August 8. Seven thirty-one. March 28. Twenty-six. Three thousand two hundred eighty five.
Numbers. To most, these are just numbers. To me, they are touchstones in a life that ended far too soon. They are the stoic reminders of how and when my life changed.
My brother was born on August 8th. He was already three years old when I came into the world. Ready to be a big brother, he gave me his baby blanket after I was born. We played together as little toddlers; I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons in our pjs, carving pumpkins on the living room floor, playing in the sandbox, riding our bikes, and every variation of tag you could imagine.
When that call came at 7:31 pm Hawaiian time (12:31 Michigan time), I knew something was wrong. The choked words, the sharp intakes of breath, the numbness, the buzzing in my ears, the clouding of details…all of those are so fresh in my mind and yet not. I don’t really remember going to the airport or through security or even getting on the plane. What I remember is being lost in some in-between place and having a kind stranger walk with me and help me find my way. I recall sitting in the window seat, staring out over the expanse of the great middle of our country, and feeling overwhelmingly sad. And yet, I couldn’t cry. Not yet.
March 28th. Nine years ago, my world was changed forever – a straight line of demarcation cutting through my life – before and after. Last year I wrote about the relationship between siblings and what it’s like referring to your brother in the past tense. Your sibling is often your first friend, the person who knows your secrets, saw you at all your embarrassing awkward years, held your hand in the dark when you were scared, rolled his eyes at you when you refused to do something simple – like drive a snowmobile across a 2-lane highway. (but then did it for you anyway!) He’s the one you thought would be there for years and years to come – who would help make sure the man you chose to marry was a good fit for his sister. He’s the person you imagined making the tough decisions with as your parents aged. Your brother is your opposite in so many ways and yet you share so much – the same eyes, the dimple in your right cheek, a zest for life, and a big heart.
Twenty-six. Tony was only 26 years old when, in an instant, he was gone. At twenty-three, I no longer had a brother. As the passage of time works its magic and softens the sharp and rough edges of a tragic loss, you cannot help but reflect and wonder. Taken in the early years of adult life, it’s impossible to not think about what might have been. Who would he be today? Would he have a wife? Children? Where would he have settled down to make a home? How many more memories could we have made? Because Tony and I were close in age, we also found it challenging to get along sometimes. As we grew, though, we began to look at each other as more than just annoyances, but as people with thoughts and ideas – personalities that others found enjoyable. We began to be become friends. This is one of the most difficult things to grapple with. How much closer might we have been? Where would our friendship have gone?
Three thousand two hundred eighty five. The number of days since Tony passed. The number of days we have existed without him in the world. Sometimes it feels like a different lifetime and other days, I catch a glimpse of someone or hear a part of a song, and it’s like he’s right there. Today, not every moment is filled with grief and pain. Holidays act as stark reminders – the empty chair, one less card in the Christmas tree, fewer gifts left under the tree. Milestone events – running my first marathon, graduating with my Master’s Degree, getting married – where the loss of someone so dear to you overshadows a tiny part of the joy you feel in those instances. And sometimes it’s just days – you wake up sad or you see a brother and sister laughing and playing or colluding against their parents, or a song comes on the radio.
One. The one dream I had about Tony and the one thing I keep in my heart. I’m not ready to share that experience yet.
We mark our lives with numbers. How old we are, how many days until “x” event, the number of hours until we can get off work, the amount of miles in a trip. And, how many days, years, months it has been since someone we loved was here – and then wasn’t.