Letters to Chris. June 27th. Day 80.

Chris and Battle Buddy Martin.

Hey Buddy,

Well, I’m home. Thank goodness. It feels so unbelievably good to be home. I know you understand. I’m sitting on our couch, relaxing after helping Mom with a few things around the house. I’d like to sit outside, but the unseasonable coolness of the weekend has worn off, and the typical humidity has set back in. I did take Sandy and Ginger on a short run earlier. I say short, because you know how little Ginger’s legs are. She didn’t last very long. Not like when I ran with your pup, Oliver. I couldn’t keep up with his lanky legs. I miss that puppy.

As you know, we had your Celebration of Life Friday. It seemed like it was forever away last time I was here, so it’s crazy that to think it’s over. Somehow we all survived. Like I had told you, I was dreading it. Yet also looking forward to it. It’s hard to explain. I guess I was dreading the all emotions it would bring up. Emotions that are already there, but sometimes I can keep them a little more at bay. Emphasis on sometimes. Also dreading because as much as I don’t want to, I have to accept that you’re gone. Having a Celebration of Life for someone shoves the reality that they are no longer there right in your face. Friday felt like an impossibility.  I didn’t know how to make it through. I had to keep reminding myself that I’ve survived thus far. What was one more thing? But…surprisingly it was a good weekend, filled with both heartache and healing, tears and laughter. Not healing in the way of you…that’s going to take a lot longer than 2.5 months. But healing in some relationships that have been strained for years. Differences and old hurts set aside and forgiven. Reconciliation, I guess you could say. And you helped do that…That’s pretty cool, Bud. So here’s to surviving another…what would I call it? Milestone? Roadblock? I don’t know. But here’s to surviving another difficult day. And now there’s nothing else to fear until the holidays come. Well, except for Tan Tar A in August. You should be there for that.

We’ll set a place for you at our table in Wind Rose.

Clay and I got in super late Thursday night/Friday morning. It was a long drive, to put it lightly. Twelve hours. (Apparently it took him less than 10 on the way back because  someone wasn’t there constantly having to pee). Our birth mom, Heidi, and Gretchen were already in…I could hear them chatting in your old room as Clay and I set down all our stuff in the guest room. So of course I had to go in and say hi.  Mom grabbed me in a huge bear hug and we tumbled to the bed. Then Gretchen came and pounced, and all three of us hugged each other in the ginormous king bed, laughing, just happy to be together again. It’s weird. We were so happy to be reunited, even though we were all together because you’re gone. So that realization was, of course, there. But we still found so much comfort in one another. We decided to have a slumber party in that bed, staying up until at least four am laughing over anything and everything. You know how much Gretchen laughs. Clay had to beg us to be quiet so he could get some sleep in the next room, because, and I quote, we were “yelling.” Poor dude. You remember how sound travels in our house. I’ll never forget how I could hear you grinding your teeth through those walls. Yeah. So I’m sure you can imagine the nonstop giggling of three slap-happy women.

We ended up having like 25-30 people come the next day. Everyone started showing up around 1230, and before long our entire patio was full. I had met everyone at your wedding, but it has been a few years. I recognized most faces. I was just so grateful they all came. And I know it meant the world to Mom and Dad. Luckily, the weather was absolutely perfect. How often can you say that in mid-Missouri in the middle of June?? It was sunny but cool, so we were all able to sit outside and enjoy Mom’s beautiful garden. Mom had bought American flag disposable plates and napkins, which just seemed so perfect for celebrating our patriotic little brother. You would have loved it-we had so much food: brownies, cookies, cookies and more cookies (this is when I’m grateful to have a gluten intolerance, or else I would have stress eaten the f*ck out of all those baked goods), TONS of BBQ from Lutz’s as well as their house-made chips, fruit, tortillas and homemade salsa. I can’t put into words how weird it was that you weren’t there. I mean, you were never one to pass up on family get-togethers. Like Dad said tonight, you absolutely loved them. It felt like you should have been underfoot in the kitchen like you always were, eating all the sweets. Prompting Mom to yell, “Go outside! Get out of my kitchen! Go!”

Hey, you know how they set boots out to commemorate a fallen soldier? Mom had placed, as a joke, your combat boots outside on the patio table on either side of your artillery box that contains your ashes. Apparently when the Guard came to pick up your stuff, they grabbed the rights of both pairs of your boots, thinking they were one pair. So now we have two left feet. We’re just grateful to have anything military of yours, even if it is a pair of mismatched boots. But Mom got a kick out of it, and had to share the story with everyone. I had noticed the missing boots when organizing your things, but failed to realize why. Mystery solved!

Speaking of military, weren’t you proud of me for putting all your medals on your uniform? I just knew you’d want your blues on display, so I grabbed them and hung them up on the hall-tree so everyone could see. Since Dad had them dry cleaned, your medals were safely tucked in your pockets. Thanks to a picture of you and Martin I have on my phone, I was able to put all your medals back in their rightful place. I could just hear you teasing me about putting them on just perfectly. I felt so honored to be able to do that. It made me feel so close to you, like I was doing something for you. I love that uniform. It’s the one you wore to my wedding, the one you’re wearing in the picture on my phone’s lock screen. You looked so handsome in it. I’m so honored to have it. Clay and I are going to contact a museum to find the best way to display it but keep it safe. Maybe tinted glass? I want it hanging on the wall in our living room so everyone can see it. And more importantly, so I can always see it. So we will figure out how to preserve it.

The best part of the weekend? We got to spend time with Carter. Heidi and Gretchen had never met him, so you can imagine how excited they were. Oh my goodness he has gotten so big. I was so worried about how I’d feel when I saw him, since you’ve always been around when he was (you can tell I’m terrified of my emotions. But they come so swift and fast, I never quite know what to expect). But I did fine. Carter cut any tension I may have felt by swiftly making a beeline for Mom’s little pond the second he was loose. You know how much he loves water and fish. (Later on, he ended up tying rope to a toy and “fishing” with it. He’d pull it up out of the water and we’d applaud the huge fish he’d catch. He truly is your son). And he’s talking so much now! Just a nonstop little chatterbox, like his daddy (don’t deny it. You would talk and talk and talk. Not that it’s bad. You know well that I do the same thing). His shirt smelled like all your things did when we got them from Minnesota. It must have been a detergent you used. We just thought it was a ton of Febreze, because our entire garage smelled like it. Your couch pillows still do (I buried my face in them last night. They were still in the tote, so I basically laid in it). I just wanted to hold Carter close and breathe him in deeply, but of course he had other ideas. I mean, the kid doesn’t stop moving. Heidi obviously fell in love. She kept saying how he is a part of you, that his smile is yours. It totally is. It reminds me of my favorite picture of you. You were three. I’m guessing it’s a preschool photo. But you were the most beautiful little boy. I obviously have a million photos of you, and they all hurt to look at. But this particular one makes me ache. It claws at my insides and leaves me gasping. That may sound dramatic, but I don’t know how else to put it. Because all I want to do is hold that little boy close. I want to hold him and kiss him and never ever put him down. I want nothing more than to protect him. Mom says that now that little boy is Carter. I know she’s right. And I love my nephew. I’m so grateful we were able to spend time with him. He’s a living part of you. I just wish I could have protected that little boy in the picture.

Becky brought some more things of yours. A military jacket. Your high school graduation robe (how did you still have that??). Your Holts Summit Fire Department bag. More pictures, including your official military photos. They were so hard to look at, but they also made me laugh. You look so serious! Keri was here, and commented, “I mean, yeah! You’re supposed to look super serious!” I get it…You look so handsome, but definitely like you’re about to kick someone’s ass. It felt good to be able to laugh at a photo of you. Just because, obviously, that’s not our normal reaction. I wondered what you would have said to us as we giggled. Would you have laughed with us? Been a little irritated? I’ll have to ask Nikea what she thinks. There was also a picture of you holding a fish you caught, looking so happy, along with a bunch of other pics with military buddies you printed off from Facebook. Man. You did have the best smile. I never really realized it was crooked until someone pointed it out after you passed. How did I miss that in a smile I’ve seen for 25 years?

Well, we’ve all established I’m not always observant.

Everyone did okay during the Celebration. At least until Dad’s speech. He began by saying it was a happy day, because so many of us were together. We had people in from different states, families reunited. But when he said, “But it’s also a sad day, because Chris isn’t here,” and his voice cracked, I broke. I looked over at Nikea, and she was crying as well. You know Dad. He’s so stoic. I’ve never heard his voice crack. I’ve never seen his constitution waiver. But it did twice during his speech. He opened the floor for people to share memories. He shared the one about taking you rock hunting as a teenager, when you muddied the water he brought for washing hands because you thought you were supposed to wash your geodes in there. Grandpa talked about how he’d always buy you apple pies from McDonald’s, effectively spoiling you to the point that you’d always expect an apple pie when he’d drive up for a visit. I spoke of how you loved to play dress-up as a kiddo. You loved being a cowboy. Nikea and Mom talked about how you’d always sign cards “With all my love,” since that phrase used to upset Nikea when she was little (Mom signed it once in a card to Dad, and Nikea thought it meant Mom had no love left over for her since Dad had “all of Mom’s love.”) Someone (I believe Bailey’s grandpa) shared his memory about your first buck, a 14-pointer, and how excited you were. That reminded me of the letter you wrote to dad’s brother three years back, and I tried to share the things you wrote about. How you were so excited to be married and have a son. How you explained in detail about dropping that particular buck. How lucky we were that we found this amazing letter that was so long and so full of hope and happiness. But I just couldn’t get it out. The harder I tried to fight the tears, the harder they fell. It was like a dam broke, and I felt so stupid. So I got out what I could, then escaped into the back bedroom and dropped to the floor and cried and cried, because we shouldn’t be having a Celebration of Life for you. None of those people should be there, talking about you like you aren’t here anymore. We shouldn’t have your ashes or combat boots sitting out, or that slideshow of you playing on our television. We shouldn’t have American flag disposable dishes and napkins and American flags decorating Mom’s potted plants. Dad’s voice shouldn’t be cracking when he talks about you and my sister shouldn’t be crying.

None of this should be happening.

That’s exactly what Mom said today. She had a rough morning. Potatoes. Did I tell you about that word, our code word? Last time I was home, we’d always ask each other, “Are you okay?” One night Mom asked me that, and then said how she felt silly asking because, “of course you aren’t okay.” She said we need to come up with a code word. One that means, “No, I’m not okay but as okay as I can be right now.” At the time, I was eating a sweet potato, and joked that “potato” should be the code word. And it stuck. So now we will just say “potatoes” to let one another know that we aren’t okay at the moment but we will be. So it was potatoes for Mom this morning. We went to see Laurel, her therapist, and that always is a huge help. I absolutely love her and wish I could take her back to Denver with me. Or at least have a carbon copy of her to bring back. We, of course, spoke of this weekend and the reconciliations that happened. We talked about how wonderful it was to have all the sisters in one place (it hasn’t happened in over 10 years), and how great it was to see Heidi doing so well. We spoke of Mom’s visit from you…how she was laying in bed and felt a presence enveloping her. She felt warm and loved. The dogs even reacted to it, which was the proof she needed since she really never had that sort of experience before. And Heidi’s experience…How she had begged you for a sign that you were here, and you obliged by waking her with a (not so gentle) swipe under her left eye, very similar to what you did to me. Almost like you were wiping away her tears. It startled her awake, causing her to sit up in bed in alarm. She said she felt your presence by the bed, and then you were gone. I know some people may not believe this, or think we both hit ourselves in our sleep. But I know that’s not the case. Thank you, Buddy, because it helped Heidi so much. She seemed freer, lighter, that next morning. The fact that you are still reaching out, that we still felt your physical touch even if it was a bit…well, painful…is more incredible, more healing than we can ever put into words. It’s something that we will not take for granted. It’s what keeps me sane. And honestly, I think I love the fact that you startled us both with rough touches to the face. It makes me laugh. You had a huge heart and gave hugs freely, but you were never the “loving touch” kind of brother. A good flick to the face is much more like my bratty lil bro. I love it. (And yes, I’m kidding. You grew out of the bratty phase. But you’ll always be my bratty lil bro, regardless.)

Oh, by the way….I shared your voicemails with everyone. Katrina had sent me three that she had saved a while back (I can’t remember if I told you this or not), and I had sent them to Mom and Nikea. But they must not have gone through. So I started to play the voicemails to show Heidi and Gretchen, with only a tiny warning to Mom and Nikea. I should have given them more time to prepare themselves. I just thought they had heard them already. I looked over and saw Nikea crying, and it broke my heart. It sucks to hurt, but it sucks even more to see the people you love hurting and knowing you can’t stop it. We just have to feel it. Hearing your voice is so comforting, but also reminds us how we will never hear it directed at us again. And that’s too much. We love your voice. In the voicemails, you sound so hopeful. Goofy, even. That’s what is hardest for Mom. We talked about it this afternoon. She knows you’re happy now, without all your burdens (which reminds me of another talk we had. She said she didn’t recognize the presence in her bedroom as you when you visited. I reminded her that you no longer are sad or angry, that all that anxious energy you had is gone. You’re different, free). But the fact that there was so much…what’s the right phrase…potential for healing there destroys her. We all know you could have gotten better. You could have healed. You, after all, were on the right track. You were seeing a counselor. In fact, you had just seen on that morning. You were trying to face your issues (I’m right there with you, Buddy, and I can appreciate that it’s not easy in the slightest). She said that maybe it would be easier if you’d been super depressed all the time, that then there maybe wouldn’t have been as much hope. Because we all had so much hope that you were feeling better. I argued that would have been worse, because knowing you had so much joy, so much happiness, so many people who loved you and wanted to be there for you, you having a home you loved to come back to that supported you and not one but TWO mothers who absolutely adored you (I never realized until this weekend how lucky we are to have two moms. Most people only get one), one awesome dad who tells the best dad jokes, three big sisters, a son who looked up to Daddy, awesome friends who were there for you, a job you loved, the military and fire fighting…I mean wow…you had so much. And even though it f*cking blows because you hurt enough to end your life, you did have so much love. And that makes me feel as “better” as anything will. And Mom agreed. It’s just hard. You can’t make sense out of it. Dad and I have had some talks about it, as well. One night we talked for almost two hours (Mom, Heidi and Gretchen were talking plants and getting seeds to take back to Washington…I’m sure you’re not surprised). As horrible as it is for Nikea, Bethany and me…I mean, I just can’t imagine being the parents of a suicide victim. It has no reflection on them as parents, because they did absolutely everything, everything, they could to help you. But still…I can’t imagine how impossible it must be. I told Dad how I had watched an interview with James Hetfield (you know, the lead singer of Metallica) about Chris Cornell’s suicide, and oddly found comfort in his words. You know I’ve been questioning why you hadn’t reached out to me when you knew I was someone who loved you who had been through the same exact thing. James brought some understanding:

“When you’re there (and I know the depth of my darkness at times), it is difficult when you’re in that space to even fathom that there is someone there that can help you or has been through that before.”

And this is something I did know at one time, but it’s so hard to apply it to your situation when you’re right there in the middle of it. This kind of darkness is ruthless. And even though it thankfully didn’t consume you all the time, I know that night it was just too much. So it wasn’t that you didn’t want to reach out to me and ask for help. You just honestly didn’t think about it.

I also opened up more to Dad about my guilt. It’s consuming me. Gretchen said that anyone who knows a suicide victim, even someone who met one for five minutes, will ask what they could have done differently. It’s human nature. Dad told me I did the best I could with the knowledge that I had at the time, as we all did. Maybe. But all I know is I’m your big sister and I didn’t reach out like I should have. I didn’t check in on you the last few months. It doesn’t matter that I was going through a difficult time of my own. I should have been the big sister you deserved. I should have called you on your birthday, even if I was dealing with my own depression. I should have texted you a few times a week to tell you I love you and I was grateful to call you my brother. I should have fought harder for you. Yeah, when you texted or reached out I would do everything I could to help. But when the texts stopped in November, I should have kept them going.  I don’t know if I thought you were honestly getting better, or if  I just didn’t want to see it. I was going through your Facebook posts, and I just would give anything to have been more active on your page. I just really suck at being on Facebook, but I should have used it to keep up with you.

I don’t know. But it’s something I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life. If you could just let me know that I’m not this terrible big sister, that you forgive me for not being there, please please do. Because it f*cking sucks.

Anyway. I love you. I miss you. I love you. I love you.

Your sis






Mercy Me’s “Even If”

This song has become my crutch the past 2.5 months. Maybe you can find some comfort in it, as well.
They say sometimes you win some
Sometimes you lose some
And right now, right now I’m losing bad
I’ve stood on this stage night after night
Reminding the broken it’ll be alright
But right now, oh right now I just can’t
It’s easy to sing
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now
I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul
I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
You’ve been faithful, You’ve been good
All of my days
Jesus, I will cling to You
Come what may
‘Cause I know You’re able
I know You can
I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Songwriters: Bart Marshall Millard / Benjamin Glover / Crystal Lewis / David Arthur Garcia / Tim Timmons


Letters to Chris. June 20th. Day 73.

Hey Buddy,

In two days I head home for your Celebration of Life. When you first passed away, I wanted nothing more than a funeral. I felt I really needed something, anything, to help give me closure. But the past 73 days have shown me that I never will have closure. How can anyone have any sort of closure after experiencing such a loss? So I’ve gone from needing some sort of something to almost dreading it. Not because I don’t want to celebrate you, or see Carter (I haven’t seen him in over a year…I can’t wait to see how big he has gotten). But because I’ve never seen Carter without you there. Because everyone is going to be talking about you in past tense. Because we will be playing slideshows of your pictures, where you look so happy and alive. How can I look forward to this? I’m so scared of how I’ll feel. This is already hard enough. It’s going to hit home that you are really gone, and I don’t think I’m ready for that. I don’t think I ever will be ready for it.

It will be nice to see our family. Our birth mom will be there. Aunt Gretchen. Aunt Dietricha. Grandpa Ward. Grandma Jeanne. Carter. Bailey and her family. Clay’s mom, Karen (you met her once, at Carter’s baby shower. I don’t think you got to talk at our wedding, although I’m sure she noticed you. Everyone did in your handsome uniform). Can you believe I’m going to be home for THREE WEEKS? It’s going to be so wonderful. Grandma’s 90th birthday is the second weekend in July, so I’m staying for that. And that’s when the Rudloff clan will get together and have our own little celebration for you. You always loved going to Grandma and Grandpa’s. I can’t eat any hole-in-the-bread for you (still waiting for Hawaiian Bread to make a gluten-free version for lameos like me who have Celiac’s) , but I’m sure everyone else will, especially Nikea, Hannah and Sayre 🙂 As for your Celebration, I wish I could be there earlier to help Mom prepare. As you can imagine, her OCD has been in overdrive. I’ve been doing my best to keep her calm, but I know there’s only so much I can do. You’re her son. She wants everything to be perfect. Everything needs to be perfect. She called me today asking about photos. She’s going to be playing a slideshow. Luckily, I have a TON of you. Plus all the ones I re-edited recently of Carter’s newborn session. I wish I had more professional photos I took of you. But I’m grateful for the ones I do have.

I wish. I wish. I wish. I feel like that’s all I ever say anymore in regards to you. I wish I had more pictures. I wish I had reached out more. I wish I told you every day that I loved you. I wish I could have taken your place. I wish you would have texted me that night. I wish I would have known how sad you were. I wish. I wish. I wish. It really does drive one mad. That and the “if onlys.” If only I had known. If only you hadn’t bought those guns. If only you had told one of us you wanted to die. If only you were more honest in counseling. If only I had opened my eyes more. That’s why I can never have closure. Because of those f*cking “I wishes” and “if onlys.”

You’ll be happy to know I connected with a counselor here. I told you that the Guard puts families in contact with counselors…I had thought it was free but it doesn’t look like it is. Luckily, thanks to a million doctors visits between Clay’s torn meniscus and my Health Crisis of 2017, we’ve just about hit our deductible. So we’ve got that going for us. Part of me doesn’t want to see someone about it. I feel like I’m processing okay. At least most of the time I do. Other times I think I’m not doing well at all. It just depends on the day. I still get into my pissy fits, where nothing at all will happen but I’ll still be furious at anything and everything. Lucky for Clay, those only last a few minutes. I just don’t have the energy to be that angry for very long. Clay…Poor guy. We had a heart-to-heart the other day. He opened up about his struggles with this:

“You’re not the only one affected here. I feel like I have been as supportive and loving as anyone possibly could be, and just because you’re going through a hard time doesn’t mean that support shouldn’t be appreciated or valued, or taken for granted. I feel like you take for granted how patient I am and how I support whatever you need to do. 

“Sometimes you’re so focused on yourself and whatever is going on in your world that I wonder if you even care or notice what is going on in mine. I work long hours, get stressed, sad, and worry about my family or miss Alex or think about my dad, but I always feel secondary to your issues. Even when I had my surgery you tried to say that it wasn’t as bad as what you were going through. Or when I mentioned my feelings about Alex (Clay’s cousin who unexpectedly passed away five years ago), you said your situation was worse because it was suicide. It isn’t a contest. Pain is pain, loss is loss.”

I felt like an asshole. Which is something that totally isn’t new the past few months. He’s right. Pain is pain. Loss is loss. I don’t even remember saying that stuff, but I’m sure I did. Something about grief makes us super self-absorbed. We just can’t see outside ourselves. I’m so blessed to have such a loving, patient husband. Because, honestly, anyone else would have tossed me over our balcony by now.

I have been doing better, though. I promise I have. I’ve literally thrown myself back into my photography, and I feel your silent encouragement pushing me to excel and breathe life back into my photo business. I can’t say I’ve ever felt such a fire under my a** when it came to anything. I laugh more. I like to leave the apartment. I am finding solace in nature (I’ve been on three long hikes the last week). I cry, but not for hours at a time. I even changed my Facebook cover photo to a picture of my girlfriends and me (you know when something is Facebook-official, it’s a big deal). I’m working out again. You’re still there, every second of every day, and I don’t want you to be anywhere else. You belong here with me. I fight constantly with myself on whether I should change things like my cover photo, whether I should wear your shirt to bed or one of mine (I still sleep with three of your shirts. That’s not going to change). I just feel like if I begin to move on, I’ll be letting you down. You’re my baby brother. I’m not supposed to be here without you. I don’t want to let you go. I don’t want to say goodbye. Part of me doesn’t want to be happy because that means I’ve moved on without you. Doesn’t it?

Maybe I do need to see a counselor.

Love you buddy. Miss you. Hey, be there with us Friday, okay? I don’t think we can do this without you.


Letters to Chris. June 8. Two months later.

Hey Buddy,

Once again, I’m here at the Starbucks down the street. Where I wrote my second ever letter to you. At the time, I couldn’t believe it had been six days since you’d been alive. That was so hard to wrap my mind around….It feels like yesterday, but it that two months ago. Somehow 61 days have passed. In that letter, I talked to you about how time refuses to pass when you need it to. But obviously…pass it does. Because here we are…61 days later. I can’t understand how time keeps passing? I don’t want it to…Each day that passes is another day away from you. What is it going to feel like when you’ve been gone for years? I can’t bear to think about that. And for some reason, you’ve felt so far away lately. Where are you? I’m so scared I’ll never feel your presence again. There are days where I think everything will be okay. Where I think just knowing you are still very much alive, albeit in a different way than I am, will be enough. I go about my day. I’m productive. I laugh often. Then there are times where all of this is just too much, and I don’t know how to breathe. Those are the moments I feel on the verge of a panic attack. The walls close in, my chest constricts so I can’t take a deep breath. It’s like my body completely just rejects the reality of you being gone. Seriously, Chris, where are you? And how does the world keep spinning with you not here? How does the sun continue to rise? How do other people feel happy, laugh, make plans? I see all these people going about their days like nothing has changed. Can’t they feel your absence?? I feel like your death should have disrupted the entire world. I’m sure everyone who loses someone they love feels the same way. But yet…life goes on. For others. Not for me. Or Nikea. Or Mom or Dad. Not yet. I hear it’s supposed to again some day. Rumor has it. But I don’t want it to. I’m so afraid of letting go.

I’ve never been more scared of anything.

It’s weird…now you’re like this mystical being…someone who had at one time lived that has gone to a place I can’t follow. Who now knows things I could never imagine. Who I’ll never see or touch again. Or hear laugh. Or get a text from. You’ve taken on this almost ethereal quality. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I’ve been going through and re-editing professional photographs I took of you. The ones from when we visited you in the hospital for Carter’s birth, his newborn pictures, your wedding reception.  It is so weird seeing them. Looking at you in iPhone pictures is one thing…but from my beloved Canon 5D Mark iii, it is quite another. You look so alive. Like I could reach through the computer screen and touch you. The pictures from the hospital are adorable. You were so exhausted, but so in love with your new son. Then the newborn shoot we did a short while later…Remember that day? When everyone came over to see Carter, BBQ, smoke cigars, and hang out like the Rudloffs do best. Grandma and Grandpa, Grandpa Ward, David, Stacie, Derrick, Travis, Grayson, Austen, Hannah and Sayre, Sue and Tim were all there. It’s hard to describe how I feel when I see these photos. I can’t say “happy” or “peaceful,” but a weird hybrid where they there but completely overshadowed by a million other emotions. Devastation. Nausea. Exhaustion. Disbelief that you’re gone. Anger. Fear. Gratitude that I have these photos.

I posted a pic of you and Uncle Tim on Sue’s wall. In this picture, Tim is sitting at our patio table, with you in the background smiling. Hannah commented on it, her words perfectly describing what I feel every day:

“Isn’t it crazy that 2 people in this pic aren’t here anymore? I mean it’s just so crazy. They’re right there! I can picture what they looked like right after the pic was taken. I can see them talking, breathing, enjoying family time. But now they’re gone. It doesn’t seem real.”

It doesn’t. You’re right there. Both of you. Happy. Enjoying life. I just can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you are in those pictures which I feel were taken yesterday but not here. How?? God, life is cruel.

I posted a couple  of my favorites (remember the ones in our backyard where you were wearing your ACUs? You’re holding Carter and looking down on him, your cap pulled deep over your eyes, and another where you’re kissing him) on a photography community page I am a part of, called Mastin. Kirk Mastin, who created this forum, made a group of actions which help photographers edit photos in a way that make them look like they were taken by a film camera. On this particular page, people share photos and ask for ideas, editing tips, etc. I was honestly terrified to share these pictures. For one, there are thousands of super talented photographers on here. But also I wanted to share why these photographs are so precious to me. I’ll never withhold how you died. None of us will. Because we are never, ever going to be ashamed of you. Ever. But I am so protective of you, and am always waiting for someone to say something ignorant. And then I’d have to kick their ass. But I shared how my brother had commit suicide April 8, and how I had never really been a fan of my work on this particular shoot just because it was an earlier one and I was super hard on myself, yet after reediting using Mastin, I was completely in love with the photos. I ended the post saying, “How handsome was he in his uniform?!”

The response I received was overwhelming.

In the first hour, I had over 200 likes and about a dozen comments. Two days later there are over 550 likes and 62 comments, including 11 others who lost loved ones to suicide. I had hoped to reach at least one person who was going through what we are…but I was in no way expecting the outpouring of love I ended up getting. I cried because I had no idea so many on this website were themselves suicide survivors. I had asked what their loved ones names were…Scotty Phelps, Nicholas Hill, James Jacob, Caitlyn Rose Bailey. Beautiful souls who you are joined with on the other side. My heart feels as full as it has in two months, in a way, because so many people out there care. Perfect strangers who hurt for us and know what we feel. Now, 552 other people know who you were. They read about you, saw your pictures, cried for you. They know you lived. And I cannot physically put into words how that makes me feel. You may have only been here 25 years, buddy, but you’ve made your mark.

By the way, I’m sorry I chastised you for not thanking me when I gave you all the photos I edited. I know you were so exhausted from a new baby and work…I should never have gotten after you. I’ve freely admitted that I can be an asshole. But still, I’m sorry.

I taught yoga tonight for the first time in five months. My old boss asked if I could sub, and I wanted so badly to say no. But I felt this push…from Clay, who really thought it would be good for me, but also from you. It was so solid. I knew I had to say yes. And from the moment I accepted, there was never a question of what my “theme” would be (I love theming my classes. I’m a nerd-I know). I would talk about the resilience of the human spirit, how we learn so much about ourselves and our ability to survive during times of absolute heartbreak. I was completely honest, sharing how I didn’t want to teach at first. Because 1) it had been so long since I taught (five months…has it really been that long??), and 2) it’s the two month anniversary of your suicide. Our last full conversation took place after I had left a class there, too…Remember, when you were stressing out about finding an apartment and I told you how we were moving into our friend’s basement while we job searched? That conversation is still so fresh in my mind. Like it took place yesterday. You talked about how you couldn’t see the light, how you had started smoking to deal with your stress, saying you knew I would tell Mom and that you didn’t need a lecture (Hey punk-I never said anything. I didn’t “tell” on you ever. And when did I ever lecture you??! Hmph).

Anyways. In class I shared four main things I have learned in the past two months through grieving. Firstly, the human being is capable of enduring the most horrific of tragedies. Things we never think we’d be able to survive. If someone told me I’d lose my brother and my uncle Tim, I’d want to quit life right then. I would have said there was NO WAY I’d live through losing both of you. But obviously, we are all still here. Me. Mom. Nikea and Bethany. Dad. Katrina. Hannah, Sue and Sayre are still here after losing Tim. I don’t always know how I am. I say this a lot, but it does surprise me at times. It feels like I should have died from heartache by now. It just proves my point. We are resilient. We are so much stronger than we think could ever think possible.

Secondly, I believe we learn more about ourselves during times of grief than any other periods in our life. I’ve learned how fiercely I love. I never realized…I knew that I loved my family more than anything. Obviously. But I had no idea how deeply that love went. To my very core. I’ve learned how much I’ve taken these people I love for granted. Look at you-I always thought I had tomorrow to call. I’ve also learned how strong I am. This kinda goes back to my first point, but I’m blown away by my resilience (I’m totally patting myself on the back right now). I mean seriously. This is it. Bad shit will continue to happen because that’s life. But I know I’ll get through because I’m getting through this. Not unscathed. Forever changed. But still, I’m surviving. I’m a survivor.

Third, I’ve learned how much people can surprise you. I’ve had so people reach out, cry with me, share their own stories of loss, donate large sums of money. I mean, the photography post I told you about is a perfect example. It times of hardship, people want to be there for you. And we should let them. I think mental illness is a subject very near and dear to many hearts. From what I have seen, so many either struggle with it or have a loved one who does. So they desperately want to lend a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. They want to help me make a difference. And this gives me hope. Everyone I’ve talked to has been so eager to have a discussion about a topic that up to very recently has been considered taboo. Which leads me to four: regardless of what we are going through, there are people out there who know exactly how we feel. The first few weeks, I felt like I was the only one who had lost someone I love to suicide. I knew I wasn’t, but I had no idea how many were out there, desperately wanting to talk about their loved one. That’s why I asked the names of those I listed above…I know how desperately I want to tell people your name, talk about you, share your story, even with those I don’t know. And I want to know about their loved ones. You all need to be remembered, even by those of us who don’t know you but are still bound to you because we, too, have lost a sibling, parent, cousin, friend, spouse, to suicide.

Random thought, but I had a random memory pop in my head the other day. Remember when I used Endust on our wood floors that one time when my chore was to dry mop? When I was done, Mom told me I needed to actually mop because the Endust made the floors so slick everyone was falling. Right after she said that, you walked through the front door and slid. It was so funny, and even though I felt bad I couldn’t stop laughing.

I love those random memories.

By the way, I need to thank you. I think you’ve been helping my photography business take off again. Since you passed, I’ve booked a wedding, two family sessions and a yoga festival. Out of the blue. I really believe that’s you. One particularly rough day I heard you say, “I got you, Sis.” I heard it. As clear as day. And I know you do. You still feel so far away right now, but I know that’s not forever. I just need to keep holding on, like I’ve been doing. Keep breathing when my chest constricts and the walls close in, keep getting out of bed in the morning, keep loving…I know these are all things you want. Please be patient with me. I’m doing my best right now. But I miss you.

Love you, Buddy.