Twenty years ago, I lost my brother to suicide during a bitterly cold winter when the sun refused to shine. He was twenty years, eight months, and two days old—as old as he will ever be in this lifetime. I was twenty-two and believed I was on the cusp of something profound. Grief wasn’t the destination I expected, but it’s the one I’ve learned to cultivate into something profound and beautiful.
For the most part, I have a deep sense of peace regarding my brother’s death. I know that like 90% of people who die by suicide, Joe had a diagnosable, treatable mental illness—in his case severe depression. I know everyone involved did the best they could and that we all loved each other. I know that life is not a guarantee. Each day is a precious gift.
Today is the twenty-year anniversary of Joe’s passing. Since he died in the morning, he is already older in death than he was in life, if only by a few hours. He is more memory than boy to me now. My heart wrings like an old rag at the passage of time. One twist for each item I still have—the Sunoco patch from the gas station where he once worked, the Marlboro hoodie tucked in a box for safe keeping, the green Jansport external-frame backpack I carried on trails his feet never touched. When I recognize his laugh in my own cackle, a reminder that our DNA still comingles, it wrings again.
Writer and neuroscientist David Eagleman says we experience three deaths: “The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment sometime in the future, when your name is spoke for the last time.” If I am lucky, today is a milestone for both of us. Today, and only today, Joe’s existence is half life and half death. If I am lucky enough, forty-two marks the halfway point in my own life—perhaps the opportunity to double what I’ve already had. But that is not a guarantee.
This is all I know. I wasn’t present when Joe died, but on the day of his funeral, I watched my brother (Joe’s twin) and a cousin cut their palms with a pocket knife and clasp hands, becoming blood brothers. They smeared their conjoint blood on the steel, blue casket, the drops freezing on contact as a blanket of clouds dropped flurries on us. This morning, it was fifty-five degrees. Sun reflected off Monticello, the day so warm the pungent earth filled my nostrils. Buds fattened on trees, perhaps signaling an early spring. Life moves on. This afternoon, I will move on carrying a suitcase and my grief to the AWP writer’s conference, so I can learn more about crafting our time together into a story that will hopefully keep Joe’s name on someone’s lips for years to come.
Grief is an expression of love. The same could be said of our stories. We share bits of our soul so reader can, as Sarah Manguso says, “keep people from despair.” No matter what story you want to share, or how much you question your talent, I hope you will write it down. Do so, because sharing stories is an act of love, because your story might help someone live, and because keeping your name on someone’s lips is like giving time the bird.
If you feel like life is not worth living, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. No matter your situation or the depths of your despair, you matter. Help is just a phone call away.