On December 9th, 2011, my brother Roger died at home after suffering from a brief illness followed by a heart attack. He was 34 yrs old. It was extremely sudden and very traumatic for my whole family. My parents had found him in the bathroom, on the floor. He was already gone. It's been a difficult few months, to say the least. And each of us have been dealing with the pain and sadness in our own way. Writing is one of my coping mechanisms.
I know it seems like a really crazy idea to write you a letter. Well, among all my "ideas" that I have had over the course of my life, this one seems pretty tame. I think it all started because Zach told me that he sent you an email. He said there were just things he wanted to tell you. Things he wanted to say and it seemed like the best way to get that all out. I could probably write you every day for weeks and I would really never tell you all that I wanted to. At least I am starting somewhere.
I suppose it's one of those moments that will never leave me. That moment, on Dec 9th when I knew that you had died. The sound of mom's voice on the phone. What she said. Trying to understand the words. How I started to feel like I couldn't breathe.There was hole in my chest. I sat on my kitchen floor and said "ohmygod. ohmygod ohmygod" about a thousand time. My head on my knees, rocking back and forth. Trying to use the phone to call for help for myself. Lost. Totally lost as a person. For quite possibly the first time in my life...I didn't know what to do. Knowing that everything was going to change. Forever. That point where we need to start talking about you in the past tense. Where you won't always be 4 years younger than me anymore, rather you would stay 34 forever and Marty and I would move ahead...without you. All those pictures where 5' me had to stand in the middle of you and Marty with your 6+ feet of height, so the photo wouldn't look off balance. Now it's just me and Marty.
And I am sorry but I wish I had never seen you in the ER that day. The day you left me.
Zach wanted to go in...and you know he couldn't handle it. He couldn't stay. But I just couldn't let mom see you alone. But I really wish I didn't see you like that. You had been sick, and your beard was terrible. That crazy Hoeft hair growth. One week of not shaving and I could hardly recognize you. As dumb as it sounds, I was hoping that there would be some last minute miracle. They mixed you up. Confused you with the dude down the hall who is asking for me. It's wasn't the day for a miracle for me. So far from it.
You still had the ET tube in and your eyes weren't all the way closed. The bright lights. The stupid hospital gown. So many pieces of medical things in the room, surrounding you, that I touch and work with every day of my life. They seemed so foreign to me that day. The whole place was ugly and harsh.
It took so many nights (and so many xanax) before that wasn't the last thing I saw before I fell asleep every night, or even just randomly flashing through my head at inconvenient moments. Now it's just now and then, but I know it will never really leave me. I wanted to just sit down on that floor and just fade into it. I wanted to be anyone, anywhere, at anytime other than there. I wanted my alarm to go off and it just to be a nightmare. I wanted to know what to say or do or how to act. I wanted to make it all fit and make sense, even though I knew it never would.
But mom couldn't live through that alone. She was drowning in sadness. Someone needed to stand next to her as she talked to you, touched your hands and kissed your forehead. I thought she would just collapse into the pain that that moment. And who could blame her?
That time in the hospital was so strange...it seemed to last forever and then also to be just a blink. I made my phone calls like a robot. Calling everyone that mom called out to me. Calling work...and scaring myself with how calm I was sounding. Scaring them, too. The lists of things to do rattled through my brain. When was I working next? How was Marty going to get here in time? How was I going to do this? All the questions pounding me one after another. Really what I should have been thinking is...how the hell am I still able to stand up or even just breathe?
The roller coaster of that day was exhausting:
Talking to dad on the phone, like I had done a million times before and but this time I had to deliver horrible news to him. Unimaginable news. Hearing him break up and fade off the phone as I hung up. Knowing he was sitting at home all alone and dissolving into tears.
Then talking to Marty. Hearing his voice, knowing he was swimming in sadness and his mental list growing every minute. Trying to get home to us as fast as possible.
Telling the kids when they got off the bus. They had gone off to school like it was any other, typical day. Coming home to the world turned upside down and painfully different.
Picking out your clothes for the funeral home and planning your wake and funeral. As I looked for your shirt and pants...I just sat in your chair in your room and cried. Not gasping, sobbing tears anymore. I didn't have the strength anymore...but slow, quiet absurd tears that just wouldn't stop.
You know how much I hate crying in front of people. Had to break that rule a lot in those following days. Except trying not to cry in front of mom or dad...because I couldn't add to their hurt anymore. Feeling that full, pounding-in-my-chest pain, over and over.
And I kept thinking back to the days before. I talked to you on Tuesday. I knew you were sick but I wanted to tell you something about someone we knew. You made some dry jokes and you were off the phone in no time. Mom had told me that you were sick for a few days, and that you didn't want to go to the hospital. You always had a cold or the flu...something nagging you constantly. How was I to know this was different?
Part of me has to live with the fact that I am a highly skilled ICU nurse...and I didn't come see you and assess you. Maybe I would have seen something. Maybe you would have listened to me instead of mom. Maybe I would have just taken over and gotten you to the hospital. Don't think I don't hate myself a little bit for that. Even though I rationalize it all. I know that this ending could have come just as easily in a hospital. I know all of that...but I didn't even try. My own brother and I didn't even walk in your room and do a basic exam of you. What the hell good as all my skills at that point? To save strangers and not my own family? I can walk into a hospital room and know exactly what the problem is and exactly how to fix it....but didn't fix this.
And I know that you don't blame me. I know that with my whole heart. Still, it will be a hurt and an disappointment in myself that I will live with forever.
I keep thinking back to a conversation we had once...a long time ago, when you were having trouble and in the hospital in Detroit. I think I said something like: "What the hell, you asshole! Are you trying to kill yourself!?!?"
and you said "Ohh, are we going to talk like that?? Bitch. (pause) Shit, Heidi. I'm sorry. I can't even say that to you. I am sorry"
I have always told everyone that I never fought with you. Not one day, one time, in our entire life together. The kids never believe me. Siblings always fight, right? I would always said "Ask Uncle Roge. He will tell you the same thing" That just wasn't the kind of relationship we had. Well, it just wasn't the kind of person you were. A lot of that credit goes to you, not to me. You can ask Marty.
When I think about last year, with how sick mom was...and how there is no way I could have done that alone...I start to cry a little. What if I have to do that again...and you aren't here? What if I can't do it all? What if I need you...no...when I need you...what will I do? The answer to that overwhelms me. It makes me panic a little inside. There's so much more to this that I keep deep, in a private part of my heart and the good thing is...you already know all of it. I don't have to try and put words or feelings to it. You just...know. Even if I can't understand any of these feeling myself...you get it.
I will never really be done "writing you a letter" It is a constant dialog.
Forever it will be the reminder of an inside joke here and there. It's a smell from our youth. A random thought about us dividing up your Star Wars action figures, which took so long in negotiations that we never really played. And you always let me have what I wanted, even if I tried to hid it from you. You knew me that well. I remember holding you for the first time on that green and white, horrible 70's style couch. I couldn't even stand to look at you until mom asked if I wanted to hold the baby...and then it was love.
I remember every cast you wore. Summer nights on Chesterfield. Winter walks home from St Al's in a blizzard. Being excited to share a new album with me. "I like the Fresh Prince, Heidi. But have you heard Run-DMC?? Now that's IT!"
Dancing the the kitchen when mom and dad were at work and we were making dinner for ourselves. Bonfires at Babcia's. Family vacations. Teasing Marty into believing Freddie Kruger was at his window. Proud moments when you told people that you were glad to spend time with me again, like we had so much last year. My heart so happy when you said how you had missed hanging out with me and that if one good thing came from mom being sick all those months...that it was the time we had together. You weren't the best at expressing how you felt. You kept a lot inside, so hearing that made me so happy. Because I KNEW you loved me and you thought I was interesting enough to spend time with.
I remember how good you were to my kids. They love you so much. They always will. No one is like Uncle Roge. My kids always disappeared into your room the first chance they got...because you were so damn cool. And they just wanted to be close to that for a little while. I love that you appreciated Sam and his quirks and that you saw some of yourself in him. Like me, they miss you every single day. Several times a day.
I remember that really...you were my first friend. and I was yours.
Believe me, I remember all the bad along with the good. One thing I loved about you is that you were always so honest about yourself. You knew all your faults. All those years of struggling..for you and for all of us who had to watch you and live our lives around you. I am sorry that you felt all that pain inside. That you struggled just to feel 'normal'. And I am annoyed that depression took so many years away from you and prevented you from enjoying your life more.
You fought for so many years. I know it must have been exhausting. I can only imagine.
I just don't want to dwell on those hard time, because that is not who you were. Even when you hit the very bottom of the blackest bottom...you were always kind and quiet and just...sad. I think that is why it hurt us so much to watch those years go by. And you pushed passed them and got better...some days were better than others. I think in the back of my mind I always thought it would be one of those demons that would take you away from me...and it was sometime much more real and medical.
I haven't really gotten to that anger stage yet. I don't know if I will. I am too sad, too hurt to even consider it. Is it stupid that some element in your blood was low and it caused you to have a heart attack at 34 yr old? It's totally STUPID. But it happens every day. Sure, I could be mad at potassium or human physiology. Is that worth the effort? Not really? Things happen for a reason, right? This better have one HUGE good reason. I could be mad God, I suppose. But I don't feel that either. I don't know why. I can't explain it...I just am not.
And I mad at you for leaving? For not taking better care of yourself...maybe a little but I think I am just much more sad and scared. And I think that is more of about who you were. Anger wasn't part of you. You were docile and quiet and I rarely saw you mad. So, I guess, it just isn't an emotion that I think about in connection to you. It was hard to be mad at you or if that ever happened, I never stayed mad at you.
This was just how the story goes in our case. It's certainly not the way I wanted it to go. I just have to figure out how to keep you close to me and also to move ahead without you. It just seems impossible. I know it will take time, more tears and more crazy letters to you.
I go through days like it didn't even happen. I think of something I want to ask you or tell you...and then it just smacks me back down to earth. I know that I am just in the beginning of this. Just starting to put the pieces together and make my way through it. It isn't the hot searing pain of a few months ago. Today it isn't more smoldering, underlying. Always there and ready to take my breath away at any moment.
I don't have to say that I love you. You know it. You always have. I know that send me things along my way, to help get me through. The exact song I need to hear, at the exact perfect moment. The flash of a childhood memory that makes me smile from the inside out. A random smile on a stranger when I feel like I am going to start crying in the middle of the grocery store. I know that you are never really far away from me. I just have to listen a little harder and pay attention a little more. But you are there.