I can still perfectly picture you the last time I saw you. You had guilted me into getting up early and attending a Friday morning class at Core Power Yoga. After class, we went to Starbucks because we didn’t want to eat but we weren’t ready to part ways quite yet. We debated which president was easiest to hate, Andrew Jackson being the consensus. We talked about our New Years plans, how you were going to Nicky’s ranch and I would leave town before you returned, but we found solace knowing we would see each other briefly once I was back from backpacking Patagonia. We concluded on agreeing that you had got to stop going on dates with Mormon girls even though they were the only girls you matched with on Tinder. We hugged and refrained from saying goodbye, settling on a comfortable “see you soon”, foolishly assuming that life wouldn’t interfere with your plans to attend my graduation in June. I watched you walk away, your goofy step, collared shirt nicely tucked into your jeans, your electric blue Nikes carrying you out of my life. I wish I had known it would be for forever.
As soon as I heard, I went into a daze of grief. Dad texted me around midnight checking to see if I was awake, not giving me any information other than that he was coming over in 10 minutes. I knew something had happened. Dad has always been a “wait until morning” kind of guy and I knew his urgency to see me meant something horrible had occurred. You were at Nicky’s Ranch and Carter was skiing in Colorado. Something had happened to one of you. In that strange way siblings can communicate without words, I could feel it. I was prepared for tears and hospital visits but not for the news he gave me. No one is ever ready for news like that. I called you 100 times. I prayed so hard that you were okay. When Dad finally arrived, I was anxiously waiting on the porch. He was 10 minutes later than he had said and I was on edge. He got out of his car and walked toward me slowly. His giant black coat couldn’t conceal his pain. I demanded he tell me what had happened before we went inside. In the light of the doorway, he looked more upset than I’d ever seen a grown man look. With the most heartbroken eyes I’d ever seen, he muttered, “Ikey died.” I immediately felt the impact on my heart, one of my strongest muscles losing all of its strength and fracturing into a million little pieces. I managed to mumble “What?” before we both lost ourselves in pain and stumbled over to the couch for support.
Mom heard us wailing through her deep slumber and stumbled out of her room in her bathrobe. I can still hear the confusion in her shrill voice as she yelled “WHAT HAPPENED?” at both of us. She was still trying to tie the waist of her robe. I ignored her, of course. I didn’t have the strength to reveal your death to the person you kept at such a far distance while you were alive. Dad slowly got up and repeated the horrendous news, each repetition another blow to my newly shattered heart . She began sobbing and making noises of anguish wholly unfamiliar to the human race. Her cartooned cries were my primary source of laughter in the days to come. She reached for me but I couldn’t be touched. I had been on autopilot as soon as the news sank in. The only thing that came out of me were tears for what felt like an eternity but was probably about ten minutes. Running through my mind was your smiling face, your booming laugh, and the sight of you walking away from me two days before in your electric blue sneakers. I held myself upright while oceans of painful tears fell out of my eyes. I stared at the tacky zebra carpet on the floor and realized December 30th was the worst day of my life. December 30th was the day my only brother died.
While we slowly regained reality, Dad questioned whether or not we should tell Carter over the phone. I was outraged by this query. I needed Carter to know. I needed Carter to be aware that she was my only living, full-blooded, sibling. I needed Carter. When she didn’t answer the first couple times I called, the three of us took turns trying to track down the friends she was vacationing with. I called Taylor, I called Jacky, and I called Stewart. No one answered. The noise of the endless rings allowed me to feel frustration on top of heartache. Mom finally got Carter on the phone and she was disheveled and confused as she had just been abruptly woken up mid REM cycle. Mom handed me the phone and I tried to hold back my tears, simply for the sake of pronunciation, but I fell apart as I mumbled, our secret language, “Carter, Ike died. You need to come home.”
“WHAT?” she questioned, still groggy from her abrupt awakening. I handed the phone off to Mom and Dad and returned back to my zebra-focused-daze. They relayed the broken bits of information we had and asked her to get here as soon as she could. When the phone call ended my phone immediately buzzed. It was Carter with a simple text: “Be home at 9 am. I love you.” Mom had gotten ahold of Nicky and was crying as she begged him to be safe and repeatedly told him that it wasn’t his fault. I know he was hurting so badly. Losing your best friend in front of you is something no one should ever have to experience. Nothing about this situation was fair or normal.
Dad began thinking out loud about impending service and burial arrangements. He said he wasn’t sure whether you wanted to be buried or cremated. I knew. Exactly two weeks before you died we went to the Elton John concert together. It was your Christmas gift to me. You got the tickets and I got the funky glasses. We wore our matching suits, and sang as loud as we could at Elton John, pretending he could actually hear us from the nosebleeds. I don’t remember how we got on the topic but we were talking about death as we Ubered from your apartment downtown to the American Airlines center. I explained how I wanted my ashes to be buried then grown into a tree. You looked at me and said, quite incredulously, “Why can’t you be put in a casket and put in the ground like the rest of us?” You then explained that you wanted Kelly to have your life insurance policy, to pay for Miller’s education, and that I could have your possessions. You joked as you said Carter wouldn’t get anything. I had no idea weeks later I would settle on claiming your records, some funny socks, your abundant collection of greeting cards, your Team Texas Wrestling sweatshirt, your IPod, and reclaiming all of my IPhone chargers you’d stolen over the years. I know you didn’t mean to give this stuff to me but thank you. Despite our previous conversation, I ended up sharing your possessions with Carter. You’re welcome. I never thought our simple, candid conversation that night had an impending purpose.
Dad got up half an hour after the phone conversations had ended. The clock on my phone read 1:30 AM as a heartbreaking realization sunk in that you were gone and that time didn’t stop in your absence. “We all need to try to get some rest”, Dad insisted in his usual pragmatic tone. Like we could sleep after the news. Dad was trying to be strong to hold us together while we were falling apart. But the strongest gorilla glue on the market didn’t have shit on the pain of losing a family’s glory child. Dad slowly got up to leave, to return back to his new apartment on Northwest Highway, and kissed my head before heading towards the door. After a failed attempt at consoling me, Mom went back to her cave. Half an hour later, I robotically got up from the floor, went into the bathroom, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and slowly wandered into bed. I laid there for maybe three seconds before the intense, excruciating pain of your absence hit again. I screamed out and sobbed as loud as I could. I laid awake all night. Scrolling through my phone collecting memories of you was the only thing I could do. Reliving my memories of you was the only way I could bring you back to life.
I realized that as time went on more people were becoming aware of your death. I reached out to the people who deserved a first hand account and explained to my friends that I would no longer be attending my impending backpacking trip and school ski trip. I texted in my group text of friends from home, briefly, “Today is the worst day of my life. My brother died”, forgetting again that it was no longer December 30th and that time kept on going despite my world coming to a sudden halt. I fell asleep briefly at 6 AM but woke within the hour to the nightmare that was now my conscious life.
I laid in bed like a dead body and hoped to hear from you. By 8 AM I could hear Mom begin to rustle in the room next door and was angered by the thought of her on her soapbox basking in the attention she would be getting and loving the opportunity to cry without judgement. I took a few laps around the house but always ended up back in my room scrolling through our memories. I still had your smile, your laugh, and your funny nature documented in my phone. I thanked God for ICloud. These simple yet profound tokens of you made me feel your spirit. I only wish I had saved more of our many voice memo exchanges. I listen to the ones I have all the time. Especially the one of you singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the one from the time I accidentally slept through my alarm and you went to a Pilates class alone. Thank you for trying to save me a front row parking spot despite numerous housewives threatening to run you over.
Taking yet another programmed walk to the kitchen, I saw Stewart’s white truck pull up through the corner of my eye. Carter was finally home. I flew open the door and ran to her immediately. We met on the sidewalk, held each other as tight as we could, and fell apart in each other’s arms. After a few minutes of pure agony, she wiped my tears, kissed my cheek, and promised me she would never leave me. She had assumed the role of oldest sibling and I was grateful for her strength as she pull me off the sidewalk. I took her words with a grain of salt because I know she would never leave me willingly but neither would you. And you did.
As the day went on, our house was flooded with caretakers. Mom says it is a southern thing, to go to those in pain and smother them with incessant love. This was a positive of being from Texas, I guess. I like to call these people the fireflies. They came in and made things brighter. They held us together while we were falling apart. Our hearts were in pieces but these pieces were cleaned, organized, and set aside for when we were ready to put them back together once they were gone. They cleaned the house, they took down the Christmas decorations, they made and brought us more food than we could dream of eating. Erin was particularly an all-star. After spotlessly cleaning my room, she called American Airlines and made sure I was fully compensated for the upcoming flights I wouldn’t be taking. I especially appreciated her frequently taking me to sit on the porch to cry and rip her JUUL, even though I am now strongly addicted to nicotine. Don’t judge me, I’ll give it up when I’m ready (just like you always said).
I spent hours writing a paragraph to post on social media. I know Instagram is a grossly inadequate tribute to your wonderful life but it was the only modern platform I had to reach our community at large. I know you think I share too much online, I hear you telling me this every time I open an app now, and hope you don’t think my post was a cry for attention. It wasn’t. Believe me, I had enough of that already. I was posting my words and pictures as direct lines to you and as a way to articulate my emotions, have them saved forever, and share them instantly. Thanks to all those who loved you for the likes.
Family friends came in and out. Family flew in. Your friends came. Ben was the first to arrive. At the beginning, it was an abnormal sight to see such a large, grown man be consumed by such immense pain. I am used to this unnatural phenomenon now. One by one, your best friends were all there. More tiny pieces of my heart broke every time someone you loved came through the door and cried. They always gave a testament to the amazing person you were and how much you had shaped him or her. I felt it way too soon for people to be referring to you in the past tense but they were right. You were amazing and you weren’t with us anymore. I would look up from wherever I was and meet these people in the entryway, the same spot I heard about you, along with the rest of our remaining family. Mom would hug them first, let out a wallow of pain, I would laugh for a second, then return to tears as I went in for my turn to embrace. We all cried together and tried to make sense of this horrible tragedy we still couldn’t quite fathom.
Your friends came and didn’t leave until dark. For this, I was extremely grateful. There was an unspeakable sense of comfort being in a room full of people you loved the most and who were truly being ripped apart by your death. We didn’t need to say anything, and most of the time we didn’t, but their physical presence made me feel safe in a time of utter weakness. I found comfort knowing that we would be your ideal group of people to hang out with if you were still around. Griff met me outside when I was on a Juul break with Erin and asked to speak to me alone. “I hate seeing you like this” he began. He was speaking slowly and quietly but I heard him loud and clear. His kind words comforted me to know that he, and all of your best friends, would help to fill the burdensome role of being big brother to such a menace like me. As you know, I take all the guidance I can get. Seeing Nicky come through the door was the hardest. His composure was impressive but you could see the pain in his eyes. It’s always in the eyes. I knew you had an unspeakable bond with him, and I lingered around him waiting to hear what exactly had happened the night before. He walked us through your final day step by step, and despite my previous opinion, it didn’t make understanding your death any easier.
Again and again, I fell into a zone. I was writing on my phone and trying to make sense of the waves of emotions I was experiencing. While I did this, the many people who flooded our house kept coming up me, trying to force feed me whatever they had brought, or to come and love on me some more. As I scanned the house, I assembled this list.
Types of people you see after a death in the family:
- The Crier
- The Strong Supporter (back rubs included)
- The person who brings food they made
- The person who brings food they bought
- The ones who offer sleeping pills
- The ones who bring wine
- The ones who drink way too much wine
- The random mourner (who are you again?)
- Necessary extended family
- Not so necessary extended family
- The good friends you cry when you see
- The ones who clean everything
- The people who send their love via the post
- The ones who stay with you even when you assure them you’re okay (gold stars for them)
This experience taught me that times of tragedy really do pull people together in a beautiful way. We often forget just how many people we have on our team. It was as if our house had some kind of magnetic force pulling the people who truly cared for us in. Of course, there was room for disappointment. There were the people who were reaching out more for remorse rather than genuine gratitude. Anne Frank sure was right. And there were the people who didn’t reach out at all. Waiting until later to let someone know you love them and care for them is a sorry excuse. They will be strong later, they need you now. If you truly care, suck it up and send a message or go to them as soon as you can. In my time of utter weakness I grew a tiny bit stronger each time I felt a little bit of love. The people who, accidentally, hurt me the most were the ones who left far before I was ready to be on my own. I now know that people in unspeakable pain want company and comfort more than anything tangible. Sometimes they just don’t know how to ask. Like me.
When I was asked if there was anyone I was disappointed in, I honestly answered no. I do not blame anyone for their behavior, no one knows how to respond to something so unimaginable, but I do see many of my relationships in a different light. Subconsciously, I knew the people who weren’t present in my time of agony weren’t central figures in my life. I guess I can thank you for showing me who the most important people in my life really are: the ones who can hear your pain when you say nothing at all; The ones who pull you closer even when you push them away.
Your loved ones sat around and told stories, a never-ending oscillation of gratitude and remorse. I often went into a teary-eyed-daze staring at that ugly zebra-print rug. We found joy relaying your one of a kind character through personal anecdotes. There were so many hilarious stories and those are just the ones we could easily recall. Your commitment to a good prank was truly awe-inspiring. I think Griff told the story of you convincing him he had sent out naked pictures after a night out upwards of ten times. I personally love the story of you and Stewart putting Abby’s car on cinder blocks and convincing us her tires had been stolen but putting them back on after you got your funny photo.
We laughed out loud at pictures of you. We had conveniently been going through them on Christmas so they were easily accessible and still fresh on our minds. I would give anything to go back and spend Christmas with you in California. If only I had known it would be my last chance to be with you during the holidays. We all loved admiring you. From the adorable toddler, wearing cowboy boots or a hat in every scene, to the dangerous youth, always in sports gear, to the rebellious pre-teen, in oversized and tattered clothing, to the mischievous teenager, always pictured smiling and up to no good with your friends, all the way up to the hard-working, kind, handsome man you had grown up to be.
I kept the same clothes on for days. I didn’t even think about wearing makeup and covered my eyes in non-prescription glasses to shield others from the pain they were radiating. My Cowboys sweatshirt is permanently weathered on the sleeve from me using it as a wearable tissue. I wouldn’t sleep naturally for weeks. I called your phone 100 more times and prayed to God hoping that was still some elaborate joke you played on us. I couldn’t understand that you were gone. I had just seen you. I slowly began to realize that my worst nightmare had come to life as soon as yours ended. I wasn’t, and am still not, sure who to be without you as my older brother. Despite the excruciating pain I was enduring, a voice in my head kept guiding me forward. It pulled me out of bed in the morning and kept me going until it was time to retreat back at the end of the day. I know that was you guiding me through those days. Thank you for the help. I sure needed it.
New Years Eve, the night after you left, was my most uneventful on record. Carter, Mom, and I lingered around the house. Our friends came and went. Everyone was drinking, encouraged by Carter, but I refrained as I knew my emotions would only get more uncontrollable with liquid fearlessness flowing through my veins. I still hadn’t slept. Despite Dad frequently grabbing my shoulder and mumbling “get some rest,” I was excruciatingly awake. By 9:30 I decided to take a couple of the cholonapin that Carter’s friends had collected for me. This specific type of firefly arrived armed with a Ziploc bag filled with a handful of anti-anxiety medicine. I was thankful for the American healthcare system. By 10:00, I was asleep. I woke up at 9 the next morning trying to remember if I dreamed of you. Nothing. Instead, I had to face the reality of the New Year. My first year on earth without you.
The next few days were marked by strength. I could only leave the house to attend meetings for your funeral or burial logistics and would always quickly return to the safety net of love the house now was. I pulled myself together to write the best obituary and eulogy I could. Despite my numerous ghostwriters, Carter the most prevalent to explain that “we” had written your obituary, we forgot to mention the summer you spent studying at Cambridge. Please don’t be annoyed.
Ben sat at the dining room table and edited the obituary as if we were sending it in to be published on international newscasts. We didn’t realize then that it would actually become international news. Dad and I arranged the funeral service (I’m sorry for the reading from Revelations). Mom led the assault on St. Marks when they refused to play “Candle in the Wind” as your parting song and condemned them for even suggesting “Amazing Grace.” I appreciated her for this.
We went to the funeral home and we chose your coffin, something parents and a 22 year old should never have to do. Normality was ever changing. It pained me to understand that so many people were in a business involved with death. No, we didn’t want the $100,000 gold coffin. No, we didn’t want plaques made from your hand and footprints. And no, we absolutely did not want jewelry made out of your fingerprints. “My brother was a humble man”, I kept repeating, hoping that the salesman would get the gist and fuck off. He didn’t, of course.
Carter had missed the memorial home visit when we chose your coffin because, as the days passed slowly and quickly at the same time, the day you died suddenly had become her birthday. It was suddenly January 3rd and she was now 28. She had let me know that the card you two had exchanged over the past six years hadn’t arrived in the mail and I knew I had to go to your apartment to find it for her myself. I went immediately. No one had been in your home since you left only a few days before. I made Nico and Georgia wait in the car because I knew I would be inconsolable as soon as I stepped inside your door. It was something I had to face, and wanted to face, alone. I was half expecting to see you when I walked in. I was hoping to get one last chance to laugh at you in your underwear and goofy socks as I stood in your barely used kitchen but the apartment was empty. Not even your soul was there.
My legs gave out once the door closed behind me. I sat there on my knees as more painful tears ripped down my face. I wasn’t sure how they continued to flow after days of coming non-stop. I planted my face in my hands and screamed out just softly enough to not alarm your neighbors. A sudden urge to use the bathroom hit me after a couple of minutes and I laughed assuming it was you who had messed with my bowels and guided me off the floor. Thank you for that. Seeing your toothpaste still missing the lid was a cruel reminder that your life was so suddenly cut off. You weren’t even allowed to clean up your mess. Or wash your gym clothes that were on the floor of the living room waiting for a laundry day that would never come. Or fill in Carter’s birthday card that I found in your desk. Because you’d assumed you would be the one to hand it over, I took it upon myself to sign for the both of us. Thank you for the graduation card you got for me. I absolutely loved it.
Carter decided that for her birthday she wanted to have a wake for you at El Fenix Downtown (the only relevant El Fenix). Before the dinner, we met with your best friends and Coach Ortega at Mom’s. We exchanged more funny stories, more hugs, and more condolences. You were such a large part of everyone’s life that I had to return their “I’m sorry”s always with an “I’m sorry too”. You were such a loss, a unique pain to each person. The story Coach shared where you convinced an assistant wrestling coach that it was a tradition to get Slurpees after a meet was classic. More tears. More laughter. I walked everyone through the logistics of the upcoming funeral and reminded them the honor of being your best friends and pallbearers. We wiped our tears and headed out.
Carter’s friends had come early and decorated the restaurant beautifully. The restaurant was as decedant as a cheap Mexican restaurant could look. Your self-proclaimed “blue collar Heaven” dazzled. Are the enchiladas in Heaven as good? Your face was on every wall and sat at every table. A slideshow played on the back wall and reminded us of all the amazing memories you’d created over your 29 years. Houston and Chase arrived just in time for the story sharing. I told Houston that he wasn’t your first choice for Dad of the year and walked away uncomfortably (laughing under my breathe) when he didn’t find the comment as funny as I was anticipating. We took turns going up and sharing Ike stories into the microphone. Griff started us off. He explained how you had always been the brother he got to choose. You always checked up on him and never hesitated to give him shit when he needed it. Even when he didn’t. He laughed and cried, setting the precedent for every speech to follow. I was up next.
I talked about growing up trying to sleep when you and your friends were partying downstairs. Y’all often work me up loudly jamming to Backstreet Boys because “Marksmen were so in touch with their sexuality they never ventured into the rap genre.” I retold the story of the first time you got me drunk. You had been so adamant about me not drinking until I was a freshman in high school and being a rising freshman didn’t count in your book. Your first Thanksgiving break home once I started school, you woke me up in the very early morning. You were hammered. Excitedly out of bed, I followed you down the hallway to your lair. You poured me whisky and made me sit up with you while you dipped tobacco and shared priceless wisdom on life and music. My favorite was when you looked, very seriously, at me and said “this is a christian rock song, but it BUMPS.” You then proceeded to sing on every surface in your room to “Testify to Love.” I can’t quite listen to that song without crying yet. We danced, drank, and sang while the sun proceeded to rise over the Church outside your bedroom window. From that point on, we were best friends. Our mischief only rapidly accelerated. We got even closer once my friends and I turned 18 and you were legally allowed to hit on them.
I told the crowd how I thought going to school in Scotland would give me a break from my crazy family. Boy, was I was wrong. You rallied Carter and came to see me every year I’ve been in St. Andrews. You would even make a Facebook group and add everyone you knew, in person and online alike, really anyone who would be on the continent, before your arrival and alerted them of the exciting news. Ike was coming to town! Carter too. Everyone was excited when they were notified of “The Great Crews Invasion” and planned accordingly. I explained how one night I had to drag you out of a bar because you’d gotten into a fight with my Norwegian friend arguing how socialism simply does not work. You were heated in a good way. I explained that one afternoon in Scotland when you made Carter and I “power hour” to your infamous playlist. We got so drunk that we didn’t want to go out but preferred going back to my tiny dorm room and having a proper crews-style jam session. Carter was drumming on a cereal box, you played the air guitar on the umbrella, and I sang into a hairbrush. None of us quite remember this but thank God Olivia came in just in time to capture a picture. She still has the photo saved in a scrapbook. Some of the stories your closest friends shared were hilarious, some were touching, some were excruciatingly painful to hear, but most were a delightful combination of agony, appreciativeness, and amusement. Someone even said there were twice as many people there than had attended your recent High School reunion.
Your picture and obituary was published a couple days later in the Saturday and Sunday news. One day wasn’t enough for you and the Sunday paper was printed in color. We chose a handsome, smiling photo of you wearing your purple shirt from Christmas the previous year, our last Christmas together. My memories from those days will forever be some of my fondest. The two of us got up every morning to exercise. We were constantly disappointed in the attendance to family fitness but enthusiastic that we could then eat whatever deliciously unhealthy meal Kelly would cook up later in the day. For the paper, Dad made me crop out the historical portrait you were holding in the photo. He said the part in the obituary about you almost reaching the top of Mount Everest was enough joking for print. I agreed to disagree. What do you think?
You died on a Sunday. Despite no longer being home to your soul, I needed to see your body. The last time I saw you, you were the liveliest guy I knew. You stood 3 feet in front of me in a yoga class and balanced on one foot when the teacher told us to “grow your trees.” You ordered a blueberry cupcake at Starbucks, inhaling it like you hadn’t eaten in months, and only offered me a bite so you could laugh and deny me when I accepted. It was impossible to understand that the person I had just seen, so recently, who was so full of life was now lacking it. You died in Kerrville. They had taken you away in an ambulance and marked you dead almost immediately upon your arrival to the hospital. According to Texas state law, the autopsy must be performed in the county you died in. Dad told me this was an issue when JFK was shot in 1963.
Could you not have chosen a larger county to die in? Kerrville was a particularly small town and their weekend staff was limited, even more so because of the impending New Years Holiday. I cried, publicly and privately, thinking you were laying somewhere dead and alone. I frequently inquired, “where is Ike?” whenever there was a break in our family conversations. I was so close to driving down to Kerrville myself just to sit with you but Mom, Dad, and Carter wouldn’t let me out of their sight and kept alerting anyone who would listen, “we need to watch Cameron, she’s not eating.” I was eating. They just needed something to focus their stress on. Something that they had a solution to. You died on a Sunday but your body wasn’t returned home to Dallas until the following Saturday. That was the longest week of my life, so far.