April 8. It’s April 8. You’ve been gone exactly one year today. I mean..how? HOW?
I don’t even know what to say or how to feel. I’m sitting on the couch at home, Ginger on my left…Dad and Clay sitting here talking about golf while watching the Masters. You can imagine how happy Dad is to have someone to talk about golf with. It just seems a little too…normal. But it’s not normal. Everything is changed. For one, your ashes are on the table in front of me. I brought them out this morning to hang out with the family. I just couldn’t bear the thought of them in the bedroom alone (where I had brought them to be with me at night). And two, I’m home because our family needed to be together today. I feel agitated. I feel anxious. I feel really fucking bitchy.
I just need to go kick the shit out of something.
But, here we are. Three hundred and sixty five days later. And we are still breathing. I’m still breathing. I laugh a lot. I cry, but not nearly like I did. I’m excited to go do things again. While I think of you all the time, your death doesn’t haunt me as it did (although so many times it’ll hit me out of nowhere and all I want to do is scream “FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!”) While your things are still by my bed, where they will stay for probably at least another year, I don’t bury myself in them every night. I can look at a few photos of you without breaking down (unless it’s more than “a few” photos…then it becomes problematic). I can talk about your death now, even though that word is still so foreign and final and I fucking hate saying it about my baby brother (and always will. That won’t change).
I guess what I’m saying is I’m living again. I’m a different person than I was before the night of April 8, 2017. I don’t know if I’m a better person, but I’m definitely a hell of a lot stronger. I love more fiercely. I’m more afraid of loss. I’m still angry with myself for the ways I failed you (How can I say sorry for all the ways I feel I’ve failed the person I was supposed to protect?). But I also love myself more, because I survived something I never in my wildest dreams believed I could survive. But here I am. Surviving. Not necessarily thriving yet. But I’ll get there again one day.
Clay and I got here Friday. Grandpa was already here. After hugging everyone, I walked into the back room, grabbed your ashes and sat on the bed and cried. It’s become a tradition. I know it’s not you (you reminded me a while back when I cried over your ashes then heard a quote from a show Mom was watching literally 10 minutes later, “It’s just a body. It’s not his soul.”). It’s so weird…to equate those ashes with you. My tall, skinny brother. Sometimes, my head goes into a bad place and I start thinking about how it’s all that we have left of you. And then I have to smack myself because that’s obviously not true. You’re still here. You remind us all the time. I’ve had quite a few reminders lately.
But more of that later.
We obviously survived your birthday. I don’t know how. It was just a reminder of my guilt. And Buddy, I have so much guilt. SO much guilt. I cannot forgive myself for not calling you on your birthday. That’s when I was sick, and we didn’t know what was wrong with me. But the why doesn’t matter. What matters is I forgot your birthday. Something I had never done. And, as life would have it, the one year I forget your birthday is the last birthday you had. And I wasn’t able to go home since I was heading there April 8. So I kept myself busy. I went snowboarding. I ate a shit-ton of Papa Murphy’s. Clay asked how many pizzas I wanted. I said two. One just wasn’t enough. I figured you’d be proud of the amount of pizza I put away. I had to decide whether I wanted ribs or pizza to celebrate you, since you’d asked for both last year. Do you remember? Mom asked you to choose three birthday dinners, one for each night you’d be home. Your answer? Papa Murphy’s. Ribs. I can’t remember the third (was it burgers??). But you ended up going out to get Mexican with some friends instead one of those nights. They threw a sombrero on you then smashed a dessert in your face. Phil got pictures of your shenanigans, and I absolutely love them. I know you were feeling very loved that night, and nothing makes me happier (by the way, I’m pretty sure that was the sweatshirt you died in. I couldn’t find it anywhere). But here’s the funny thing. I had Papa Murphy’s for your birthday, but then next day we went over to a friend’s house for a BBQ, and Bill showed up with…ribs. I think that was you saying hi. Because I know for a fact you had ribs that exact day the year before. Maybe coincidence, but you show up enough for me to believe most things like this aren’t.
No, I survived your birthday. But the next day, the 25th, was worse. The 25th was the last day we talked. You texted me a picture of Carter playing on the floor here at home.
“Awwww. Wish I could be there.”
Such simple texts. I had no idea, and I know you didn’t either at the time, that it would be the last time we talked. I would never hear from you again. So in so many ways, the 25th was even harder than the 24th. God I wish I would have come home. Or at least talked to you more. Why didn’t I talk to you more that day??
What would I have said, had I known I’d never talk to you again? I think about this a LOT, and I know I’ve told you this before. But here it is again:
“Buddy. I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m so sorry I forgot your birthday. I don’t know what’s wrong with me and it’s scary. But still. It’s no excuse. I’m so lucky to call you my brother. I remember the first time I saw you. So tiny in your crib. I was in love. And from that moment on, I’ve never wanted anything more than to hug you and hold you and keep you safe. Every day. For the rest of our lives. Hold you tight and never ever EVER let go. You’re my everything. I’ve loved you every second of every day, even those times I was annoyed with you, angry with you, even absolutely pissed at you. I never stopped loving you. Please realize how much you’re needed. How much you’re loved. How worthy you are. I’m coming to Minnesota to spend time with you. I’m buying a ticket now. Please, don’t go anywhere.” Although it would probably be so much more frantic and with a lot more begging and pleading.
But honestly, I don’t think I would have had the words. I still imagine what I’d do if I saw you, like so many many times before, walk in front of the living room windows towards the front door. Your lanky frame stooped forward a bit, like your shoulders are just a little too heavy to stand completely straight. I don’t think I’d say anything. I would just sob and hold you. And hold you. And hold you. And probably punch you for scaring us like you did, but thank God it was all a big mix up and that wasn’t you and you’re safe and have been alive this whole time.
Yesterday, we celebrated Dad’s 70th birthday, and Nikea and Mark’s wedding shower. As you can imagine, everyone came over. The timing was purposeful. We wanted a fun distraction. Grandpa Ward drove in. Grandma and Grandpa Irene and Bill were here. Sue, Hannah, Sayre, Conner and Holton. Stacie and David. Trav, Austen and Grayson. Sierra. And Keri came in from St. Louis. It was a fun day, and I was so happy to see everyone. There was a lot of hugs and a lot of laughter. And eating. Per usual in the crazy Rudloff household. In the midst of all the chaos, I turned to Nikea and asked what she thought you’d be doing if you were here.
“Oh, sitting quietly somewhere. Probably over there in the corner of the couch.”
“On his phone? Haha!”
It was a comforting thought. You here, eating way too many burgers and then messing around with your phone. You would have wrestled with Austen and played with Stacie’s new puppy. You would have laughed at the goofy gifts everyone got Dad and then probably eaten more. You always loved family gatherings. You loved your family. That I know.
And it’s more obvious now than ever. We continue to get signs. Remember how I said I took your ashes to the back room and held them when I first got home Friday? Mom came back and we talked about all the signs we’ve been receiving. She said Nikea had an experience with you. She actually saw you in her mirror, and your image was that of your younger self when you had long hair. She said she saw movement, and it was you flipping your hair by moving your entire head like you used to do. I have no doubt she saw you; our scientific sister has never seen anything like that before. I should have known you would decide to take on the image of you with your shaggy hair 😉 Then Mom said Gretchen had more experiences, as well. I shared my newest experiences as well, about how my TV turned on twice by itself, something it hasn’t done since you first died. And then how, when I was pretending to talk to you on the phone the other day (this may be up there on the weirdness scale, but hopefully not quite as odd as burying my face in the armpit of your shirt because it still smells like your BO), my phone randomly called you. Even though my screen was off, and your number wasn’t pulled up, anyway. This has actually happened twice. Mom said her therapist, Laurel, commented how you “sure are doing everything you can to reach out to us.” It’s hard to put into words what that meant to me. Because, yes, you are. You have gone out of your way to make sure we know you’re still here. It’s so crazy because, as I said to Mom, it’s different than it was when you were physically here. We knew you loved us. But we know you didn’t “get it.” You knew you loved us and needed us, but you couldn’t open up to us the way I know you wanted. In so many ways, I got it. You and I were so very alike, which is why I understood you so well. We were one and the same. But it was still hard for me. I wanted, I craved, a relationship with you where we talked all the time about anything and everything.
I guess we can have that now. I know you hear everything I say to you, and I tell you everything now. You told me the other day we could have that relationship I always wanted now. I heard you. As clear as day. Chris, when you say things to me, it’s so loud I have no doubt at all it’s you. Like the other evening when I was sobbing in my car, and I heard you say, “You need to drive.” When you told me “I got you, Sis” when I quit my job last year, and I found out hours later I got a new one. Or when you told me to turn on the radio right before the “Sister” song came on with the lyrics “Sister, I see you. Dancing on the stage of memory. Sister, I miss you.” That STILL gives me the chills. Or, when you told me to “Look after Mom.” She and I talked about this one, in particular. I told her how your very first words to me were about her. That you’re worried about her. That you want us to take care of her. We will, Buddy. We all have Mom’s back. Don’t worry. We got her.
Anyway. I love you. We love you. More now than ever.