“I had a brother, but he died.”
You’ve practiced these words before. You’ve perfected the tone, the presentation. They leave your mouth like a well-recited line from a play you’ve preformed a thousand times. You’ve trained yourself not to cringe when people who are practically strangers rest their hands sympathetically on your arm. You’ve mastered how to return an ostensibly sincere smile after the looks of pity that you receive almost everywhere you go when you’re in your hometown- in the grocery store, at the pharmacy, out to lunch with a friend. Like a clockmaker who has fine crafted their trade, you know what makes these people tick. You’ve learned how to detach yourself from your feelings, how to make the timbre of your voice completely devoid of emotion.
“Ich hatte einen Bruder, aber er ist gestorben.”
The meaning is the same, but these words are different. You haven’t practiced these words. This is not your home turf; these are not your people. Although your brother has never been to this city, this country, or even set foot on this continent, in this moment you are conscious of his silent presence in your life more intensely than you have been in months. Despite being in a foreign language, you feel as if you actually understand these words for the first time. They fall from your mouth so heavy that their weight hits you like a pile of bricks. Suddenly you are acutely aware of the burden that you have been carrying. Each word bears such profound significance that, until now, their consequences have been beyond nameable recognition. You have worn your grief inside of you like a great ocean, and only now, in the company of strangers, in this unfamiliar land, does it spill over.
You understand that some pain is too deep to feel all at once. Instead, it penetrates you slowly, entering your system like a virus that seeps into your bloodstream. It permeates your heart and eats away at it little by little, until it carves a hole so cavernous, you know that if you enter- if you allow yourself to feel- that there will be no escape.
Sometimes you have visions of what it would be like to lose an arm or a leg. Maybe then your outer appearance would match the way you feel within. But an appendage isn’t a brother, so your body would still be more whole than your heart. Because your heart is no longer complete, you patch it up with fiction. You weave together a convoluted web of what you wish to feel with what is actually there. In lieu of any other anodyne, your mind becomes a storyteller.
You create a game of imagining the lives you may have had if not for your brother’s death. Sometimes you’re in a sunny backyard, nieces and nephews crouch to observe a wriggling worm in the sand. You watch from a porch while laughter echoes in the wind. Or, curtains ripple at the window in an apartment, city traffic purrs on the streets below. Your brother visits and you share stories of your childhood and talk about the adults you have become.
Perhaps it was all just a part of a bad dream- the clothes that have been boxed and hidden in the attic or the cracks you trace in the yellow wall where his posters once hung. Maybe you really are asleep somewhere safe, tossing and turning through this recurrent scenario. However, the reality to which you wake each morning isn’t so.
It is easy for you to envision a wide range of possibilities, had your brother lived a considerably longer life- some or even many of which would be far from idyllic. For now you resign to fill the void by practicing new words, and you ease the pain by crafting images of would-be summer days, overseen by a happy and contented Tyler.