In my head, I have given the home a title, “The Curb Appeal House.” The lawn was fabricated in a factory to withstand the Arizona summers and remain an eternal green. The walkway is a patchwork of river rocks chosen for their color and placed with care. On opposite sides of the path are large impressionist paintings mounted to the side of the house illuminated by strings of suspended Edison lights. The hues in the artwork are selected to draw out the subtleties of shades of the river rocks and grass, telling a story of compliments. It is a well written story with a dramatic climax- a red door.
The door has not always been red. Over the course of months, the door has played chameleon, morphing from orange, to blue, to yellow, even at one point a rainbow of colors. It became a bit of a game for me on the otherwise monotonous drive to school. When would the door change color? What hue would it be next? I only realized the door had become a symbol when its color became solidified as red. A color of anger, wounds and tragedy. A shade of sudden death.
My brother was forty-two years old when he died. I want to say he passed away. It sounds nicer, more palatable. But his death was sudden and shocking and tore the heart from my chest. He didn’t pass away. He died.
Like the door, my grief has a story. The tale begins on the night of his memorial. Chris was well loved within his community. A talented musician, he had fronted at least a dozen bands over the course of his twenty-year career. His bands had won multiple awards over the years, including several “Indy” awards- the local equivalent of a Grammy. He was the sound engineer for one of the local live music venues. This job allowed him to serve as a bit of a guru for young musicians playing their first gigs. He wrote a column for the city’s music rag. As more than one person would point out after his death, Chris embodied the music scene.
His memorial was held at the club where he worked. Over six hundred people attended the party. The security crew had to block off the parking lot to house the crowd because the club had reached capacity. The marquee spelled out his name in huge black letters. The crowd was a sea of black t-shirts emblazoned with logos from the various bands he had been in. Plastic cups of whiskey and beer were tipped in his honor.
I hate to admit it, but that night was fun. I hugged old friends I hadn’t seen in years. Every conversation was a tale of some funny thing Chris had said, some time he had done the unthinkable and made everyone laugh. It was a huge party. Exactly as he would have wanted.
The next morning came and the party was over. Guilt washed over me for having fun when I should have been mourning. I didn’t know the extent of the mourning that was to come.
The next night, I went back to the club. Chris was gone and it was just starting to wash over me. I wanted to sit where he sat, pretend to see what he would have seen, act as if he was still there. His replacement at the club knew me, and was kind enough to let me pull up a stool behind the sound board. I watched the show, alternating between silence and weeping. I also observed. The guys running the bar served drinks. The roadies loaded and packed gear. The bands played, the crowd watched and nodded along to the beat. The world did not stop because my brother was dead.
Chris and I were separated by only a year of life. I had more shared memories with him than anyone. He knew me as well as I knew myself. He did not judge me for my constant need for attention. He related to my insatiable desire to create things and the understood the crushing disappointment I felt when those creations were not well received. He teased me about my propensity for guilt. He had the same strange dichotomy of ego and self-loathing. He lifted me up during the times when I really disliked who I was and helped me see I wasn’t so bad. He loved me. He was good to my children. He made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
How was I going to be ok without that?
I became obsessed with connection. I guess losing the person who knew me best made me realize how little time I invest in knowing people and in turn, them knowing me. I set out on a mission to amend this. The whole time, over the course of months, I kept watching the door, waiting to see what color it would be next.
Once, I passed by the house, and the garage doors were open. I slowed down to peek inside. The interior of the garage was as impeccable as the walkway. There were large paintings hanging on the walls. There were no tools lining a workbench, or bikes suspended from the ceiling, the way it is in my garage. All items were neatly concealed in cabinets.
But the most interesting thing was that the door leading from the garage into the house was painted. Of course, it was red. What if red was not just a color in a series, a passing fancy until the next shade? I don’t know why, but my heart sank.
My depression over Chris’s death invaded every day. One moment I would be having a normal conversation with a girlfriend, the next I was willing myself not to cry. I would not wallow in it. As cliché as it sounds, I had firsthand experience that life was short. I needed to live. I was not going down without a fight. I would fight to be happy.
My initial attempts were to distract myself with creation. I painted rocks, I took photographs, I sculpted figurines, I made jewelry. I drew and drew and drew. It helped until it didn’t.
I wrote. I thought, if I can just get the words out of my mind, it will get easier. I posted the words to a blog and again, it helped until it didn’t. Initially, people responded to the blogs and would talk to me. Those conversations became less and less. I persisted. Maybe if I write the correct thing, hit the right button, they’ll talk to me again. But they didn’t. I turned that loathing I knew so well on myself. Was I using his death? Was I unable to let it go because I wanted that attention? No, the pain was real and unrelenting. I very much wanted it to shut off. I stopped blogging.
The urge to write was still there, so I turned to journaling which proved disastrous. I didn’t know it, but I exacted some sort of restraint when I blogged. My internal story teller required me to wrap up my posts with a neat bow, a moral lesson. I had no such inclinations when journaling. I inflicted bitterness and rage and hatred upon myself. I left these writing sessions not feeling cleansed but beaten. No, I could not journal.
I determined I would leave no stone unturned. I would attempt to walk every single road to happiness, even roads previously locked with iron gates and signs advising “do not enter.”
I went to church. The last time I had stepped into church was when my younger brother Jeff got married nearly twenty years before. Chris and I had joked that we might burst into flames upon entering the sanctuary.
I sat in the back row and recognized the familiar feeling of tears welling up in my eyes. I commanded myself not to cry, thinking If you cry, they will descend on you like locusts. You will have to explain things. Someone will hug you or pat your shoulder, and the tears will not stop. Get it together.
At that moment, an elderly black woman in a beautiful red scarf sat down next to me. She asked if I was visiting, and I said I was, doing my best to smile and carry on a normal conversation. She invited me to stay for a movie following the service. I thanked her but declined. I wanted to talk to her, to tell her everything. I needed to be part of a community. Instead, I sprinted to my car as soon as the service was done, where I could cry comfortably in isolation.
I contacted various volunteer organizations, but I did not hear back from them. I attempted to reconnect with old friends, but it was awkward. I wrote letters to friends and family, even strangers, but most were unreturned. When I did find my way into social gatherings, I got irritated to the point of being rude. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t seem to help it. I’ve never been good at disguising my feelings, but now it was without possibility.
I taught free kids art classes. I made amends with people I have wronged. I’ve even been trying tap dancing. Anything, just anything, to feel connection, to feel like my life has meaning.
As a last effort, I decided to contact a grief counselor. I called my insurance company to see if I could get a list of providers. After being transferred multiple times, my call finally made it to the right department. I advised that I needed the name of a grief counselor.
“What for?” the representative asked.
“My brother passed away.” Not ready to say died. Not then.
“Ok, I have to ask you some questions.” She inquired as to if I wanted to hurt myself or others, if I was abusing drugs. After she finished asking her questions, she advised that she needed to transfer my call- again.
The next representative came on and asked what I needed help with. I again explained I needed a grief counselor. She again asked what for, and I responded that my brother had passed away.
“And how are you dealing with that?” There was a long pause as she waited for me to respond.
“Um, not well. Can I get the name of a grief counselor?” She resumed the battery of questions- no, I wasn’t going to harm myself or others, no I had not become a drug user. I finally got the name of a therapist. I called and left a message, giving her some times of my availability, per her message instructions.
The therapist called back.
“I’m sorry, but my schedule isn’t going to work with your schedule.”
“Ok. Can you tell me what times you have available? Maybe I can make it work.”
“Oh. Well actually, I don’t have any openings,” she replied. Even the grief counselor was blowing me off. It would almost be comical, except that it’s not.
Today, I received an email from an acquaintance. After Chris’s passing, he started checking in on me from time to time, sending me a song to listen to here and there- something Chris would have done. After the last song he sent, I wrote a very long email about a memory I had of Chris. In the email today, the friend wrote “I don’t have your eloquence with words. I don’t say things that matter anymore. I’m ok with that.”
His response made me angry at first. This is the problem, I thought. People don’t say things that matter anymore, and they are ok with it. We “like” things on social media. We text each other on our birthdays. We float around stupid memes. We’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. We fail at being human.
But I knew what he was trying to say was “I’ve had enough.” He had been dealing with me for months. I had exhausted his generosity; the way I had exhausted many others. It wasn’t that people didn’t care. It’s that I don’t seem to be getting any better.
The garage door was open on the house a couple of weeks ago. I noticed two planters- one painted red, like the color of the door. Another painted a soft baby blue. I felt hope. Maybe they were going to paint the door, baby blue for spring! I kept watch over the door, each day deflated when the scarlet hue remained.
Today, I drove my son to school, and of course, the door remained red. This is stupid, I thought. Your salvation is not going to come in the color of a door! It also wasn’t going to come in someone giving the right response to a blog I wrote. It wasn’t going to come in a compliment on my appearance from a stranger. It wasn’t going to be in a book I read, or a song I listened to. This is life. It doesn’t’ wrap up in a neat little bow. It’s work and feelings and uncontrollable emotions. It’s smiles and tears and waking up to feel awful some days and at peace on others.
I forced myself to go for a bike ride today. I didn’t want to, but I’m still fighting, still trying everything I can think of to be happy. I have noticed that when I am outside, when I am moving, my mood improves. So I went for a ride, and sure enough, I felt better.
I was listening to music on the ride, and as I pulled around the corner of the street to my house, I heard a voice sing “I will surprise you sometime, I’ll come around, when you’re down.” The words, the voice, it made me happy. I don’t know when the pain over Chris will stop. Maybe never. Maybe the hole he left is too big to ever really fill. But maybe filling it is not the point. Maybe being human, living the good the bad and being truly in that moment is what it’s all about. Because there is joy. Even among the pain, there is joy.
I took off my headphones and got ready to shut off the music program. The screen popped up and showed the next song that would play- “Brass Monkey” by the Beastie Boys. Every year, Chris would form a tribute band for a showcase called “Monsters of Mock.” He had performed as Suicidal Tendencies and Elvis, but the tribute band he was most known for was a Beastie Boys tribute band called Brass Monkey. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I took it as a sign. He was there. He understood I wasn’t over it. He was ok with who I was. I didn’t have to be over it. I also didn’t have to spend every moment in it. I could just be me, and the people who love me will be ok with that.
I will surprise you sometime. I’ll come around. When you’re down.
I really hope so.