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.
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.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. And it’s scary to post this online, to be this vulnerable. But I feel compelled to share my experience. I thought maybe it could 1) be therapeutic, and 2) help someone who is dealing with the same thing. Suicide is such a weird subject. People don’t know how to talk about it. But it needs to be talked about. I need to talk about this. Because the sad reality is my family won’t be the last people to deal with this.
Saturday was a day like any other, although it’s so funny to look back as it was the last normal day of my life. My husband Clay, and I went to Starbucks down the street so we could work on taxes, and I studied for my NASM. Afterward, we ran to Whole Foods to grab some ingredients to make curry. I remember feeling frustrated because I couldn’t figure out a good recipe. The things that would irritate me seem so insignificant now. I wonder if I had known then what I know now, how my day would have been different. I wouldn’t have cared about fucking curry.
We came home that night and watched “Shameless.” My hubby started loving that show recently, and after a few episodes I finally warmed up. This is a ritual of ours, cuddling on our couch in our new living room in Denver with our puppies. Normal. Happy. In the middle of an episode, Clay took the dogs out to walk them, and I decided to head to bed. I was standing in the door of our bedroom when Clay walked back in, talking on the phone. I thought he was talking to his mom, then he said, “Yes, she’s right here.” He handed the phone to me, walked behind me and held me tight. I knew it was my mom calling, and I knew it was something bad. She wouldn’t have called Clay otherwise. She learned the hard way to make sure he was home when she delivered bad news about two years ago, when she called to tell me my beloved Uncle Tim had unexpectedly passed away. That day, Clay had recently left for a bachelor trip out of state, and I was all alone. So I knew something was wrong when she called him first.
I took the phone, thinking something happened to one of our dogs. Then I thought maybe it was Dad. My mind was racing.
“Mom? Is everything okay?”
She was crying, and through her racking sobs she said, “No, Jenn. It’s not okay. Chris shot himself tonight.”
My legs collapsed, and I started screaming. Looking back, I don’t know how our neighbors didn’t come pounding on our door. Unless someone you love has died, you can’t possibly imagine the gut-wrenching need to deny that what is being said to you is false. I kept screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” I refused to believe it. I handed the phone to Clay, brushed off my tears and kept saying he was fine. Chris was fine. My baby brother wouldn’t do anything like this. He loves me. He wouldn’t leave me like this. My buddy. My everything. It wasn’t fucking possible. But I knew it happened. It was our biggest fear.
I remember when my mom told me she was pregnant for a third time. It was 1991, and I was in the bath, I remember being super sad because I knew this meant she would have to leave and stay in the hospital. To put it lightly, I had major abandonment issues as a child (we ended up being adopted by my aunt and uncle-who my siblings and I all call “Mom” and “Dad” now, even though I still have contact with my real momma). My real mom had been abused as a child, and even with one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known, couldn’t raise us the way she wanted to.
I actually named Christopher. Mom asked me what his name should be, and I named him after a boy I had a crush on. Christopher James, after his father. CJ was born March 24th, 1992. I had a journal entry in my huge second-grade handwriting where I talked about the birth of my little brother. I wonder what happened to it. I can’t remember her pregnancy, but I do remember looking at CJ in his crib and realizing how much I loved him. He was so tiny, and all I wanted to do was hug, kiss and protect him. Whenever he would sleep in the rocker in the living room, I would put my finger under his nose to make sure he was breathing. I remember laying in bed at night listening to him cry, as my mom tried to soothe him, and being amazed how something so small could scream so loud.
I’m not being biased when I say CJ was the world’s most adorable toddler. His son, Carter, looks identical. Chubby, rosy cheeks. One dimple. Big blue eyes. Long eyelashes. Blonde hair. A total cherub. I remember the first time he laughed-he had this blow up clown that was weighted at the bottom so when you punched it, it would pop back up. I was play-fighting it, and CJ just laughed and laughed. I felt like the world’s best big sister.
When I was 11, I moved in with my aunt Anika, uncle, Steve and cousin, Nikea (we now call them Mom, Dad and Sister). My brother and little sister, Bethany, would follow two years later. This was CJ’s cowboy phase. He loved all things cowboy, and had a fake gun he used to “draw” (one of my favorite pictures of him caught him doing this-I think this will be my next tattoo) and had some boots our mom bought him that he wore everywhere, along with his cowboy hat. He always had his Woody from “Toy Story” he carried around. He also had a tiny guitar he would strum out on our front porch, a blade of grass between his teeth, as his cowboy hat shaded his big blue eyes. I remember him crying at night from growing pains, and his little heart breaking when Mom had to shelve the boots since we believed they were causing his poor legs so much pain. He also ground his teeth at night. It was so loud I could hear it through the bedroom walls.
This was the time I was “sissy.” He called me his “sissy,” and I loved it so much. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, so I cherished it. This is also when he couldn’t pronounce “girl,” instead saying “gware.” And when my sister and I would get annoyed and tell him to shut up, he’d get SO mad and yell, “DON’T CALL ME SHUT UP!” I know these are all tiny weird details that most people who didn’t know him don’t care about, but these are the memories I cling to. My sweet, silly little brother.
As CJ got older, we saw more issues in his behavior. He was moody, and had a low frustration tolerance. He had such a huge heart, but like me suffered from depression. My parents always saw it, and did everything they could to help. Therapy. Medication. Letting him know how much they loved him. I had a conversation with him when he was in middle school, begging him to never hurt himself. He hadn’t ever mentioned self-harm, but this was around the time I had started cutting myself and didn’t want the same for my brother. I always had fears of him hurting himself. He cried during this talk, and promised he wouldn’t. But the reality was my brother suffered from what is called Reactive Attachment Disorder, due to our unstable childhood, or RAD. While I have side-stepped a lot of the issues that come along with such a diagnosis, I have always struggled with many of the same things as him. Fears of abandonment. Suicidal thoughts. Depression. Anxiety. I wanted to shelter my brother from all the issues I had. I didn’t want him to feel the way I did. One of life’s cruelest facts is that we can’t protect the ones we love. I tried. We all did. But I couldn’t protect my brother from himself, any more than he could protect me.
A few years back, CJ met a wonderful girl named Bailey who he ended up marrying. You could just see how much he loved her. They had Carter James. But this marriage wouldn’t last, and I think this, plus my brother’s depression and addiction, was too much. It wasn’t just one thing. It was so many things. My brother had hurt his entire life as a result of RAD. He had gotten addictive genes from both sides (his father was an alcoholic), and he tried so hard to stop drinking. We tried to get him to go to AA. When he was home over his birthday March 24th (I wasn’t able to come, which fucking breaks my heart), our grandpa came from Indiana to go to a meeting with him and share his own personal struggles with alcohol when he was a young man. We tried everything. I’ve read through my texts, gone over our conversations so many times, and I am so fucking grateful that I was there for him. I understood the darkness, having struggled with it, too. I told him continuously that I loved him, that we all loved him, that he was so strong, that he could get through this, that he had so much going on for him, that shitty times pass. His texts were so tortured, about how he hated himself, how he was tired of “EVERYTHING,” how he’d be better off dead. That one is the hardest to read. But I told him we needed him here with us, and nowhere else. I was so frustrated with him, that he couldn’t see how worthy of love he was. But I am so grateful I never let that frustration show. I’m so grateful. My one regret is not talking to him more. The last few months I was going through my own issues (financial and health crap), and withdrew from everyone. And I always had a fear he would break my heart. I was scared he would try to hurt himself, but thought a fear of death would keep him from trying anything permanent. I was more scared he would drink himself to liver failure, or run off and we wouldn’t know where he went. I should have told him every day how much I loved him, how much I needed him, that I was so grateful to have him as a little brother and that I cherished him more than anyone in the world. But I think he knew.
Anyone who has lost someone to suicide knows how you go over and over those final moments. It’s torture. But there are some things that have brought me, while I can’t say “relief,” something to hold on to. For one, he didn’t suffer. Two, I think he was so at peace when he ended his life. His text to my mom, sent shortly before, was very well thought out and coherent. My brother always said exactly what he was thinking. If he was feeling tortured it would have shown through that text. He was sober, clearheaded. He just told Mom what he planned to do, said to set up an education fund for Carter, and ended it with “I love you.” Mom said she would send me the text. I told her no. I can’t bear to read my brother’s final goodbye. I just can’t handle it. But I really believe he was feeling at peace because he knew it would be over soon. He would be in Heaven and his heart would cease to hurt. I also know he wasn’t alone for very long. He had texted a girl he was seeing (who I need to reach out to and thank for loving my brother), telling her his plans. She immediately called the cops and they headed over. So when my mom received her text from him and called the cops, they were already on their way. I’ve read horrible stories of loved ones laying alone for days on end. I’m so grateful my brother wasn’t alone for longer than a few minutes.
I believe in Heaven. I’ve had loved ones who have reached out in ways that are unmistakable, which I will talk about another time. And my brother is no different. I was in the kitchen the other day, and this warmth came over me. It’s so hard to describe, but I heard this, “Look after Mom.” It wasn’t an actual voice, but I know it was my brother. He was so protective of us, especially Mom. He wants me to make sure she’s okay. That’s Chris. Being the protector. Thinking about that moment makes me cry, but just because reminds me that he is still looking out for us.
I don’t know how to get through tonight. Or tomorrow. Or the next week. Or the next fucking sixty years. I head home Saturday (flights during the week were far too expensive), and although I’m so ready to be home I know it will make his loss all the more real. He won’t be there. I know I’ll be expecting to see his lanky frame walking in front of the windows as he approaches the front door. Dad is going to Minnesota to collect his things. He didn’t have much, which I’m grateful for. It’ll be hard enough to go through all his clothes. Mom said she can do it, but I need to help. I’m his big sister. And I’m absolutely dreading seeing his urn. They will ship it. It’s weird to think of my tall brother (he was 6 ft) in an urn. But I have to keep reminding myself that’s not him. Our bodies are not us. We are not our bodies, our emotions, our hurts, our brain chemistry. My brother’s soul is here with me now. THAT is him. But as I write this, I am trying to find out the name of the crematorium where he is so I can get some of his hair. And I’m so scared they will say it’s too late. Or that there was none left. I don’t know if I can handle that.
How do I go on? How do I keep breathing when the person I love the most is gone? In one text I found today, I promised him I would always love him and never abandon him. But he abandoned me. I’m not angry with him-I understand why he did it. And I rejoice knowing he no longer hurts and is happy and well taken care of. But he did leave me. His big sister. He didn’t even text me goodbye. I don’t know if that would have made it better or worse. Part of me hopes he wasn’t thinking of me while he sat on that couch. But I know he was.
Chris, I miss you. So much. I don’t know how to keep breathing. I know I have to, because I don’t have a choice. It’s not fair. Why do I have to keep living when you’re gone? I don’t know how to do this. I need you. I love you. I love you. I love you.