5 Years On, It’s the Small Things that Mattered Most

Today at 12:48 PM, my brother will have been dead for 5 years.

This particular day doesn’t feel any more special or worthy of note than any others, but here I am, making note of it. Probably more out of habit than anything else.

Five years on and I’ve realized it’s the small things that have left the largest impact on me since Phil’s passing. How people around me reacted at a low point has taught me a great deal about loving others.

Patti, the receptionist at work who heard me lose it on the phone when I got the news, who came over to me and rubbed my back with one hand back and forth slowly, gently as I cried at my desk. She cried with me as I packed my things to go be with my family.

Jeff, a good friend that was walking into the hospital as I pulled up to it, who simply sat with me in silence and waited patiently for me to say it was okay that he go home to his family.

Brandon, a dear friend that drove 4 hours to be there at the funeral and embraced me like a brother.

An uncle that, to this day, sends me “head check” texts on the anniversary of Phil’s death as well as on Phil’s birthday.

Seemingly endless amounts of people that showed up to the visitation and offered kind words and cooked meals for our family.

Almost daily messages in the weeks and months that followed of people talking about Phil and sharing funny stories.

Others reached out and offered sage advice on dealing with loss. One such friend even shared how he was able to grieve after he lost an infant to SIDS.

Loss, it seems, has the ability to expand love in this world as well as end it. I count myself blessed for having received an overflowing amount of it.

I share all of this now as a poor way of saying thanks to those that have lifted me up in low moments.

Having been shown such kindness and grace from family and friends, it further cements in my mind that it’s the small things that matter most in life.

A gentle hand. A warm smile. A strong embrace. Kind words. Being present.

These things matter.

The New Normal

phil 2

Tomorrow marks the 2 year anniversary of the worst day of my life. The death of my brother and best friend has had a larger impact on me than any other single event in my life. Even though the list of people more significant to me than Phil is limited to my immediate family of my wife and children, I don’t think any death will so vastly shape and change me again. I may be more devastated, but not so wholly changed.

Mother’s Day marks the last time I saw Phil alive. We went to the park where he was to be married and taught my son how to roll down a hill. We went back to my house and watched the sort of okay horror movie, Insidious. I remember not feeling well and when he, his fiance and my mom and dad got up to go home I didn’t hug him goodbye, something I always did. Instead I went to the medicine cabinet to get Tylenol. We discussed the Rammstein show we’d just seen and how awesome it was. We said goodbye and that we loved each other. I can still see how he stood and looked at me in front of my door just before he turned to leave. It’s all burned into my mind.

A new normal is something I’ve been looking for. The world doesn’t stop turning for the death of anyone. You have to press on. Take your licks and keep moving. Focus on what you can manage and deal with the emotions as they come. Cry. Drink. Talk. Weep. Breathe deeply. Shake your head clear and get back to living.

Mentally I feel like I’ve never been better in my life. The sad days are few and far between anymore even though there’s barely an hour that passes that I don’t think about Phil. It’s a numbness that I’ve welcomed and cherish. Not that I don’t have strong feelings about it, but it’s good to compartmentalize it to some degree. There’s a healthy balance of letting it out and keeping it in. Life goes on. People live. People die. Sometimes it’s the ones we love.

Am I mad? No. Not in the least. In fact, there’s much I’m thankful for. Like the fact that Phil and I were so very close. We purposefully shared a room up until the day I got married. We always hugged and said, “I love you.” We hung out and always laughed a lot. I’m thankful that if Phil had to die it was over as quickly as it was. I’m thankful I got to see him the day of the accident and hold his hand while he still looked like Phil. I’m thankful for the outpouring of love from people I both do and don’t know.

The new normal feels like it’s slowly happening on its own and I welcome it, but also feel guilt for it. To not mourn for someone as much as you feel they deserve does bring about some feelings of guilt. You feel this way even though you know they’d not want one single tear shed. It’s just human nature. We want to honor the ones we love.

The new normal also feels like a mess because, well, it’s new. Phil’s personality was very mellow and he was a great glue for my family dynamic and without him, much has changed drastically and I mourn for that as well.

Sometimes I feel alone in this and sometimes I feel the lift from my brother, Jason, who walks this trail with me. Two where there are supposed to be three.

Most days are great, but days like Mother’s Day and tomorrow are not fun days. They’re a reminder of what was lost and the hole in my heart that I’m trying to not notice all the time.

In an animated movie I saw last year there was a point where the narrator talked about hearts breaking and the truth in the statement can’t be overstated. He said, “When your heart breaks, it can grow back crooked. It grows back twisted and gnarled and hard.” 

Sometimes I feel like the character he was speaking of. Still very much me, but increasingly numbed to many things I used to feel greatly about. It takes an astonishing amount of anything to get an emotional reaction from me anymore. It’s given me extreme tunnel vision. I worry about my kids and my wife. That’s it. That’s my world. So long as nothing happens to them I’m impervious to pain of any kind. I’ve actually grown to love this as it gives my life and tasking a laser focus. No distractions. There was recently another death in the family of someone I really cherished and I barely felt anything. Is my family okay? Good. I’m good.

All this thinking and reflecting about the living that I’ll never have with Phil, I’m always reminded of the great ending to the poem, Maud Muller, that states:

For all the sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Another day. Another year. Another normal. I’m getting there.

 

 

Be You

I received a call from an old friend today that was noticeably under immense stress. This stress, I soon realized, is the by product of living a double life: one half a believing and practicing Christian and the other as a closeted atheist.

It’s something he and I have talked about numerous times over drinks in the past, but I’ve never heard such exhaustion in his voice in all our years of friendship.

He’s absolutely torn, just as I once was, between keeping his current facade of belief and Christianity going or being true to himself. He’s done a very good job of keeping up appearances, but the cracks are showing and he’s feeling the stress of living a double life.

Regrettably, he confided in me that he’s most terrified of losing his relationship with his parents.

As someone who mutually finds identity and solace in my close relationships with my family, my heart breaks for the guy. Admittedly, the hardest two people to admit I was an atheist to were my parents. The talk, the explanation, the reassurance that it’s not a phase. That no, I’m not mad and no, I don’t think I’ll see Phil again and no, I won’t be going to heaven or hell.

To take the lights out of someone’s eyes like that is not an experience I wish to ever have again, but it’s one I’m glad I had.

Having tried to fake belief for a while myself, I told my friend about when I decided I wasn’t going to live a double life anymore. A non-believing friend of mine told me about an acquaintance of his that was, at that time, 66 years old. Turns out this man had been an atheist for over 30 years and nobody in his family knew. He’d lied his way through every prayer and conversation all in the name of not rocking the boat. Of not letting people down.

I knew immediately after that story that I’d not only be honest with everyone I loved, but also with myself. I didn’t want to live in a prison in my head. Afraid and ashamed to be me.

Most people I told took it in stride and a good many tried to convince me to just love Jesus! That I can choose to follow him! It took a good while for them to understand that you can’t force yourself to believe something your mind doesn’t. It literally gets to a point where it’s not a choice that can be made. You can’t shut off your brain.

So, for my old and dear friend that was patient, kind and loving to me as I poured out my heart, and a few tears, about my deceased sibling, I say, be yourself, brother. Be true to you and be honest with those you love and hope they have the sense to love you for the amazing man you’ve become and not for what god you associate with.

There’s far more peace and happiness to be found when we don’t reject who we are for the sake of those that are supposed to love us unconditionally. Rejoice in being you and be the man that others aspire to be.

My Brother Doesn’t Age Anymore

Tomorrow would’ve been my brother’s 26th birthday. We’d be going to my parents house to have cupcakes and ice cream and sing the happy birthday song like a bunch of obnoxious 4 year olds. I’d be able to see the candles in the reflection of his glasses. I’d see that dopey grin of my brother’s that was just so….him. These are events that won’t ever happen again and I’m left with a memory that’s only sure to fail with time. Just thinking about the reality of it brings great weight that I’m eager to rid myself of.

It’s the most simple thing. When someone passes away they’re gone. The finality of it seems to always hit with the same sting. Of course Phil’s gone. I know that. My mind continually pushes against that idea and never fails to bring some form of pain I’d long ago hoped would leave me.

If I’m lucky enough to live to be a very old man my brother will still be 24 years old. Frozen in time as the young man I always knew.

I just wish that my heart could outgrow such terrors as to give me a moments peace.

I love you, Phil.

Happy 26th Birthday.