Well Being

For My Brother on the Fifth Anniversary of His Death

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It was raining the day my little brother died. It would have been easier to understand had it been a driving rain, but no, it was the kind of mist that makes you grumble about not having an umbrella but not enough to make you go back in the house to get one. This kind of rain wasn’t the kind that causes accidents, not the kind that you expect to come alongside untimely death.

Cross country practice was nearly over, and our father was less than four blocks away, waiting for him to return to the school. He heard the sirens. I don’t know who called 911, but I do know that, after the car ran over him, a neighbor who was a nurse came running out of her house and performed CPR until the medics arrived. I never learned her name, but I always wanted to thank her.

My ex-boyfriend’s younger brother, A., was one of the first medics on the scene. He and my brother had been friends and schoolmates. He was with my little brother, Jesse, when he died, before they reached the hospital, asphyxiated on his own blood. The doctors said there was nothing anyone could have done, but A. blamed himself.

They said that Jesse had been running with the group when another friend pulled up in his car. Apparently it was a regular thing for them to give each other rides on the hood of the car, but this time, with the rain on the hood, Jesse couldn’t hold on. At least one wheel of the car ran over him, but it may have been two, a front and a rear. Either way, his ribs and internal organs were crushed, and his lungs punctured.

Jesse had been dead two hours before my mother called me. “Are you alone?” she asked. She sounded strange. I was on my way to dinner, I told her. “Can someone come?” she asked. Friends were meeting me at the dining hall. “Something bad happened,” she said, her voice cracking. I remember sitting down hard on the couch that wasn’t mine in my dorm apartment. “Jesse’s dead.”

She wouldn’t give the details, just that he was dead when they got to the hospital and that I needed to come home. It was 300 miles, and already after 6 when I got the call; leaving before the morning wasn’t an option.

I felt strangely calm at first, but it somehow turned to sobbing when I started making calls. I was working as a building supervisor at the time, so I called my boss, who lived in next building, and then my boyfriend at the time (coincidentally also named Jesse, now my husband). They arrived at nearly the same time, called my staff together for a meeting, and helped me make arrangements to leave.

That night, I was hysterical every time I tried to fall asleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about the two hours of limbo in which, in my reality, my brother was alive. While he was choking to death on his own blood in New Jersey, in my mind he was doing homework, getting ready for dinner, playing with the dog. A friend finally gave me sleeping pills to calm me down, and came back every four hours with another low dose because she was afraid not to give them to me but also afraid to leave me alone with the bottle.

The next morning, the news had spread. Walking through the building with my suitcase was surreal, like sleepwalking. There was whispering, and no one wanted to make eye contact. I quickly learned that most people fear that death is contagious; if they stay away from you, they won’t catch it.

Getting to the parking lot was a relief, until I saw the car. I was a junior, and it was Junior Ring Week at my college, when the other classes play pranks on third-year students The timing was bad. Someone had spread Vaseline on every outside surface of the car, and slashed my tires. I didn’t remember if I laughed or cried, but I do remember thinking that whoever had done it was going to feel like a real jerk when they found out what happened.

Five or six trips through the carwash and four new tires later, my smeary Blazer was on the road, with my boyfriend behind the wheel. It was late afternoon when we left, so it got dark quickly. Somewhere in Maryland, I made Jesse pull over; I needed to be in control of something. I needed to drive. We made it to New Jersey in just over 4 hours, though it should have taken more like 5 or 6.

Whether it was that night or the next I don’t remember, but the students at the high school held a candlelight vigil on the track, and my boyfriend, best friend, and I went along. The kids shared pictures and stories, and they sang “Time of Your Life.” When I introduced myself and told the kids how brave I thought they were for coming together and supporting each other, and how grateful I was for their love, I think I set off the people who weren’t already crying, which of course made me start crying. This became a theme, both the vigils and the crying, and the same kids turned out a year later for the first anniversary of the death to share more memories and sing together at Jesse’s grave.

I was home for about a week, shuffled along by extended family members and well-meaning neighbors who hugged me awkwardly and handed me plates of food I didn’t eat. When I went to the high school to clean out my brother’s locker, I found out that it had already been done and I just needed to pick up the box. I also found out that my other brother, Alan, had gotten in a fight. He had refused to stay home, preferring instead to be with his friends.

Emotions were running high, and I assumed he’d fought with the boy who had been driving the car when Jesse died, a kid who, in my opinion, had enough to deal with without getting beat up by the older brother of his dead friend. I was ready to yank him out of class to give him a stern older-sister talking-to when a teacher Jesse had been close to pulled me aside and told me what happened.

Some kid who had never liked my brother announced, “I’m glad he’s dead,” and laughed. Word traveled to Alan, who walked up to the kid and punched him in the face. You have to feel for the vice principal in that situation. How do you enforce a zero-tolerance violence policy when the aggressor punched a kid who totally deserved it?

When I went to say goodbye to another teacher, he whispered to me as he hugged me, “Second row, third seat back — he’s the kid Alan punched.” I didn’t say anything to the boy, though I wanted to. But I admit that I took some pleasure in the bruise on his face, and his obvious discomfort when I fixed him with what I hope was an extremely withering glare. It was clear that he knew exactly who I was.

In my mind, I gestured for him to follow me with one finger and led him into the hall, which was empty. I imagined slamming him against the lockers and putting a hand against his chest. “You’re lucky Alan got to you first,” I would say. And then I would spit on him, and push him hard against the lockers again before walking away, leaving him begging for forgiveness on his knees, tears streaming down his face.

But instead, I just left. I don’t remember seeing him at the funeral, though the church, which my father, a custom builder, had finished building the previous winter, was full to overflowing. About a dozen crying girls and a few crying boys lined up to tell stories about my brother, and my best friend harmonized with me on a song I played using Jesse’s guitar, which he would never play again.

The next six months were something of a blur. I went back to school, but barely left my room. My professors let me take incompletes and finish the semester on my own, but I still had to turn in major papers and participate in group presentations. For the first one, about a month after I got back from the funeral, I bumped into a classmate on the steps of the English building. “Where have you been?” he asked. “My brother died, so I’m kind of laying low right now.” “Oh my God, what happened?” “Um, well, he got hit by a car,” I said. It was easier than explaining the whole story. “Oh, my dog got hit by a car,” he said, and immediately his eyes got huge and he clapped a hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that.” It looked like he was going to throw himself down the steps, he was so horrified. I had to laugh. “Dude, it sucks when your dog gets run over.”

In one way, my life continued. I got engaged, I kept my scholarship, I got my own apartment with my then-fiancé, I adopted a cat. But the other half of me was still hysterical in bed, wishing it had been me instead of Jesse. Therapy helped, and meds helped more, but after five years, I can’t say I’m over it. I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet and neither is my family. My parents divorced about a year after Jesse’s death, and neither of them can stand to call my husband by his name.

People have tried to comfort me by saying things like, “I know your brother is watching over you right now,” or “He only died because God wanted another little angel,” but that only makes it worse. I would hate to think that my brother is in some spirit world alone with nothing to do but stare and the life he doesn’t have. I would also hate to think that the God who created this world is so selfish that he strikes down 16-year-olds just because he can. The Bible says that death is an enemy, and that God will do away with it. It also says that there will be a resurrection, and I know that I’ll see my brother again then. In the meantime, it’s a relief to know that he’s not scared or angry or anything else — just sleeping until the resurrection, conscious of nothing.

Although I know some in the community, and even in my family, felt differently, I never blamed the boy driving the car for what happened to my brother. I would have liked to see him lose his license for a year or two, both for his own good and to set an example for any other teenagers in the area stupid enough to hoodsurf, but I don’t think Jesse’s death is his fault. I’ve never been mad a him for it. But I have to admit, for the first couple of years, I was furious with my brother Jesse for being such a moron and putting all of us through his death, but I'm working on letting go of the anger. Kids are kids, and, frankly, kids are stupid sometimes. That’s why my brother is dead.

They say it gets better with time, but I think that’s a lie. It gets different, but it’s never really better. My grandfather died on my 18th birthday, and my great grandmother on my 19th. The US declared war on Iraq the day after my 20th birthday. And just over one week after my 21st birthday, my little brother died. He was 16 years, 2 months, and 2 days old. Every time my age goes up a year, I think about how his never will, and it makes me incredibly sad. He would have been a wonderful man.

Contents © Copyright 2008 Kristen King

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