I lost my little brother three years ago today. Even now I find it hard to talk about. I always find comfort in reminiscing on our past and who he was, but I’ve never been able to talk about how this has affected me and how it continues to hurt me. Even when I went to therapy I could never actually discuss him and how the loss was manifesting itself in my body, but I could talk about how it made me act. So this is my attempt, despite how much this hurts and how terrified I am to be this honest, to open up and stop harboring this pain.
The last words we exchanged were “I love you,” but it’s the words before that haunt me. Guilt is a hard thing to explain, but it is most certainly what I feel when it feels like my chest is going to burst and the nausea kicks in. It’s the realization that I had been cruel to him without realizing it. I was so focused on wanting him to get better grades that I never stopped to ask him why he was suddenly failing. Sudden or unexplained declines in school or work performance are an indication of a problem. I know this now because in the months following his death I sought out answers with the hope of finding closure and instead unlocked such a life-rattling revelation that it shook me to the core and changed me entirely. There were signs and I wasn’t paying attention. [Enter Guilt from stage left. Self-loathing soon follows.]
I still remember what I said to him vividly because I was so concerned about him being successful because that is what I thought happiness was back then. I pushed too hard. After dinner we joked around about why I would go upstairs to use the bathroom and before I left we hugged and said our “I love you’s.” It was because we ended on a good note that I didn’t think I had done anything wrong.
The next day I left work and went south to stay with a friend. It was a Monday. When I heard the news that he was in the hospital one of my best friends thought clearly for me when I could not. She drove my car for me to take me home and a part of me, though scared, still felt some sense of calm because I couldn’t grasp that I could lose him and therefore I couldn’t. We were okay. I still had over an hour before I’d be with him. He’d make it. When I got the second call to tell me that he didn’t make it I couldn’t even process the feeling. This was the first time I experienced sensory overload. I went on autopilot and began making phone calls and I’m still not certain why I did that. When the lull passed I was hit with so much emotion all at once that it felt like a giant wave crashed into my soul, stealing my breath. It’s the best way to explain what that moment felt like. It took months before I could drive out of the city because I was terrified someone else I loved would die and I would be trapped and helpless in a car again. I still have to pull over when I leave the city sometimes because I get overwhelmed with fear that it’s going to happen. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel okay driving again.
That night my family and Patrick slept together on my parents’ living room floor. When I think back on it I don’t remember if I felt anything. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable or sad or if I cried. I remember holding on to the rosary Killian was given at his confirmation the week prior that he had left in my car. I remember falling asleep thinking about singing with him and making jokes about how he was “saved” now. I remembered all the times he would sit in my backseat laughing about videos he had watched online recently, video bloggers he liked, music he was listening to, and the funny voices he would give people. I fell asleep thinking about how I’d never look in the rearview and see him making faces at me again. My car is the last thing I currently have that he has touched and I can’t bring myself to trade it in until it no longer runs.
When I moved into my house I was ecstatic to be able to call somewhere home, but as soon as I showed up on my new property my first thought was about him and how he will never know this place. He will only know the small apartment I had with the swimming pool he would splash around in with Patrick. He will never know my home. I felt the same when I graduated with my first bachelor’s. I wasn’t sure I would graduate because I was slipping. I kept his death a secret from my classmates and professors because I wanted one portion of my life to remain the same and a safe space to walk in where no one looked at me with pity or walked on eggshells, but that ended when I was forced to explain my absences and incomplete assignments. So when I graduated I was not happy or excited or proud. I was relieved to not have to go back and sad that I had to take a step forward without him there to witness it. When Patrick and I announced our engagement I drove to his grave to tell him. It was wet and I crouched to the ground and told him “Buddy, it’s happening. We’re getting married. And you won’t be there to see it. You won’t fucking be there.” I was so filled with anger and hate, but none of it was for him. My life was moving forward and there was nothing I could do to stop it. The car is the only thing left that is a part of my old life.
For the better part of that first year I would wake up from terrible nightmares about him that would cause immediate attacks leaving me breathless, sobbing, and gasping for air. Sometimes it was so bad that I would choke and temporarily pass out while Patrick would try to help me breath and calm me down. I can only recall the details of one dream that shook me so badly that when I woke up I thought I was still dreaming and screamed for help, even though I lived alone at the time and no one would come. It was of his decaying body crucified on a cross and he was laughing; a watery, shrill caterwaul. I’ve never had the dream again, but I drew the image over and over hoping to get the image out of my head and letting it numb me so that I’d never experience that fear again.
I have trouble remembering things. My once prized memory of useless details has vanished and has left me questioning those around me. I’ve lost a lot of trust in people because I’m not sure if they’re lying to me. Now whenever someone recounts an event that I was apparently a part of I question its authenticity because I can’t remember it. I then question myself and my authenticity. I’ve recently come to terms that I don’t remember my childhood. I don’t remember major events, only memories of others telling me about them. I’m not sure what’s real and what I’ve constructed from others’ perceptions. When I try to think of who I was only a few memories come to mind from elementary and middle school. The rest is a blur. Sometimes I struggle believing that I ever existed outside on my current mentality. What was little Keely like? What did she think and dream about? Was she happy? I can’t remember.
I suppose I must have felt happier before all of this because I know I feel a huge weight and that must mean there was a time I felt lighter. When I try to find the words to describe what this feels like I can only bring up an image of a suit of armor. I am a hollow, heavy shell. There was a time when there was something in there, but it’s gone and the shell is all that’s left. That and the overwhelming feelings of sadness and guilt.
I used to take him to IHOP every year for his birthday, just me and him, to get food and drink coffee. I always loved those moments with him because I felt like a good sister and I could tell he was happy. He would tell me about everything he found funny and we would swear we’d never tell mom I let him drink coffee. I can’t remember anymore if he used sugar. That memory is slowly slipping away because I didn’t pay enough attention. Later I became to wrapped up in my own life and job that I missed our date and didn’t even notice until almost a full year later when he asked me if we could go. I would tell him we definitely would when I had free time. A few weeks before he died he had asked me again and I told him the same thing. Now I’m left wondering if he had wanted to talk to me about something that was bothering him. I’ll never know, but I still can’t shake the guilt that I never made the time and I didn’t pay enough attention.
Sometimes I catch myself wondering if he was ever real because now he feels more like a story I once read than someone who was in my life for a brief fourteen years. I can’t remember his voice. Not even a little. When I think of his laugh I’m not sure if it’s true or if I’ve altered it. He feels more fabricated as time goes on because my memories of him are growing dimmer. I can only remember his face because some mornings I cry because I can still see some of those features when I look in the mirror. I try to hold on to the resemblance as long as I can, but it inevitably disappears with a slight movement and I can’t find it again. It is both a comfort and curse to see him in my face because all I can do is wonder “Is this what he’d look like at 25? 26? 27?” Would he age the way I’m aging? Would he have kept some of his youthful features or would his become sharper and more defined like Keenan? Sometimes I look in the mirror and choke on the words “Who would you be right now? Would you finally feel comfortable with who you were? Who would you be at 26? Would you be a chef and a father like you had dreamed? Who would you be?”
There are days at work where I lock the door and sob in a corner where no one can see me because thoughts of who he’d be sneak up on me. It started when I started working for the middle school he attended and I had to hope I didn’t teach any of his friends. I would spend my day filled with anxiety that someone would recognize me and mention his name and I wouldn’t be able to remain composed. I stopped calling myself Miss Doyle and went by Miss K so no one could find me and realize I’m their dead friend’s sister. Now I feel a different sadness when I’m teaching at what would have been his high school because I get to see his friends all grown up, getting their licenses, going to prom, taking their SATs, finding out where they’ll be running off to for college. I never thought I’d watch them grow up, but not him. I never thought I would teach their classes, but not his. Now when those students laugh with me and play their jokes I wonder if he would have joined in. Would he have bragged about me or would he have been embarrassed that I was one of his teachers and tried to keep his distance? It hurts walking those halls and knowing he never did.
I have a deep fear of having children because I’m afraid I’ll have two sons and my family is cursed to only be allowed one. My father’s brother died at a young age leaving him the only one and now my little brother is gone, leaving only one. I’m terrified that the same will happen to me and I’d rather never have them than risk losing one of them. I’m genuinely terrified to ever lose another child that I love with all my heart. I also don’t know how I could ever bare to look at another little face that looks like mine because there may be a chance it inherits the very traits he shared with me and I’m not sure if I would feel joy or sadness. There are many reasons I get angry when anyone tries discussing how I should have children, but it is mainly because they don’t know how terrified I am to see any of him in someone else. They don’t understand the fear and guilt and sorrow I am constantly feeling despite painted on smiles and the most genuine laughs I can muster.
But mostly I feel like a suit of armor. Hollow and heavy with guilt and curses etched under my skin. A tanzanite honeybee engraving as my body’s new coat of arms.