Death never has answers. It doesn't square with what you know or what you think you know. Death just happens. No answers for it, no one to ask about it. You never really get used to death, whether it be a loved one, a family friend or someone you didn't even know. About the best you can do is learn to tolerate it better.
Yet, death seems to have qualifications. By that I don't mean that you have to be dead to qualify, though that helps, but that we tend to feel a certain way when a certain set of circumstances concerning death and people we know comes into play. If your great grandmother who lived to 103 dies peacefully in her sleep, we seem to feel like she had a full life and it was her time to move into the world of shadows. If your father dies of a heart attack at the age of 70, well, it seems like that would be a similar, though slightly different story. If a child dies from a wreck involving a drunk driver, that is a different story, too.
All of these situations have the same outcome; the only difference is that the players in the play are different. In the great grandmother's case, there is the tendency to believe that she had a full life because she made it so far in age. About the father, it would be seen as regrettable (perhaps preventable?) and sad, but life would otherwise go on. About the child who dies from a wreck involving a drunk driver? Grief and sadness the likes of which people don't seem to have for the great grandmother, and only slightly have for the father.
I suspect that the main difference between all three had to do with the age and relation of the person to you. It makes sense-- we expect our parents to die before us and our parents expect their children to outlast them. Whenever the converse of what the natural order would otherwise dictate in an otherwise perfect world, well, expect everything to go screwy.
It's about the qualifications, you see.
Nick died a year ago, today. I've had a lot of time to think about the world as it is versus the world as it was. I've had some time, the only currency of distance in such a matter, to grieve and heal. I've gotten to watch my parents go through what can only be described, and accurately so, as a living hell. I myself have managed to get along as best as I could. I fumbled from time to time, like I imagine my parents have, only to come out on the other side of those mini-moments of reflection on a brothers voice and laughter, on the other side of the telephone to a silence unlike any I have ever perceived before or since. The times when I would recall a sound or a look or a conversation. Good stories. Bad ones, too.
Bad then good, so the saying goes. There was the time Grandma and Grandpa were over for dinner and Nick couldn't stay at the table. He had to keep going in and out of the house. It was odd, to say the least. What was worse was when Mom could smell gasoline on him. He had been huffing gasoline out in the garage. While my grandparents were at our table, my brother was off getting high. This, so far as I can figure, was the moment Nick's brain got some wires crossed. He was never the same after that.
Of course, there was the time he had been kicked out of the house, one of many, I must confess. When I got word about it, I went home and found him. He was staying with a family who took him in because my grandfather had been good to them, and they to him, and so it was just a thing that was done. His friends at the house were not exactly model citizens, as can be imagined. And so I knocked at the door and entered quite matter of factly. The friends tried to stall me, even stonewall me that he wasn't there. He was, of course. I found him, hung-over from a night of partying, just in the initial stages of waking up. He was rather shocked to see me. When one of his friends asked if he should stay, I told the "friend" with a sadly high horse sharpness that he should, "go mind your own fucking business, or your nose, or whatever it is the fuck you do. Get outta my sight".
As can be imagined, he left. Nick said I shouldn't treat people that way. I nearly jumped Nick then ("I'll do what I goddamn want..."), but decided the best of it. I told him to go home, mend fences, get clean. Mom and Dad have forgiveness in them. You just have to ask for it, and prove you are worth giving it to. No more lies. No more dope. That's the condition.
"Would that make you happy, Chase?"
"It isn't my happiness, or theirs, that concerns me at present."
"Are you saying I'm not happy?"
"Isn't that obvious?"
"I don't understand."
"You will. I promise. Just trust me. Get clean. I love you."
"I love you, too."
But with the bad comes the good. Nick was an excellent golfer, helping the school team to set a new record for combined score and outright winning some matches. Nick, much unlike myself, understood fishing in a way that is still quite lost to me. He was a Pisces, after all, so there could be something to being part fish himself. He once declared that, "A good day never ends", and I still believe that. Not just because he said it, but because it seems so obviously true.
Nick mowed the yard when I went to scout camp. He mowed the yard when I went to Philmont. Never a word to me about not wanting to do so.
More recently, when Nick came and stayed with me during a skeet tournament a couple of years ago is one of the best memories I have of him. We went to Bone's, a preeminent steakhouse in Atlanta and in the South in general. These girls came in, and so did their pimp. Nick, of course, thought the girls just liked him and that the fellow was awfully chatty. As soon as their attention was elsewhere, I nudged Nicholas and told him the score-- these were high class call girls. He, at first, wouldn't believe me. And then it sunk in. Afterwards, we called Mom and Dad on our way home and I told them Nick had nearly been abducted by high class call girls. Everyone, especially Nick, got a big laugh out of that one. We had a couple more laughs that night, too.
There was the time at our last Thanksgiving when he and I went bird hunting on Grandpa's farm. I beat him in the body count of those blackbirds, but he finally got the gist of wingshooting versus clay shooting. That said, he did wing a bird and it didn't fall dead from the sky like a bird would if it were hit solidly. He went over and found the bird where it landed and it was twitching with a broken wing. He couldn't bear the sight of it. But he couldn't finish the business he started with the bird, either. He was nearly in tears. He had such compassion for the creature that it nearly moved me.
I told him to turn away, I'd make the bird go away and be at peace. Like I had done so many times in the pigeon ring, I blasted the bird on the ground. No emotion, just the precision unafforded by any shotgun but delivered with the full force of not only natural selection but the best that Remington shells have to offer. He turned around and told me thank you. He told me that he wished he could be as "tough" (whatever that means, I thought to myself) as me.
"Oh, it isn't toughness, sport. It's doing the right thing. You meant to kill the bird, not wing it. It happens. You'll get better with practice."
"But what if I don't always kill the birds like you do? Will you come make it right?"
"I'll always be there."
We were covered in mud from going up and down the fence row. Our faces were red from the cold; our hands and ears were hurting. We smiled a lot that day. Laughter, too.
It's the last happy memory I have of he and I together.
My parents were the ones to discover Nick. He hadn't responded to repeated telephone calls. His first day and his last attempt, at school, was that day.
My parents drove up to Murfressboro to find out what was wrong. A locksmith had to let them in the apartment. Mother made father go in first and look. When he came back to the door, my mother asked him, "Is it bad?" And my father told her yes, it is bad. On the couch like he was taking a nap, was my brother. He was dead from an overdose of methadone and cocaine.
I was called shortly thereafter. I was at work, sitting in my office doing something on the computer. I was wearing my overalls and the phone buzzed in my breast pocket. I pulled it out and when I saw it was Dad calling, combined with the feeling that something was terribly, terribly wrong, I answered the phone.
Dad told me that something had happened. This has been the only time I could tell my father was actually shaken, perhaps even crying. I asked if it was Grandpa. He said no, it wasn't. I said, "It's Nick, isn't it?" He told me yes, it was, and that he was dead. I kept waiting for Dad to say it... it was hard to hear as I wanted it to be a terrible accident or anything else other than the final gavel in the natural selection court. I told him I was sorry and I that I would be home just as quick as I could be. He advised me that I should really try not to break any land speed records on my way there.
The trip that normally takes 2 hours and 30 minutes took me a little over 2 hours.
I had not smoked a cigarette in some time up to that point. I walked out, after placing the phone in my pocket, of my office to the main room of the store and asked Frank for a cigarette as I fiddled around for a lighter. I told him the news. He was literally shocked. Creig came over and I told him what was going on. I asked them both not to say anything to anyone until I was gone, which would be after I had that cigarette. I snubbed it out like an old pro and left work, not to return for some time.
There wasn't a lot of company that came by. By design, my parents wanted to grieve themselves and with only the closest of friends. Only one of Nick's friends ever told them how sorry they were. That person? The one I cussed out so long ago.
There was no funeral. No visitation. No funeral home full of the truly sad, those only coming because they had to show a face, the well wishers or those people who always seem to show up to a funeral because they enjoy them.
I have often thought what I would like to say to that last group is, "This is not your grave, but you are welcome in it," but that is unbecoming and ill fitting within my own self and my own demeanor. But sometimes, it does seem fitting, regardless of my personal predilections of avoiding being an ass in public.
Mother wouldn't have been able to tolerate a regular funeral. She was as sick as anyone could ever be, and the sad part is, is that it was a sickness of the heart. It is still broken something fierce. So is Daddy's (I only started calling him Daddy after Nick's death). I had pain, too. Brokenhearted, broken spirit, and just plain broken.
I did what any normal guy would do. I tried to drink and smoke the pain away. It didn't work, of course. I went to Vegas to a tradeshow that I was only really going to go to because Nick had expressed interest in being a partner with me in a business idea I had at the time. The entire time I was there, it felt false. I had come for the wrong reasons. My partner was gone.
I saw Elvis playing blackjack at the $50 dollar table. Apparently, I had just missed Santa Claus.
And if I had seen Santa, I would have asked him for my brother back.
I came back to Atlanta and tried to pick up the pieces of my life as they had once been. I went to work. I went shooting. I tapered off the drinking. And then the smoking. I began to notice girls again. But, life wasn't the same. I never really expected it to be.
A life looked at introspectively takes a strong mind and a sense of humor. A life looked at objectively leaves the observer with more questions than answers. The subject to be studied is no longer there, and even if it was, access to the matter to be reviewed wouldn't be.
Life is best reviewed in the stories we have. Animated memory. You have to think about a setting to jog the memory so that you can truly relive it. Life, so far as I can tell, is all about context. I think about these contexts when I think about him, like people do about their own dead grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. I can't call up just the picture of his face without having to think about a time we were together. Sometimes, that can be painful. Sometimes, it is wonderfully pleasant.
Nick had a hard life. By that I do not mean that he had a bad childhood, went hungry, slept on street corners or anything like. What I am speaking to is a history of drug abuse which perhaps precipitated the feeling that he didn't belong in his own skin which in turn created the need to continue using drugs. It's hard to say now what was and what was not the case. Like I said, death doesn't give you any answers.
By extension, grief doesn't give you any answers, either. It does, after a time, lend itself to giving comfort. You can only suffer so much before things get better. But you have to get all that sickness, that despair, out of your life before you can mend. Grief helps to get all the heartbroken feelings out so that new feelings, whatever they may be, can grow. No one can tell you when that will be or how you will feel when you come out of it. And if someone tries to, then just ignore them. They don't know what they are talking about.
My love and affection has always been of the stronger sort. If I took a shine to you, well, then I would do anything for you. My family especially. But there aren't any more birds to kill, yards to be mowed, drinks to be shared, conversations over phones about things that mean nothing to everyone but to me and him. That's all gone. The love isn't; it burns brightly in my heart every day, because it is my family. I literally think about him every day. Sometimes I smile, sometimes I don't.
Mostly, I try smiling these days.
He left behind a niece, something I am trying to get a grip on if only because I have never been an uncle and I am not completely sure what to do at any given time anyway, let alone with a niece. I am hopeful she will like fishing, but I am told that is some time in the future when she can handle a fishing pole and learn some fundamentals. Hopefully, she has Nick's fishing gene in there somewhere, because I have a sneaking suspicion that it is going to be awfully boring with me, as I never seem to catch any fish.
While I have recovered as best as anyone can from something so personal, something that leaves such a bad taste in your mouth, I can't help but realize that he is gone, never to return. It is an omnipresent thought that never seems to quite go away completely. While I wish I could tell anyone who has had such a thing happen to them that I was just as well as I was before this happened, I couldn't do it in earnest. Not because I haven't made progress. And not because I am worse off than when it started. I am recovered as I mostly can be; I am whole. But it is a different worldview now, a different context, and so it would be like comparing apples to oranges from the past into the present. I make no illusions about that, and neither should anyone who has such a thing happen to them. I wish I had the magic words for myself or anyone else in such a trying time. I don't and no one does. I have just resolved myself to a very simple perspective that seems to work for me.
I try to tolerate his absence better than I did the day before.
And, so far, it's working.