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.

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