... but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy." ~ Eskimo proverb
At book club last week, I learned about the recent death of a fellow classmate. I had no idea Kimball has a group on Facebook dedicated to commemorating the loss of alum, and my friend Kelly invited me to join the next morning. Scanning the list of fallen Knights, I was shocked to discover Heath Bar's younger brother passed away this summer. Not only because it was Heath's brother, but because Heath's brother Skor and I were friends of a sort. Skor also happened to be friends with my own brother Michael, and it was Mike who had told me that Skor had more or less followed Heath to Chicago and had been living there for some time.
But this isn't a post about Heath, his brother Skor, or even Mike. It's about me. I've been thinking of writing this for awhile, but hearing about Skor, and seeing an episode of Numb3rs of all things convinced me it was time to exorcise this post.
When Michael died, a part of me, of all of my family, died with him. He had been struggling with a few issues at the time of his death, but yet he was looking ahead to his future, especially to his looming nuptials. The sad truth though is Mike died the day after his wedding shower, and a month to the day before his wedding. To say things were in shambles is to put it mildly.
Michael had been promoted to Sargent with his last deployment, but had only recently (read as the week prior) gotten around to preparing his uniform for his wedding. He had stripped his stripes and chevrons off, and placed all of his medals in a Ziploc bag with the intention of taking the jacket to the cleaners and tailor. Unfortunately, that was what he was going to do on Monday and he died Sunday. Being the (ex) Army wife, it became my duty to try and find a way to get his uniform in order. And as my parents sank deeper into depression, more and more duties got passed to me.
I had the dubious honor of choosing a casket, the memorial card, and even the hours of visitation at the funeral home. Hell, I even chose the cemetery. I tracked down the names and numbers of Marine Corps buddies, classmates, and past colleagues of Michael and called them to inform them of his passing. I fielded calls from family and friends and told them what was needed, what wasn't necessary, times of visitation and where to send flowers or donations. I nodded a lot, gave the sad smile when people expressed sympathy, and grew angrier and angrier as my own peers and colleagues said over and over, "I just feel so bad for your parents." At one point, I left the funeral home when I realized my initial reaction to people walking through the door was to scream, "Yes! Yes, my parents lost their child, their only son! But I lost my brother! My only brother!"
Thank God for friends, Aunt Barb and Andy Blakemore who brought me an unsweetened iced tea from McDonalds each time he came to see us.
Death in and of itself doesn't frighten me. It's what happened over the course of that first week that terrifies me.
I was angry, rageful even. At times when I wanted to be alone, I had people knocking on doors and coming in my bedroom uninvited to tell me I really needed to be with friends and family. The amount of responsibility I unwittingly handled that week by myself was terrifying, and I was worried certain decisions would come back and bite me in the ass later (and they did; my mom and I didn't speak for a week a few months later over some minor decision my mother felt I had wrongly made). But most of all, I was pissed as hell at Michael for dying in the first place.
As so often happens, sleep was hard to come by and at one point, it was two in the morning and I was sitting at my computer reading the funeral home's online guestbook. I started sobbing, the first time I really lost it since Mike was pronounced dead as a matter of fact, and I just started hoarsely screaming, "How could you, Mike? How could you just die like this?"
And clear as day, I kid you not, I heard Mike scream back, "Jesus fucking Christ, Monique, it's not like I meant to die you know!"
I may or may not have mentioned in a previous blog post that Mike and I could argue like nobody's business.
Later in the week, I had long bouts of amnesia. The scariest amnesia moment was when I found myself standing alone in an aisle of Walgreens with a basket over my arm filled with things I had been meaning to pick up but no idea of how I got there in the first place. I paid for my purchases and left to find my car in the parking lot. That I had driven myself there scared the shit out of me.
Perhaps most disturbing to me was that I was horny. All. The. Time. I've since confirmed that this is in fact a perfectly normal reaction to death yet at the time, I felt like a little freak (freak, mind you, not freak-y).
As the week finally reached it's conclusion, I felt relief it was over. It took so long to get from Mike being pronounced dead to finally having the graveside service that I couldn't even bring myself to cry at the cemetery. This worried me too until my mom hugged me later that afternoon and assured me she had felt the same way when my grandparents died.
It wasn't until after a full year had gone by without him that reality finally took hold and I realized Michael wasn't coming back. As so often is the case in military families, you get so used to your Marine/soldier being gone that death and its permanence takes much longer to set in than it would normally.
Oh sure, I had my moments when I realized he was gone gone. I broke down in the middle of Kohls that Christmas when I tossed two t-shirts into my cart for Mike's Christmas gift and then realized twenty feet away I had no need for them and collapsed on the floor in front of strangers sobbing. A very nice woman came over and picked me up and let me cry on her shoulder for a few minutes even. When I finished, she patted me on the back and said she'd done the same thing a few years prior the Christmas after her mother's death.
When you think about it, Death unites us all.
As time marches on though, my feelings of anger have dissipated and been replaced by a decent sized dose of guilt, some of it survivor's guilt even. Why couldn't it have been me? Mike was just starting his life, and boom! he's gone. I've been married, I've been divorced. I've lived in the big city. Since kids have never been an option for me, I had no regrets there. My animal-loving family would make sure my cats were cared for. My ex would no longer benefit from my death (yes, that thought actually crossed my mind believe it or not). Why couldn't it have been me?
Other feelings of guilt have taken root as well. Things I've done or plan on doing that Mike will never have the opportunity to do. The fact that I rarely go out to the cemetery to visit. But I talk to him so often in my head, or even aloud in my car or apartment sometimes, that I don't feel it necessary. But I hate it when things happen and he's not around to share them with. That's the worse.
Like when my cats do stupid stuff. Or I cross paths with someone we both used to know. Or when I want to ask him about the emails I (even still) receive from his former classmates or Marines reaching out just to let me know how Michael touched their lives.
Most of all though I'm terrified of forgetting. Of being unable to recall his "Gimme Candy/Wild Rumpus" dance. His hilarious facial expressions. Mike's innocent excitement over his latest garage sale "bargain." And the inevitable beginning of our phone conversations.
"Monique? This is your bruder. Michael."
"Well, no shit Mike. That's why I said 'Hey Mike.'"
"Oh." Pause. "How the hell are ya?"
Well Mike, I'm doing okay these days. I miss you like crazy, but somehow, it brings me just a little bit of comfort knowing you and Skor are up there somewhere having a beer together, I'm sure.