My sister and her boyfriend came to pick me up from college the day after my brother died. During the three hour car ride home, I was mostly in a state of catatonic shock. Occasionally tears would overwhelm me, but I couldn’t yet grasp exactly what they were for. I have had many emotional upheavals during my brother’s drawn-out drug addiction, and I usually succumbed to a feeling of exhaustion and emotional drainage. My body would shut down, and no matter how bad a situation could be, I would find myself fighting sleep and feeling as though I took a handful of Xanax pills.
When I got out of the car when we finally arrived home, I greeted my mother with a casual, calm hug before going inside to unpack. She must have been expecting this reaction, because she didn’t cry or hold me or mention the tragedy we were suddenly faced with. The first thing she even said to me was, “Don’t you look pretty!” My sister told me that when she found out the night before, her and my mother were on the floor, screaming and crying and clinging to one another. But my mom knew how to adjust her emotions to counterbalance mine. She knew I was the most sensitive, but that those emotions were usually masked or stifled as a natural defense. However, I am sure our greeting was a disturbing sight for the other passengers of the car to witness.
Anyway, a day or two later, my mom, my sister, and I were in our living room making arrangements for the wake. We decided to make collages of pictures of my brother on three huge poster boards. We lined the edges with sparkly blue, red, and gold banners. We enlarged the nicest pictures to put in the middle of each board. On this afternoon, we only had one of three posters finished. It was propped up on a wooden chair in the adjacent dining room, facing us as we sat in the living room. The rest of the photographs that we planned to use were strewn across the dining room table. My mom was on the phone with one of her good friends – a woman who led many therapy retreats my mom attended, and who was also capable of leading funeral services. They were planning a time for her to come over to sit with us and learn more about my brother before she led his funeral. My sister was keeping busy at our coffee table while my mom paced the room talking on the phone. I sat on our huge, green sofa, zoning out.
While home, every morning I woke up feeling lethargic and indifferent to everything going on. I was permanently in my “Xanax state.” I had even practiced saying out loud over and over, “My brother died. Your brother is dead. You won’t ever see him again.” But no emotions rattled me. I had gone so long blocking out any emotion towards my brother that nothing felt real, so I didn’t know what to do about it.
The dull hum of my brain tuned out my mom’s words as she spoke on the phone. My cloudy, emotionless eyes stared straight ahead as she paced. I finally tuned in to her conversation when she said my name. She was talking about how my sister and I had been working on the collages for the wake.
“Yup,” she said. “One down, two to go!”
My mouth gaped open. I looked back and forth between her and my sister, wondering if either of them caught what she said. Just as they both noticed the expression on my face, I burst out laughing.
“Oh my God, Mom!” I let out the choppy syllables between my hysterical laughter. “That’s just so fucked up!” I shook my head as tears from giggling filled my eyes.
“Kelly!” My sister screamed at me, her eyebrows cinched together. “Are you kidding me?!” My mom paused from her pacing and looked at me, not knowing if she should laugh or scold me for actually finding comedy in such a dark time.
“She said it!” I continued laughing, pointing at my mom. “C’mon, Mom! That’s fucked up! Why would you say something like that?!”
My mom let out a snicker but said something stern to remind me that that was definitely not what she meant. My sister shook her head in disgust before going back to what she was doing. But somehow in that moment, in that hysterical laughter at my brother’s expense, did I feel the slightest inkling of freedom from my trauma. I was nineteen-years-old and going through one of the shittiest things a person could experience in a lifetime. I could barely grasp any reasonable emotion. But for some reason, hearing my mom say that and taking it completely out of context made me relax. I didn’t care that they weren’t amused with my sick sense of humor. I could hear my brother cracking up alongside me. I could see his wide smile break out across his face as his eyes squinted into slits, just like mine did when I laughed. I could see his enormous paw of a hand clutching at his chest as he laughed at both the joke and the simple amusement he felt for his youngest sister.
My mom said to me after his death that she has felt him there. It wasn’t like she ever saw him or spoke to him, or that he relayed any messages to her or anything like that. But she said a feeling would overcome her and she would literally feel that he was right there with her, feeling what she was feeling and seeing what she was seeing.
For some reason, during this one time, after taking that one line completely out of context, I felt him next to me, laughing at my sick sense of humor in a desperate attempt to heal. In that moment, he didn’t feel so far away, so past tense. He was right there, the victim to another one of my jokes. I didn’t care that they didn’t find it funny, because he did.