I never know exactly how I will feel the day your birthday comes around. Some years, there is only gratitude that I shared a life with you for a short time. Other years, the sadness is heavy and throbbing. This year I’ve been fighting back tears all day, the twist in my chest something close to how it was in the days after you died. Somehow both subtle and sharp, like the beginning of tendonitis or the onset of a migraine when a low-pressure system moves in. Several times I’ve had to stop in my tracks and lower my chin to my chest, sobs escaping as think breaths and shaking inhalations. My eyes tear. My tears fall.
You would have been 35 today, my dear turd of a little brother. That’s how I described you to someone recently, jokingly, lovingly, as a turd. And I meant it because all little brothers are turds, jerks, and annoyingly ridiculous at some point in their sibling career. Still, and maddeningly, little brothers, especially youngest child little brothers, are unfailingly the light of a mother’s eye. And that you were: the youngest and prodigal and shining. Generous with gifts and laughter. Brilliant with comedic timing and sarcastic comments. Fragile despite your soaring height and strength. Delicate beneath your anger and rage.
In life and in death, I tried not to hold this against you: the way you absorbed all the attention and love and time of everyone around us for so long. I only wanted you to be happy and healthy, daemons and addictions be damned. And some days you were happy, I think. I was so far away by then, I can’t say for sure, but I can hear your voice on the phone encouraging me to keep my head up when first-year teaching got the best of me. Another time I hear you ask laughingly and maybe a bit menacingly if I wanted you to “take care” of an(other) asshole boyfriend for me. I replay in my mind the recording of your sharing your lemon pepper butter recipe with me that time I was cooking for a friend’s wedding. I kept a copy of the voicemail in my phone for years after you died – we all did – until one time it didn’t transfer and was lost in the ether. Thankfully, I listened to it enough times that I can still hear you in my head: the trill of the r and the strike of the t as you put on a snooty accent of questionable origins, your voice surprisingly deep for my “little brother,” the twinkle of your eyes coming through the phone line as you instructed me in making “world-famous Bretl Butter.”
You would have been 35 today, and I wonder where you might be now: what you might be doing, who you might be loving, how you might be living. When we were younger, I enjoyed visiting you at work, watching you make customers laugh, whether selling expensive cookware to old ladies or making ice cream cones for little kids. You were a great uncle. Just plain great with kids. You would have made an amazing dad if that’s what you wanted, but we can’t know what you wanted. We can only imagine or not, whatever’s more healing to each of us.
For me, it’s remembering and celebrating, talking about you, looking at pictures and videos, telling stories, and making food. One of my favorite memories is watching you with Syd after work, dancing in the kitchen, her speckled paws in your hands, a big goofy grin on each of your faces. Anne has a video of that, you know, and it is gold to us.
One of the hardest things for me about you being gone is when I look through pictures of us, knowing you will always be my little brother, and yet we will never take another picture together. The only images I will ever share of us or of you will be old pictures, from many years past, with you frozen in a moment, stuck in another time. This is just one thing that breaks my heart and pushes sobs from my chest and tears from my eyes when I think about you.
Earlier this year, I was given a box full of old pictures. One by one, I sorted through them with Anne, Beth, and Mom. I couldn’t help it, but while we tossed many pictures straight into the trash, I saved almost every one of you. Most of them were photos I hadn’t seen in years, and I laughed at the memories they dug up in my mind. Some were ones I had never seen, and these – these were like finding treasure. Old-new pictures, images of you I had never seen before, nothing at all like getting to make a new picture with you, but something close to the next best thing. I even realized today that I ended up with several of you on past birthdays.
You, puffy and swollen as a newborn.
You, blowing out candles on your 11th birthday.
You, pulling a face on your 14th.
Gold, I tell you. Diamonds and rubies and sapphires.
I know I’m repeating myself when I say I never know exactly how I will feel when your birthday comes around, each year a surprise. Tears. Laughter. Celebration. Grief. I never know until it’s here. June 10th. Again and again and again.
Anyhow…It’s time for dinner. Crab legs and asparagus and corn on the cob in your honor. And of course Bretl Butter on the side.
Happy Birthday, little bro. I love you. I miss you. And you’re still a turd.
May you be happy and healthy.
May you be safe and free.
May you take care of yourself with ease.