TAPS calls the day you died your “Angelversary.” I kind of like it. It’s better than the alternative. Today is the one day a year I dread. I hate it. I basically hate the entire month of April because of today. So, Happy Angelversary.
Can you tell I’m a bundle of joy today?
I can’t wrap my mind around it. How has it been three years? I remember the first few months were the slowest of my life. Every second seemed to drag by. It was all I could do to keep breathing. I did, though, because I had no other choice. There’s no way to go but through, right? The decision you made three years ago today is not one I could, or would, ever repeat. I don’t have it in me, but I’ve also seen what it does to those who love you, and how could I ever do that to those who love me? It’s funny though, because in so many ways you felt so close. Maybe because you were. The months after you passed were filled with signs from you that you were okay. That you are okay. Those signs, those unmistakable times you reached out, are what got me through. Thank you.
What also is funny is, I can’t remember crap that happened only yesterday. But I remember every single minute about April 8, 2017. Going to Starbucks. Shopping at Whole Foods and looking for ingredients for a curry recipe. Watching Shameless until Clay took the dogs out that night. And then every second of when he walked back into the apartment talking to Mom. Realizing that something was very wrong, and thinking that something happened to the dogs or Dad. And the sound of her voice when she told me that, no, everything wasn’t okay and that you had shot yourself. I remember falling to the floor screaming. It’s all ingrained into my memory. The day I want to forget is the one day I can’t.
I took today off. I didn’t know how I was going to handle it. It’s so hard to know how I’m going to feel. I had taken your birthday off, but I did okay. I Facetimed Nikea and Mom, and there was a lot of laughter. Especially because Mom couldn’t figure out how to get both our faces on the screen so had me up on her laptop and Nikea on her phone. Then would hold the phone up to the computer so Nikea and I could see each other. Thought you’d get a kick out of that. Then we cooked ribs since that was one of the two birthday meals you had requested Mom make for you when you came home the last time. Total meat coma. Then a few days later we had Papa Murphy’s for you.
Happy belated birthday.
Today is different. Part of me was hoping it would just be another day. I obviously always miss you. You’re obviously always on my mind. You don’t dominate my thoughts and emotions like you did even a year ago. I guess my life is as back to “normal” as it will ever be. But fuck today. It’s rough as hell. I feel so broken. And while I know this is okay, I don’t do well with feeling weak. I don’t see tears as weakness in other people, but I see them as such in myself. Why do I hold myself to another standard? You deserve all my tears, and you certainly get them. But I still get so irritated with myself when I break down. But God I need to. I needed to cry today. I need to hold you. To tell you I love you and miss you. That, three years later, I can still hear your voice so clearly. See your face so clearly. I miss your face. I love your face.
But my anger is still here. You talked to me about everything. I was your person. It was a position I was so proud to hold. But when it came down to it, you wouldn’t let me save you. And this, I can’t understand. You and I were bound together by our childhood. You were mine. Maybe I broke that trust when I became upset with you the last few months. Instead of chastising, I should I have listened. Instead of judging your decisions, I should have just given you all the love you deserved and needed. Instead of silence, I should have called you every single day. Just to say I loved you. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me. And yes, I know these feelings are normal for a surviving sibling. But that doesn’t change my regrets and my anger at myself.
Anyway. I am going to go sit outside and enjoy the weather before Denver gets cold again.
Chris during Basic with some friends. He’s on the right.
You have been gone for 855 days. 73,872,000 seconds. 1,231,200 minutes. 20,520 hours. 122 weeks and 1 day.
Isn’t it crazy how time goes by no matter how slowly it drags?
I have been trying to get myself to sit down and write for quite some time. Like I’ve told you before when you first passed, I was IN that place 24/7. That dark place where no matter what I did or where I was or who I was with, you were there. Not really you, but your absence from this world. I felt like I was standing on the edge of the giant void you left, looking down into its depths, so close to being sucked in.
As time has passed, life has returned to semi-normal. Remember how I said I was surviving but not quite thriving yet? I feel like I’m starting to grow again. I don’t feel stuck like I did. The world doesn’t feel like it is stopped, where everyone in it is living their life and I’m watching from the outside. I’m actually happy again. Happier than I’ve been in a long, long time.
But I still miss you. Every day. You’re still there. No matter what. But while I still feel your absence, it’s become my norm. They say time heals all pain, and honestly Buddy, that’s bullshit. We can move on to an extent, but the hurt is still there. You just learn to live with it. It becomes a part of you, as much as anything is a part of you. We decide whether we let it dictate the rest of our years, or go on living. It’s a hard decision to make, for so many reasons. Going on living, for me, has meant leaving you in my past. And it’s something I have struggled with since you died. And is something I have been absolutely terrified to do.
I’ve been going to reiki for about a year now. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, just some sort of cleansing because I could feel that depressive energy still suffocating me. We performed this “ritual” I guess you can call it, where Katie would say something and I would repeat it. It was to further my healing process, and was all about you. I did okay until I was supposed to say “I am whole without him.” And I couldn’t do it. Try as I may, the words refused to come out. Not only do I feel I would be abandoning you if I said that, I know it to not be true. I will never be whole without you. You’re more a part of me than anything could ever be. My baby brother. So while I can allow myself to be happy and have dreams again, I will never say those words. I will never believe I am whole without you. Ever
Remember when you first passed, and all these crazy signs would prove to me you’re still around? From smelling your shampoo to my Spotify playing a song out of order you know I love to feeling you poke me at night, there were so many instances that blew my mind. You would come through so strongly to show you weren’t going anywhere. And while I don’t “hear” from you as much, you have come through a few times recently. Like when I was begging you to show yourself to me while I was in a reiki session. I silently pleaded with you over and over, to the point where it had become a mantra in my head, as Katie worked. And all of a sudden, not 30 seconds later, she stopped and said, “Jenn, I know I don’t ever talk during this, but you need to know Chris is here and he is adamant I tell you.”
Thank you for showing up.
And then yesterday my TV turned on by itself. Something it did a lot when you first passed. And it happened the day I had talked to two different people about suicide. One, a woman searching for someone, anyone to listen, and happened to find this blog. Another who recently lost her brother to suicide. I had actually known him. Shelby. It had been years since I’d seen him. But I reached out to his sister because I made you that promise to use your death to help others. And I know what it’s like. How everything is “before” and “after.” How you count every day that passes. How you relive those last moments over and over. How that phone call and the days right after are ingrained in your brain forever. How every single second seems to drag by and how you question what else can go wrong in this world if your baby brother can kill himself. Who knows if I can actually make a difference. But I feel if I can help one person, just one other, it’ll be worth it. While I was on Shelby’s page, I noticed some people had posted a fundraiser for Walk out of the Darkness. And in the comments, someone else mentioned the suicide of her own brother. We are three too many.
Shelby’s sister and I talked about signs. She gets them from him a lot. All I can say is, we are so grateful you all let us know you’re okay. It would have been a lot, A LOT, harder to get through that first year without them. It has proven to me that not only is there life after death, but that we can still communicate with those we leave behind. It’s so comforting.
Speaking of Walk Out of the Darkness, Katrina is coming to walk it with me and stay a week. I’m trying to get Nikea out too, but we shall see if her schedule allows it. I wasn’t able to make myself walk last year (I just did the fundraiser), so it’ll be nice to have such amazing company this year.
Well, I better get dinner going. I love you, Buddy. Missing you.
I can’t remember when Clay first shared a passage with me written on the social media platform Reddit by a man with the username GSnow as he attempted to console a fellow Redditor reeling from loss. Yet, the sincerity of these words, written at a moment’s notice, stayed with me. Right after Chris passed, I asked Clay to find this passage again. It gave me hope…hope that one day I would breathe again, that there would be life after my world fell apart April 8, 2017. I’ve shared it with numerous friends and loved ones who have endured loss, hoping it would provide the same comfort it gave me.
Sometimes, in the shitstorm that life can be, we can have a significant and life-altering encounter with a person we will never meet again, all in the space of a few seconds. Chances are, they may never even realize how they saved us in that moment. I had one such interaction with GSnow. I’ve been meaning to share this experience for a while now, because I know this could, again, help someone else enduring the same type of heartache my family and I are.
So here it is. Someone posted the plea below seven years ago on Reddit, begging for guidance:
Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.
I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter”. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.
I decided to try to find the man who wrote these beautiful words, hoping that even though seven years had passed he would still be active on Reddit. Amazingly, I found him without an issue. I had to thank him.
You obviously don’t know me, but I want to thank you for your post about grief. The one about surviving 100 foot waves. My baby brother took his life April 8, and your words have provided so much comfort for my family. And I just found them printed off among our sympathy cards-I had shared it with Mom a while back and she must have printed it off. So…thank you. For helping a grieving family you have never met. Like you said, there is starting to be life again between the waves. Slowly, but surely, I’m starting to believe we will survive this.
All our love,
Jennifer (Chris’ big sister)
I’m so sorry for the loss of your brother. My brothers and sisters are all still with me, and I can’t imagine the pain you’ve gone through since Chris’ death. Your mother’s pain too, I think would be too much to bear, but she bears it, a mystery and a triumph just to keep going. In my own experience over the years, I’ve lost three students to suicide, and it laid me flat. They weren’t even my children, and I was still devastated. I truly can’t imagine what it would be like to be in yours and your mom’s place. I hope the inevitable woulda-coulda-shoulda’s that must, by human nature, accompany such an agony eventually fade into only occasional visits.
When I wrote that post, six years ago, I wrote it off the top of my heart to a young man who had lost his best friend to cancer. I never thought it would still be around six years later. But if what I wrote to him has been of benefit to you, then I’m glad. Though I’m sorry you’re in a position to find it helpful.
Thank you, GSnow, for helping a family you never met get through what will always be the worst time in our lives.
Rough night. Today an email about Walk Out of the Darkness hit my inbox. Is it really time for that again?? Things like this jar me out of my day-to-day routine, where I work and don’t let myself think of much else but what is in front of me. But I did okay until I climbed into bed. I grabbed your shirt and held it close to my face, burying myself in your smell. That safe, familiar smell that takes me back a year to when you first passed. You felt so close then. Like you surrounded us. And then I grabbed my phone and started going through your texts again. The last text you sent me (“Me too!”) and the one where you told me someone agreed you’d be better off dead. And I started to hyperventilate. Clay, asleep next to me, woke up and held me. And I just lost it. A sobby, snotty mess right into his chest. I miss you so much. I throw myself headfirst into work now, and barely have time to think about anything else. It’s purposeful, to keep myself from times like this where I feel like I’m going to break into a million pieces again. Where the regret and self-hatred come flooding back in, drowning me. I tried so hard to protect you your whole life. Mostly from yourself. I always knew you were your own biggest enemy. And when you opened up over and over in me your last few months about your depression, I tried so hard to make you see how good you had it, how you had so much to be grateful for. But in doing so, I failed to validate your feelings. I failed to hear you. And eventually…you stopped confiding. And I’m sorry. I know I say sorry over and over and over. But I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I had a dream the other night about you. You were there, alive. I knew you weren’t supposed to be there, that you had come from the other side for just a brief time. So I held you. I held you so close. And you felt so real. I can still feel it, how real you felt. And now, that’s all I can think about. Holding you. Squeezing you as tightly as I can. I have never wanted something so badly, needed something so badly, that I physically ached. I need to hold you. And I need to be Chris’ big sister again. I’ve never needed anything more.
I can’t hold you anymore, but can you hold me? Please. Wrap your arms around me and help me fall asleep. I need you, little bro.
Just got back from a walk with the pups. I walked on my old trail…you know, the one I walked on nonstop when you first died. Listening to my old playlist titled “Chris.” And I just let myself feel. Which is something I don’t allow myself to do as much. I explained why in the last letter. It just hurts too fucking much. Pretending you’re still here is so much easier than accepting that you’re not.
But…even though everything in me ached for you on that walk, I felt at home. My heartache, listening to that playlist on our trail, it just felt so familiar. Comfortable in a way. And for the first time in months, I felt like myself. Months. It was as though I’d gone back in time, to last spring when you still felt so close. You’ve felt so far away the last few months, and I know that’s my fault. I’ve pushed you away because I just can’t do this. I’m no closer to figuring out how to live without you than I was last spring. If anything, I feel even more lost. Because, somehow, you’ve been gone from this earth for almost 365 days. And it’s not going to end. You’ll just keep being gone.
Do you have any, any, idea how much that sucks?
When you first died, you felt so far away and yet so close. I knew you were right there by me. I received so many signs. Unmistakable signs that you were still here. My TV turning on by itself almost every night. Smelling your shampoo in my room randomly. You waking both Mom and me by (not so gently) tapping our faces. My dog seeing something walking around my room. I haven’t gotten one in so long. I need one now, Chris. Please. Show me you haven’t left my side. I know I don’t deserve it, because I’ve pushed you away. I’m so sorry. I just cannot accept your death. How can I? You being gone makes me realize how much I failed you as your big sister. And I cannot forgive myself for that. I can’t.
So. I’ll be going home in three weeks for Dad’s 70th and your birthday. I think I already told you that. I want to go home. And I dread it. Just facing it again. Sitting on the couch where Mom and Nikea sat while waiting to hear back from the police exactly a year before. No. I know I’ll get through it. But I don’t want to have to.
God. See? It’s so much easier to not feel. But then I miss you too much. I don’t know which is worse. Feeling like this…or not feeling at all.
Get us through the next couple months, Buddy. Please. I can’t do it alone.
I know it has been so long since I have written. I just haven’t been able to make myself sit down and talk to you like this. I mean, I talk to you a lot in general. And I know you hear me. But sitting here, in front of this computer, just hits home that you aren’t here anymore. And for the last few months, I haven’t been able to accept that you’re gone. Not like I could before…But I’m without a doubt in the denial phase again. For example, I was talking to someone I just met the other day about my brother who lives in Minnesota. And it felt so wonderful to talk about you in the present tense. You can’t even know. I just got so fucking tired of hurting…I needed a break. To throw myself blissfully into working 10+ hour days and not think about anything else.
But your birthday is in three weeks. And you won’t be turning 26 this year. Fuck you for not being here to celebrate your birthday, Chris.
Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas. New Years. Thanksgiving was fine. I stayed here in Denver while Clay visited STL. I went snowboarding the day of, then enjoyed Friendsgiving with some of my closest buddies. Christmas was harder. I didn’t decorate. I didn’t listen to Christmas music. I didn’t watch Christmas movies. This is the first year since middle school that I didn’t listen to my Christmas Solitudes CD. You remember that one…the one we’d always play when decorating the tree. I tried. And then turned it off. It was weird. You know how much I love the holidays. But I seriously was the biggest grinch this year. And you know what? It was okay. I gave myself permission. Christmas Day last year was the last time I heard your voice. And I was angry at you and barely talked while we all had you on speaker phone. It’s something I can’t forgive myself for. So yeah. The only Christmas thing I did was shop. The week before. I went to America Eagle and got you a present, just like I always did. I picked something you’d like and got it in my size. That’s going to be my new tradition. But basically, I said fuck Christmas.
It’ll be there next year.
Work has been a Godsend, though. And the people I work with. They are so incredibly supportive. They did the AFSP walk with me. One of my girls came with me to get your uniform preserved (God, we won’t go into how terrible THAT was. It was like I was burying you and it felt like my heart would rip apart. The woman who did it was so wonderful. She refused to charge me, and was so careful with your uniform you could have thought it belonged to her own brother). I don’t know if I would be where I am without them all. And Clay, obviously. But the majority of my time is spent at work, and I’m beyond grateful to spend my days in a job that I love with people I adore.
Also. I got a tattoo of your writing. Remember the card you gave Mom years ago for Mother’s Day where you wrote “Love you always?” I told you about it. But, I had our tattoo guy, Steven, put that on my arm in your handwriting. With your birthdate, also in your handwriting. And your name. In your handwriting. Your adorable boyish scrawl. It’s on my forearm so I can look at it whenever I want. It’s so precious to me. I also want to get the one of you as a boy in your cowboy getup…I’ll do that next.
I also got to see Carter last time I was home. He’s so beautiful. Just like his daddy. And so tenacious and sweet and hyper. Basically a tiny human wrecking ball with endless energy. He’s you. And all I wanted to do was hug and kiss him…but force cuddling a toddler is nearly impossible. I’m so glad he and Bailey are moving back to MO.
God, I’m trying to think of everything that has happened in the past four months. Basically, I’ve just been on work mode. That’s all I have energy for. Work. Snowboard. Eat. Sleep. Luckily, Clay is so understanding and supportive. And the next couple months are going to fucking suck, so I’m so grateful to have a husband who has an enormous amount of patience for me. But God. It’s almost a year. A YEAR. HOW??? How have I survived this long without you? How? I can remember sitting down at this computer to talk to you for the first time like it was yesterday. And writing to you at Starbucks, hiding under my hat, telling you how I couldn’t believe I’d survived six days without you. The thought that you’ve been gone almost a year is too much to bear. I can’t. I’m not strong enough to live through your birthday and April 8. I don’t know how, Chris. I’m going home. Mom figured we could combine Dad’s 70th with the anniversary of your death. As a distraction. And then, of course, we will eat your favorite food and talk about you. But fuck. How can we do this and get through it? I know how it’s going to go for me. I’ll be holding your ashes in my lap on the couch. When you should be sitting next to me, talking about your job and Carter. And all the random stuff you’d talk about. You should be there to celebrate your birthday with us.
See..this is why I don’t write. I just can’t handle it. Before, when I was crying all the time anyway, it didn’t make much of a difference. But I’m so fucking tired of hurting. I’m ready for this to be over. I’m ready for you to come back. I get it. I took you for granted. I should have been there for you. I should have told you I loved you every day. So please. Just come back. Make this all be a bad dream.
I wasn’t planning on writing tonight…it’s late and I haven’t even eaten dinner yet. But Clay isn’t here, so of course my mind is wandering. I hate when it does this. Part of me needs to cry over you…another part of me is so d*mn tired of the tears. It’s exhausting to cry. I always feel it the next day. Like I had a super hard workout and pushed my body beyond what I should have. I literally drag the following day. It came out of nowhere, like most of the time. This time I was just in the shower when it hit. And then when I was trying to edit engagement photos. It’s like the grief is there just waiting to pounce when I don’t have anything to occupy my mind. It makes being still very difficult.
But the good news is I’m starting to look like myself again. My face has cleared up. My hair has finally stopped falling out (thanks grief, for making everyone going through quite enough ugly as a bonus). I got a new job that I absolutely love, and a ton of trips coming up (Dallas, Vegas, Seattle and HOME). Fall is almost here, and you know how your big sister is a basic bitch who loves all things pumpkin.
Life is good. For the most part.
And then nights like tonight happen. Where all I want to do cry and call you to console me. You’re still on my speed dial. Where you’ll remain. Sometimes I just want to call that number, but I’m sure someone else has it now. I wonder if they get texts and calls from people looking for you. For a while after you died I would just text you, because that’s what I had to do to get through the day sometimes. Now I just make due with this and posting on your Facebook.
GOD it sucks. I’m still mad at you, you know. You should be here to read my Facebook posts and take my calls. Asshole.
I talked to someone the other day from the AFSP. Another survivor. They put you in touch with someone local who has also lost someone. Her name was Lena, and for an hour she listened to me ramble on and on about you. About your depression, your fears and your heartbreaking texts. But also about how you were such a goofball, and loved to play dress up and with legos as a little boy. About how big of a heart you had, how much you loved your son, how you accomplished your childhood dreams of becoming a soldier and firefighter. And about all the signs you’ve given us that you are still around. We stayed on that subject for quite a while. Her sister has sent her so many signs over the years (she passed in 2012). I had goosebumps for that entire conversation, because it solidifies our experiences with you. All the things we’ve had happen we can’t explain, she had also seen. That’s pretty damn incredible, right?
Oh! Katrina booked her flight-she’s coming here! She’ll be walking with Clay and me in the Out of the Darkness walk next month. I’m so excited to show her all around. It’ll be exactly what my heart needs. And then I’m going to need to plan a trip to Minnesota. I need to see where you worked, where you liked to eat out…where you lived and died. I need to. But I just can’t yet. I can’t face that apartment. Not yet. The thought of it makes me panic. But one day. She gave me a tour of her apartment on her phone. It was so cute. She panned through her kitchen and I could see where you were standing in the picture I posted above. Apparently you had asked her to take that photo while you were cooking breakfast. It makes me happy, seeing you so relaxed. Cooking eggs, drinking a Coke. Such a goofball.
Anyway, I need to eat. It’s almost 10 and this girl is getting hangry. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
We had my brother’s Celebration of Life June 23rd. Family from all over, from Washington to Indiana to Colorado, came to laugh and cry together and remember Chris. Even his ex-wife and her family came, which meant more to our family than we could ever possibly put into words.
It’s a constant struggle. We miss our brother. Every second of every minute of every day. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, he’s there. When I laugh. When I cry. Whether I’m brushing my teeth or hanging out with friends. He’s there. It never stops hurting. It never will. The pain is a constant reminder that he’s no longer here, that he was too gentle for this world. So much of the time, I get it. I understand. Life can be so cruel that it makes you question what the point of being here is. And then moments like the ones in these photos happen. Where family gets together after years of separation, where old wounds heal and hours are spent just talking about life, where we can laugh over silly memories, laughing until it hurts and we cry not from being sad but just from laughing, where Chris’ and my birth mother meets his son for the first time and sees his father in his smile, in his love of playing in dirt and “fishing” in our tiny pond. And though it can’t heal the heartache, it makes it a little bit easier to bear. We have lost Chris, and nothing can ever replace the void my brother left the night he took his own life. But we continue to live for moments like these. They are the point of being here.
Looking at all the fish in our pond! I was terrified to see Carter, because every time he was here, Chris was with him. I didn’t know how I’d handle it, worried that I’d be a total emotional mess. But Carter was just so excited to see Mom’s pond, and made a beeline for it the second they got there. That effectively broke the ice!
Our birth mom, Heidi, and Carter. “He looks so much like his daddy! His eyes are his mama’s but his smile…that’s all Chris.”
“Love this little boy. Cherish him. We can no longer hug Chris, but we can hold Carter.”
Serious discussions about snacks. And about how we don’t throw rocks.
We started to share memories about Chris. Dad began. “Whenever I’d go geod-hunting, I’d always bring along a bucket of water to rinse hands after digging. It wasn’t 100% clean, but it did the job. The first time I took Chris with me, I explained what the water was for, and told him we’d wash the geods when we got back to the house. Well, we went about our separate ways that day…each digging in a different spot. An hour or so later, I went to washmy hands and found the water to be just a muddy mess. So I called Chris over and asked, ‘What the hell happened to this water??’ Well, I found out Chris had misunderstood and had been cleaning all his geods in this water meant for washing hands. So I dumped it out and told him to NOT use it for his rocks, just his hands.”
“Years ago, when I was little, Mom wrote a card to Dad and signed it ‘With all my love.’ I saw this and cried, thinking that meant that she had used up all her love for Dad and had none left for me. Later on, Chris and Mom would sign cards to each other ‘With all my love,’ and then in parentheses would write ‘don’t tell Nikea.'”
“I’d always go to McDonalds, and get two apple pies for $1. Such a great deal. And I’d bring back one apple pie for Chris. He came to expect one every time I’d visit. He’d be standing there, waiting for me, wanting his apple pie. I created a monster.”
“He loved to build things. So he had all this wood in our backyard that he would use, just hammering away. We’d always laugh, because you could never quite tell what it was he was building.”
“Well, for starters he was always ‘CJ’ to me. When he started to call himself ‘Chris,’ I refused. I remember how much CJ loved going through my dad’s old Army stuff.”
“The Guard came and got all of Chris’ military things. They had been set in a pile for them so they just walked in and grabbed everything and left. When going through Chris’ things, we found two mismatched Army boots. We couldn’t figure out why, but then we realized the Guard must have grabbed the other halves thinking they were one set. So now we have two different Army boots. We thought that was pretty funny.”
“I’m glad I had the time with him I had. He was a great friend I wish he could see all the people that cared about him who he didn’t know were there. He will forever be missed and the world is missing out on such a great person.”
Three generations of women who loved Chris.
And our Mom….and Dad….
Twenty six years of friendship. Keri knew Chris his entire life. This picture sums up our relationship.
Carter likes cookies. As does Ginger.
“He said my name. Chris said my name. I was in bed reading one night. Seth wasn’t home, so it was just me. And I heard his voice. It was calm. But I have no doubt it was him. He said my name and that was it. I didn’t hear anything else. But it was him telling me he was there and he was okay.”
“I MISS FIREFLIES! I just want to catch a few in this cup to see them up close!”
“I let him pick me up [for our first date] and I was so nervous! And he just stared at me…and then I felt awkward thinking, whats wrong with me? So I asked him why he was looking at me like that. And he said, “God d*mn. You’re beautiful.
“I wish I could have saved him…so much. I wish that I could have kept him alive, that he would have been happy enough knowing I was coming to see him that night.”
Dad telling a story. His stories have always been our favorite.
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.
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.