I am often at a loss about how to answer my son’s questions.
“How did he die?” my four and a half year old asks me.
“Um,” I stumble. I blink and mutter something about bad choices. “Hey, let’s see what’s going on in the other room,” I say, trying to pour enthusiasm into my voice. I slip the picture of my brother and I back on my desk.
For this particular question, I discard a series of sentences before they reach my mouth: It was an accident. He swallowed poison. I can’t figure out how to distill the story in a way that my preschooler will accept, but that won’t scare him.
The truth: My brother died alone in his apartment when he was 21. Weeks later, his autopsy revealed that his death was caused by a lethal combination of alcohol and heroin. He had been in his apartment for several days before he was found, and my parents and I were advised against seeing his body to say goodbye.
My parents and I heard phrases like, “What a waste.” At grief groups, I was embarrassed to say how he died. As if him dying from drugs and alcohol meant I had less of a right to be there than if his life had been claimed by a car accident or a heart defect.
The loss of my brother was immense. The circumstances around his death were tragic and terrible.
But was it, as people suggested, a waste?
Death, and its sidekick, grief, are among the most confusing parts of human life.
Like sex, Western culture is obsessed with the sensationalistic aspects: scandals and suicides. Murders and mishaps. But also like with sex, it’s more challenging to talk about the actualities of it. How hard and scary it can be to accept our own mortality, and how dark life can feel after losing someone we didn’t think we could live without. How much less graceful we humans can be than the rest of nature, the seasons smoothly swirling through their cycles year after year.
My brother’s death, perhaps, was a waste.
But his death is not his whole story. Dying young and tragically does reframe his life. His life story can only really be seen through the filter of his death, for the same reason that any tale with an unsettling ending might leave a reader unsatisfied. A few years ago, when I watched the series finale of The Sopranos, I felt cheated by the last moments of the show.
It was hard to remember that before the ending came several seasons of great TV.
The same is true of my brother’s life. There were his stunning blue eyes. As a child, when asked where he got them, he once replied, “From God.” There was the time he surprised me with the perfect Christmas present: a pencilled-up copy of a Pulitzer-winning script by a local playwright. There was his hard, hard birth that still makes my mother groan when speaking of it.
And there was the time he visited me in Maine the summer before he died. We walked the beige beach together; so far from home, our sometimes tumultuous siblinghood inched into an adult friendship. There were girlfriends and bad report cards. There were words spilled into the black book of poems we found among his belongings.
We don’t all get what is considered a good death: a peaceful whisper-like passing after a long full life.
We aren’t all surrounded by our children and grandchildren, forming a circle of love that will hold our memory when we’re no longer here. If we do, we are quite lucky.
But our deaths are not our whole story any more than our births are. They are a segment of it, among a handful of intense and crucial chapters.
And really, my brother’s story keeps unfolding, reverberating.
In the way that his death pin-balled my life in a different direction, left me bruised but openhearted. And I see him in my son, who loves music like my brother did, and who has eyes so similar to my brother’s that the two of them often blend together in my dreams, the lines between them smudged and swimming.
When my son is older, this is what I hope to tell him:
You had an uncle who died very young. He loved rock and roll like you. He was full of love and pain. He made some bad choices and that’s why he’s not here anymore. Did I ever show you this picture? Of his high school graduation, when he had one of our grandpa’s shiny polyester shirts under his robe?
He had a good, hard life and I miss him.
I will tell him that we die how we live: sleeping or exercising, going to the bathroom or making love, scared or at peace, from old age or in utero, broken hearted or content, in storms or in hospitals, from our own bad choices or those of others. That there are as many ways to die as there are to live.
And I will tell him that if you love hard—yourself and others—your story will be rich and full, no matter how it ends.
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Ed: Cat Beekmans