one to realize. On a more positive note is my third realization: we are so much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Humans are incredibly resilient, even those of us who fold to depression. Like I’ve told you, you were one of the strongest people I knew. You lived so long with your heartache, longer than I could have. It’s a broken world, and sometimes we have to live through our nightmares. But if we keep fighting, we can come out the other side. That’s realization 4: we have to go through the emotions. One of my first thoughts when Mom called me was, “I don’t want to go through this. I don’t want to feel what I’m feeling.” Because grief is awful. Loss is the worst possible thing we can go through. But we have to go through it. We have to cry, to mourn. We have to feel anger, despair, depression, fear, doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, before we can heal. I will always carry this scar. A huge part of me died with you. I’ll never be the same. None of us will. But by allowing ourselves to grieve and feel all the awful emotions that come with it, we will come out the other side. I feel like I’m in this awful dark tunnel with no light anywhere right now. I know that’s how you felt, as well. But, realization number 5 is that we have no idea how many people care for us. I guarantee you didn’t. Our deaths affect far more people than we expect. I’m sure you didn’t know how may people would be missing you, sobbing for your broken heart, posting on your Facebook wall, sending cards (we’ve received dozens). When we go through all the crap that life hurls at us, we need to lean on those who love us. They are what get us through. Six: grief does weird things to your body. I’m so tired 90 percent of the time, I’m breaking out like a teenager, my skin is rough and dry, I’ve lost eyelashes (probably from crying). I want to eat all the sugar (amazingly I’ve only caved once, and that was for my favorite candies, Percy Pigs, that Courtney had left over from our London trip a year ago). It’s a bit funny. It’s like your body is saying, “Hey, you’re devastated. Have some pimples!”

F*ck you, cortisol.

Realization number 6: take depression seriously. It’s a dangerous illness that can overtake anyone. We knew you struggled and we tried to help you in every way we could, but ultimately we couldn’t save you. I knew better than anyone what you were going through, but I didn’t know you had suicidal thoughts. Like I’ve said before, maybe I should have. No…I should have. You were my brother. I knew you your entire life. I should have acknowledged the possibility. I know guilt is normal in this situation, and everyone who goes through our situation struggles with it. But lesson learned.

F*ck you, depression.

Next, do not take people for granted. Just don’t. We get so caught up in our own lives that we forget to take a few precious moments out of our day to make a call, or even send a text, to say “I love you.” It just doesn’t take any time. We get comfortable and forget that life’s a bitch, and people die when we least expect them to. I was thinking about the last time I heard your voice today. Oddly, it was when I was cutting fat off a pork shoulder. My mind never stops. But it was Christmas. You called us, and Mom put you on speaker. I was so disappointed you couldn’t come home. We chatted for at least 20 minutes. That was the last time we talked. I still can’t believe I let that long go by since we chatted…that was when life started to get super tough for us (we had recently moved into our friend’s basement), and I became somewhat of a recluse. But that’s no excuse. I should have called you. Now I’ve been telling everyone I love them. But I should have told you every day.

My biggest realization? That you still feel close. Sometimes so close I feel I can reach out and touch you. I know you’re here. I have no doubt. Earlier this evening, I laid my head on your dress uniform that you wore to my wedding (I even flung one of the arms around me like you were hugging me. Another thing about grief-it makes you do weird things like smell your brother’s BO on his tshirts and make his uniforms hug you), and your presence was so strong. Knowing you’re still here with us is so comforting. Thank you, Chris. Keep it up, because the next couple years are going to be tough. I know one day it won’t hurt to breathe, but that day is a long way down the road. So stay close, Buddy.

Well it’s 3 am so I’m going to try to get some sleep. I love you, Buddy.

Letters to Chris. April 21st. Day 13

Hey Buddy,

Today was the kind of cool and rainy Missouri day I’ve been missing so much in Colorado. It’s always so damn sunny and dry there. I put on one of your grey sweatshirts, made some tea and walked barefoot around Mom’s garden. It’s just so peaceful out there. I thought about how much time we spent playing in the yard as children, how we used to shoot baskets at the Harlows’ and sit for hours in the culdesac. It’s so quiet now. All the kids have moved out, so the only sounds were the pitter patter of the rain. I sat by Mom’s pond, seeking shelter from the wet under a dogwood tree. At least I think it’s dogwood. I tried to just concentrate on the goldfish swimming around or on the pond’s pump as it churned water. But I couldn’t turn my mind off. So instead I envisioned the conversation you and I would be having if you were sitting next to me. What advice you’d give me to get through the next 60 years without you. I had so many questions I kept asking you. For each question I would imagine the answer you’d give. “How could you leave me when I promised to never ever abandon you?” I didn’t leave you. I’m right here. I left my pain. “Didn’t you love us?” Of course I did. I still do. I love you more than anything. This had nothing to do with you. “Is there anything you want me to know?” I’m happy. “Did you have any happiness here?” I did. But I couldn’t be happy the way I needed to be. I was tired of fighting to be happy. “Aren’t you sad you are no longer here with us?” No, because I am still here. I haven’t left. I’ll never leave you. I’m sad I hurt you. “Did you think about me during your final moments?” Of course I did. “Why didn’t you call or text me?” Because I didn’t want to know what you would say. It would be too much. “What am I supposed to do now?” Live.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, staring down into my tea having this conversation. But it helped. And then I imagined walking into our house in Linn, when you, Bethany and I were little. And grabbing you and hugging you, kissing your chubby baby cheeks. And telling little Jenn that life was going to be complicated, but everything would be okay. I sat out there for at least forty minutes before I started to get too chilled. But it was exactly what I needed. Mom’s garden is an oasis, and reminds me of an English garden, like the ones we saw in Devonshire. I think this is going to be a daily ritual. I went through more of your things. I actually found a shirt that smells like you. You are so going to judge me, but it smells of your sweat. And while that’s probably so weird, it is so comforting. I found something that doesn’t smell like Febreze. I also located the Breckenridge sweatshirt that you wore in the pic you sent to Mom that I texted you about even though I knew you’d never respond. It’s so neat I’m finding all these shirts in easily accessible places-most of your clothes are still packed away so it’s a pretty cool consequence (or not) that all the shirts I was wanting to find aren’t packed away. I also found a bunch of old pics of your father. Old black and whites from the 50’s when he was serving in the Korean War. Really neat pictures. Then more recent ones when he was the fire chief. I know you were always so proud of your dad, and never really made peace with his passing. Now you’re reunited and it must feel so wonderful. Last night was probably the worst I’ve had since coming home. Ever since we’ve gotten your things, I’ve been terrified I’d find some remnant of your decision. As I was picking through a box of papers I came across what I believe to be your phone charger. Chris, it was covered in blood. I didn’t know what to do. I just stared at it and started to hyperventilate. My baby brother’s blood. Then my mind started racing…were you charging your phone that night or did the charger just happen to be by the couch? If you were charging your phone, was it out of habit or did you actually plan on using it the next day? If that’s the case then it must have been an impulsive decision to take your life. The police said there were several guns on your living room floor, so were you cleaning them and then just said, “Fuck it?” I just kept staring at it. Then I walked into the bathroom and cleaned it off because I didn’t want Mom to see it. Did you realize, Chris, that you were going to force your sister to clean up your blood? Would you have even cared at that point? I’m sorry I yelled at you when I was cleaning it. I was so fucking angry. I felt so betrayed. How could you have forced me into this position? Though, in an odd way, I felt like I was taking care of you. Cleaning up after you, like I had when we were little. It does’t make any sense. But if someone had to clean up your blood, I wanted it to be me. Yet it makes me afraid of what else we will find. I don’t know if I can handle that again. No sister should have to wipe up her brother’s blood. Tonight, we cooked burgers (I had a steak-jealous?) and we shared stories. Mom talked about how your car died one night during high school after you snuck out of the house, forcing you to call Dad to come to the rescue (just so you know, they actually found your predicament quite hilarious). Then Nikea talked about how you and Bethany would try to out-eat each other at the dinner table. You literally competed for food. God forbid one of you get one more slice of pizza than the other. Dad reminisced how you always loved building things. You’d always have all these scraps of wood, and you’d build crude forts and God knows what else. Remember how Nikea got you all that scrap wood from Scruggs lumber for Christmas? I was so jealous that I didn’t think of it first. I shared how we wrestled in the kitchen. I used to be able to hold you down and tickle you, and one evening in the kitchen I made a comment how I could still kick your ass. You were like, “Oh yeah? You wanna go??” Then it was on. You kicked my ass. But for some reason I love that memory. You were laughing so hard. You just thought it was so funny that your 5ft4 sister was trying to take you down. I also remembered the last night we all stayed together at home for Christmas. You, Clay and I slept in the living room. We had all our dogs here, and Oliver kept hopping off your mattress every 20 minutes to pace. We were so annoyed. Then, for whatever reason Mom got up around 430, after we finally got the dogs to calm down, and decided all puppies needed to go outside and potty. Clay still talks about that. I don’t think he’s ever forgiven Mom. One thing I’ve noticed though is that I’m having such a hard time thinking of memories from the last few years. I know it’s probably grief, but it’s almost like I have short term memory loss. And you KNOW that’s not like me. I remember the most insignificant details of things we would do together. I’m hoping it’s just temporary.

Do you know what’s neat? I got to thank the USPS woman that held Mom when she received your ashes. She dropped off another package while I was unloading the dishwasher (your favorite chore), and by the time Mom told me it was her I had to literally dash out of the house barefoot to catch her. I’m sure she was so confused when I ran in front of her truck and asked her to roll down her window. I grabbed her hand and thanked her for being there for Mom. She began to cry, and told me she was so happy she could help, and that she prays for our family daily. Then she said (and I need to tell Mom this) that our mother had raised amazing children and she was so lucky to have us. Normally, I would have responded with “Hell yeah she did,” or a devious “Hmmm how do you know? bwahaha) but I’ve lost most of my humor for the time being. We’ve just been blessed with so many incredible helping hands the last two weeks (two weeks…I can’t believe you’ve been gone for two weeks. It feels like the world should have stopped turning, the sun should have stopped rising. I should stop breathing. How can this world continue to exist without you?). Mr. and Mrs. Harlow came over tonight (I could probably call them by their first names now but it’s just too weird after 20 years of Mr. and Mrs). Your passing hit them hard…I mean they knew you as a little boy with big glasses. Mary enveloped us in a huge hug, huge tears in her eyes. Did you know she lost her brother years ago in a car accident? She knows the pain of losing a sibling. We stood around and chatted for a while, laughing over your childhood silliness.They had brought a plate of fresh brownies, a card and a beautiful remembrance stone for Mom’s garden. It was so good to see them. It has been years-since the Halloween reunion a few years back. 2015, I believe. I’m sure everyone thinks about what they would do in this position. One girlfriend said she tried to envision what she would do if her brother had killed himself, and she just couldn’t. And our parents’ friends…I’m sure they look at Mom and Dad and realize their worst nightmares. No one wants a loved one to pass. But when that loved one is responsible for their own passing, it just makes it so much harder to not only process, but to know what to say. What do you say to someone whose son or brother took his own life? Honestly, I don’t think there really is anything they can say. But Chris, I really appreciate how much people have tried. I know you’re grateful we have so many people out there to hold us up.

But can I tell you one of my fears? That months will pass, but I still will be hurting. Your death is not something I’m going to ever make peace with. How could I?? And I’ll be grieving still and I worry people will think I need to just get over it. Or will get tired of me talking about you. Because I’m going to need to bring you up in random conversations. I don’t want to just leave you in the past. I want you with me, here. Today. Tomorrow. And every day for the rest of my time here on earth. My beautiful baby brother, who will always be 25. As I age, I will try to envision what you’d look like as an older man, with wrinkles and graying hair. You would be so handsome. There’s this quote that I love, that goes “Do not regret growing older, a privilege denied to so many.” While I can’t imagine growing older without you aging with me, I will try to not obsess over wrinkles and graying hair. To be honest, I’m not grateful for life right now. I know I scared Clay last night, because I kept texting how exhausted I am and how I want to be with you. I would never hurt myself, but sometimes I find the thought of seeing you again comforting. I just miss you so damn much. And tonight I just kept envisioning you walking through the front door. I thought maybe if I concentrated hard enough, I could make it happen. I thought about it just being a normal night, you coming to hang out while we cooked dinner. Then I thought about how we would react now, if we saw you walk through the door. You’d be so confused because you lost your phone, so would have no idea why we were sobbing and hugging you. I’d give anything, ANYTHING for that to happen. A leg? Fine! Arm? Take it!! But it was just some big mistake. That wasn’t you. It was a mix up. Those ashes aren’t yours. You’ve just been out on a fishing trip and decided to come home to visit. We hold you close and hug you and hug you and kiss you and you’re super freaked out and a little annoyed. Then Dad and Nikea wake up and we are all hugging you and crying. Id give anything.

I guess now I’m in the bargaining phase of grief…What a horrible phase. Pleading doesn’t do any good. No amount of prayer will bring you back. And I’m not sure if imagining all that helps or just makes it worse. I think it’s worse. Because I know it will never happen. So maybe I can imagine when we are reunited in Heaven 60 years in the future. I walk through the front door and you’re sitting there with Tim, Toby and Buzz, waiting for me.

That helps.

Love you, Buddy.

Letters to Chris. April 19th. Day 11.

Hey Buddy,

Dad got home this evening with all your stuff. It’s hard to explain the emotions as I walked down the driveway to the trailer. Fear. Anxiety. Heartache. But also I was so ready to see your things. Things you held. Things you hung up on your walls and wore and slept with. Things that were YOURS. I quickly found your cowboy hat we bought you in South Dakota that you are wearing in one of my favorite childhood photos. The one of you in the cul de sac pretending to be a cowboy, getting ready to draw your fake gun. That’s coming with me.

I never thought I’d find myself looking for a dirty shirt of yours to wear. Ever. But that’s exactly what I did tonight. I just need a shirt that smells like you. What’s weird is everything smells like Febreze. I learned how you had quite the love affair with it (Katrina told me story of how you ran to Walmart for some groceries, and came out with a steak, two packages of Oreos, regular for you and double-stuffed for her, and Febreze. That’s probably the most Chris thing I’ve ever heard. PS…who doesn’t like Double-stuffed Oreos??). I found a few shirts to cuddle with out of your hamper: a camouflage henley, a flannel American Eagle shirt I gave you for Christmas one year (I was so damn happy to see you were still wearing it. Did you think of me whenever you put it on?), your Army PT shirt and a random green tshirt that was on top. I put on the green one for bed and didn’t pay attention to what was on the front until I looked into the bathroom mirror. Big letters across the front say “IRELAND 01.” I’ve been telling Clay since April 9th I thought you would like some ashes released in Ireland, where you always wanted to go since your father was Irish. But I wasn’t 100% sure, so yesterday I asked you to let me know. I believe this is your answer. So I’m taking you to Ireland with me, Little Bro. Mom saw the shirt and she smiled-she had given it to you on your birthday when you were home last month. And apparently you’re wearing it in a pic a friend of yours posted on Facebook. You have a ton of clothes. I think it’s pretty neat that I was able to find the one I gave you and this Ireland one. Even if they do all smell like Febreze and not you.

I’m also cuddling with your firefighter blanket right now. It’s absolutely massive and, from what I hear, one of your favorites. I’ll be sleeping with it, your shirts, your ACU cap that still has your name velcroed on it (so grateful the National Guard allowed us to keep your caps), your stuffed toy puppy you’ve had since childhood and your Coca Cola jacket you wore for work. There’s so much more down there. Dad was able to bring home most of your stuff (just some furniture that couldn’t fit was donated to a local church). I wanted to bring up entire boxes of things to surround myself with in bed. But I know Mom would have a really hard time with that. Before Dad got home, we had the following conversation:

Mom: “Hey, Jenn. I know when your dad gets home, you’re going to want to go through all of Chris’ stuff and take things. But I need you to know that I’m going to need organization. I just will. I can’t just go through his things and not have any order.”

Me: “But I’m going to want to keep some things.”

Mom: “I know. And you will. But I’m just telling you because I know it’s going to be hard for you not to tear through stuff. There are things I need to do. I want to wash his clothes for him. You kids always washed your own clothes, but I never minded doing it. It’s always been a way for me to take care of you all. I want to be able to wash your brother’s clothes. It’ll make me feel like I’m taking care of him.”

And then she started sobbing again, and Nikea and I wrapped our arms around her. She just seems so tiny now. I’m trying to make sure she’s eating. Mom’s always been good about taking care of herself. But she has lost weight, and I worry about her. I know the toll this is all taking on me, and I’m younger. She’s lost so many people, been through so much in her life. She’s a survivor. I know this, but i also know how awful grief and cortisol is on the body. I just need her and Dad to be okay. And obviously Nikea. But Nikea’s always been so tough, has always been more stoic than me. She’s so strong, and doesn’t cry in front of people often; she just has more control. She’s always mostly been a mad crier (the only times she’d cry when we were little is when we’d piss her off). But I’ve seen it a few times since I’ve been home, once because of something I wrote in here about you not being at her wedding. She walked into the dining room where I was sitting and said how she hadn’t even thought about her wedding next year. She’s been so focused on how to get through each day it hadn’t dawned on her that you wouldn’t be there. That realization hit her hard.

And Dad. He’s the most stoic of us all. But I could tell the last four days have especially worn him down. No father should have to pack up his son’s apartment for this reason. As I was poking through your things (don’t tell Mom), he came down to make his rum and diet. “I told your mother I don’t normally drink this late. But tonight felt like a good night to make an exception.” I was grateful to have the company. I missed his strong quiet presence. We talked about you, obviously. About his trip, and all the incredible people who offered to lend helping hands. Your landlord cleaned up your apartment, boxed most of your stuff up and had it all stacked neatly waiting for Dad. Dad said this saved him an entire day’s worth of work. Your landlord also cleaned so Dad wouldn’t have to see reminders of Saturday night. I’m not sure what all he did, but I do know he removed your couch like I said before. That thought still makes me sick (honestly, I’m so surprised I haven’t been physically ill; I’ve been nauseous and dizzy so many times). Then your old supervisor’s wife came to help Dad load up the truck. Did you know your old Coca Cola buddies had a get-together for you? Of course Dad came, and they all shared stories about you. Mom and I called in and Dad put us on speakerphone, and I tried to thank them for everything. I couldn’t get the words out. I hate how I can’t control it. I’ll have to ask Dad what they talked about.

In your stuff, we also found your Harry Potter poster. The Half-Blood Prince. I remember it hanging it your room when you lived at home. Hey remember when Dad would read you Harry Potter before bedtime? You actually discovered Harry Potter before me. I watched it at Mom’s house in Nebraska one night…taking a chance on a movie I’d never seen before in 2002. I instantly fell in love and told you about it. That’s when you informed me there were four books out, and you were reading them. I was so excited. I remember reading to you on the bottom bunk of your bed one night, and trying to do the English accents. I remember like it was yesterday. It was fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, and it was the part with the boggart and Mrs. Weasley. Remember, when Harry walked in on her trying to get rid of it and it kept transforming into her family’s dead bodies because she was so terrified of losing her loved ones? That’s fucking ironic. But regardless, I love that memory. My attempts at the English accents were I’m sure awful. You didn’t say anything until I asked, but you admitted you preferred I read without them. I was so disappointed. And hey, do you remember when you told me Sirius Black died before I finished Order of the Phoenix? I was so so mad at you.

The one thing I can’t stand is your gun being here. THE gun. The police released everything to Dad…your phone, your wallet, the glock…everything sealed neatly in evidence bags. Dad said he didn’t want to make any hasty decisions so took everything they gave him. I wonder if the clothes you were wearing are here, too. I doubt they would have given Dad those, actually. For obvious reasons. (I got so scared while unloading your couch pillows. I was praying I wouldn’t see anything on them…but then I saw a big sticky stain. I looked closer-I just had to. But I think it was food. Thank Jesus). But the gun. I hate it. I fucking hate it. That gun killed my baby brother. It took you away from us forever. Dad said that it wasn’t the glock that did it. It was you. And while know he’s right, I still hate it. Maybe if you didn’t have guns you would have tried another way. But then maybe they would have gotten to you in time. Or maybe you would have suffered. I guess it doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. You’re gone.

I talked to our real mom today (I always hate saying that-we have two real moms, but you know what I mean). She had left a message while I was sleeping, and she sounded so damn sad it scared me. I mean, I know she’s going to be sad. But now I’m so afraid for anyone who is battling depression, whether chronic or situational. She said she has been reading up on Reactive Attachment Disorder because of my first post, and I could just tell she was blaming herself. I called her back, and Mom and Nikea came into the room and we all talked on speakerphone. It was so good to speak with her. She was reminiscing about how you were such a sweet and sensitive little boy. I remember. And I know she, like me, wants nothing more than to go back, hold that little boy close and tell him everything will be okay. Back when you were CJ, wore your humongous glasses and loved to be read to every night. She has the biggest heart, and loves us all so much. I know you loved her, too. Guilt is a horrible thing, and you can beg someone to forgive themselves until you’re blue in the face, but ultimately it’s up to them. I just hope and pray she can realize that she, like you, is so worthy of love. That has always been our biggest struggle…yours, hers and mine. I also talked to Grandpa Ward and briefly to Jeanie. Grandpa was your biggest cheerleader. It was wonderful to hear his voice. I haven’t talked with him in so long. It’s crazy how time gets away from you, and before you realize it two years have passed since you spoke with someone. I promised him that would never happen again. If I’ve learned anything from you, it’s to value every second my loved ones spend on this earth. How easy is it for us to take each other’s presence for granted.  I am determined to make sure I have no more regrets when it comes to the people I love. I can’t go through this again.

On Saturday, Mom and Dad are driving up to Mexico to tell Bethany what happened. Even though she’s mentally handicapped, she understands the concept of death. Mom is scared she may hurt herself if she knows the whole story, so said she may just say you had cancer. I mean, you basically did. Mental illness eats away at you just like cancer, slowly killing you. So yeah. It works. I’m trying to decide if I can go with them, or if I should go to Sedalia and visit Grandma, Grandpa, Sue, Sayre and Sayre’s new baby. I haven’t seen Bethany since Christmas, but it’s going to be awful telling her our brother died. I don’t know what to do. I dread how she’s going to obsess over what happened. It’s been years, and she still brings up our dog, Toby, dying. I just know she’s going to keep signing “CJ died. CJ died. CJ died.” And I’ll tell her to stop, but she won’t. She just won’t understand that we won’t want to constantly talk about how you’re gone. I’ll just have to be patient, and understand she doesn’t want to hurt anyone by bringing it up nonstop. I just have such a low frustration tolerance right now.

I’m still angry with you. I don’t know when that’s going to go away. I know it’s a stage of grief, and I’m assuming it’s more pronounced in this kind of situation. I’ve been reading how suicide survivors experience an extreme number of difficult emotions trying to make sense of their loved one’s actions. The book I’m reading now is helping shed light on it. But there’s not a lot out there on this. It’s a difficult subject to talk about. Who wants to discuss suicide? But it HAS to be talked about. People always talk about breast cancer. They have fundraisers for it. What about what killed you and thousands upon thousands of others every year? Why doesn’t society talk more about that? What happens to the families after. What they feel. The devastation. The confusion and anger. The guilt. It’s eating me up inside. The unrelenting brutal heartache of knowing you were sitting at home thinking about things that tore you apart. The constant questioning. I keep telling myself you weren’t miserable all the time. You had moments of happiness. But it wasn’t enough.

Do you know what’s really cool, though? We’ve had several of your friends reach out. I just want to hug all of them. They loved you and miss you, and I don’t know if they realize how much they help with their sweet words about you. Man, you were loved. Did you know? But now I’m asking myself if you really loved ME. You didn’t talk to me about so many things. You would say you were struggling, but wouldn’t give me specifics. In every text that I said “I love you,” you didn’t repeat it. I just can’t stop wondering now. Did you love me? Did you?? I know I had forgotten your birthday…I was so focused on trying to solve what was going on with my health, all the while trying to find jobs and move out of our friends’ basement, that I literally have been battling my own fears and major depression this past year. I don’t forget birthdays. And yours AND Dad’s slipped my mind. That’s never happened before. But now I can’t forgive myself. I just can’t. I know that’s not why you did it. But I still hate myself for it. I’m so sorry, Chris. I just need to know that you love me and forgive me. Please.

Love you, Buddy. Now and always. I’m so sorry.

Letters to Chris. April 18th. Day 10.

Hey Buddy,

We survived another day without you. I’m sitting in bed in your old bedroom. Nikea is sleeping to my left. I’m so glad she’s home. We used to share our beds all the time when we were little-Mom and Dad would hear us giggling and always send the steal-away back to her own room. But now it’s out of necessity. You know we have another extra bed in Nikea’s old room. But sleeping next to each other is so comforting. Nikea has to go back to work Thursday so is leaving tomorrow. I’m dreading sleeping alone.

Your ashes are sitting on the dresser. You were with us in the living room yesterday, but as I left for bed, the thought of you sitting alone was too much. I broke down sobbing, picked up your box and brought you into the bedroom. So here you are. It’s so weird. It destroys me to see your ashes. We had to take the lid off to put your ID inside to keep it safe, just in case we need it for something. Knowing your ashes are in there and actually seeing them are two different things. Seeing them, knowing they are the body of my beautiful baby brother…I can’t put into words what it does to me. It makes me want to die. But I can’t leave them in a room alone at night. It’s not you. You aren’t in that box. You’re free. But still. I cling to it because it’s all I have.

Nikea and I went to Sedalia to visit Grandma and Grandpa today. The house was so quiet-as you know we are normally there as an entire family. Which means the grandchildren running amok. Sue’s laughter. David telling hilarious stories. Dad outside smoking cigars. You wresting with Austen or Grayson. And of course, Nikea and me complaining of stomach aches from eating too much hole-in-the-bread and Mississippi mud (omg I would eat an entire hole-in-the-bread and Mississippi mud right now). It was so quiet. We went out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant down the street, where we asked Grandpa and Grandma to tell us the story of how they met (at a bar when they were 17. And yes, it was pretty much love at first sight). Of course, they are trying to make sense of what happened. We all are. Their heart breaks for you. For Mom and Dad. For us.

I hurt so much for Mom. She broke down in the laundry room yesterday. It took Nikea and me a second to realize what was happening, then we rushed to her and held her as she sobbed. I’ve seen Mom cry a few times, but obviously never like this. None of us have ever cried like we have been the last 10 days. But it breaks my heart all over to see Mom. Tonight was worse. We thought it would be a good idea to put on a comedy, and decided on “Whiskey Foxtrot Tango,” with Tina Fey. About 20 minutes in, while Tina was doing her first interview with the soldiers, we thought Mom was laughing but quickly realized she was sobbing. As with all of us, it just comes on so fast and without warning. She has so much guilt, Chris. She feels she was too hard on you, too much tough love, and kept saying she wish she had known how desperate you were. She said she wished she’d told you how she and Dad were going to pay your taxes, how she would have done so many things different had she only known. She wishes you had joined the military full time rather than just the Reserve, since the structure would have been good for you. She kept saying how she tried so hard, and now it is too late. Too late to do anything with the knowledge we have now. Too late to save you. Too late. I told her it wasn’t the finances. It wasn’t the divorce. It wasn’t any one thing. You were just sad. It was your brain chemistry. As I’ve said a million times, I know what it was because I’ve dealt with it, too. And I’ve always hated it until now, because now I can explain to Mom what you lived with. You kept telling me you were so tired of your stress, of your depression. So many things were going so well for you. This kind of depression doesn’t care how well things are going. It doesn’t care that you have a beautiful son, a well-paying job you love, family and friends that love you, a beautiful girl who adores you, or the Reserves which you loved. It just doesn’t matter. In a way she knows that. She’s a psychologist. But she can’t see it. Not with her son. It’s too personal.

Earlier today I had yelled at her. She was talking about things you struggled with, and I snapped, crying out that you had so many good qualities and you weren’t just your struggles. Mom had to walk away, and when she calmed down she explained that because of her guilt, she’s trying to make herself realize there was nothing she could have done. When she talks about how she and Dad tried to talk to you about things, to offer help and you “just didn’t get it,” she’s not trying to put you down. She’s trying to remind herself she had no power over you. No amount of begging could have forced your hand. You were fine, you said. But once I understood that, my heart shattered for her. As a sister, I have so much guilt. Why didn’t I reach out more? Why didn’t I tell you every day that I loved you more than life itself, that I needed you here on Earth with us, that I couldn’t imagine my life without you or your voice or ill-timed jokes? That I felt so connected to you since we both shared the same heartache? That I felt like a parent as well as a sibling since I helped care for you as a baby? Why didn’t I just request off work when you came home for your birthday even though I had to take a day off for Clay’s surgery the following week? I should have just requested off. Oh my God, why didn’t I request off? You were here. Laying in this exact bed. And I didn’t come home. I could have hugged you one last time. Eaten dinner at the table as a family one last time. Told you I loved you one last time. And I fucked that up. I have so many regrets, Chris, as a sister. So I can’t even begin to imagine what our parents feel. Maybe this is why Dad needed to go up to Minnesota to take care of all your things alone. (By the way, he gets back tomorrow. And I’m dreading going through your things. I don’t want to face the emotions that will come up. Well, not come up. They are already here. Just get worse. It’s like I have a huge, gaping and bloody wound that keeps getting hacked at. I want to bury myself in all your things, but sorting them will make it so real. Because there’s no other reason we would go through your belongings unless you were gone. I just know I’m not going to want to throw anything out. Not even trash. Because it was something you held. I’m dreading it. I don’t know if I’m strong enough).

Chris, I told you I had the same struggles as you. I told you Clay and I were having the worst year of our lives since his business went under, how we were moving into our friend’s basement because despite having a CFA and MBA it was almost impossible to get a job in Denver. I told you. Why didn’t you tell me how dark it was for you? I know you knew you could talk to me. Every text from you the last six months was about your depression. Couldn’t you have told me you were contemplating suicide? Should I have equated depression to wanting to die?? You told me you felt better when you hurt yourself after you punched a wall. I told you that was fucking dumb and to stop. You knew I had gone through the same thing. Maybe I should have seen this as a bigger warning side. But I don’t know what else I could have done. I told you I loved you and that you were strong and I knew you could overcome anything. I asked you to go see someone. Anyone. A therapist. AA. Any kind of support group. I begged you to take care of yourself, to focus on yourself and work on getting healthy like I did. I asked you to try switching up your meds since yours weren’t helping. You said no. Didn’t you want to get better? Did you think you didn’t deserve to feel better? I just can’t fucking understand. I went through all the same stuff, and I got better. Why didn’t you want to get better??

There is some laughter, though. We’ve always been a family that laughs all the time.  But lately it’s obviously been few and far between. It’s so weird how you go from sobbing to laughing to sobbing to laughing. After Mom calmed down in the laundry room, I pulled out your sixth grade art project that has a place of pride in your old room. It’s a self portrait, but mostly resembles an old man. Nikea and I used to laugh over it years ago. I’m so glad Mom had pulled it out to show you when you came home last month. Then Nikea and I were laughing at Ginger today-she thought Nikea’s leg freckles were food and kept trying to lick them off. It feels so good when we can laugh. Not good, but better. It’s not crying.

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I should go to sleep. I’ve been falling asleep at 4:00 ,5:00 in the morning. I need to try to make it by 2:00 tonight. Love you. Miss you. So much.

 

Letters to Chris. April 16th. Day 8.

Hey Buddy,

I made it to Jeff City yesterday. It feels so good to be home. Yet it hurts like hell to be home. You’re everywhere. Nikea and I slept in your old room. Used your old bathroom. I’m sitting in your chair at the table right now. Your pictures surround me. I can see exactly where you sat the last time you were home and sent me a pic of Carter playing with his toys. Everywhere I look holds a memory. I ache. I feel numb. I feel empty. I feel lost. I feel hopeless.

I felt semi-normal yesterday. The morning was rough (lets just say airports are the worst place to be when you’re constantly on the verge of tears), but the second I saw my friend Courtney during my brief stop in Kansas City, I felt better. She took me out to lunch. We talked about you and I cried, but then I was able to laugh. And I actually laughed a lot for a few short hours. We ran errands together in Leawood before she dropped me off at Union Station to take the train to Jeff City. It was easy to pretend it was a normal day, that you were still here and I had never moved away. That the last week had just been a terrible dream. I can’t tell you how good it was to feel normal, even though I knew it wouldn’t last. It is so wonderful to be back in Missouri, and at the moment I cannot imagine going back to Denver, away from everyone, to the apartment where I found out you died.

Dad left for Minnesota this morning. He met up with Katrina and together they called Mom, Nikea and me. It was so great to talk to her, and she was so happy to meet Dad. Mom has talked to her several times since Saturday, and I reached out to her last night and we texted back and forth for hours. We adore her, Chris. She loves you so much, and we are so grateful she was there for you. Someone to love you the way you deserved. To make you laugh, even though your heart was broken. To go see movies with you (she told us how you went to see “Logan”) and buy you birthday gifts. To go hiking with you, cook for you, make plans with you. Katrina’s struggling so much. I mean, she didn’t even know what happened to you until Mom called her Sunday afternoon. The cops couldn’t tell her anything. So she waited. And waited. Until the police department told Mom how she had called saying you had sent her that goodbye text while she was driving to you, and how they advised her to not go to your apartment. I hate to know she hurts, but everything I’ve learned proves grief takes residence where love lived. She grieves because she loves you. We grieve because we love you. Love you. Present tense. We loved you before you were born. We loved you all of your life. And we will love you all of ours.

You’re sitting here to my left. Not you. Your ashes. All that is left of my baby brother’s body. I never understood ashes. The desire to have them close was just weird to me. “It’s not them,” I’d say. “We aren’t our bodies.” I just never got the need to keep them. But now I can’t let you out of my sight. I keep hugging the box, squeezing it close to me. I can’t hold you, so it’s all I have. Mom said we should get an artillery box to keep your ashes in. You wouldn’t have wanted an urn, but we think you would like an artillery box. You arrived home before I did. As we talked with Dad and Katrina on speakerphone, I asked if he was picking up your ashes. I know he’s going to your apartment to get your things tomorrow morning, and meet up with your old coworkers in the afternoon, but I wasn’t sure if he was going grab you, as well, or if they were still mailing you since the Funeral Home was not in Alexandria. Mom looked up at me, and told me you were already here. I broke down, Chris. Mom walked over and we held each other while Nikea took the phone into another room as my body racked with sobs. Mom hadn’t told me you are here because she knew it would hurt. She didn’t think I’d want to know, that I wasn’t ready to see it. But I needed to see you, to hold you. It’s odd how comforting I find your ashes. Seeing your name on the box destroys me, along with your drivers license they sent. It makes me nauseous to think of you in this box. You’re not supposed to fit into a little box. You’re taller than me. But I can’t let it go. I can’t stop holding you. Poor Mom. When it was delivered, she had no idea what it was. The name of the cremation place is “Forest Lawn,” so she thought Dad had bought something heavy for the garden. Then she saw “cremains” and for a split second thought they were someone’s pet’s remains delivered to the wrong address. Then it hit her, and she shattered. Dad wasn’t here, so the UPS woman hugged Mom as she sobbed. She just didn’t realize your ashes were going to be here so soon. I don’t obviously know the UPS woman, but I’m so grateful for her, that she was there to hold Mom when Dad couldn’t. But now you’re here, sitting by me again. It’s not your tall, lanky, warm frame that I can wrap my arms around, but it’s all we have. We were going to spread your ashes, but I can’t bear the thought of not having you here. You’re home. I need you to stay home. This is where you belong. With us.

I read through all the texts you sent to Mom. It was hard reading your last one. Surreal. Mom’s response was just as heartbreaking, begging you to call her back, that everything will get better. She promised. I can’t imagine her panic. But by that time you were already gone. I forwarded the pictures you sent her to my phone. One is my wallpaper. It’s a selfie you took with Carter on your couch. You look so happy. You were obviously laughing. It looks like you were wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Breckendrige.” So I texted you last night to ask if you got it from Colorado. I know you’ll never respond. I’m not sure why I did it. I just need to be able to text you. And I kept looking at the couch you were sitting on. It was the couch you took your life on. The couch they found you laying on. Mom said the landlord removed it so Dad wouldn’t have to see it, and that thought ripped my insides into shreds. Why did they need to remove it? I know why, but I can’t live with that thought…the thought of you hurt. After all, it was me that kissed your boo boos when you were a baby. In your other texts, you were cracking jokes. When Mom had asked how Carter was a couple weeks back, you responded, “Oh just peachy. Someone found the Oreos.” Peachy? I had never heard you use that word. It almost made me laugh.

I even went through your Facebook. So, so many people have posted on your wall. Heartache. Disbelief. It makes us so happy to know how loved you were by people we didn’t even know. Did you realize how many people loved you, Chris?? Would it have even mattered? The thing that messes with me the most is your status you posted right before you sent the goodbye text to Mom. A funny observation about Ford’s logo:

April 8 at 6:18pm  “Anybody ever notice that the “f” has an “e”… periodical table of elements “Fe” is iron…. clever ford.. built tough. And yes I’m bored!!!“

What the hell happened in the span of a few minutes? How could you be posting a lighthearted Facebook status one minute, and kill yourself the next? I just can’t understand. I keep staring at that photo you posted with the status. Of your hand, holding the logo. That huge hand of yours. Your long, skinny legs. I don’t fucking get it, Chris. And I know I never will. I will always wonder why. The frustration, the anger, the agony make me need to scream. I sat here and screamed, just because I didn’t know what else to do. Like all suicide survivors do when we are left to pick up the pieces when you leave. You know that’s what we are called, right? Suicide survivors. You’d think that would be the name of someone who attempted suicide and failed. But no. That’s us who you left behind. We are forever a part of that category now. You chose to end your pain, and left us with even worse. A box of ashes. Endless questions and regrets. All of your things we have to go through. The memory of that night. The thoughts of your final moments. Chris, did you even begin to realize how much this would hurt us??

Obviously I lied the other day, when I said I wasn’t angry with you. I didn’t think I was. But I am. You left us. You abandoned me, when I promised I would never abandon you. Your big sister. Who held you when you were a baby. Who changed your diapers, wiped away your tears, held you when you cried. Who always believed in you, rooted for you, protected you when you were too little to care for yourself and tried to protect you when you grew up. You left us all. We understand why. I myself understand the darkness, the fear, the heartache. But I’m still angry. You’re supposed to stay with your sisters. With your Mom and Dad. To love us until the end of our lives. To be at Nikea’s wedding next year. To watch Carter grow up. To share our joy when we have children, to laugh at Dad’s awful jokes, to be here when we cry. To tease Mom when she picks a bad movie for us to watch just because she likes the actors in it. To open Christmas gifts one by one, taking hours. Celebrating birthdays. Visiting me in Colorado like you promised so we could teach you to snowboard. You left us with this huge hole in our hearts that we can’t even begin to heal. Now our lives will forever be divided into “before” and “after.” Who are we going to be after? How will this define us? Will we find a new normal? Will I wake up one day and not feel like I want to die, too? You forced us into this. When you decided you couldn’t live with pain anymore, you didn’t think about the pain you’d give us. And Chris, this pain is too much. I don’t know to survive. But I have to for Mom. And Nikea. And Dad. And Bethany. And Clay. And Katrina. So I don’t have a choice but to keep breathing. We have to stay together so we can help each other pick up the pieces. But did you know that siblings of suicide victims are up to 400 times more likely to commit suicide, as well? Did you know that? Of course Nikea and I won’t do that. But that just shows the intensity of the pain you leave us with.

But somehow I still am breathing. I didn’t think I could get through Saturday night, but I somehow woke up Sunday morning. I didn’t think I could ever look at pictures of you. But now I can, even if it hurts. I didn’t think I could look at your Facebook. But I did. I didn’t think I could see your ashes. But they are tucked here by my side. I didn’t think I could read your obituary. But I did. I didn’t think I would still be breathing a week later, but I still am. It hurts. It hurts. I’m still here. But it hurts. I’ve never had to fight so hard.

But…I see glimpses of you everywhere. That day when you told me to look after Mom. The songs on the radio when Clay randomly switched off NPR (which we literally never do) about holding on when times were tough. Seriously, two songs in a row about holding on. My British Uber drivers…I’ve never had an Uber driver from the UK, and since you’ve passed I’ve had two. You knew how much I love the UK. I think this was your looking out when you knew I didn’t want to be stuck in the car with a stranger.  Talking about my favorite country to these two helped brighten my day for just a few minutes. Some people may think it’s silly that I think that you arranged that. But I don’t care. Then last night, while browsing Reddit, I just randomly decided to look at someone’s post history, and a tattoo saying “You will join me in paradise,” popped up. So I hear you, Little Brother. Thank you, thank you, for all the little signs you give me that you’re okay. More than okay. And that you’re still here with us. I don’t know how to get through. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same. But I do know you are with me. And that keeps me breathing.

Love you, Buddy.