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.

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