Death of a Could’ve Been

Fourteen years ago, I lay on the couch in my mom’s living room, watching A Beautiful Mind and snacking. It was July and I was home from college, recently having returned from a 2-month study abroad program in Italy. I was alone, enjoying my zone-out time, when the phone rang. I didn’t bother answering because I was, and continue to be, a huge phone screener (this was super easy back when caller ID was a mere option and I didn’t have to feel guilty about deliberately and habitually ignoring calls). So I didn’t think twice about letting the phone go to voicemail (were answering machines even referred to as voicemail back then?). I was chewing on both Russell Crow’s chilling portrayal of the mad-genius and on popcorn over-sprayed with fake butter. But as the message played, I became stunned — my mind at once racing and foggy, my real feelings silenced by instructions from myself about feelings that should surface. My dad had died. His father, my grandfather, was speaking on my mom’s machine, telling me about a heart attack, referring to my dad affectionately and conveying logistical funeral details. I could have picked up. I could have experienced this moment with a distant, but real, family member. But I just listened. I think I even finished the movie later. I didn’t cry. 

See, my dad was never a part of my life (I’ve said that phrase so many times, I no longer stop to think about what it means). The rundown: alcoholism, divorce, a move across the country, my mom’s side of the family becoming my beloved and only family, a handful of letters, a smaller handful of short and awkward visits. I became hardened, scared and lazy. I didn’t yearn for a relationship. I liked my life, and reintroducing my dad to it felt cacophonous — like it could muddy and puncture my relatively smooth bubble. I hadn’t seen him in a good 7 or 8 years when he passed. We didn’t know each other. So my day-to-day life, my routine, remained unchanged. My world didn’t break like it did when my grandma passed 2 years later. But I admit that I’m still processing his life and death, carrying their weight around with me. I’m still realizing that the relationship was never and will never be there. It’s not part of my reality and it won’t ever be. 

I surprised myself when I shed a reservoir of tears at his funeral. I had never seen an open casket before — and I felt like I had never before seen him. The funeral was two hours away from my mom’s house. So all those years, my dad had been living and breathing just two.hours.away.

Fourteen years later, tonight, I got another phonecall. My distant but lovely cousin called to relay her sympathies regarding my half-brother’s death. Her condolences were the first I’d heard of this new tragedy. This brother was a son of my dad, a man 11 or so years older than me, a man who I hadn’t seen in many years, a man who I could have known but didn’t. Another heart attack. Another death. Another lost relationship. The complexities of why I never took the time to find him deserves more examination, but I know I’ll regret that I never did. I’ll go to sleep tonight (for as long as little K will allow), hug my babies extra tight and feel beyond thankful for the relationships I do have, the ones I’ve created and nurtured. But I know I have mourning ahead of me — that strange and subtle kind of mourning for things that never were and never will be.

Next weekend I’ll go to the funeral (it’s being held just half an hour from my home, so I gather that he too was quite literally within my reach). I’ll reintroduce myself to another, still-living half-brother who I haven’t seen since that last funeral a decade and a half ago. I’ll reintroduce myself to a very obscured part of myself. Even though my instinct is to sit this one out, I’ll make myself go, to enkindle the relationships that I still can. 

It’s difficult (and frankly, not so fun) to write about the heavy and dark. So I’ll end with a light and airy memory. Twenty-something years ago I was an only child who had a sort-of brother that I saw every few years. One day, this sort-of brother treated me to a day of fun that I’ve never forgotten. He and his girlfriend took me shopping for a new outfit and to play at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I vividly remember looking at myself in a dressing room mirror as I tried on a splatter-painted and sequined black t-shirt. I smiled at myself, danced a little jig, and sang the theme song for Chuck E. Cheese’s (“where a kid can be a kid”). For that moment, that day was the best one ever. 


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