Started: 11/25/21, Finished: 1/13/22
Often, the aftershocks are worse than the earthquake itself; they leave devastation in their wake for days, even weeks after the main earthquake.
I wrote about my perspective from the sidelines watching my little brother Eli’s three-year battle with cancer. Unfortunately, the effects of cancer don’t end with the life it took. So this is my account of the “aftershocks” of my brother’s death.
Eli died on November 17th, 2021. I remember hugging him that morning because I had forgotten to do so the past couple of days. Later I started getting ready for work. Eli had a visitor that day, Diamond Jim (the man who helped Eli learn leatherworking). I stood in the room listening to their conversation. Whenever Eli spoke I could tell it was hard for him. His voice was strained and breathy. It was especially difficult to understand him that day. I remember thinking, “It won’t be long now.” I eventually finished getting ready for work and as I passed him on my way upstairs to leave I remember him saying, “Goodbye Val.” I don’t remember saying anything back. I just waved and left. One of my regrets.
I had a closing shift that day at work. I had finished everything I needed to finish five minutes before I was supposed to close that night. So, instead of just waiting those five minutes, I decided to just close up the store and go home early. Eli crossed my mind as I drove. He was never too far from the forefront of my thoughts at any given moment. He still isn’t. Traffic was light that night. I made much better time than I would normally.
When I pulled up to our driveway, I remember noticing our Christmas lights (put up just days earlier and normally dancing and twinkling) looked stagnant. “That’s weird,” I thought. But I quickly brushed it off and when I got out of the car and the lights looked like they were dancing again. The part of my mind that I always thought of as “dramatic” and “overthinking” had me thinking it was Eli. “There is something wrong with Eli.”
As quickly as the thought came I tried to brush it off, but when I walked through our front door and the upstairs was empty the thought came again “There’s something wrong with Eli.” I tried once again to brush it off. Eli was fine this morning, I hugged him this morning, I know what death looks like. I walked downstairs to go to my room but slowed when I heard sniffling. “My family must be having another meeting about Eli’s condition,” I thought. My dad met me at the bottom of the stairs. I took in a lot of information in that split second that I looked into the room before my dad spoke. My siblings were crying on the couch, surrounding what looked like a sleeping Eli. “Eli just passed away,” my dad spoke hesitantly.
“Just now?” Was the first question that made it out of my mouth. He nodded. I looked back over at the couch. He was just sleeping. I knew what death looked like. Peter, one of my many younger brothers, started crying loudly. I think I was in some form of shock because when he calmed down the next thing I did was go to my room to put my stuff away and take off my shoes. I took a moment to cry while I was in there.
After all was said and done, I cried for a total of about five hours that night. I had had time to “prepare” for his death, but preparation felt more like grieving the loss of someone who had yet to die. So when the time came, I didn’t know what to feel. I’d already grieved him the last three years. What more could I have in me?
Tears had a habit of coming so unpredictably that whether or not wearing makeup was futile was a complete shot in the dark. I’d put on moisturizer at night and cry it off seconds later. I’d feel completely fine one second and the next I’d look at the vacant spot on the couch and the string holding me together would snap. I’d go one day without a tear in sight, then I’d wake up the next morning with the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Everything connected, in one form or another, to Eli. It is always just a matter of time before he’s pulled fully to the forefront of my mind.
The first dream came about a month after Eli’s passing. Maybe I had more before that, but this one was so vivid. In the dream, I had just come home from shopping with my parents. I went downstairs to my bedroom dropped off the stuff that I had purchased and went back out to the family room. Eli was there, laying on the floor and happy. He looked like he did towards the start of his cancer journey; he looked like nothing was wrong. He wasn’t as skeletal as he was the days and weeks before he died. He had color in his cheeks to match the lively fire of his hair. And he was smiling and laughing. He was being ridiculously boyish. It made me happy to see him so carefree.
Then I woke up.
Reality took its time sinking in. But when it did, I cried. Eli was gone and I was left with a deep sense of loss once again. I felt an immense longing for that happiness and contentment I felt in that dream. In dreams, he was still here. In dreams, he was happy. In dreams, he was healthy.
The dream probably came from the night before. We had had dinner with my Dad’s side of the family. At the dinner, we had baked potatoes (linked to a memory my uncle had of Eli). I suppose Eli wasn’t far from anyone’s memory that night; it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one. Later that night, closer to bedtime, I decided to look through my phone at pictures I had of Eli. Those things on my mind are probably what brought about the dream. Although the sadness was still there; I had to admit that I was happy I had the dream. It was nice to have a memory of him that wasn’t sick. He was just Eli.
I miss him constantly. One of the hardest things for me has been the ever-present regrets. I regret failing to follow through with the plans and ideas that we had together. The day before he died he asked me to watch Emperor’s New Groove and when we finished he turned on Pocahontas saying, “I’ve never seen this one before.” We only got a couple of minutes into the movie before he got too tired. “We’ll have to watch it some other time,” he said apologetically.
“Some other time,” I agreed.
“Some other time,” never came, and ever since the words have haunted me. Fun activities that we planned with the idea of doing, but never accomplished have kept me up at night. It’s affected me to the point that when I have to postpone plans with others, I have the fear of never following through and eventually regretting it.
The regret of not hugging him goodbye before I went to work the day he passed is similarly haunting. “You can’t leave without giving me a hug,” I said to my Grandfather after he and other family members came to visit.
“You’ll see me tomorrow.”
I played it off teasingly, but I knew the real reason behind my insisting that he hug me before he left.
It feels like I have new regrets every day, but the only thing that’s kept me sane is knowing that there wasn’t a situation where I wouldn’t have regrets. There’s never enough time in a single life to spend with the people you love. Life needs attention too, and in this mortal existence, it’s impossible to ignore it.
As much as I often wish I could ignore my responsibilities, school, work, chores, etc. I know I can’t. Those are all necessary evils. I can’t just spend every waking moment with everyone I love, no matter how much I’d like to. Even if I could, I can’t imagine that all that time with family and friends could possibly be enough. I’m selfish, human, and nothing will ever be enough to satisfy my wants. So I hide away.
Maybe if I had known that he would die that day, I would have stayed home from work and watched movies with him, hugged him, and talked with him, but I didn’t. I didn’t know, and I didn’t stay home. I went to work, I sold art, I listened to music, and I came home to tears.
Let’s Look At One Another
One of my favorite plays is “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. In the play Wilder touches so beautifully on life, and what it means to live life. In the final act, we get to experience the heart-wrenching feelings that often come with death (feelings that I understand more now than I did ever). “Just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” After I first saw that play I fell in love. I wanted so desperately to change and look at everyone I loved. But I feel like I lost track of that in the hustle and bustle of life.
I try, but I’m so very human.
“I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another,” the desperation in Emily’s voice is clear even in written word. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” and later, another question with hopeless hopefulness, “They don’t understand, do they?”
“No, dear. They don’t understand.”
Comfort came in the least expected places. It came at the funeral when a neighbor looked at me and said, with tears in his eyes and a bittersweet smile on his face, “It’s not fair.” The same words were echoed in my friend later when I was having an especially hard night and decided to video call her “It’s not fair to you.” Comfort came in the form of a friend who knew what it was like to lose a sibling. It came in the scriptures, not from Christ healing the sick, but rather when he wept. “It’s going to be okay” was something I already knew. “I miss him” brought peace. Tears brought calm. And the dull ache in my heart reminded me I wasn’t past feeling.
Comfort came in sad songs. It came in knowing I wasn’t alone in feeling the despair I felt. It came in knowing I was allowed to feel that way. Comfort came in a blanket from a friend. It came in a text that said “You don’t have to respond, but I’m here.” Comfort came in grief, and it probably would continue to come in that form for years to come.
How to Grieve
Grief looks different in everybody. For some, it comes in the form of anger. For others, it comes in denial. For me, in flashes of memories; in feeling a ghost that isn’t there. It comes in avoidance and irritation. Grief manifests itself in writing.
There isn’t a gaping hole where I thought there would be when he left. Life doesn’t feel any more empty without him, but it doesn’t feel any more full. I feel him everywhere, but at the same time, I feel him nowhere. “Dead,” I have to keep reminding myself, “he’s dead.” Because sometimes I forget. Because I don’t feel like I’m drowning in misery. Because he never felt gone. Sometimes I forget. But I never feel like I do.
Grief comes when I’m making dinner and he’s not there to lick the bowl. Grief comes when I’m watching a movie with friends and a character is dying…and I know what death looks like. Grief comes when every minuscule thing reminds me of some minuscule memory of Eli that I’m still clinging on to. Grief comes drop by drop until the surface tension breaks and I have no choice but to cry. Grief came whenever he was missing.
Growing up in a big family, gathering everyone into one place was a bit of a challenge. Getting everyone into the car, we developed the “headcount” system where the parent would start listing off the names of each child and, much like in a school classroom, the child would respond with “here!” (or some other phrase if they were feeling especially creative). If a child didn’t respond, we knew that child was missing and we needed to find them. When gathering for scriptures and prayers or dinner, there were often times that we would all be gathered and one or both parents would feel like someone was missing (despite everyone being there). And often, we would later find out Mom was pregnant and we would say “Oh! That’s who was missing!”
After nine children, that feeling went away. And to some extent, it’s still gone. But now that Eli has passed on, the feeling of a gap in our family is at times glaringly obvious. It comes when we’re all on our way to Grandma’s house and we do the headcount; taking extra time to remember not to include the one name we’ve become all too used to calling. It comes when we’re counting out dishes and have to use one less dish than normal. It comes when everyone living at home fits in the eight-passenger minivan rather than the twelve-passenger bus that was purchased out of necessity when our family outgrew the other cars. The feeling comes when sitting on the downstairs couch and someone wants to sit on “Eli’s spot” because that’s what it was. That’s where he chose to sit while he was here.
The fact that he was “missing” was never forgetting that he was gone, but rather a conscious effort to remember he was gone. It was hard, but the dull ache served as a constant reminder. The memories were told as naturally as they had been when he was alive. But the way his name was spoken had a special reverence in it. It was spoken with such gentleness. Almost as if it would break, or break another, if not handled with care. The loss of Eli was ever-present, but the remnants and memories of his life filled the gap enough to ease the pain.
I Miss Him
After it all, missing him was all I could do. I miss him. I miss him. I miss him. I couldn’t hold him. I couldn’t hug him. I couldn’t feel him. I didn’t have the comfort of knowing he would be there when I got home. I miss him. I miss him. I miss him. I could only see his face in pictures and videos. They all became so precious. Every scrap of him that remained. Every word I could remember him speaking. Every memory of staying up until 2am talking with him. It was all a treasure I took for granted until he was gone. I miss him. I miss him. I miss him.
Late nights turned into times to cry. Days turned into distractions. Pictures turned into time machines. Words turned into outlets. Songs turned into feelings. Colors turned blue. Hurt became comfort. I miss him. I miss him.
He was here. Everything I saw was proof of it. He was here. He sat in this chair. He loved this song. He ate this food. He was here. He played this game. He loved this person. He was here. He read this book. He touched these lives. He was here, now he’s gone, and I miss him.